The Roaring Twenties

In early July, for our wedding anniversary, we spent eight days in New York. This was our first vacation since 2019, and pretty much our first time we’d travelled more than 200 km from our house since the pandemic began. (Excepting a solo visit to my parents in early May.)

New York, as always, was a delight. We saw some great plays – including two, American Buffalo (with Laurence Fishburne and Guy Fleegman himself, Sam Rockwell – both excellent) and Moulin Rouge (which, although it gave us lots to talk about, was actually very disappointing – I might write about it later) – that I had purchased tickets to see in March 2020. We managed to score tickets for a fantastic Richard III in Central Park. We wandered the galleries in Chelsea and the Lower East Side. I got to see the Mets lose to the Marlins in 10 innings.

On a more-sour note, the Rogers outage was more than a casual annoyance. We were intermittently unable to use, alternately, our credit card and our debit card to pay for trifles such as a metro card and food. Plus, there’s nothing like losing your internet service to make you realize how much you’ve come to depend on your phone’s GPS to get around. But that was only one day, and any day that ends with pizza at John’s of Bleecker Street can only be judged an overall good time.

We also managed to avoid catching COVID, no small accomplishment given that New York City, like Ontario, is in the middle of yet another wave. New Yorkers, like Canadians, have mostly stopped trying to protect themselves and others from the pandemic. Restaurants are open for indoor dining, galleries like the MoMa are packed to capacity, and hardly anybody is wearing masks in indoor or crowded settings. The main exception here being service workers, almost all of whom we saw were masked up.

For our part, we always masked when we were indoors, except for our hotel room, where we ran a HEPA air purifier constantly. Instead of flying or taking the train, we drove the seven hours to New York, parking across the river in New Jersey (for less than the cost of a single plane ticket!) and taking the ferry into town. Between the novelty of our means of entry to Manhattan, the scenic drive and being able to avoid the unpleasantness of air travel, I highly recommend driving to New York over flying, if you can.

We only ate outdoors – not a great sacrifice in the summer, since New York restaurants have done their very best to make curbside dining not only possible, but enjoyable. (Toronto, take note.) We spent a lot of time hanging out in Tompkins Square and Washington Square Parks reading and dog-watching, always part of our New York trips. We marked our anniversary with an exquisite, unforgettable meal in the Musket Room’s courtyard herb garden/patio.

We masked outside as well, any time we were in a crowd, which we treated as any more than a few people on a block. And it really wasn’t a burden, especially given that, well, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic.

I don’t know the precise percentage of New Yorkers who were masked, and it sometimes depended on the venue: American Buffalo still had a mask mandate in place, so pretty much everyone was masked, but most of the (younger) Moulin Rouge crowd wasn’t, hardly anyone at the Mets game, and of course everyone eating indoors was maskless. Maybe 5% overall?

I can say that the number was just high enough to make you think you weren’t crazy for wearing a mask and treating the pandemic for the ongoing crisis that it is.

The Roaring 2020s

Taking a step back, it’s an odd mix: our rejuvenating vacation, against the backdrop of a deadly and debilitating global pandemic and a population – including their government and institutions – that has failed to rise to the task of addressing it. We had a great time, in a city in which individuals have been left to fend for themselves while most go about their lives, presumably having just as good a time as we were, but unconcerned with the pernicious and potentially deadly effects of their actions on themselves and others. And in the background, a deadly reckoning looms, of collapsing health systems, debilitating Long COVID, and persistently and needlessly high death rates.

Is this what the 1920s were like?

That tragic decade was bookended by World War I and the spectre of the murderous Nazi regime and World War II, the two wars usually seen as linked. The Roaring 20s as euphoric interregnum.

History may not repeat exactly, but it sometimes rhymes. In this case, we have the initial 2020 COVID outbreak and global, comprehensive (if insufficient) actions to deal with it. However, despite all the “welcome back” and “we missed you” signs throughout New York, the pandemic is not over. Infection, hospitalization and death rates continue their grim march, abetted by an attitude that is, at its heart, a denial of reality.

