Muzzling scientists

Portrait of David Suzuki


• Access to information is a basic foundation of democracy. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms also gives us “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”

We must protect these rights. As we alter the chemical, physical and biological properties of the biosphere, we face an increasingly uncertain future and the best information we have to guide us comes from science. That scientists – and even librarians – are speaking out against what appear to be increasing efforts to suppress information shows we have cause for concern. The situation has become so alarming that Canada’s Information Commissioner is investigating seven government departments in response to a complaint that they’re “muzzling” scientists.

The submission from the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre and Democracy Watch alleges “the federal government is preventing the media and the Canadian public from speaking to government scientists for news stories – especially when the scientists’ research or point of view runs counter to current Government policies… The complaint and investigation follow numerous similar charges from scientists and organizations… Hundreds of scientists marched on Parliament Hill last July to mark “the death of evidence.”

The list of actions prompting these grievances is long. It includes shutting the world renowned Experimental Lakes Area, axing the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, eliminating funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences and prohibiting federal scientists from speaking about research on subjects ranging from ozone to climate change to salmon.

All of this has been taking place as the federal government guts environmental laws and cuts funding for environmental departments through its omnibus budget bills… The government appears determined to challenge any information, person or organization that could stand in the way of its plans for rapid tar sands expansion and transport and sale of raw resources as quickly as possible to any country with money.

The results have been astounding. An Environment Canada document leaked to the Climate Action Network states, “Media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80 percent.”

In the environmental movement, we’ve become accustomed to attacks and attempts by government and its proxies to silence us. We’ve been called everything from “radicals” to “un-Canadian” to “money-launderers.” Federal Treasury Board President Tony Clement even blamed the David Suzuki Foundation and me for opposition to the proposed TransCanada west-to-east pipeline, a project we have yet to say a word about!

In a truly open and democratic society, ideas, policies and legislation are exposed to scrutiny, debate and criticism. Information is shared freely. Governments support research that makes the country stronger by ensuring its policies are in the best interests of the people.

Countries where governments hold a tight rein on information, shut down or stifle research that runs counter to their priorities and demonize and attack opponents are never good places to live. We have to make sure Canada doesn’t become one.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation communications manager Ian Hanington. Learn more at

DOXA occupy world brain


Occupy-The Movie
Occupy-The Movie: the emotional roller coaster of being an occupier

• This year’s DOXA Festival (, our version of Hot Docs, bristles with ideas and provocations over its 10 days in May. If the five films I’ve seen are representative of the whole program, expect some intelligent and well-crafted documentaries coming your way, along with lively Q&As and discussions with filmmakers and other audience members.

The festival opens with Corey Ogilvie’s Occupy: The Movie, a thorough and at times poetic look at the US “spring” in the fall of 2011. Ogilvie primarily focuses on Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, looking at how casino banking and bailouts created conditions for the popular upsurge. As well as a host of occupiers talking about the emotional roller-coaster of the Occupation as it swelled and then dispersed, there are some astute observations from the likes of Aaron Black, Chris Hedges and Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn on tactics (“reformers” vs. “revolutionaries”) and how such a popular, social movement can sustain itself.

Another DOXA highlight is Mike Freedman’s ambitious, future-looking Critical Mass, which extrapolates theories about human over-population and resource depletion based on renowned ethologist John Calhoun’s ‘60s and ‘70s mice colony experiments. In a documentary brimming with sustainability thinkers such as ecological footprint inventors professor Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel (and others from the Ecological Footprint Network), Freedman paints a dystopian trajectory for the human species as it explodes by the billions. I found it difficult to accept some of the conclusions, but with its nifty info-graphics, it makes for stimulating viewing. One to watch with a crowd.

Where did our urban rivers go? Many of them are beneath you, under the concrete, as Lost Rivers reveals as it follows “drainers” down the manhole to re-discover ancient rivers and tributaries around the world, from Brescia in Italy to London in the UK. Caroline Bâcle’s visually attractive film illustrates the revitalizing qualities of daylighting covered-over rivers and plots a culture shift in urban design toward working with, rather than fighting, nature – although apparently too late to prevent old-style industrial storm water solutions for Garrison Creek in Toronto.

The globe-trotting Google and the World Brain platforms the debate around the Big G’s practices, in particular its opaque dealings with libraries and authors over its giant global library, apparently part of a plan to create an all-encompassing artificial intelligence. High-tech evangelicalism crashes against digital-age angst as the doc explores issues around copyright (“archaic and unproductive” or a way of remembering the efforts of authors?), privacy, commercialization of knowledge and quality control (Google Book Search is likened to a “meat grinder”).

Political junkies will relish Our Nixon, a sympathetic and intimate behind-the-scenes look at the staff close to the former president, caught on scratchy newsreel footage and the warm glow of Super-8 home movies. Mashed together with famously redacted secret audio tapes from the White House and a swinging soundtrack, it’s a unique and fascinating – if somewhat elliptical – insider account of the ill-fated presidency.

Aside from DOXA, there’s Michael McGowan’s tender and gently humorous romance Still Mine, set in a bucolic-like New Brunswick. Great performances by James Cromwell as a cantankerous old man whose projects are beset by red tape and Geneviève Bujold as the love of his life bring a rare dignity and spiritedness to the ageing process.

