Government problems: water-energy-mining-spying

Well, quite a week in Albertan and Canadian resource policy.

Last week, a judge issued a verdict against Alberta’s regulatory decision to exclude Pembina, an environmental NGO, from hearings on oil sands projects. And it wasn’t just a decision, it was a scathing indictment, which you can download here (PDF). Among the judge’s comments was that it was  “difficult to envision a more direct apprehension of bias” than the regulator’s decision to exclude Pembina.

Alberta also released a new consultation policy for development of resources affecting First Nations. It has been characterized as misguided. And that is not good timing, since the federal government sent an armada of ministers to B.C. recently to create some momentum for a pipeline through First Nations territory on that side of the two province deal that would pipe bitumen to Kitimat. It could be that the federal government and First Nations are headed for conflict.

On the other side of the country there is the on-going standoff over fracking in New Brunswick. A judge issued an injunction against a Mi’kmaq barricade yesterday, and the province’s premier is planning negotiations. The embarrassing issue for the New Brunswick government is that the chair of their Energy Institute was recently exposed as a fraud. So the credibility of the government is in serious doubt.

Also yesterday, Brazil called Canada out on its spying program that targeted Brazil’s mining and energy ministry. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds since, according to reports, there are more documents on Canada’s intelligence gathering that may be released as well.

The state is not neutral

quecharterIn Canada, a recent proposal by the Quebec government to implement a “Charter of Values” has generated considerable controversy. The basic premise of the charter is that the state should be neutral and, as such, officers of the state should not be adorned with anything that would betray their specific beliefs.

If you put a big “X” over the image to the right, you get the idea.

Now, there are several reasons why this is problematic, and political philosopher and Quebecker Charles Taylor recently gave a good interview on why this is. You can view it here on CBC.

Now, whether or not this new legislation goes through, it begs the question of whether the state is neutral and whether this is even a goal that can be stated in neutral terms. That is, neutrality itself may very well be the outcome of a particular political point of view.

Taylor starts out by making a nice point, that requiring people to stop wearing outward symbols of faith immediately makes a judgment about faith being something that one holds in their inner person. Which is very much okay for some faiths (i.e. Christianity) but not so for others where certain practices are necessary for belief.

Strangely, to me, not much discussion has arisen about whether the goal of state neutrality is even worth pursuing. It is certainly a long-standing part of the rhetorical and philosophical armament of political liberalism. There, the idea is that our policies, and methods for reaching them, should not intrinsically favor the beliefs of any particular group. In Habermas’ book, Between Naturalism and Religion, he suggests such a view is “post-metaphysical.”

For my part, I would like to see the broader conversation get going in Canada. To do so, we would first need to acknowledge that, because the goal of state neutrality requires conformance to practices that leave our beliefs at home, this is already making a substantive judgment about beliefs, and how and why they matter. We would need to acknowledge that the state is not neutral.

Fiction(s), Anthropo-scene(s) and Maragaret Atwood



Is there a boundary between non-fiction and reality? Probably. Whatever it is though, or in what it would be accomplished, I couldn’t say. And yet, this is how I feel about Margaret Atwood’s trilogy, which culminates in the recently released Madaddam, which I will be picking up shortly.

On the one hand, the trilogy is labeled “post-apocalyptic’. On the other, that label masks some important themes that Atwood explores. She gave a great interview on CBC’s Q yesterday, that you can listen to here. She’s quite funny. And her remarks seem apt for understanding the anthropocene precisely because nothing in this trilogy is outlandish – it is all within the horizon of what is currently possible. It doesn’t require new conceptions; so it has a way of blurring non-fictional possibilities with things that are not all realities. Of course, the narrative is entirely fictional; they are novels.

Towards the end of the interview, Jian Ghomeshi, the host of Q, asks about the state of science in Canada – a real can of worms if you saw the recent New York Times piece, or George Monbiot’s essay yesterday, which I think comes out in the Guardian today. Both argue that the current practices of muzzling scientists in Canada is designed to guarantee ignorance. A quick google search should net quite a few more articles on this if you are interested, as well as a recent protest held by Canadian scientists.

Anyways, Atwood makes the argument that, because Canadian science is funded by tax payers, those tax payers should have better access to scientific findings. A good point, but one that is easily undone by diverting tax payer dollars away from research, which is exactly what the Canadian government is now doing by aligning research to serve the economy. So here is another place, in my view, where a boundary arises between non-fiction and reality: economic practices are certainly not fictional, but the overall conception of “the economy” is not connected to reality.  And even though Environment Canada now predicts a 2 degree (Celsius) rise in temperatures by 2050(!) there are no meaningful policies in place that would bring Canadian economic practices into line with the reality of a changing climate.