The same goes for Canada and elsewhere, but Americans are also dealing with political trauma. Those who have yet to succumb to the Republican Party’s far-right anti-democratic extremism are still recovering from the Trump presidency’s constitutional depravities.

It’s surely no coincidence that the Public Theatre, which is responsible for Central Park’s iconic annual Shakespeare in the Park chose this year to mount Richard III, a tale of an amoral, murderous king’s rise and (eventual) defenestration. In one scene, King Richard, played by an almost-too-majestic Danai Gurira (aka Okoye from Black Panther), attempts to demonstrate his virtuousness by holding a Bible in exactly the same awkward manner that Trump did for his “violence-enabled photo op” during the 2020 Black Lives Matters protests.

Richard III’s parallels with Trump are undeniable: the indignities Richard puts his court through as they still profess loyalty to this monster uncomfortably parallels the Republican Party’s fatal embrace of Trump and Trumpism.

However, from the vantage point of 2022, the play’s ending – where the forces of good rise up and overthrow the tyrant – reads more like revenge fantasy than anything else. It seems an unearned ending for a country where anti-democratic forces have successfully turned their Supreme Court from an institution of laws to one of far-right Republican politics, where Democrats face the loss of power thanks to a gerrymandered House, a Senate hamstrung by the filibuster and a system that gives 40% of Americans control over 60% of sets, and a presidency shaped by the undemocratic Electoral College. Add to that a Democratic Party that seems unequal to the monumental task of staving off Republican authoritarianism, and it’s hard to see the current moment as anything more than a brief break in the storm that is already starting to engulf the American Republic.

And all of this is taking place against the ultimate backdrop of the climate emergency, on which the US Senate has effectively prevented the United States from addressing it in any meaningful way.

Cognitive dissonance: The plague of the 2020s

In all three cases, governments, abetted by their populations, have been unwilling and/or unable to take the steps necessary to stave off disaster. Cognitive dissonance, not COVID, is the defining disease of the early 2020s. The result of inaction and inattention will almost certainly – has already been – needless suffering, misery and death.

Actually fixing the problems of climate change, COVID and a collapsing democracy, of course, require collective action. Unfortunately, very little of what’s happened over the past two years suggests that either the United States or the rest of the world, governments or any other organizations, have the will to take the actions needed to stave off or mitigate disaster.

Early in the pandemic, opeds looking for lessons Albert Camus’ 1947 masterwork The Plague were something of a cottage industry. The Plague isn’t talked about so much these days – most likely because of the collective decision to ignore as much as possible the ongoing pandemic – but its lessons are more relevant today than ever.

Camus intended The Plague as an allegory for life under fascism. He was concerned with the question of how we, as individuals, as people, should act when we find ourselves – as the French did under the Nazis in the 1940s – living under an inhumane, anti-democratic, fascist government. Our responsibility, he suggested, is the same as when dealing with a plague, or pandemic, whether the government is working for or against the public interest. Our responsibility is always to the truth of the situation, no matter how uncomfortable.

Most importantly, he argued, we all have a responsibility to do our best not to spread the virus, whether it be fascist ideology and action or biological. This responsibility is not dependent on government decrees.

In the case of our current pandemic, even though governments have effectively declared the pandemic over, our fundamental moral and ethical obligations to each other have not changed: don’t spread the virus. Get vaccinated. Wear a mask. And, where you can, work to change public policy to be less callous toward human life.

Dealing with the collapse of democracy in the United States – to say nothing of the climate emergency – will be more difficult, and Canada won’t be spared the difficult individual and collective decisions that we will have to take in self-defense. In this sense, the individual and collective reckonings around the end of legalized abortion access in the US are a preview of what’s to come. But our obligations to ourselves and each other will stay the same, even in the absence of the hope of meaningful systemic action.

And so we wear masks, while on vacation, in New York, in our calm before the storm.