DOXA runs May 3-12 in Vancouver.

Robert Alstead is making the documentary Running on Climate (

Scandal taints BC Ministry of Health’s Pharmaceutical Services Division

Ministry of Health carpet-bombs drug safety monitoring

Ministry of Health carpet-bombs drug safety monitoring

The tragedy of Roderick MacIsaa

by Alan Cassels image by Anthony Freda

Unanswered questions around the death of a Ministry of Health employee might hold some clues to the biggest scandal to ever hit BC’s drug evaluation system.

Linda Kayfish’s voice weighs heavily with exasperation as she speaks to me about her brother Rod. He was the only family member she had left and he died in December 2012, three months after having been fired from a co-op position at the BC Ministry of Health.

Last summer, he and other employees involved in evaluating drug safety in the BC Ministry of Health were told of an investigation into alleged wrongdoings. Since then, a massive inferno of scandal and mystery has engulfed the Ministry of Health Pharmaceutical Services Division (PSD). The death of Roderick MacIsaac is just one more inexplicable flame.

“Why do we have to wait so long?” Linda asks me, frustrated because there are no answers and because it’s clear to her no one is in any hurry to supply them.

This story involves a dizzying array of actors: The BC Coroner, the RCMP and the Privacy Commissioner. They are all part of “ongoing investigations” along with the BC Ministry of Health, which is facing a series of lawsuits and grievances from employees who are suing the organization for wrongful dismissal and defamation.

So far, nine people have lost their jobs – most of them terminated suddenly – and several contractors have had their contracts cancelled with no explanation. A number of important drug safety evaluations have been halted, studies that were trying to determine whether a number of widely prescribed and very profitable drugs for the companies that make them are harming us.

It all started on March 28, 2012, when a complaint was filed with the BC’s Auditor General about the way contracts were being awarded and how research was being conducted within PSD.

PSD oversees annual spending of $1.2 billion on pharmaceuticals, the fastest growing of all areas of health spending. This growth is fuelled by unrelenting pressure from pharmaceutical companies that strive to ensure their products are generously covered by the public purse.

Roderick MacIsaac was a student at the University of Victoria working on a PhD in Public Administration and examining the safety of a handful of drugs used to help people quit smoking. One of the drugs he was studying was the controversial drug Champix, which carries serious warnings of risks of heart attacks and psychiatric effects. Rod worked with a small evaluation unit within PSD, a handful of economists and data analysts under the direction of two academic researchers who helped them design and facilitate drug evaluations. In the course of this work, the evaluations could show that some medications are not doing what their manufacturers’ claim and may, in fact, be shown to be killing or injuring people.

The Ministry of Health created a team of government investigators to try to “examine financial controls, contracting, data management and employee/contractor relationships.” By mid-summer, the PSD’s head, Assistant Deputy Minister Barbara Walman, suspended without pay a handful of employees alleging misuse of health data and contracting methods, but there were no specifics. Other drug evaluators had their data access suspended and were left in limbo.

All drug safety evaluations carried out by the UBC-based Therapeutics Initiative (TI) were halted. The TI has been an independent voice on pharmaceuticals since the mid 1990s, with an international reputation for its meticulous and thorough drug reviews. Because it couldn’t be bamboozled by the pharmaceutical industry, over time, the TI became Big Pharma’s Enemy #1 in BC. Five years ago, the reigning Liberal government created a “Pharmaceutical Task Force” to review the activities of Pharmacare and stacked it with people with pharmaceutical industry ties. Its main conclusion? Dismantle the TI. See 2008/PharmaceuticalTaskForceReport.pdf

The TI’s budget was subsequently cut, its influence reduced and the important work of advising government on the value and safety of new drugs was severely curtailed.

On September 6, 2012, the day after being appointed by the Premier as the new Minister of Health, Dr. Margaret MacDiarmid and her Deputy Minister Graham Whitmarsh called a press conference in the Legislature. They announced that four employees had just been fired and three more were suspended without pay. Once again, no specific reasons were given but media reports which followed painted a picture suggesting the personal health data of millions of British Columbians might have been breached and the Ministry was taking steps to punish wrongdoers and protect our future privacy.

At last count, at least nine people have lost their jobs in this scandal. There are three lawsuits against the government and Roderick and two other employees, represented by the BC Government Employees Union, filed grievances.

All of these firings are perplexing, but none more so than the firing of a lowly co-op student with three days left in his term. When Rod was fired, his evaluation of smoking-cessation drugs stopped so we’ll never know whether the drugs he was evaluating were harming or killing people.

There have been many requests for information, but the stock response from the Ministry, “The matter is under investigation,” has stifled all requests, save one. That one freedom of information request asked for data on the numbers of co-op students who have ever been canned from the BC government. Ever. Over the last 10 years, there have been thousands of students who have completed co-op work terms with the BC government. There is only one record of a student being fired. One. It was Roderick.


