Sunday, 30 October 2011

Occupy Winnipeg & the Serious Purpose

Winnipeg has always been rather insulated.  We are surrounded by a Great Wall of Prairie and the nearest major city is a daytrip away.  We make jokes that everyone who lives here is less than six degrees of separation from everyone else.  We believe our landscape makes us Big Picture people.  In some respects, we share a hive mind and it takes a long time for any new idea to puncture it and take root – but once it does, it takes a very, very long time to remove it.

Those who do not share the hive mind – the boys and girls who cry "Wolf!" – are either patronised or mocked as a temporary blip in the bubble of complacency that surrounds Winnipeg.  We've had hippies and punks, and all the other malcontents that scourged society elsewhere, but they've all eventually grown up, got jobs, bought houses and cabins, made families and fell into line with the rest of us.  Or they left.  Either way, it's good.

So, it is generally agreed by Winnipeg's hive mind that the Occupiers will also fade.  Until they do, we will patronise or mock them for crying "Wolf!", smug in the knowledge that they will, eventually, submit.  They will acquire the stuff of life and assimilate, as we did.

This is, after all, Winnipeg, where only the weather is extreme.  The peaks and valleys, booms and busts experienced elsewhere have no real effect here.  If you're hungry or homeless, we have an app for that; it's on you if you don't use it.  We've got Siloam Mission and the United Way and the ants dutifully spare Change For The Better, support the CEOs for Downtown Sleepout and donate to Winnipeg Harvest and the Christmas Cheer Board as we always have so the grasshoppers can fiddle.

The joke, however, that people don't see is that we are not Big Picture people at all.

The Big Picture is that our societal fringes have been fraying for more than a generation, just like everywhere else.  The market crashes and burns and burst bubbles have rippled and eroded our banks, too, and all the smug denial of our collective complacency will not hold indefinitely.

The Occupiers see it.  They see that lifelong careers with benefits and pensions have been replaced by short-term contracts.  They see personal savings becoming growing debt.  They see that services to the public – water, garbage, leisure activities, education, health care – are becoming cost-driven enterprises.  They see the increasing infrastructure deficit they will inherit because we've become convinced that taxes are a burden to society, not an investment in community.  They see the looming food shortages.  They see the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the only ones fiddling are the ones with power and security that will be inherited by a shrinking few.  The ants, deeply consumed in their tasks, haven't noticed the grasshoppers are running the Hill.

Prime Minister Harper wasn't wrong when he said things are different in Canada; we didn't bail out any banks here. (See note below)  However, we are not immune to global economic effects any more than we are insulated from the long-term effects of deregulation and the profit-driven international agenda of major corporations that are steadily killing the beloved notion of competition keeping costs down by becoming monopolies.

It wasn't Winnipeg's small, stable market that attracted Veolia to our water utility.  It wasn't in the interest of fair trade or low-cost or efficiency that placed municipal procurement and the death of "Buy Local" on CETA'S platter.  It wasn't the desire for market freedom that is killing the Canadian Wheat Board, while other marketing boards are undisturbed.  It wasn't in the name of public safety that the gun registry is scheduled for destruction.

Tom Olsen mocked Occupy Winnipeg for having a Serious Purpose it cannot name.

Personally, I think it's more likely Occupy Winnipeg is surprised there are any reasonably intelligent beings so comfortably entrenched that they can't see or won't admit what is swarming on the horizon of our big sky.

Raising the alarm is Occupy Winnipeg's Serious Purpose. The Occupiers at Memorial Park are the ants who looked up and saw the grasshoppers have become locusts.

It's been a long time, but Prairie people know what happens when locusts swarm:  They don't leave much for the ants.

NOTE: What PM Harper said was "We obviously have a very different situation here -- we didn't bail out our banking sector."

However, as Anonymous commented below, the Government of Canada didn't just sit back and allow the market to have its way with us, either: 

"One of the major consequences of the collapse of the US real estate bubble in 2008 was the triggering of a significant crisis of confidence in global financial markets.  In Canada, as elsewhere, the crisis made it harder for major financial institutions to secure short- and long-term financing and for Canadian consumers to obtain mortgage financing for property purchases.

"To address these temporary problems in the Canadian mortgage credit market, the federal Department of Finance announced the creation of the Insured Mortgage Purchase Program (IMPP) in October 2008.  The stated purpose of the program is to "help Canadian financial institutions raise longer-term funds and make them available to consumers, home buyers and businesses in Canada."  The total program envelope, initially $25 billion, was increased to $75 billion in November 2008, then to $125 billion when Budget 2009 was tabled.