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Submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, Study on Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act

I was invited to appear before the Canadian Heritage Committee for their study of Bill C-11. While my schedule didn’t allow it, the Committee permitted me to provide a written submission, reprinted below.

I would like to thank the Committee for the invitation and opportunity to submit a brief on Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act. I am an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brock University. I am also a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, and an Associate Senior Fellow at the Kate Hamburger Kölleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. My research focuses on the governance of the knowledge economy, including platform regulation. I am the author of several journal articles and the co-editor of two edited volumes on the topic, as well as the author of a book on Canadian and global digital copyright policy.

I wish to focus my comments on Bill C-11’s discoverability requirements, which are designed to promote Canadian content and the work of Canadian creators. The issue of discoverability may not have attracted the same level of attention as other parts of the bill, it represents a significant advance in Canada’s approach to regulating the global content intermediaries that have emerged as significant, self-interested, and unaccountable regulators in and of themselves.

Not a free market: Platforms are already regulators

The debate over Canadian cultural regulation used to involve two sharply defined positions. On the one side were those who argued that Canadian cultural production should be shaped primarily by the market and the demand for these “products.” The other side, which has been Canadian policy for the past several decades, argued that Canadian culture is more than just a commodity government intervention is necessary in order to help it flourish (Haggart and Tusikov 2022).

Online content intermediaries have complicated this debate. The emergence of online content intermediaries, or platforms, presents a direct challenge to Canadian policy autonomy. “Platform” is a slippery concept whose meaning changes depending on who is using the term, but one of its defining characteristics is that they are two-sided markets (or more) that bring together, for example, creators, users/consumers and advertisers (Gillespie 2010). This characteristic helps to give these companies immense powers to set the rules and regulations governing what happens on their platform: you either accept their rules or you stay home.

This power means that these platforms – when unchallenged by governments – can exercise regulatory and policy authority in much the same way as governments.

Platforms don’t exist in the market: in large part they aim to be the market, and the regulator. What this means is that the current alternative to government policy is not to “let the market decide,” but to turn Canadian cultural policy over to the whims and interests of foreign, largely American, corporations (plus China’s TikTok).

Platforms already regulate discoverability, and discriminate against creators

It is against this background that we should assess the fear that government requirements will change how, for example, YouTube’s algorithm would operate when it comes to surfacing content. YouTube, and every platform, already has its own rules for discoverability. Most importantly, these privatized discoverability regulations are not designed simply to surface the most popular content, or the content that you, the viewer/reader, is most interested in. These companies, understandably, design their platform in ways that they believe will maximize their own interests, however they decide to define them. This self-interestedness goes far beyond simply maximizing profits, in ways that actively disadvantage certain groups while promoting others. For example, YouTube has long been criticized for allegedly demonetizing LGBTQ content (Romano 2019). I say “allegedly,” because the fact that YouTube does not publicize its ranking criteria – an example of secret regulation – means that researchers have to reverse-engineer its algorithm to understand how it works.

As University of California, Santa Cruz sociologist Julian Rodriguez, argues, YouTube “privately discriminates against LGBTQ users creating content about queer sex education, lesbian sexuality, and transgender identity—topics in conflict with advertising and community guidelines. YouTube’s discriminatory practices (closely tied to automated algorithms) include demonetization, age restriction, video deletion, account termination, and harassment facilitation” (Rodriguez 2022, 1).

Government intervention with respect to discoverability should not be seen as upending a neutral marketplace. Platforms’ existing regulations already reward some creators and punish others. Rather, the choice before Parliament is what criteria do we want to determine discoverability? And who should be allowed to make those decisions?

Platforms’ already-existing secret, unaccountable regulation

Platform regulatory power, which is currently shaping discoverability and platform functioning generally, is wielded in opaque and unaccountable ways such that even those creators who currently enjoy success on a platform remain vulnerable to the platform’s self-interested whims, since the company running the platform can change the rules of the game any time it wants.

