This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2019

10 things every voter should care about this election, 1-5

Mainstream media only shows us a handful of issues, but federal leaders should be held accountable to much more


Design by Valerie Thai


1. The Rise of the Alt-Right

Andrew Scheer formally addressed the United We Roll convoy in February, a protest that began as a pro-pipeline demonstration and grew to represent racism and xenophobia characteristic of the worldwide yellow vest movement. In May, Conservative MP Michael Cooper read a passage from the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto into parliamentary record, though his comments were later purged. In June, the RCMP launched a hate speech investigation into the Canadian Nationalist Party, an extremist far-right group that failed to gain federal status in the 2019 election. The party’s leader, Travis Patron, posted a video calling for the removal of the “parasitic tribe,” a not-so-subtle dog-whistle for Jewish people.

Far-right hate groups aren’t new in Canada, but they’re getting louder and some of their rhetoric is starting to seep into mainstream politics. Not challenging this rise in the upcoming election would send a clear message to these groups that there’s room in the political mainstream for the hateful views characteristic of the alt-right. “If you don’t condemn that kind of activity, you’re actually giving it oxygen,” says Barbara Perry, the director of the Centre on Hate, Bias, and Extremism. She says the number of far-right extremist groups in Canada is closing in on 300. Around the time of the 2015 election, she says that number was more like 100. This movement to the right, she says, is being called something of a “perfect storm.”

“We often like to blame Trump for … normalizing hatred,” Perry says. “But you know, we had our own patterns of a movement to the right, some of which predated Trump,” like the increase in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment in the 2015 federal election.This “perfect storm” has emboldened far-right hate groups and people who have ties to them in Canada. In the 2018 Toronto municipal election, Faith Goldy, a former correspondent for Rebel media, ran for mayor. She’s been widely criticized for her association with white nationalism, especially after her reporting at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally and her appearance on The Krypto Report, a podcast from the neo-Nazi blog The Daily Stormer. She garnered over 25,000 votes in her run for mayor. “There is that political normalization of hate and hostility I think that we’ve seen now modelled in Europe, modelled in the U.S.and then our own brand as well,” Perry says.

Coverage of the alt-right and far-right hate groups can have massive implications in public understanding. There’s a risk that taking fringe groups too seriously can give them too much oxygen, but ignoring them means these groups can continue to operate unchecked. The often ironic rhetoric of alt-right fringe groups does require extra analysis, and there’s work to be done in debunking their claims.

“So much of [the work] around anti-immigrant sentiment is taking down those myths, taking down those stereotypes that they associate with it,” Perry says.

—Michal Stein

2. Foreign policy

On February 28, 2019, the New Democratic Party published a statement urging the Trudeau government to cease arms exports to Saudi Arabia: “As Canada joins the international community to provide desperately needed assistance in Yemen, it continues to export arms to Saudi Arabia, the chief instigator of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” says the NDP International Development Critic, Linda Duncan.

The Saudi arms deal—and other, similar policies—tell the true story of Canadian politics. During elections, domestic issues tend to dominate the agenda. What we fail to realize is how seriously Canadian foreign policy impacts the world beyond our borders; it stimulates famine, refugee crises, environmental destruction, and political repression.

As an example: we often discuss immigration without recognizing Canada’s role in creating refugee crises in Latin America and the Caribbean. Forced migration is the product of sustained, racist intervention in those regions, like Canada’s armed support for the 2004 Haiti coup. Canada has interfered in Haitian elections, destabilized its institutions, and supported right-wing politicians, all in an effort to reduce wages and open up Haiti’s gold reserves to Canadian mining companies. These actions create economic conditions that force Haitians to flee and seek asylum—only to be met with anti-Blackness and unjust detention.

Canadian policy is regularly determined by the interests of mining companies. As a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canadian mining companies contracted paramilitary security teams in Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru that are accused of kidnapping workers, protestors, and their families. The Liberals promised to regulate the industry in 2015. Yet, as the group MiningWatch Canada notes, the government never committed to legislating the international operations of Canadian mining companies, despite ongoing protest against abuse. Broken promises and willful ignorance are Canada’s de facto foreign policy, in part due to the connections between corporations and politicians. The mining industry and the political class share financiers, investments, and economic interests.

The failure to ensure livable wages at home is directly reflected in the coercion of cheap labour abroad, in defiance of human rights and international law. Canadian free trade with Israel, for example, relies on and benefits from the economic and political repression of Palestinians. Still, as the government of Canada website boasts, “Since CIFTA [Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement] first came into effect over two decades ago, Canada’s two-way merchandise trade with Israel has more than tripled, totalling $1.9 billion in 2018.”