"This document provides a detailed description of the IMPP's operation, from funding to the mortgage purchase mechanism.  In particular, it shows how the government will be able to generate revenue from this operation and the reason why there is virtually no associated risk.  Lastly, it examines the possibility that the program may not be able to achieve its stated mandate of promoting access to credit for consumers and businesses."


"The Honourable Jim Flaherty, Minister of Finance, today announced the Government will purchase up to an additional $50 billion of insured mortgage pools by the end of the fiscal year as part of its ongoing efforts to maintain the availability of longer-term credit in Canada.

"This action will increase to $75 billion the maximum value of securities purchased through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) under this program.

"'At a time of considerable uncertainty in global financial markets, this action will provide Canada’s financial institutions with significant and stable access to longer-term funding,' said Minister Flaherty.

"'This extension of the program to purchase insured mortgages will further support the availability of credit, which will benefit Canadian households, businesses and the economy. In addition, it will earn a modest rate of return for the Government with no additional risk to the taxpayer.'"

Thank you, Anonymous; whoever you are!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

#OccupyWallStreet #OccupyCanada #Occupy...Winnipeg?

"The poor have no choice."  (James S. Woodsworth)

When one is on a long journey, sometimes it's a good idea to stop and look back.  You can take heart in how far you've come and what you've accomplished, or realise that it's time to change direction.

Working in a municipal archive, I have more opportunity than most to look back, and accidental discoveries have given me a better picture of where we've been, who we were and how we've changed.

One discovery was the record of a man who appeared before a rural municipal council, requesting assistance, as he could not work. A veteran, he had lost his leg in WWI and his wooden prosthesis had broken.  The council refused him, advising him to get an axe, go out to the woods and cut himself a new one.  Yes, really.

Another was a collection of old metal ballot boxes, obviously manufactured at the same time, but of curiously disparate sizes – from very large to oddly small - each marked with a different ward designation.  As today's electoral boundaries are generally placed according to population and our ballot boxes are fairly uniform, these gave me pause and I puzzled over them for a time before doing the obvious and asking about them.

The answer continues to give me pause.

Apparently, when laws expanded to give all Canadian men, titleholder or not, the right to vote, the ruling class was concerned about giving so much control to the newer citizens who may have been less inclined to maintain the status quo.  So, the boundaries were drawn according to size, regardless of population.

Thus, the largest ballot box was for a ward where the immigrants lived packed and stacked in close quarters on small lots, and the smallest was for a wealthy area, where the lots were huge and the number of eligible voters was not.  So, one alderman represented hundreds while another represented a handful.  Crazy, but true.

Some things do not change.  Those with power and control are not inclined to share it.

I've also heard many stories about the 1919 General Strike.  Coming from immigrant stock myself, they touch me deeply.  I've tried to imagine what it would be like to leave everything and everyone familiar for a dream of freedom and opportunity in a country where I don't know the laws, customs or language.  It's frightening to think how vulnerable I'd be.

Of course, one would adjust as best as one could, accepting whatever work was offered at whatever pay because one must live; and many were obligated to send money back to "the old country", often with letters filled with false tales of hope and optimism as the sender couldn't bear to burden those left behind with the harsh reality of immigrant life.

These tales spread and encouraged others to risk everything to take the one-way trip to Canada.  In such a huge, young country, there would be plenty for everyone – land to farm and space to build and endless possibilities that simply did not exist for common people in their birthlands.

The more that came, the less there was for them.  Supply and demand kept wages low.  Dreams of prosperity rarely materialised.  Securing citizenship did not improve your lot and you and yours were still treated as "foreigners."

It's been said that addicts have to hit bottom before they will admit to having a problem.  Perhaps it's just human nature to be blind to a problem until you are trapped and there is nowhere left to go and nothing left to lose.  Desperation is powerful motivation for change and fear is what you have when hope is gone.

During Winnipeg's General Strike, there were many marches, rallies and protests.  Participants faced the very real threat of arrest and deportation.  The upper class particularly feared that the Eastern Europeans wanted to lead a Bolshevik revolution here on the Prairies.  The marches were peaceful, and silent, so as not to provoke law enforcement.

Imagine how eerie that would be:  hundreds or thousands of men, women and children walking without shouting or singing or chanting, only their footsteps, their shifting garments, sporadic whispers and shushing of children to mark their passing.