Unlike with government regulation, there are very few meaningful ways for ordinary citizens or creators to challenge platforms’ policy decisions. Especially in the absence of meaningful market competition – and the network effects associated with platforms effectively works to minimize such competition.

In contrast, for all the complaints about the CRTC’s work as a regulatory body – and I take no position on this issue – almost by definition it is more accountable than the global platforms that currently regulate this space.

Vague future outcomes and inadequate consultation

As welcome as the government’s tentative forays into platform regulation may be in principle, the vagueness of much of the conversation around the bill overall, including the need to wait for policy directives from the government, introduces uncertainty about how these powers will be used in practice.

Two final points. First, in the run-up to Bill C-11, as well as the government’s suite of current and proposed legislation focused on online activity, the government has missed a golden opportunity to educate Canadians about the promises and perils of government online regulation. The challenges raised by the online sphere may not be novel – issues like cultural protection and how to deal with hate speech are perennial problems – but they do pose their own issues. The government’s muddled approach to explaining both C-11 and its predecessor, Bill C-10, has not been helpful, to say the least.

Other countries have dealt more deftly with this problem than Canada. Brazil’s landmark Marco Civil da Internet legislation, which created a “Bill of Rights” for the internet, was preceded by a two-stage consultation. The first stage involved education Brazilians about the key issues, seeking their (informed) feedback. Only then did the government craft a proposal, which they then sent out for consultation (Haggart and Tusikov 2018).

This process allowed Brazilians to get comfortable with and better understand the idea of online regulation, while also serving to telegraph the government’s position on these issues. While I believe that fears that this bill, and the rest of the government’s digital agenda, will lead to the rise of authoritarianism and a loss of “freedom” are vastly, vastly overblown, more extensive consultations and education would likely have helped to help Canadians better understand what the government understands and intends by platform regulation, and (in this case) discoverability.

Second, I am concerned that the government has missed an opportunity to more deeply engage with the fundamental question underlying this debate, namely, what is Canadian culture? I strongly welcome Bill C-11’s focus on promoting Indigenous and French culture – themselves a strong justification for a focus on discoverability.

But if this bill marks the culmination of the government’s reconsideration of how to protect and promote Canadian culture in the 21st century, it would be a huge missed opportunity. For example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Triple J Unearthed online radio station and platform (https://www.abc.net.au/triplejunearthed/) provides a comprehensive platform for emerging Australian musicians – including Indigenous artists – to upload and share their music, supported actively by the ABC in terms of promotion on its terrestrial and online stations, concerts and contests. Triple J Unearthed leverages the potential of the Web in a way that has a direct and positive effect on Australian artists and culture. Such a site could arguably have as much an effect on aspiring Canadian musicians as this bill’s discoverability rules.

Updating the Broadcasting Act for our new reality makes sense – policy objectives should drive tech, not the other way around – but in attempting to stick so close to the model as it’s always existed, we risk foreclosing new ways to think about Canadian culture.

It is also understandable that the government would want to rely on the CRTC as a lead regulator in this area – creating new bureaucracies is challenging, to say the least, especially absent the wider conversation regarding how we, as Canadians, should think about Canadian culture two decades into the 21st century. It’s also understandable that it should be given some leeway to interpret its mandate: regulatory bodies require some room for interpretation, as not every contingency can be captured in legislation.

On this point, however, much will depend on the government’s directives, and on how the CRTC decides to interpret these directives.

I thank you for your time.

References

Gillespie, Tarleton. 2010. ‘The Politics of “Platforms”’. New Media & Society 12 (3): 347–64. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444809342738.

Haggart, Blayne, and Natasha Tusikov. 2018. ‘Implementing a National Data Strategy: The Need for Innovative Public Consultations’. 142. Centre for International Governance Innovation. https://www.cigionline.org/publications/implementing-national-data-strategy-need-innovative-public-consultations.