As someone who has worked in pharmaceutical policy research for 19 years, I have never witnessed a more unsettling atmosphere around the Ministry of Health. No one has any answers as to why government employees, some with more than 25 years of service in the Ministry, were simply discarded. Other parts of BC’s pharmacovigilance (drug safety monitoring) work has been disrupted. BC is part of a national group called DSEN, the Drug Safety and Effectiveness Network, which, along with other provinces, is carrying out evaluations on a range of commonly prescribed drugs.

Last month, DSEN published a very important study on the safety of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs in the British Medical Journal. See Using large data sets across multiple jurisdictions and weapons-grade epidemiologic expertise, these researchers carried out the kind of “real world” (by definition, outside clinical trials) research the drug industry doesn’t do.

Statins are known to cause muscle weakening and adverse effects on cognition, but we don’t even have a complete picture of their overall safety, as some of the major statin trials (funded by the pharmaceutical companies) don’t even release the full serious adverse effects data.

This DSEN study found that high dose statin users were 34% more likely to be hospitalized for acute kidney injury within four months of taking the drug, compared to those on low-dose statins. When you consider the millions of Canadians swallowing a statin every day, the overall number of people being harmed is likely in the thousands.

This study also shows why BC needs to be involved in independent, publicly funded drug evaluation. BC researchers are among Canada’s best in this type of research and are skilled in using large anonymous databases where personal health privacy is never an issue.


You can look in any jurisdiction in Canada where data breaches and improper employee conduct are suspected and never find a case this aggressively pursued. After her initial alarm, the Minister told us that, in this case, there is no evidence that anyone’s personal health records have been used inappropriately.

For a precedence on how bad privacy breaches in Canada can be, one need look no further than the case of Captain Sean Bruyea, a Canadian Air Force officer who served in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Without his permission or knowledge, all of his personal, medical and financial files were distributed across a wide swath of officials in the Department of Veterans Affairs, who used this as ammunition to try to silence what was a fierce critic of Canada’s returning veterans. A total of 54 people had inappropriately accessed Bruyea’s file; 36 received an ‘administrative memo;’ nine were reprimanded and nine received one-day suspensions. Nobody was fired. No one. Let’s put this in context: When government employees were actually found to be egregiously breaking the law in accessing personalized files, not a single person was fired.

Which makes those firings in BC all the more mysterious. No one is more shocked than Doug Kayfish, Roderick’s brother-in-law. “I come from the corporate world,” he told me, adding, “You don’t just go and fire senior people. But a whole department? That’s sending a message.”

He admired Rod who he called a “pure scientist” with an impeccable level of integrity. When his family heard that Rod had been fired, he said, “We thought that was the stupidest thing we’d ever heard. How could that possibly be? How does this even fit?”

Minister MacDiarmid said she was “deeply troubled” and told media, “The Ministry provided the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with the interim review of this investigation in August 2012.” My calls to the RCMP confirmed they are “awaiting files” from the Ministry, but none of the fired employees has even been questioned by the RCMP. Some have suggested the RCMP ‘involvement’ is a red herring and, from the point of view of the fired employees, constant media references to the RCMP do nothing but colour the whole affair in more ominous hues.

At one news conference, the Health Minister, with a deeply furrowed brow, told reporters, “I can’t really overstate how deeply troubled I am.” She said she “instructed the Ministry to continue to take whatever steps are necessary to respond to these matters thoroughly.” Those words, “whatever steps necessary” scare everyone involved in this nightmare, especially given the Kafkaesque interrogations of the Ministry employees who were terminated, the dread felt as the people who remain get brought in for questioning and the impenetrable secrecy which hangs over the entire affair.


I asked Linda Kayfish if she had any theories about what was going on and she didn’t hesitate: “Follow the money,” she said.

With BC’s PharmaCare program spending more than $1.2 billion of our money on drugs every year, there is a lot of cash to follow. Many people wonder if the drug safety evaluations done by employees like Roderick and other evaluators were finding things the pharmaceutical manufacturers didn’t like. Would that be enough to lead to an anaphylactic reaction in the bureaucracy and a carpet-bombing of the Ministry of Health?

“Follow the money,” repeats Linda Kayfish. “I’m looking in that direction. Makes me really wonder who else would benefit from this?” The people who were fired certainly didn’t benefit from this.”

Linda’s voice verges on anger when she thinks of the wider impact on the other fired staff who are now filing grievances or suing the government and she asks the question many observers have asked: “Is there someone who had it in for all these people?”

The reason for our current lack of answers might be due to the revelations emerging from the Liberals’ “Ethnicgate” affair, which showed that employees doing ministry business use personal email or verbal decision making to avoid the prying eyes of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. (None of a dozen or so FOI requests submitted by myself and other journalists revealed any information.)

This complete lack of information is particularly heart wrenching. “If the goal is to keep kicking the can down the road so everyone forgets about it, then we’re well on our way,” Doug notes.


There are several dominant theories bubbling up in this government town as people try to explain this massive, unprecedented destruction of BC’s drug safety system.

