The Way I See It - Talking to US Workers about President Obama’s Visit to Canada
February 23, 2009
Don Currie, Chair, CPS

The friendship between the common people of Canada and the USA was underscored by the visit to Ottawa on February 19th of US President Barack Obama. Thousands of Canadians discouraged by officialdom from greeting the popular US President, nonetheless spontaneously converged on Parliament Hill, Ottawa Ontario, the nation’s capital, to give him a people’s welcome. According to pollsters Canadians accord President Obama an 82% approval rating the reverse of their long standing majority disapproval of former right wing US President George W. Bush. Many Canadians travelled to the USA and worked as volunteers in the Obama’s Democratic US presidential campaign. The US President quipped to Governor General Michaelle Jean, a Haitian by birth, that if things went badly for him in the USA he could always come to Canada. Obama’s brother in law is Canadian.
By and large Canadian public opinion approves of the declarations thus far, by the new Obama administration that the USA intends to review and move away from unilateralism and belligerence in international relations. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leading a far right minority government with a 37% approval rating, used the Obama visit to attempt to obscure Harper’s obsequious support for the now discredited Bush administration. While in opposition Harper spoke in Parliament for Canadian participation in the US war in Iraq. Elected in 2006 as a minority government, the Harper Conservatives immediately revised the former Liberal Government’s policy that assigned Canadian armed forces to a policing action in Kabul into a full direct full combat role in Kandahar. To date 108 Canadian soldiers have died and hundreds more seriously wounded.
The Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest national newspaper reported on October 9 2008 that Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, responsible for tracking federal budget expenditures estimated that $14 to $18 billion will have been spent on the war by the time Canada ends its combat role in 2011. Incremental costs claimed by the Department of Defense to be $3.8 for fiscal 2007-08 were according to Page actually $5.85 to $7.46 billion. The Page report confirmed what the peace movement has long known that the Harper Government deliberately understates the cost of the war.
Prime Minister Harper not known for a self-critical approach, blurted out at the joint press conference with President Obama that; “The view of the Canadian government is unequivocally, that any threats to the United States constitute threats to Canada.” This type of abject support for US-NATO military aggression irritates Canadian public opinion and hardens opposition to the war in Afghanistan. Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien was more sensitive to public opinion and turned down US pressure to join in the war in Iraq to widespread popular acclaim. A majority of Canadians support the immediate withdrawal of Canadian forces from Afghanistan.
Public disapproval of the war compelled Parliament to agree to a pullout in 2009. The Harper government, heavily committed to the decisions of the NATO Command in Brussels to expand Canadian participation in the war, agreed to a longer and deeper involvement. The Canadian connection to NATO is strong. Canadian General Raymond Henault was elected to the position of Chairman of the NATO Military Committee in November 2004. Former Conservative Defense Minister General Gordon O’Connor is a well known lobbyist for arms suppliers with close connections to retired US and Canadian NATO officers. Current Minister of Defense Peter McKay is touted as a contender to replace NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the Netherlands.
To extend the war to 2011 the Conservatives required Liberal support. The left of centre social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) has consistently called for immediate withdrawal of Canadian forces. The Bloc Quebecois (Bloc) a sovereignist left of centre party from French speaking Quebec takes a similar position. The centre right Liberal Party was lukewarm to an expanding war. Anti-war sentiment in Quebec where Liberals and the Bloc contend for seats is very strong with opposition to the war in Afghanistan estimated by pollsters to be over 65%. The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) with over 3 million members and Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), the largest private sector union in the country with 250,000 members passed resolutions against continuation of the war. The Canadian Peace Alliance an umbrella peace organization representing a broad range of peace groups regularly conducts country-wide demonstrations against the war. The Communist Party of Canada has consistently called for immediate withdrawal.
The extra-Parliamentary opposition to the war is under reported in the media. Nonetheless right wing politicians fearing growing anti-war sentiment resorted to branding opposition to US policies as tantamount to being “soft on terrorism” and “unpatriotic” and failing to “support the troops.” Such chauvinistic rhetoric has subsided leaving the far right scrambling to adjust to the new political reality in the USA where opposition to the war in Iraq is strong, and continued stubborn majority opposition to the war in Canada. A compromise on the right was required to perpetuate the war beyond 2009. The Liberal establishment provided the solution. (The 308 member Parliament currently stands at 143 Conservatives, 77 Liberals, 49 Bloc, 37 NDP and 2 independents. Canada also has an unelected Senate).