Canada’s close relationship with Israel has wider international consequences. While Canadian relations with Iran have improved in recent years, the Canadian government still views Iran as inherently threatening, and continues to find new reasons to halt diplomatic relations and impose sanctions—including those instituted in 2006 and 2010 in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, at the urging of Israeli government officials and pro-Israel lobby organizations. It is worth recognizing that Canadian hostility towards Iran does not happen in a vacuum, but comes partly as a result of extensive lobbying by officials and organizations that perceive Iran to be a threat to Israel, and have thus made it a priority to characterize every action by the Iranian state as a violation punishable by a regime of coordinated isolation, marginalization, and sanction.

The sanctions, imposed by Canada and the U.S. among others, are monstrous; they directly endanger Iran’s most vulnerable communities. Sanctions disproportionately impact women, as over 170 Iranian women artists and activists argued in an open letter opposing American sanctions. Iran also holds a substantial refugee population, most of whom will go without vital services and will be instead pushed to deportation due to the sanctions. Canada’s bellicose policies against Iran—integral to its support for Israel—contradict our leaders’ “pro-woman” or “pro-refugee” public image.

It is necessary to draw links between these destabilizing economies of extraction and the waves of forced migration, income inequality, and climate crisis that have shaped the 2019 election. The same global capitalist system that makes rich Canadians richer and poor Canadians poorer relies upon state-sanctioned violence abroad. It succeeds by deflating wages, repressing protests, and killing local economies. Canada’s foreign policy agenda is deeply enmeshed with its domestic policy choices. This election, Canadian voters must recognize the global stakes.

—Alex V. Green

3. Artificial Intelligence

Since March 2017, Justin Trudeau has been hyping the federal government’s investments in AI. At every budget announcement, ribbon cutting, and international panel, he has talked up responsible adoption of AI that is human-centric and grounded in human rights. The initial investment of $125 million was topped up with another $230 million in 2018. In the meantime, dozens of jobs for AI researchers, and graduate student positions have been created in computer science and engineering schools.

As a job creation and innovation strategy, it seems to be doing well—there’s been a boom in tech startups in Toronto and Montreal—but there’s been a conspicuous lack of investment on the human rights side. Of the hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in AI research, exactly $0 of that is going to hire or train people with the expertise necessary to make sure the results won’t be a dumpster fire. While deep-learning experts are getting cushy jobs, experts in the social and ethical implications of AI are only getting a couple of workshops.

It’s unclear whether the strategy is that the people with the training needed to stop the ascendancy of our AI overlords should volunteer their time, or that the AI geniuses should do this work themselves, because after all, they’re geniuses. But letting AI geniuses take care of human rights issues would be as reckless as letting artists perform brain surgery. There is a long history of people in AI being blissfully unaware that other kinds of expertise exist, and this attitude is exactly why companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google are now mired in controversy over their ethical blunders.

Some of the not-so-genius ideas AI workers have come up with recently are algorithms that recommend home movies of kids running through sprinklers or doing gymnastics to people who watch child pornography, selling facial recognition software that barely works to cops who don’t know how to use it, but are making false arrests with it anyway, and pretending to sell music players or thermostats that actually conceal hidden microphones that monitor your conversations.

The average doomsday naysayer may think they have nothing to hide, but stalkerware is enabling disgruntled exes, incels and other trolls to track, harass, and potentially kill people. Cell phone tracking data is being sold to bounty hunters, resulting in Coen brothers-esque shootouts, and hundreds of millions of social media users were unknowingly exposed to fake news stories during recent election campaigns.

Trudeau has a mediocre track record for keeping his promises about protecting digital rights. He campaigned on the promise to repeal Bill C-51, which allows CSIS to spy on Canadians without cause in the name of anti-terrorism, but he only rolled back select parts of it. That said, Trudeau is the only official party leader who seems to have a policy on tech innovation at all. Andrew Scheer only cares about innovation when it comes to oil. While Jagmeet Singh’s commitments don’t mention the tech sector, other NDP members, in partnership with the Green Party’s Elizabeth May, have been vocal in advocating for a stronger Digital Privacy Act, and giving the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada more enforcement power.

AI and commercial surveillance are going in directions far worse than even the most paranoid imagination could cook up. This is not a field that is capable of regulating itself, and empty rhetoric about human-centred AI isn’t doing anything to hold beneficiaries of AI investment, like the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, to their promises. The money is there. If even a small fraction of the investment in AI were directed toward protecting rights, we might have a chance at avoiding creating our own homegrown AI dystopia. So far none of the official party leaders seem up to the task.

—Catherine Stinson

4. The opioid crisis

Since 2016, more than 10,000 people have died of an opioid-related overdose in Canada. After years of headlines, such a number can seem abstract, or even worse, desensitizing. These are more than statistics though; each one of those numbers represents a void: someone who will not be at a birthday party, at a graduation, at a wedding, at the dinner table. From January to September of 2018 alone, 3,286 Canadians died and of this 73 percent of deaths were attributed to fentanyl.