The first is the Keystone Kops theory where those Ministry officials carrying out the investigation have run amok, firing people on a whiff of wrongdoing. Many decision makers involved are relatively new: the Health Minister, her Deputy Graham Whitmarsh – who signed the letters firing people – Barbara Walman, the new ADM at PSD, Lindsay Kislock, the ADM in charge of data access and Wendy Taylor, the lead interrogator. This theory suggests the bureaucrats behind this fiasco are inexperienced and thus vulnerable to bad advice from the top. Taking a lesson from Stanley Milgram, the famous obedience researcher, they might just say, “I’m just following orders.” The question then arises: “Who gave the orders?”

We can all speculate about who might benefit from the destruction of BC’s independent drug safety system and that leads to the final theory, which we call the Big Data theory. This is premised on the potentially huge ‘economic opportunity’ represented by the meticulously collected health and drug use data of British Columbians. For the past year or so, we’ve seen people such as Colin Hansen and BC’s Chair of the Data Stewardship Committee, Bruce Carleton, out there waving the ‘open data’ flag, suggesting that BC’s health data should be shared on a for-profit basis, including selling access to it to drug companies. Last fall, Margaret MacDiarmid echoed this sentiment in the Globe and Mail, saying, “Instead of asking why should we open things up, what we really want to ask is, why shouldn’t we?” See british-columbia/ plan-to-unlock-bcs-trove-of-medical-data-raises-privacy-concerns/article4100976/?service=mobile

Some have theorized that halting everything, cutting off data access and implementing interminable delays in restarting things will ultimately lead to the destruction of our current system for equipping publicly funded independent scientists with data to evaluate. Once you’ve blown that up, it’s time to move on to step #2: Open the doors to privatize our health information.

BC voters will soon go to the polls. They deserve to know one thing: What is really going on in the Ministry of Health that warrants risking our health by depriving us and our doctors of reliable information about drug safety in British Columbia?

Those of us who swallow prescription drugs deserve the best evidence about their safety. We deserve answers from this government and the next.


The Best Place on Earth (for pharmaceutical companies) by Alan Cassels, Focus online, March 2013, Six Fired, Two Lawsuits, One Dead – But Still No Answers by Alan Cassels, Vancouver Sun, March 12, 2013, Adverse Reactions by Paul Webster, Vancouver magazine, April 2013, Pharmageddon by Dr. David Healy (University of California Press, 2012),

Alan Cassels is a pharmaceutical policy researcher and the author of Seeking Sickness. For the past 19 years, Cassels has worked on national and provincial studies of drug benefits policies. None of his income comes from any of the interrupted studies mentioned in this article.

Where are the dead bodies, Health Canada?

by W. Gifford-Jones M.D.

W. Gifford-Jones M.D.
• Do you know that every day 290 North American citizens are killed by prescription drugs? To kill the same number of people, a jumbo jet would have to crash every day. So why are natural remedies being removed from health food stores while drugs that kill remain available?

Dr. Zoltan Rona, an expert on natural remedies, recently told me, “Health Canada has been raiding health food stores, terrorizing proprietors and confiscating natural food supplements. Could you help to stop it?” he asked me.

Rona described a New York Times report in which it was noted that the government’s primary suspect in 542 deaths was Pradax, a blood-thinning agent. Moreover, when this drug causes bleeding, there is no antidote to stop it. Yet Health Canada has done nothing to remove Pradax from the market. However, it has removed a competitor, the soy-derived enzyme nattokinase, a safe, effective, natural blood thinner that has not harmed anyone and has been used for centuries in Japan.

While researching this article, I interviewed several other authorities who were concerned that other natural remedies are no longer available. I also discovered a most disturbing fact. In Germany, a doctor’s prescription is now required to obtain vitamin C. A red light flashed, as I’ve recently reported that Medi-C Plus, a powder that contains a high concentration of vitamin C and lysine, can prevent and reverse coronary heart disease.

Germans now pay $45 for 90 tablets of 500 milligrams of vitamin C. Since I take several thousands of Medi-C Plus daily, this asinine ruling would cost me $3,600 annually for C. This shows how far governments go to control natural remedies. It’s sheer, unadulterated madness since there is no known toxic amount of vitamin C. For instance, it’s been proven safe to give intravenous injections of several hundred thousand milligrams of vitamin C day after day intravenously to fight infection.

Today, many people are also taking Sytrinol, a natural remedy consisting of citrus and palm fruit extract, which decreases total and bad cholesterol, triglycerides, and increases good cholesterol. For the moment it’s still available and there’s no scientific reason it should be removed. But if it happens, patients will be forced to switch to cholesterol-lowering drugs whose safety record leaves much to be desired.

Alan Cassels, a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria, says, “Cholesterol-lowering drugs are not worth the risk and history will regard CLDs as an unmitigated scandal in medicine.” Readers know I share this view. But hell will freeze over before Health Canada raises an alarm and closes the door on these multi-billion dollar risky products. Money and high-paid lobbyists have won the day in Ottawa and Washington.

Other North Americans are taking products such as BioSil to prevent osteoporosis (fragile bones). This natural silicon product safely deposits calcium and phosphate into bone. It’s even more effective if used along with vitamin D3, which helps to absorb calcium from the bowel and vitamin K2 that deposits calcium and phosphate into bone where they belong, rather than into arteries where they cause trouble.