A key player is Michael Ignatieff leader of the official Liberal opposition. Ignatieff with connections to some Obama insiders, and like Obama a Harvard grad, lived outside Canada for many years before returning and making a bid for the leadership of the Liberal Party. While a lecturer at Harvard, Ignatieff gave support to the US invasion of Iraq. Ignatieff and Liberal Party grandee John Manley a former foreign affairs minister and finance minister and Bob Rae former NDP Premier of Ontario and now a centrist Liberal, were instrumental in crafting a plan to unite Liberal and Conservative support to extend the war to 2011. The Liberal Conservative caucuses pushed the extension through Parliament. Aware of Canadian anti-war sentiment, President Obama said at the joint press conference during his brief visit that his administration was reviewing US policy towards Afghanistan. Obama admitted that the situation was deteriorating and that a military solution was not possible. Obama said that he had not asked the Harper Government to extend Canada’s participation beyond 2011.
Ignatieff at a brief airport meeting with Obama, intent on polishing his Liberal image and his connections to some in Obama’s inner circle raised the matter of Omar Khadar a young Canadian held in Guantanamo accused of killing a US marine in a skirmish in Afghanistan when Khadar was just 15 years old. Khadar’s legal team which includes a US military defender considers Khadar under international law to have been a child soldier at the time of his capture. The youth was gravely wounded in the incident and was subjected to severe interrogation and alleged torture, and charged under US extra-legal statutes declaring him to be an “unlawful combatant.” A lawyer’s group in Canada and a broad movement of support that extends into the Liberal Party itself calls for his release and immediate return to Canada.
Prime Minister Harper and his defense Minister Peter McKay say there is no change in the Government’s position to end the combat mission in 2011. There is much rhetoric from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) that attempts to line up with President Obama’s talk about emphasizing aid, implying an occupation role after 2011. Harper was interviewed on CNN and has gone to the UN to continue his effort to change his image from a Bush hawk to an Obama dove. Canadians are familiar with Harper’s chameleon antics.
Canadian news media report regularly on the deteriorating situation in all regions of Afghanistan with rampant war-lordism and corruption in the Karzai Government fueled by a vast drug trade. Canadian forces are largely confined to their Kandahar base camp venturing out on sorties that often result in casualties. There is skepticism even among pro-war commentators that a military victory is possible even with a US troop surge. The characterization by the media of the war in Afghanistan as the USA’s “good war” echoes right wing propaganda suggesting there is such as thing as “good imperialist war”. There is alarm in the peace movement of the continuing sorties by US forces into areas of Pakistan that border Afghanistan and that threaten to enlarge the theatre of operations that could involve Canadian forces in a deeper combat role. Both US and Canadian forces have been accused by Afghans of indiscriminate attacks on civilians in remote areas.
The other topic high on the Harper-Obama talks was the so-called “thickening of the border.” Following 9/11 severe restrictions on movement across the “largest undefended border in the world” were imposed under pressure from US Homeland Security with the complicity of Canadian authorities. The far right in the US shamelessly spread the falsehood that 9/11 terrorists crossed the border from Canada. The Harper government played to that lie to justify enacting laws that threatened Canadian civil rights as protected in the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canadian Muslims were demonized and several incarcerated under the provisions of Anti-Terrorist Legislation. Legal struggles for justice are ongoing. The Khadar case reminds Canadians of the Amar Arar case, a Canadian sent to Syria and tortured based on false allegations by incompetent security agents in Canada and the USA that he was involved in “terrorism.” Arar fought the allegations and with mass public support was exonerated and paid compensation by the federal government for his ordeal. It is well known that Canadian and US security agencies regularly exchange information on alleged “terrorism.”
The so-called “thickening of the border” a 9/11 boondoggle costing both Canadian and US taxpayers billions, is beginning to turn into its opposite causing severe bottlenecks in the movement of legitimate cross-boarder trade between the two countries. There is pressure mounting from the general public as well as business and tourism interests on both sides of the border to ease restrictions.
It was amusing for Canadians to listen to CNN, that gave scant and condescending coverage of the Obama visit, reveal their ignorance of US Canadian relations such as not knowing that Canada is the USA’s largest trading partner and major supplier of energy. It was not so amusing to hear CNN front desk reporters making fun of French language terms for some Canadian protocol. Canada is an officially bi-lingual country. Bilateral trade between Canada and the USA at January 2008 was $537 billion. The USA imports about 9 million barrels of oil per day of which 1.9 million comes from Canada its largest supplier.
Another issue preoccupying the US Canadian talks was the financial crisis and recession afflicting global capitalism. There was much posturing on both sides feigning opposition to protectionism and “we’re all in this together” bafflegab while each side maneuvered to protect their respective investor classes. There was much handwringing by Prime Minister Harper and soothing assurances from Obama that they share a concern about “protectionist tendencies” on both sides of the border. The USA is conducting a “buy American campaign” while the Canadian Auto Workers and the Canadian District of the United Steelworkers are simultaneously conducting a “buy Canadian campaign.” What the feigned concern about “protectionism” conceals is the obsolescence of NATA and the auto pact and the real underlying issue of the shrinking of the Canadian domestic market for made in Canada goods and services. Canadian sovereignty over foreign ownership and control of the energy sector as Canadian needs are in jeopardy is on the rise. All of Canadian steel aluminum, zinc, lead and precious metals production is now foreign owned. Currently Canada is running a trade deficit with the USA due to falling auto and energy exports, restrictions on soft wood lumber and now talk of tightened US import restrictions on steel.