———. 2022. ‘Battling the Myths of Internet Regulation as We Consider the Next Iteration of Bill C-10’. Centre for International Governance Innovation, 17 January 2022. https://www.cigionline.org/articles/battling-the-myths-of-internet-regulation-as-we-consider-the-next-iteration-of-bill-c-10/.

Rodriguez, Julian A. 2022. ‘LGBTQ Incorporated: YouTube and the Management of Diversity’. Journal of Homosexuality 0 (0): 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2022.2042664.

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Notes on the Occupation 7: Knowledge and the New Class War

A very, very good column from Andrew Coyne in the Globe and Mail this morning, in which he argues that the true dividing line revealed by the Ottawa Occupation involves competing claims over knowledge itself:

Previous generations of class warriors wanted to smash capital, first physical then financial. But in an age in which capital resides in knowledge, the objective must be to smash knowledge itself, together with its repositories – the universities, the courts, the media. All are not merely fallible but hostile, enemies of the people, filled with lies – which is to say, with facts they refuse to believe.

In their place, the new class warriors must attempt to make sense of the world unaided. They are “doing their own research,” via the internet, and sharing their findings with each other, via social media. They are, in short, defenceless, vulnerable to any number of bad actors looking to manipulate them.

Coyne here uses the language of marks and grifters when bemoaning (correctly) how susceptible so many people are to straight-up nonsense, and paints a picture of an assault on the concept of knowledge itself.

What he’s describing, though, is not a war on knowledge by anti-knowledge, but a contest over what we consider to be knowledge. It’s a contest between contending views on what is reality.

At issue is what IPE scholar Susan Strange called the power to determine what knowledge is legitimate knowledge. It’s about who is considered to be an authority worth listening to, and how their authority is legitimized.

It doesn’t happen often, but sources of authority do change over the long course of history, and when they do literally everything changes with it. Strange argues that the last big change in this form of power, at least in Europe, occurred when scientific knowledge replaced religious knowledge as the most legitimate form of knowledge, and scientists replaced priests as the holders of legitimate knowledge.

Even though religion has persisted, science dominates, to the extent that even the most religious feel the need to justify their beliefs in scientific terms. Think about the Creation Museum, which is devoted to proving the biblical creation myth: What is a museum but a temple to science?

Changes in what Strange called the “knowledge structure” lead to changes in what people believe counts as evidence. Coyne attacks those who are “spreading falsehoods, validating lunacy, crossing lines previously considered uncrossable,” but these charges only hold weight within our (still-dominant, though under siege) scientific-based knowledge structure. Outside it, they hold no weight at all.

Writing in the 1980s, way before the commercial internet, Strange correctly recognized that the most likely challenger to the scientific knowledge structure would be New Age thinking. Think homeopathy, anti-vaccines, the healing power of crystals. New Age thinking rejects science and, by necessity, the authority of those who embrace science and rationality as a standard of knowledge. That it’s all nonsense and anti-science matters a lot to me because I’m a very big fan of science, liberalism and rational thought. But for someone who doesn’t believe in science, these arguments are unlikely to be convincing.

If anything, thinking of our current moment as people being deluded by snake-oil-selling charlatans underplays the very deep dynamics at play. We are witnessing a schism in the knowledge structure potentially on the scale of what ended the dominance of the Catholic Church in Europe.

This is a very, very big deal.

A contest of legitimacy

This knowledge crisis is not, or at least not completely, a demand-driven phenomenon. Individuals and groups are attempting to claim for themselves the right to determine what counts as legitimate knowledge. These charlatans and cranks (or fearless truth-tellers, if you will) are the ones supplying mis- and dis-information to people who reject science.

There is also a structural component to all this. New Age woo-wooism predates the internet, but the internet and social media as it is currently constituted has acted as an accelerant for this anti-scientific worldview. It has also been helped along by fundamentalist interpretations of the US First Amendment, which has treated Fox News, an anti-science, anti-democracy propaganda outfit, as a legitimate journalism outfit. New media, bad regulation and anti-science worldviews are an explosive combination.