New Book: Contested Water: the struggle against privatization in the US and Canada

From MIT’s website:

Contested Water

The Struggle Against Water Privatization in the United States and Canada


Attempts by local governments to privatize water services have met with furious opposition. Activists argue that to give private companies control of the water supply is to turn water from a common resource into a marketized commodity. Moreover, to cede local power to a global corporation puts communities at the center of controversies over economic globalization. In Contested Water, Joanna Robinson examines local social movement organizing against water privatization, looking closely at battles for control of local water services in Stockton, California, and Vancouver, British Columbia. The movements in these two communities had different trajectories, used different tactics, and experienced different outcomes. Robinson analyzes the factors that shaped these two struggles.

Drawing on extensive interviews with movement actors, political leaders, and policymakers and detailed analysis of textual material, Robinson shows that the successful campaign in Vancouver drew on tactics, opportunities, and narratives from the broader antiglobalization movement, with activists emphasizing the threats to local democracy and accountability; the less successful movement in Stockton centered on a ballot initiative that was made meaningless by a pre-emptive city council vote. Robinson finds that global forces are reshaping local movements, particularly those that oppose neoliberal reforms at the municipal level. She argues that anti–water privatization movements that link local and international concerns and build wide-ranging coalitions at local and global levels offer an effective way to counter economic globalization. Successful challenges to globalization will not necessarily come from transnational movements but rather from movements that are connected globally but rooted in local communities.

About the Author

Joanna L. Robinson is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Glendon College, York University, Toronto.


“All organizing is local, it is often said. But in our neo-liberal world, local activists often confront multinational antagonists with global reach. At first glance, such struggles may seem hopelessly unequal. Contested Water shows us to look again at the possibilities for local democracy in a global world.”
Frances Fox Piven, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Political Science, CUNY Graduate Center

“Joanna Robinson reminds us that the water wars have escalated in rich countries as well as poor. The activist campaigns against privatization of water in Canada and the United States are important battles in a much larger struggle about the future of public goods. Contested Water provides riveting narrative, insightful analysis, and lessons for future activists. It’s essential reading for making sense of the battles over neoliberal reforms that will define the next decade.”
David S. Meyer, Department of Sociology, University of California, Irvine

Contested Water provides an orientation toward water resources that is badly needed in social science literature. It departs from the general pattern of overly technical water books. Instead of embracing a one-size-fits-all integrated water management framework, it recognizes that context matters and provides sophisticated analyses of important contextual considerations.”
Helen Ingram, Research Fellow, Southwest Center, the University of Arizona; coeditor of Water, Place, and Equity

New book on Canada-US waters

From the UTP website and edited by Emma Norman, Alice Cohen and Karen Bakker.

There is also a complimentary website here with more material. Comes out in a few weeks and looks interesting.

9781442643932Since 1909, the waters along the Canada-US border have been governed in accordance with the Boundary Water Treaty, but much has changed in the last 100 years. This engaging volume brings together experts from both sides of the border to examine the changing relationship between Canada and the US with respect to shared waters, as well as the implications of these changes for geopolitics and the environment. Water without Borders? is a timely publication given the increased attention to shared water issues, and particularly because 2013 is the United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation.

Water without Borders? is designed to help readers develop a balanced understanding of the most pressing shared water issues between Canada and the United States. The contributors explore possible frictions between governance institutions and contemporary management issues, illustrated through analyses of five specific transboundary water “flashpoints.” The volume offers both a historical survey of transboundary governance mechanisms and a forward-looking assessment of new models of governance that will allow us to manage water wisely in the future.

The myth of water abundance is back! Thanks to the Fraser Institute…

For some time now Canadian academics and policy makers have been trying to kill the idea that water is abundant. But the myth persists.

The latest go-round comes from the Fraser Institute, who recently released this report (PDF) on Canada’s water. The report was complemented by a much shorter press release that you can read here.

It is the kind of report that makes several classic mistakes:

First, it doesn’t once mention First Nations, or the fact that there is a major discrepancy between the water availability and quality between First Nations and the rest of Canada.

Second, you won’t find the words ecology or groundwater anywhere.

Third, it generalizes away local problems by appealing to national statistics. So total water use for, say, energy is but a fraction of the total water in Canada. Sure, but is it a small fraction of the places where that water comes from?

These are just a few of the many errors in the report.

This report is the kind you wish will get shelved somewhere. It may be worth an op-ed rebuttal if it gets any media attention…which it should not.

Newly appointed: next disappointment? Canada names new environment minister

Yesterday the Canadian Government announced a new cabinet minister for the environment. The previous minister, Peter Kent, was recently eviscerated as quite possible Canada’s worst environment minister ever.

He certainly has presided over a precipitous fall. But the trend towards poor environmental regulations did not start with him. In fact, a 2010 article in Ecology Law Quarterly asks: What ever happened to Canadian environmental law? (PDF).

So, all this to say, the new minister is not inheriting a particularly envious portfolio.