There was much talk about the impending G20 meeting in April that will review global capitalism’s attempts to save the profit system The Harper Government’s $40 billion so-called stimulus budget, now wending its way through Parliament fulfills the commitment Finance Minister Jim Flaherty made at the Bush sponsored G20 meeting in Washington last October. The G20 leaders agreed to spend 2% of GDP devoted to bank and big investor bail outs. (Canadian GDP is about $1.3 trillion). Stock market losses affecting pension funds, mutual funds and most blue chip investments are huge. The ailing TSX Toronto stock market has lost about 40% of its value falling from 14000 in 2006 to a current 7900 in its composite index plunging many small Canadian investors into poverty.
The Canadian chartered banks are regulated and engage in internal bank borrowing and lending under the watchful eye of the Bank of Canada which sets the overnight lending rate for banks and has a big influence in determining overall monetary and fiscal policy and the overall Canadian Price Index a composite of consumer prices for basic necessities. There is undoubtedly greater stability in the Canadian banking system but it is highly overstated by the Harper Government.
The Harper Conservatives are covering up attempts they made in their 2006 federal budget that eased regulations so that banks could become involved in speculative financing bubble that emerged under the Bush watch. The Harper Government eased restrictions that allowed the US subprime fiasco it to leak over the border into Canada. Some near banks lost $32 billion on Asset Backed Commercial Paper (ABCP). The Harper Government opened up the Canadian market to permit US style subprime 40 year mortgages in Canada. The Globe and Mail reported on December 13th that American International Group (AIG) the world’s largest insurance company and Triad Guarantee Inc. of Winston Salem N.C. mortgage insurance under writers were allowed to operate in Canada. Many major near banks in Alberta and Quebec and Ontario and some upper income investors took a bath. Several major pension funds incurred large losses. The Federal Government intervened and backed up a settlement guaranteed with taxpayer’s money.
The first action of the Harper Government upon re-election last October 14th was to back stop chartered banks with $150 billion in loan guarantees designed to remove toxic debt and transfer a large portion of that to the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation, a crown corporation that at one time fulfilled roles similar to Fannie May and Freddie Mack in the USA. Flooding the banks with liquidity was ostensibly to encourage lending to cash strapped businesses and consumers. None of that has happened. The banks are remaining tight fisted and even lending between banks is still tight. Personal and small company bankruptcies are on the rise and housing prices are falling. Personal indebtedness among average wage earners is estimated to be $1.06 for each dollar earned.
The Harper Government stood pat on its policy of helping the banks claiming the recession in Canada would be mild. Mark Carney, Bank of Canada Governor continues to predict growth of 3% in GDP by 2010. GDP is a negative 2.85 now. Most credible economists accuse the Governor of being in denial. The threat of defeat by a Parliamentary coalition of Liberals, NDP and Bloc MP’s compelled the Harper Conservatives to prorogue Parliament reconvene and table a $40 billion so-called stimulus budget of which about $12 billion is actually devoted to stimulus. The budget supported by the Ignatieff Liberals is still on its way through Parliament and is viewed by the left as more of a pork barrel than a real job creation program. The plan was crafted by fiscal conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty with the advice of a blue ribbon committee of corporate advisors representing big business investors and other power elites.
The proposals of the Canadian Labour Congress and labour unions from Quebec and the demands of big city mayors representing hard hit manufacturing communities, in particular those dependent on the auto sector were largely ignored. The unemployed were abandoned. Only 40% of eligible workers actually receive unemployment insurance. There are an additional 2.3 million Canadians defined by Stats Canada as self-employed that are excluded from the plan. Much of the Harper budget money is also dependent on cashed strapped local governments coming up with 1/3 funding on badly needed infrastructure projects before qualifying for federal funds. Other projects will only receive funding if they undertake P3’s, (public private projects) that organized labour and the left have condemned as lucrative for private investors and costly for taxpayers. The NDP led by Jack Layton and the Bloc led by Gilles Duceppe voted against the Harper big business budget. The Communist Party of Canada denounced the budget and advanced a short and long term program to combat the economic crisis.