Not all knowledge structures are created equal

In highlighting how religious, scientific and New Age perspectives don’t really overlap, I’m not claiming that one is as good as the other. I ride for Team Science, not because it’s the knowledge of the elites, but because vaccines save lives. I support it because it embodies what the poet and cultural commentator Clive James called a liberalism of doubt, where knowledge is contingent, ideological certainty is to be avoided, and we should work to verify our beliefs. I support it because it’s also the most friendly to liberal-democratic government, and I’m a big fan of self-determination.

In contrast, there is little to recommend New Age thinking. Most obviously, it fails to support life itself (see: homeopathy). But it also is remarkably open to con artists who spin a good, emotional story, and leaves its adherents with few ways to extricate themselves from its grasp. At the extreme, as we’ve seen with Donald (“I alone can fix it”) Trump and the anti-democratic Ottawa Occupation, it breeds dictatorship.

No thanks to all that.

What to do

It’s tempting to think of these battles as amorphous cultural contests with no solutions beyond weak exhortations for “more education!” or “more media literacy!” Thankfully, we can do more than that to defend the scientific worldview.

Strange wrongly argued that power in the knowledge structure is “unquantifiable.” But knowledge, as Coyne remarks, is a social process. It is spread by people and through communication systems. Knowledge has a very material, corporeal component.

Coyne’s identification of the problem is a good and necessary start. Actually doing something about it is possible, but more difficult. Dealing with this attack on science, rationality and democracy itself will require, among other things, bringing social media regulation into line with the standards of truth that we expect from our other communications media.

It will require enforcing anti-hate laws in Canada. In the United States, it will require (deep breath) adjusting their First Amendment thinking along the lines suggested by legal scholar Mary Anne Franks, so that Fox News is no longer treated as a legitimate news outlet.

All this is doubtlessly a heavy lift, but it has the virtue of addressing our current moment with the seriousness it deserves. If knowledge is social, then our actions will decide whether or not science will prevail.

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Notes on the Occupation 6: As best as I can figure

Working out what to think about … all this … in real time.

  • The Ottawa Police Service proved itself either incapable or unwilling of stopping the protest.
  • Ottawa City Council and its police oversight proved itself utterly incapable of exercising legitimate direction and oversight over its police force.
  • The most effective actors in addressing the blockade have been private citizens with no support from government: to get an injunction against the incessant honking; to mount a class-action lawsuit against the protesters; and to block the arrival of more protesters into the city.
  • The Province of Ontario only declared a state of emergency two weeks into the Siege of Ottawa, following the blockade of Canada’s most important trade corridor, the Windsor-Detroit crossing.
  • The province moved incredibly slowly to address the collapse of the rule of law in Canada’s capital.
  • The federal government was slow to address both the siege of Ottawa and of its vital trade links with the United States.
  • The federal government invoked the Emergencies Act after the Windsor blockade was cleared out.
  • The federal government invoked the Emergencies Act while the Province of Ontario and the City of Ottawa remained paralyzed or very slow-moving to address the ongoing Occupation of Ottawa.

All of which leads me to conclude, provisionally…

  • All levels of government have failed in mind-bogglingly spectacular and previously unimaginable ways:
    • Ottawa should never have allowed these protesters the time to set up camp. Once it was set up, Ottawa police should have immediately moved to dismantle it and expel them from the city.
    • Ontario should have taken the siege of Ottawa at least as seriously as it did the threat to Canada-US trade. And even there it took them almost an entire week to get their act together.
    • The federal government should have immediately acted when protesters blocked the Detroit-Windsor bridge, treating it as a threat to the economic and political security to the country.
    • Somebody should have recognized that it is intolerable to hand over a city, let alone the nation’s capital, to a bunch of lawless thugs who don’t seem to have seen a movie since 1995.
  • Any one of these (in)actions would normally be grounds for those involved to be chased from office in disgrace.
    • Especially Jim Watson. Negotiating with people who occupied his city, want to overthrow the government and have no coherent demands (vaccine mandates are a provincial responsibility; even if Canada got rid of the mandate for truckers, the US mandate would keep them out), and then to turn city council into a street brawl at the time of the city’s greatest need: what a pathetic end to three decades of public service.