Will these people be forced to take drugs such as Fosamax and Actonel that have been associated with unusual fractures and degeneration of the jawbone?

If government bureaucrats are honestly interested in the welfare of medical consumers, the best way for them to make an assessment is to examine records of the dead bodies. Data collected from 57 Poison Control Centers in the U.S. showed that, in 2010, there were no deaths from the use of vitamin and herbal supplements. This in spite of the fact that, during that year, there were 60 billion doses of nutritional supplements taken.

So where will these amateur forensic bureaucrats find the dead bodies? It doesn’t require a long, tedious search. The Journal of the American Medical Association claims that, every year, there are 60,000 deaths from pharmaceutical drugs in the US and 10,000 in Canada. Now, it’s the fourth leading cause of death after cancer, heart disease and stroke.

The point is prescription drugs can kill; natural remedies, never. It’s time that Health Canada learned this message.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones is a graduate of the University of Toronto and The Harvard Medical School. During his medical training, he has been a family doctor, hotel doctor and ship’s surgeon. He is a Fellow of The Royal College of Surgeons and author of seven books. For comments, email Dr. Gifford-Jones at,

Democracy, for a change

by Joyce Murray

• When news broke that a by-election was imminent in Labrador following the resignation of Peter Penashue – the disgraced Conservative MP who stepped down following news about his election financing irregularities – I called Green Party leader Elizabeth May and asked her to consider having the Green Party Electoral District Association (EDA) not run a candidate in the upcoming by-election. In light of Penashue’s election by a mere 79 votes in 2011, it seemed imperative to consult the local riding associations in question, to see if they felt collaboration was appropriate. The result is that the Green Party announced it will not run a candidate in the Labrador by-election. They even asked the NDP to consider doing the same.

This illustrates the potential of the one-time cooperation strategy I am proposing as a key element of the political platform in my campaign. In almost 60 ridings in 2011, Conservative candidates won with less than 50% of the vote. My proposal is a one-time agreement, initiated at the local riding level in communities where Conservatives won due to splitting of progressive votes. As leader, I will empower Liberal riding associations to assess the circumstances in their own communities and decide if cooperation with other progressive candidates is right for them – a truly democratic process. A Liberal, Green and NDP candidate would still be nominated in every riding. However, ridings that choose to cooperate would then engage in a progressive “primary” style run-off, a transparent process in which the candidate deemed most likely to beat the Conservative candidate would be selected.

If progressive parties can set aside their differences to overcome our dysfunctional elections and defeat Stephen Harper in 2015, the focus will then shift to the reform of Canada’s ailing democratic systems. This isn’t just about winning the next election. This is about creating a more representative and collaborative Parliament that better serves Canadians and combats voter apathy. My record of leadership in business and government is grounded in my cooperative approach and cooperation is the hallmark of progressive Liberal governments of the past.

Other progressive parties will participate because it’s what Canadians want. Many Liberal riding associations are cooperating at the local level right now and are in regular contact with Green Party and NDP riding associations. I am confident the public’s determination to achieve cooperation to defeat Stephen Harper will prevail.

Let’s be clear. Electoral cooperation is far from the same thing as merging. Cooperation does not compromise party identity; nor does it lessen the distinct values each party espouses. It means we are working together in the best interests of Canadians to achieve a common goal, just like NHL hockey players who cooperate to form Team Canada in order to win gold at the Olympics and then go back to competing against each other afterwards. Except the “gold medal” this time is that we get to reform our electoral system and make Parliament more representative.

As Liberal leader, I will drive a national process to rethink our electoral system. We will seek input from the public, parties and experts across the country. We will look at best practices from around the world, with the goal of crafting a made-in-Canada system that ensures fair, straightforward elections and reinvigorates our democracy for decades to come.

Canada is too important to let Stephen Harper win another majority simply because our archaic electoral system encourages vote-splitting. So let’s work together – starting in Labrador – to give Canadians the democracy they deserve.

Put Canada First

3 Parties Maple Leaf is an independent community that brings generations together to strengthen our democracy and build a fair, open and responsible country.’s small staff team and 225,000 person community includes Canadians from across the political spectrum. was founded two years ago by a group of Canadians who wanted to find new ways to help people hold our government accountable and support political cooperation to meet the challenges of our times. The community is independent of any political party.

During a series of local gatherings in the fall of 2011, our community identified electoral reform, inequality and climate change as our top priorities. In 2012 and 2013 we asked our community what they thought about cooperation between the NDP, Liberals and Greens to defeat Stephen Harper and then pass crucial reforms. Amazingly, on both occasions, over 95% of the tens of thousands who responded told us that they “agree” or “strongly agree” with this idea.

Sign the LeadNow petition and tell your government:

“I call on the NDP, Liberals and Greens to cooperate for Canada. We can make our government work better for Canadians. During the next federal election, I call on the NDP, Liberals and Greens to work together in key ridings to defeat Stephen Harper’s government. After the election, I call on them to cooperate to protect our environment, build a fair economy and pass electoral reform.”

In the last federal election, 61% of voters cast ballots for change, but the vote split and our broken electoral system gave Prime Minister Harper a majority of seats in Parliament.