The new minister is Leonna Aglukkaq the former minister of health and also the current chair of the Arctic  Council. When the latter post was assigned to her, researcher’s at McGill wrote an open letter stressing the need for an emphasis on food and housing security. Unfortunately, the tone so far set is one of development as a priority and everything else as a trickle-down effect.

A rising tide floats all boats, so they say. But it can also flood a lot of people out.

Anyhow, this emphasis on the North is all being set in a broader context of Arctic security, First Nations rights and a host of geopolitical issues regarding climate, sovereignty and the like. With that said, there is an interesting new article freely available on the the “New North” – a phrase that recurs often but which is laden with a set of assumptions about for whom the area should be governed and how. You can download it here (pdf).

And here is the abstract:

References to a “New North” have snowballed across popular media in the past 10 years. By invoking the phrase, scientists, policy analysts, journalists and others draw attention to the collision of global warming and global investment in the Arctic today and project a variety of futures for the region and the planet. While changes are apparent, the trope of a “New North” is not new. Discourses that appraised unfamiliar situations at the top of the world have recurred throughout the twentieth century. They have also accompanied attempts to cajole, conquer, civilize, consume, conserve and capitalize upon the far north. This article examines these politics of the “New North” by critically reading “New North” texts from the North American Arctic between 1910 and 2010. In each case, appeals to novelty drew from evaluations of the historical record and assessments of the Arctic’s shifting position in global affairs. “New North” authors pinpointed the ways science, state power, capital and technology trans- formed northern landscapes at different moments in time. They also licensed political and corporate influence in the region by delimiting the colonial legacies already apparent there. Given these tendencies, scholars need to approach the most recent iteration of the “New North” carefully without concealing or repeating the most troubling aspects of the Arctic’s past.

Why are Canadians getting sick from tapwater? – And some other news too

Lots going on in Canadian water lately. There is a new Act going through the house of parliament on drinking water – an Act that some believe will fail First Nations.41spd6fqg1L._SL500_AA300_ Sean Atleo stated that he doesn’t think the Act is anything different from the government (once again) deciding it knows best and enforcing its will on First Nations.

There was also a recent book put out by Chris Wood and Ralph Pentland titled: Down the Drain: How we are Failing to Protect Our Water Resources

The book has been getting some coverage over at The Tyee. And Chris Wood was speaking on CBC’s great show “The Current” yesterday. You can hear that conversation or read a description of it here.

These are all pretty timely given the large spill of “produced water” (which is the wastewater from energy extraction) last week in Northern Alberta.

Yesterday, Alberta announced a voluntary agreement to increase water use efficiency.

And, in addition to the Rosenberg Report on the Mackenzie River Basin last week, the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives issued a report on that makes the case for improved water use reporting in British Columbia (PDF).

Navigating a wasting world: Graeme Wynn Lectures

Graeme Wynn of UBC Geography gave a series of lectures on Navigating a wasting world: perspectives on environmentalism and sustainability in Canada for the Mclean Series in Canadian Studies. They are put in sequence below.

Measurement, mining and Canada’s foreign finances

A couple of new items out on mining. One is a new article published in Minerals Engineering that compares different ways of measuring “sustainability“.

Here is the ABSTRACT: Recent years have seen a proliferation of frameworks for assessing and reporting mining sustainability. While these frameworks vary substantially in scope and approach, they all seem to share the purported goal of better informing decision-makers about the future implications of mining to the environment and society. Whether they do so, however, remains an open question. The purpose of this paper is to describe, compare and critically analyse five sustainability assessment and reporting frameworks used by, or proposed for, the mining industry. Based on literature reviews, the paper highlights the underlying assumptions of those frameworks and presents a diagram that helps to clarify aspects such as temporal orientation, geographical scope and quantity of indicators. Three out of the five frameworks follow a siloed approach to assessing mining sustainability, overlooking trade-offs and synergies among variables and sustainability dimensions. None of the frameworks seems to fully shed light on the problem of mineral scarcity and the effective legacy of mineral operations. The paper concludes by emphasizing the need to carefully consider the information generated by the analysed frameworks and suggest more fruitful ways to foster sustainability reports.


A second item is more Canada specific. I’ve identified previously the increasing literature that identifies Canada’s unique place in the global mining context. This latest piece is on whether Canada is out of step with the push for more transparency around the extractive resource sector more broadly.

“As the G8 works to increase financial oversight and accountability for the extractive sector, is Canada standing off in the corner?

When the G8 leaders get together in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland on June 17-18, they’ll be following summit host and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s, agenda: tax, trade and transparency. Cameron has also made clear his intentions to renew the international community’s focus on financial openness in the extractive sector.

Cameron is riffing off a trend that is increasingly common in the extractive sector. In matters of corruption, sunlight is the best disinfectant: making public payment data from oil, gas and mineral companies will push out corruption, free industry from having to line the pockets of greedy middlemen, and ensure that local communities know where their royalties are going. Though the consensus appears to be calcifying around Cameron’s push, Canada appears to be more tepid in its support…” Read more here.