Things have changed in the past three years. Safe injection sites, once limited to a section of Vancouver, are now opening up across the country—thanks to the dedicated work of frontline workers, who initially risked arrest by opening up unsanctioned sites. Once scoffed at by politicians, local mayors are now accepting that these sites save lives. Still, the death toll continues to rise. Safe injection sites are not a panacea, nor can overworked frontline workers be everywhere at once to stop an overdose. As the federal election looms and the opioid crisis rages on, one has to ask: are our representatives doing anything?

No party has thus far put forward a comprehensive plan to tackle the opioid crisis beyond vague platitudes. Even the NDP plan, which promises to expand treatment and decriminalize drugs, in the same vein, proposes going after “the real criminals—those who traffic in and profit from the sale of illegal drugs” with harsh and strict penalties, betraying the entire point and purpose of decriminalization. Meanwhile, Liberal party officials keep tweeting about how the overdose crisis is a crisis, while ignoring the fact that they currently have the power to do something about it. 

The solutions to the overdose crisis are clear: while we need more safe injection sites and we need those sites to be supported by federal funding—and harm reduction workers need supports too—these sites do not actually stem the rate of overdose.
They do however, prevent overdose deaths—a key distinction.

In order to stem overdoses, people need access to a clean supply of drugs. Advocates are calling upon the government to allow prescription heroin, and some doctors have taken it upon themselves to start prescribing another opioid, hydromorphone.

Treatment also needs to be made easier. Typically, drugs like methadone or buprenorphine are used in treatment, weaker opioids that reduce withdrawal symptoms while a person is in recovery. Two years ago, British Columbia switched the medication used for treatment from methadone to methadose, a drug that is even weaker than the former. As a result, the B.C. Association of People on Methadone says that switch resulted in people resorting to using heroin. The College of Pharmacists of B.C. says the switch was made to reduce the tendency of “abuse,” a false idea that reaffirms stigma against drug users and reinforces the moral panic around drug use.

One last piece of advice to politicians as they hit the campaign trail is this: listen to people who use drugs and those on the front lines. Go to an overdose prevention site without cameras, meet with members of drug users unions across the country—learn about their experiences and use those to shape policy.

There are deeper conversations to be had about addiction in Canada. How the lack of housing, financial support, and health care among other things are feeding the overdose crisis; but for now, a safe supply of drugs, better access to treatment and more safe injection sites make up a good plan to stop the deaths and stem the rate of overdose. People who use drugs, harm reduction workers, doctors, and public health professionals have been saying this all along; let’s hope our leaders listen for once.

—Abdullah Shihipar

5. Climate justice

We’ve got a problem. The climate crisis is on our doorstep, but instead of looking to scientific data and ongoing evidence, the issue has been divided along political lines. Ideologies about trade and taxation have become the test-pieces about whether one is actively working to limit climate change, recognizing it as a concern, or remaining, still, a skeptic.

Fortunately, international science shows that it’s not too late to keep global warming below the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming—a level that will not halt climatic change, but will significantly temper the impacts. However, instead of hunkering down and working to a) keep the warming to 1.5 degrees, and b) put measures in place to deal with the impacts we know are coming, political parties—and much of the media around them—are mired in discussions that would have been outdated a decade ago.

In Canada, two of the most public climate conversations are around the carbon tax and the Trans Mountain Pipeline. These are certainly not insignificant issues, but the laser focus on them obscures the bigger picture. There is a solution to the climate crisis, but only one: we have to radically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. At this point, neither the Liberals’ nor Conservatives’ climate plans are sufficient to keep global warming to the threshold 1.5 degrees Celsius. To meet that target, there can be absolutely no new carbon infrastructure, never mind a project like the Trans Mountain Pipeline that is the equivalent of putting two million more cars on the road.

Here’s a broader slice of the picture: a 2019 report using government data and approved by independent scientists, states that Canada is heating up twice as fast as the average rate of the planet—twice as fast.

Global warming causes major events, including melting permafrost, loss of ice caps, rising seas, record high temperatures, severe flooding, and droughts. In turn, those events can lead to further impacts: loss of income, loss of housing, food insecurity, tainted water supplies, and so on. Much of Canada has already experienced at least some of these effects and the magnitude and frequency of impacts are projected to increase over time.

On June 17th, Canada declared a national climate emergency which was, in a weird way, heartening. Except the meaning of it was lost the next day when they also re-(re)approved a significant expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. The longer we dither, the less likely our solutions will be robust or equitable. And we only have just over a decade before we’ve stalled so long there is no way to limit climate impacts to a reasonable level. This is a crisis. But, unlike many crises, we know how to stop this one. We need politicians to recognize this as a fact, not an opinion, and face this issue head on. We can still keep the ship afloat, but to do so we’re going to need all hands on deck.

—Nola Poirier

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