Now, Prime Minister Harper is damaging our democracy, destroying our environmental protections and undermining our economy. We can hold Prime Minister Harper accountable, renew our democracy and rise to the challenges of our times – but we need to work together. Here’s how:

During the next election, the NDP, Liberals and Greens can cooperate in key ridings to defeat Stephen Harper’s government. After the election, they can work together to fix our broken electoral system, protect our environment and build a fair economy. Canadians are ready for cooperation and we have to act now to send a powerful message to party leaders that Canadians will work together and vote for cooperation.

Canadians are already joining the party of their choice to support cooperation. During the NDP leadership race last year, 10,000 people joined the NDP through this campaign. They built a constituency for cooperation in the party and secured a strong commitment to electoral reform.

Right now, the Liberal Party is preparing to choose its next leader, cooperation is a major debate amongst the candidates and everyone is watching to see if pro-cooperation Canadians will stand up to be counted.

The stakes

Canada is at a crossroads. We need to work together to create a strong democracy that brings Canadians together to make wise choices about how we protect our environment and build a fair economy in an era of global uncertainty. We need to repair the damage that is being done to our country and build new relationships between the people who call this country home.

We need to have a real national conversation and make wise decisions about these urgent issues, but our electoral system encourages an “every party for themselves” style of politics that focuses attention on our divisions and distracts us from the major challenges we face.

More and more Canadians are ready for cooperation: Ready to focus on our shared values, to respect our differences and to take action together on a few key issues. We are calling for a one-time agreement between the NDP, the Liberals and the Greens to work together to stop vote-splitting in a small number of ridings, defeat Stephen Harper and then pass crucial reforms for our democracy, environment and economy.

Cooperation is about more than “winning” an election. For us, the values come first and the strategy comes second. Cooperation is about building a new majority consensus that will renew our democracy, protect our environment and build a fair economy – and ensuring that a majority of Canadians are properly represented in our next government.

The plan

In the 2011 election, a majority of Canadians voted for change, but the First-Past-The-Post voting system gave Prime Minister Harper a majority government with only 39% of the popular vote. In a country of more than 33 million people, Prime Minister Harper’s margin of victory was a razor thin 6,201 votes, spread across 14 closely contested ridings.

Our democracy, environment and economy cannot afford a second Harper majority. We need to act now to bring Canadians together to meet the urgent challenges of our times.

Cooperation is about more than defeating Harper. For cooperation to work, we need agreements between the parties to work together on a few key issues of major concern.

There are a number of different ways to organize cooperation to ensure local democratic control. We believe that the parties, candidates and local riding associations will need to negotiate to develop a solid plan that everyone can agree to.

We need to build a lasting movement for cooperation within the parties. Leadership races are the most important moment for pro-cooperation Canadians to inspire change within the parties and we need to show the parties that Canadians will work together and vote for cooperation.

The values come first, the political strategy comes second. That’s why, no matter what path the party leaders choose, we will be organizing at a grassroots level in key constituencies in 2015 to support cooperation to defeat Prime Minister Harper’s government and then pass electoral reform, renew our environmental protections and build a fair economy.

We know that Canadians are ready to work together to meet challenges of times and renew our democracy. National polling tells us 80% of Liberal, NDP, and Green voters would be willing to vote for a different party if it meant they would achieve progress on issues they care about.

Canadians are ready for cooperation

Cooperate for Canada includes citizens from across the political spectrum. Many are active members of the Liberals, NDP or Greens. Many care passionately about the future of our country but don’t identify with any political party. Some are people who have voted conservative in the past but now feel that Canada is heading in the wrong direction and want electoral reform. All of them feel that this is an idea whose time has come.

From joining the party of their choice to support cooperation in key votes to hosting events that bring riding association leaders together in their communities, “cooperators” are working from the bottom-up to hold Harper accountable and fix Canada.

Learn more and get involved at

Joyce Murray’s vision for Canada

Joyce Murray

An open letter to Canadians from David Suzuki


• I am writing this as an individual citizen, not on behalf of any organization or political party. In fact, I do not belong to any political party. I will support candidates, platforms and policies of any party that move our country towards a more just and sustainable future.

I was delighted to see that the federal Liberal party allows any Canadian to participate in the choice of its leader. I urge everyone who is concerned about democracy, the environment and social justice to take part in this selection process and thereby support for specific policies and visions for this country.

David Suzuki
David Suzuki endorses Joyce Murray for Liberal leader

I am heartened by the platform laid out by Joyce Murray. Sustainability is one of the key concepts underlying her policy proposals from food to climate. She recognizes that Canada is one of the most vulnerable industrialized nations to the impact of climate change – as a northern country where warming is going on faster, with the longest marine coastline in the world threatened by sea level rise and the economic vulnerability of climate sensitive areas of agriculture, forestry, fisheries, tourism and winter sports. Her proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions includes doing what Sweden, Germany, Australia and even China already do, namely, put a price on carbon, which is both an effective inducement to reduce emissions and a revenue source for much needed initiatives such as public transit, efficiency and renewable energy.