The empty comfort of “it never should have come to this”

  • Those who say, regarding the invocation of the Emergencies Act, that it never should have come to this, are correct.
  • But here we are. And being where we are, instead of in a fantasyland where time can move backward, we have to deal with where we are.
  • When governments, in the face of an occupation, over several weeks, have failed to act to remove protesters, it’s absurd to argue that governments already have the tools to address the protesters.
    • The important and unavoidable fact is that, in the face of an intolerable situation, governments and police refused to use the tools and laws at their disposal.
    • The Emergencies Act, to my eye, broke this impasse, effectively federalizing a situation that the province and city were either unwilling or unable to confront.
  • Trudeau’s inaction in the face of a clear and present danger to Canada’s economic and political stability (the Windsor border blockade) made it essential to act decisively via the Emergencies Act, to signal to the United States that Canada is serious about maintaining its economic ties to the US and its territorial integrity.
    • That it never should have come to this doesn’t negate the absolutely inescapable need to signal to our most important trading partner and the world’s superpower that we’re a responsible country.
    • Canada’s job in North America vis a vis the US is to provide security to the United States at its northern border. This is a non-negotiable fact of the relationship, if we want to maintain our status as an independent country (see: 9/11).
    • (Yes, it’s that serious.)
    • That it never should have come to this is a strike against Trudeau, not against the use of the Emergencies Act, which is appropriate given the circumstances.
  • To reiterate, it’s hard to prove a counterfactual, but I would argue that it’s taken the federal invocation of the Emergencies Act to get everyone to smarten up and start retaking downtown Ottawa.

Finally

  • Yes, this is a real goddamn emergency.* Even if you ignore the border blockades, the occupation of Ottawa – the freakin’ capital – represents a threat to the territorial integrity of the country.
  • No, this is not a legitimate protest that just happened to attract some unsavoury elements, including Nazis. It’s a far-right, extremist operation that’s free-riding on anti-vax sentiments.
  • The protests were not “mostly peaceful.” The lawless occupation of a downtown is an act of violence. And the constant harassment and interruption of sleep with incessant honking are literal acts of violence.
  • Right-wing extremism is likely to be an ongoing threat. Once the pandemic has come to an end, these right-wing extremists will attempt to continue their attempted insurrection by glomming onto something else. Because vaccine mandates were never the point of these protests, something that has been clear from the beginning.
  • This is the kind of thing you want to take care of before it metastasizes into a movement that, say, takes over a major political party.
  • Using the Emergencies Act also acts as a signal about where we draw the line in Canada when it comes to the difference between legitimate debate and unacceptable, anti-democratic behaviour. The United States failed to do this with Trump and they will continue to reap the consequences for years, if not decades.
    • The invocation of the Emergencies Act, by identifying extremism for what it is, gives us a chance to avoid the United States’ mistake of assuming that fascists are good-faith actors.

* Gratuitious Shellac reference. Enjoy The End of Radio.

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Notes on the Occupation 5: Border blockades and survival instincts

Working out what to think about … all this … in real time.

We’re into Week Three of the Ottawa Occupation, which has now metastasized into protests blocking border crossings across the country. These blockades include, most importantly, the Windsor-Detroit crossing, which carries 25% of the value of all Canada-US trade.

The Ottawa Occupation has been shocking and dismaying. I never thought I’d see Canadian security forces and government officials cede control of a major Canadian city’s downtown – the capital, my hometown – to anyone, let alone far-right thugs, with no end in sight.

As bad as the Ottawa Occupation is, the federal and provincial governments’ leisurely reaction to the border blockades has somehow managed to be even more worrying for what it says about the capacity of Canada, at any level, to deal with any crisis.

