In recent years, Canada has become one of the most severe environmental offenders in the world. The Alberta tar sands produce more emissions than the total emissions produced by 140 other countries combined. The Harper government has handed the oil industry billions of dollars in tax breaks, subsidies and incentives, while at the same time slashing much-needed social services. Contrary to the argument that the oil industry creates necessary jobs, since 2014 the clean energy sector has produced more jobs than the tar sands despite receiving far fewer subsidies and incentives.
Canada’s environmental policy is a central part of its austerity agenda. Powerful corporations are subsidized by the government to pursue profit at all costs. These costs include contributing enormously to climate change, dispossessing Indigenous communities of their land, disregarding workers facing job shortages and poor working conditions, establishing laws that muzzle climate-change scientists and increasing the incidence of rare cancers and other health problems among those living near the tar sands and its transport routes.
A common myth holds that inequality for women is steadily and inevitably diminishing with time. A brief look at the status of women in Canada over the past 10 years belies this belief. Status of Women Canada is the government agency charged with protecting women’s rights. Since taking office, Harper has shut down 12 of its 16 regional offices. He has also cut funding to 41 women’s organizations, scrapped the 2005 national child-care program, passed laws undermining the principle of pay equity and refused to take action against the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The Harper government has dismantled resources for women as part of the logic of austerity. With the Conservatives’ agenda, corporations gain a precarious workforce that is used to being paid less, while women, particularly poor women, Indigenous women and women of colour, are left to fend for themselves in a free-market economy that devalues their labour and provides few options and opportunities.
Under Harper’s austerity agenda, our borders are becoming tighter, and migrant rights are being scaled back. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) is at the forefront of many immigration policies put in place under the Harper government, which work to exploit and harass migrants. Under the TFWP, migrant workers are underpaid, denied health care, work in precarious conditions and face deportation if they seek redress. The government has also ramped up efforts to criminalize migrants, with the Canadian Border Services Agency conducting “safety checks” of workers on the job and deporting or detaining people over status offences. These policies have caused a rise in racist anti-immigration sentiments at home and have promoted economic unrest abroad. These programs also contribute to environmental destruction, as they force increasingly precarious migrant workers to work in the Alberta tar sands and elsewhere in the oil and gas industry.
The 2012 Refugee Exclusion Act further decreased immigration rates, by narrowly restricting the number of countries from which people can claim refugee status. This Act resulted in a 53 per cent drop in refugee claims. Canada’s austerity policies have come full circle, as countries such as Mexico suffer extreme poverty rates as a result of NAFTA, forcing people to migrate in search of better opportunities, even while Canada now denies any refugee claims from Mexico.
Canadian support of overseas military intervention, billion-dollar arms spending and foreign deals to support military and extraction industries have contributed to international unrest and environmental destruction. Canada recently signed an arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth $15 billion for new weapons and armaments, in the wake of a violent Saudi-led crackdown on democratic protest in Bahrain. In 2008, Harper pledged to double military investment with a budget of $490 billion over 20 years, funneling that money into destabilizing missions in Libya and Afghanistan. Additionally, these international deals prioritize the profits of Canadian industries over community needs, such as the Canadian lobby for mining projects in Honduras.
This increase in military funding and foreign intervention is happening alongside deep cuts made to social services and human rights organizations in the name of “austerity.” Furthermore, veterans have not benefitted from the new funds, as is evident from the closure of several regional offices providing veterans services. It is clear that the austerity agenda has taken away from essential services to the benefit of corporations and prioritizes profits over peace.
Canada is a nation founded on genocide. After centuries of British colonization and dispossession, Canada’s first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, pursued a policy of starvation and relocation towards the Indigenous peoples of this territory.
A century and a half later, little has changed. Harper’s austerity agenda has pushed a free-market ethic where destructive extraction projects are expanded at the cost of Indigenous communities and territory. Many Indigenous communities live in conditions of grinding poverty, with 91 reserves lacking access to potable drinking water and the poverty rate for Indigenous children reaching 50 per cent.
The Canadian government leverages this poverty to force destructive industrial development on Indigenous territories. Canada’s mining industry, worth $43 billion, logging industry, worth $4.1 billion, and oil and gas industry, worth $128 billion, all operate mainly on Indigenous land. One example of the effects these industries have on Indigenous communities is in Sarnia, Ontario, which has the highest concentration of petrochemical plants in the nation. The Aamjiwnaang First Nation community is disproportionately affected by the devastating health and environment impacts of this “Chemical Valley.”
Indigenous communities are actively resisting this theft and exploitation. The Unist’ot’en clan in northern BC have set up an encampment to block the construction of the Pacific Trail Pipeline over their traditional territory.
Since the 1980s, neoliberalism has reformed the world into one where corporations have near-absolute power and democratically elected governments have little control over how their economies are structured.
In this context, unions are one of the few democratic vehicles for carrying out economic change. Historically, labour unions, along with socialist and anarchist movements, gave us weekends and the eight-hour day—without them, North American workers would still be labouring under sweatshop conditions. In the many poorer nations, sweatshop conditions still dominate, in large part because of neoliberal trade agreements and the Canadian and American companies that subcontract to the companies running these sweatshops. Unions in these countries are one of the main forces resisting and challenging brutal and unjust labour conditions.
Meanwhile, the Harper government is bent on expanding and consolidating the neoliberal world order while slashing the rights of workers here in Canada and the unions that represent them. In 2013, the government removed public-sector workers’ right to refuse unsafe work. In 2014, it changed laws to make it harder to establish a union and easier to decertify them.
Harper’s attacks on unions and workers are a key part of his government’s policy of austerity, where corporations can act with impunity and everyone else is rendered powerless.