You can influence the policies of the Liberal party by registering to vote in the leadership race. For me, Joyce Murray presents a platform that I am going to support. I hope you will give her your support too, if you agree.
Deadline: Sunday, March 3rd.

Gender equity is a critical issue today and her proposal to mandate targets for government organizations and committees is much needed. And finally, she calls for progressive elements to work together to avoid election of parties with a smaller proportion of votes. She is boldly pressing for electoral reform through proportional representation to get away from the tyranny of our first past the post system so that minority positions can be represented in government.

You can influence the policies of the Liberal party by registering to vote in the leadership race. For me, Joyce Murray presents a platform that I am going to support. I hope you will give her your support too, if you agree.

Sign up to support Murray by March 3

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Liberals shouldn’t be too proud

by Paul Lemay

Liberal Leaf

• When I was a boy growing up in the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, I remember how we used to look up to our prime ministers, regardless of the political party they represented. But after Watergate it seemed the bloom on all political roses began to fall off. Now 40-plus years on, all we’re left with are a few thorny stems and the few precious petals we do have are now dried and sandwiched between the pages of a scrapbook.

And politics isn’t the only sphere in our oh-so-modern world that has seen a deflowering of its ideals. Take sport, for example. Its first high-profile Watergate equivalent came with Ben Johnson at the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. But that was only the beginning. A quarter of a century later, the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports was still making worldwide headlines when Lance Strong-arm’s long-running campaign of deceit came to its own long-overdue end. But instead of witnessing any obvious sign of contrition on Oprah – Lance Armstrong doesn’t do remorse well it seems – we saw a politically calculated confession.

Welcome to the post-apocalyptic new age where all that was once sacred melts in a slow-mo dance before our now more inquisitive tech-savvy eyes. It’s an age where the temporary titillation of our appetites for the dethroning of one-time heroes leaves us with little else to celebrate than its putrid droppings.

Oh wait, perhaps I spoke too soon. I forgot the current federal Liberal Party leadership contest. Now there’s a cultural campfire we can all gather around for a few more pointed laughs and dethronings on a cold winter’s night. But fear not, we’ve got the CBC’s trusty At Issue panel ready to tell us how to think about such weighty matters. And in case you hadn’t heard – and who hasn’t – the latest Liberal contest is an all but done deal if the new ‘Delphic Oracle’ of Twitter followers is any indication. On that dubious score, J.T. already wears the dented crown.

So forget policy. Forget substance too. And by all means, forget the debates. It’s all about Trudeau’s great hair and his ability to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. It’s all about the headline act, that and Mad Men ad men sizzle, because that’s what sells – the only way TV networks seem capable of maintaining herds of entertainment famished viewers.

But I digress. Now for a bit more political substance: On a foggy late January afternoon in Vancouver, 900 devoted Liberals piled into a hall at no less than $20 a head looking for more comparative clarity from those seeking the leadership. Of course, for a party dangling from a fine thread in hope of climbing out of its crevasse of third place, optics matter. So why then did they opt for the swanky Westin Bayshore hotel next to trendy Coal Harbour and Stanley Park rather than a hall in suburban Surrey where the faithful were already gathered for their annual policy conference? No, that was too simple. Better to go through the added expense, risk and hassle of bussing the buggers 25 kilometres downtown like school kids in a well-meaning affirmative action program. Why too did the party decide to charge another $129 to attend a post-debate reception? Great way to promote one’s image as a party of accessibility!

But let’s get to the debate itself shall we. With the Liberal Party looking for a way to rebound into electoral relevance, it doesn’t take a rocketman to see it needs to consider cooperating with opposition parties if it hopes to oust Stephen Harper from power. Many believe it’s the only realistic way to overcome the devastating effects of vote splitting due to our current first-past-the-post voting system in the short-term. Repeated public opinion polls tell us as much.

CTV’s Power Play host Don Martin even reinforced the point on his January 22 show reminding viewers how seven years earlier the Conservatives returned to power because three years before that the Canadian Alliance party merged with the PCs.

Of course, none of the prospective Liberal candidates are proposing a merger with the NDP. Yet you wouldn’t know from the way Martha Hall Findlay, Martin Cauchon, Deborah Coyne, George Takach, David Bertschi, Marc Garneau and Justin Trudeau talked, blurring that line, and then piling on Joyce Murray and anyone else in the audience who might have the temerity to utter the word “cooperation” with opposition parties in the next election. In fact, all but Murray and Karen McCrimmon seemed downright angry when the topic first came up.

In French, Trudeau asked: “What does it mean to cooperate? It means the priority would be on tossing out [Mr. Harper]… [and] to win and not to serve Canadians.” (Huh?) Takach went further: “No cooperation. I don’t like it. Harper likes the idea of merger or cooperation.” While Garneau said: “…to do so is to be an accomplice to the crushing of the Liberal Party.” Findlay not only challenged but some might say even shamed any in the wider audience who might be entertaining such heretical thoughts, chiding (in French): “Where has your confidence gone? I am a proud Liberal. It’s with courage we’re going to win against Harper in 2015!” Well you got that right Martha, the proud part I mean. What is it they say? Pride always cometh before a fall.