Typically, the protests focused on the places of power - city hall or the business centre.  Then, one march brought their concerns nearly to the doorsteps of the powerful, right along the street fronting their estates.

The protesters gathered at the foot of the Maryland Bridge and set out across it to Wellington Crescent, where most of them had never been before.  As they walked without speaking past the mansions on huge, park-like lots, many of the strikers wept.

In "the old country", only royalty lived so ostentatiously, in rare, palatial homes.  Here, in Winnipeg – this small city! – there was a whole, long street of palaces!  And there, that is where the man who owns my company lives!  How can it be that they have so much – so much more than they can ever use! – and they will not spare us enough to be safely fed, clothed, sheltered and warm?  Can it be that this place is no better than the one I left behind?  That people like us will always toil to serve and will never know a life without want?

Eyes opened, the working people, and their children, fought on and on, slowly earning the rights and freedoms that most of my generation takes for granted:  safe working conditions, minimum wages, pensions, benefits, overtime pay, parental leave, sick leave, workers compensation, health care, limited hours of work, vacation time . . .  It's a long list and it's surprising to consider that we haven't had these improvements for very long. 

Even more surprising that there are those who believe we shouldn't have them at all; that any part of a social safety net meant to catch you when you fall and help you up again is ridiculous, unreasonable and expensive.

Many years after the General Strike, my grandmother learned to cut slices of bread so thin you could read a newspaper through them.  It was a skill she needed when my grandfather and his co-workers at Canada Packers were on strike.  To feed everyone on the picket line, the sandwiches were as thin as the soup.

Years later, when my mother was 15, they moved into their first house with running water and an indoor toilet.

My grandparents were proud to own their small house and even more proud of the city they helped build.  Their municipal taxes were invested by the City, for its citizens:  in asphalt plants and quarries to supply materials to build and maintain roads, sidewalks and bridges; in trucks and landfills to collect waste; in pipes and facilities to expand clean water delivery and wastewater treatment; to build and maintain parks, pools, community centres, arenas, sports fields, golf courses, playgrounds, parkades, hospitals, schools, museums and libraries. 

As citizens of Winnipeg, my grandparents owned everything the city owned and had a right to enjoy and share it.  Ownership is insurance against market forces.  If anyone had told them they paid too much in taxes, they would have laughed – "Look at what our taxes do!  It's worth it!"

As much as I miss my grandparents, I am glad they are gone.  They wouldn't like what we've done with the place. 

We've sold every asphalt plant, quarry and garbage truck and are barely hanging on to our last landfill.  We sold off or centralised most municipal services, often sacrificing good, secure jobs, convenience, accountability and quality delivery.  Most street repairs and snow clearing are done by lowest-bid contractors.  Our infrastructure is crumbling, our arenas are moldering, our golf courses are for sale, our community centres are disappearing and, cheap, miserly lot that we are, we continue to look for things to sell and cut.  We cut through the fat and the meat, hit bone and keep industriously chipping away at it.

They would have wondered what happened to our conscience and would have been appalled that we begrudge every tax dollar, that we demand government be run as a profit-making business, rather than a public service.

On this day, on what I hope will be a long journey of my life, I've stopped, looked back and, having seen where I and my city have been and where we appear to be going, I realise it is time to change direction.

In 1919, people acknowledged that trying to change their world within the confines of the established system wasn't working and wasn't going to work.  Less than 100 years later, here we are again.  Most of us have not yet lost our homes and our hope, but we can feel the ground beneath us is not as solid as we'd thought.  Not only are we losing ground, but our eyes are also open to the reality that many of our neighbours have no ground at all:  we are exploiting temporary foreign workers with few rights at all and we STILL have indigenous people fighting to get out of the hole we tossed them into - and we keep adding traps and obstacles to keep them there.

In the 21st century, humanity's biggest failure isn't the lack of flying cars and moon colonies, it's that we had such a tenuous grasp on fairness and decency that we didn't even notice when they'd slipped away.

We've played by the rules, followed the system, and let greed decide our direction.  We've allowed unsustainable development, exploitation of the commons, commodification of our resources and, well, it's not working for most of Earth's inhabitants – or Earth, for that matter.

In 1919, millions of working people stood up and changed direction by refusing to work.

In 2011, people are standing up and changing direction by seizing, holding and filling a space.  From Tahrir Square to Wall Street and beyond, they Occupy.

On October 15, on the Winnipeg streets once proudly walked by my grandparents, I will join them.