Dominating the discussions between Harper and Obama was the issue of so-called “security of energy supply” a euphemism for continued unrestricted exports of Canadian oil, bitumen, natural gas and clean hydro electrical power to the USA. The issue was reported in the media as concern by President Obama for CO2 emissions from the Alberta Tar Sands the source of most of US imports of Canadian oil. The Harper Government was brought to power in 2006 to represent the domestic and foreign investor interests involved in the energy sector plays in the Alberta Tar Sands. It is curious that many ardent environmentalists on both sides of the border who clamoured for shutting down the tar sands have fallen silent as upgrading and refining production moves from Canada to the USA where it will continue to be as polluting as it is in Canada.
Prime Minister Harper fronts for both Canadian and US oil interests. Harper represents a Calgary Alberta up-scale constituency and is mentored by a group of right-wing academics at the University of Calgary with close ties to big US and Canadian oil interests. Harper’s environmental minister, Jim Prentice also representing a Calgary Constituency is point man for the Harper Government on the energy file. Prentice promotes the sale of Alberta upgraded and raw bitumen to the USA defining Canadian energy as part of the “largest free market energy market in the world”. The Stelmach Alberta Government is one of a succession of Conservative Governments elected to perpetuate an oil boom that has made Canadian and US and other foreign investors fabulously rich from exploiting Canadian workers labouring in the energy sector.
The energy issue requires a deeper study by labour and left analysts on both sides of the border. The class and sovereignty issues involved have been overshadowed by the environmental concerns. The crumbling of the price of oil from $140 barrel to $40 has meant the work involved in the discovery, construction, upgrading, refining and transportation of Alberta oil and gas, threatens tens of thousands of energy sector jobs in Canada and the communities that depend on their incomes. The sector is stalled and thousands of energy sector workers from all over the Canada are out of work. Large up grader construction in Fort Saskatchewan Alberta, the major refining centre of the Province, are on hold. The result is that investors are pressing governments to promote the transmission of raw bitumen through pipelines running north south for upgrading and refining at US refineries in Texas and Chicago and elsewhere instead of the Canadian side of the border. It is more profitable for US interests to do so, as the differences between the price for West Texas intermediate crude and synthetic crude manufactured from bitumen narrows. Pipeline construction is now predominantly north south and over half of eastern Canadian energy needs is not supplied by Canadian production but is imported off shore.
It is inevitable that the demand for a complete review of energy policy in Canada will grow as the current crisis deepens. The Communist Party has begun to campaign for nationalization of the energy sector. Further complicating the energy issue is growing pressure from the USA with the complicity of the federal authorities in Canada and some provincial governments, notably Quebec, British Columbia and Manitoba, all large producers of hydro power to further extend and integrate the hydro electric grid that exists between the two countries. The Obama administration is making clean energy a major issue, and market demand in the USA for Canadian produced hydro electrical power is growing. Quebec Hydro is considering foregoing a deal with sister province of Ontario for a joint grid in favour of selling its publicly owned production into the more lucrative eastern seaboard of the USA. Hydro electrical shortages are appearing in Ontario and British Columbia where pressures for US Enron style privatization set back the traditional state owned production of hydro electrical generating capacity in Canada. The break up of integrated hydro corporations into US style independent marketing, transmission and production entities is proving to be a disaster for planned hydro production. The far right government in British Columbia for example enacted laws that banned the publicly owned BC Hydro Corporation from new hydro electrical construction and is now confronted with clean energy shortages going forward.
It is beyond the scope of this report to adequately discuss the energy issue as it affects the working people of the USA and Canada. It is not an option for the left to continue to limit the discussion of the energy issue to its more obvious and feel good environmental concerns. It is also important for US friends to understand that the Canadian people have never been asked if they approve of a North American energy grid in which the vital energy needs of the people of Mexico and Canada are determined on the basis of the long term energy needs of the USA. Canada has already suffered a major blackout in eastern Canada due to a failure in the USA of the existing electrical grid. Canadian governments continue to authorize sale of Canadian natural gas to the US market when energy experts predict that Canadian requirements for natural gas can only be guaranteed from existing supplies for another 8 to 10 years. Prior to NAFTA it was a requirement of governments to assure Canadian needs for natural gas for twenty years before surpluses could be exported. That was all changed by the sell-out policies of first the Mulroney Conservatives (during the Reagan administration) continued under the Liberals and accelerated by the Harper Conservatives.
The anarchy of capitalist developments in the energy sector threaten and distort economic development in Canada that is resulting in a crisis of security of supply in all of its major sectors. The result is to promote de-industrialization and create serious distortions in the home market. It is the view of Canadians for Peace and Socialism that the talk of protectionism and global markets, needs to be wrested from the right wing and discussed among workers on both sides of the border to define the principled and fundamental basis for a higher level of internationalism as we confront our respective imperialist overseers. Deindustrialization of any country is not in the interests of its working class and will make the transition to socialism more difficult.
Left Turn Canada!