Here, I’m talking about a matter of degree. Federal and provincial officials are treating the Windsor blockade much more seriously than the Ottawa Occupation. There’s a reason why Ontario Premier Doug Ford didn’t declare a state of emergency until Windsor happened, two full weeks into what he’s described as a “siege” in Ottawa.

Here’s the thing, though: a declaration of emergency might sound like a serious reaction to a serious problem. But I’m most struck by the slowness of it all, first the declaration (five days into the blockade) and then the enforcement (which only now, Sunday the 13th, seems to be coming to a head).

A blockade of Canada’s border crossings, especially at Windsor, represents a direct threat to the economic and political survival of Canada as a country. The Canadian economy is tightly integrated into the US economy. In 2019, the last full year of the Before Times, 74% of Canada’s total trade in goods was with the United States. That $443 billion represents about 22% of the entire Canadian economy, as measured by the Gross Domestic Product. Blockading the border, and especially Windsor, kneecaps the entire Canadian economy.

These blockades do not just put Canada’s economic survival at stake, because trade is a two-way street. We’re used to thinking of the Canada-US relation in terms of our dependence on, and vulnerability to, our giant southern neighbour. But as the political economist and lifelong student of Canada-US relations Stephen Clarkson noted in his final book, the United States depends on Canada to provide it with border security. From the US perspective, it’s our job to take care of things on our side of our shared border.

Taking care of things includes not only addressing real and perceived security threats, but also keeping our side of the continental economy running. If we fail to do this, it’s reasonable to expect that the United States would begin to put increasing, coercive pressure on our governments to do something in the short term, while working in the longer term to reduce American vulnerability to a feckless Canadian state, or to increase its influence over Canada, all in its own self-defence.

When I call these blockades a threat to Canada’s literal economic and political survival, I’m not exaggerating for effect. It’s hard to come up with a clearer threat to core Canadian national interests than these blockades.

So when I see, post-emergency announcement, that it’s taken an entire week for the Ambassador Bridge to be reopened (it’s not at the moment, but hopefully soon), it raises very, very serious questions about the basic competence of our political leaders and the ability of our political and security system to respond to the equivalent of a gun to the head of the Canadian state.

When I see that it took an injunction sought by Canadian automakers – who understand more than anyone what’s at stake – and the City of Windsor to get Windsor police to break up what was already illegal activity – I can only conclude that our provincial and federal governments are either unaware of exactly how serious this current crisis is, or are unable or unwilling to respond commensurately.

Neither alternative is encouraging.

(It’s also telling that we seem to be delegating responsibility for critical national infrastructure to municipalities.)

On effectiveness, as Charlie Angus has remarked on Twitter, we need to begin immediately a serious, Canada-wide conversation about our police forces.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader as to why police have taken such a light approach to an illegal occupation and a direct threat to national security. But for me the most shocking thing is that they are failing to respond in a rapid manner to direct threats to the state. The most famous definition of a state is that it is a human community with a monopoly over the use of legitimate force in a given territory. When police refuse to act in defence of the state, as in the case of the Ottawa police, it’s fair to ask, who’s in control?

It’s going to take months to catalogue all of the failures of the past three weeks. It’s going to take years to understand and deal with them.

But it’s impossible to overstate just how badly our leaders are blowing all this. As offensive as the protesters are, every society has their share of dead-enders. What matters is how governments and police forces – the state – deals with them.

I’ve been working and researching on Canada-US relations for my entire professional life, over two decades at this point. As an economist on Parliament Hill I worked on Canada-US trade issues. My Masters research project focused on the 2001 Smart Border Declaration. My dissertation explored the issue of autonomy in Canada-US-Mexican relations.

Previous governments instinctively understood that Canada-US trade, and Canada-US relations stood almost beyond politics, something that had to be treated with care. I thought the Trudeau government’s full-court press in the Trump-driven NAFTA renegotiations showed they understood that.

Then last week’s slow-roll blockade response happened. And now I’m left wondering, what the hell our governments are doing, and how we’re going to deal with the fallout.

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