Obviously, it’s a touchy subject for many a Liberal, so touchy, it reminds me how Lance Strong-arm so often reacted when asked whether his seven Tour de France victories came with the help of performance enhancing drugs. When he wasn’t spewing a string of flustered denials in some legal proceeding or to TV cameras, he’d retaliate by taking some poor slob to court for libel or slander, behaviour he later admitted on Oprah was a form of bullying for which he was oh so boohoo sorry.

Of course, those in the “loud and proud” leadership choir have nothing to be sorry about either. Ignore the lingering Quebec sponsorship taint. Forget David Dingwall’s unsightly, “I’m entitled to my entitlements” scar. Come to think of it, just forget any and all of the Liberal Party’s past sins. They’ve moved on, which is why they are all proud Liberals again. Phew! Problem solved. Trouble is, not everybody is so forgetful or forgiving, so quickly.

Nobody here is saying Liberals are now devoid of any redeeming qualities. They have many. The problem is that somewhere there still seems to be a lack of genuine humility. Unlike Lance, I can’t recall the Liberal Party atoning for its previous sins of pride on Oprah. Perhaps a long overdue therapy-couch session with Peter Mansbridge or Evan Solomon is in order?

As a result, many of the Liberal Party’s leadership aspirants not only remain overly aversive to inter-party cooperation, they remain oblivious and unresponsive to the wider Canadian electorate’s view on the matter. It’s easy to say you’re listening to Canadians. But let none forget: the first rule of salesmanship is to tell prospective customers what they want to hear. Politicians know that. But if these guys were really listening, every candidate on the dais would at least be open to discussing the idea of cooperating with other parties in the next election, and saying so rather than declaring, in embarrassing flares of peacock pride, they were above all such shameful grovelling.

Let’s get real. In some parts of the country, especially where Liberal growth prospects are marginal at best (i.e. the West), inter-party cooperation seems like a no-brainer. Or is it?

Some, like Chantal Hébert, say it is impractical for parties to compete all across the country except for 57 or so ridings where Conservatives would otherwise win due to vote-splitting. And there is some logic to the argument. Then again, in ridings where Liberals know they’re apt to remain on the fighting ring ropes and have little prospect of winning, why not trade the NDP or the Greens one riding for another where they are on the ropes? Trouble is, some fighters don’t know when to say uncle, especially when they look at how Muhammad Ali used his rope-a-dope strategy to beat George Foreman during their Rumble in the Jungle fight in 1974. But how many of those are Muhammad Ali level fighters? Not many I’ll bet. What’s more, even Ali, after he retired, admitted he was scared silly of Foreman’s punching power.

So while some leadership contenders may get an ego kick delivering their lines as fast and loose as Ali did in his days, those of us who look at the statistical probabilities based on previous elections and what the electorate is actually saying it wants, would suggest it’s time for them to take a humility pill, as Lance Armstrong did, finally. In fact, if Lance was to have any chance for redemption, what other choice did he have? So what makes Liberal leadership aspirants any different? If there’s to be any hope of redemption, now is the time for a little less bluster and a whole lot more humility.

Paul H. LeMay is a Vancouver-based independent writer. Originally published at The HillTimes online,

Art & activism

How an ancient poet inspired a local initiative
to preserve McLellan Forest

by Susan McCaslin / photos by Erin Perry

Robert Bateman toured McLellan
Artist and activist Robert Bateman toured McLellan Forest and has lent his support for the preservation of the rare ecosystem.

• Last Thanksgiving, I discovered that Glen Valley in Langley still had some mature rainforest. This discovery was bittersweet, however, as I also learned the Township of Langley was planning to sell it off to raise funds to build a recreation centre.

As my husband and I walked through the forest, we paused at the base of a giant black cottonwood, estimated to be at least 240 years old by local dendrologist David Jordan. I fell in love with the forest and for the first time since the Vietnam War decided I had to become a full-on activist.

Fortunately, this forest was publically owned. Another parcel had been taken off the market earlier because of the public outcry led by a local group of residents called WOLF (Watchers of Langley Forests). In October, WOLF was given 60 days to raise $3 million to purchase this second parcel known as McLellan Forest East.

Many felt it was unfair to force residents to buy back land that already belonged to them. Shouldn’t there be other ways to raise funds for capital projects other than selling off a rare, wild ecosystem? If sold, the land would no longer be accessible to the public. It would cease to be a vital ecosystem.

Reports from biologists documented the ecological values of the forest in glowing but ominous terms such as “rare,” “high value” and “extirpation.” As a poet, I couldn’t help but notice the contrast to the local government’s language with words like “inventory,” “surplus” and “idle land.” A realtor’s listing said it was a “heavily treed…blank canvas.”

Langley Forest
The Han Shan Poetry Project garnered hundreds of poems from all over the world.

But what can an artist do? It occurred to me that poets understand the intrinsic value of nature and our need for it so I decided to organize “An Afternoon of Art and Activism” just to see what might happen. This event drew together local visual artists, poets, musicians, ecologists, photographers, a dancer and students.

A week later, 160 students from the Langley Fine Arts School poured out of two big, yellow buses to sketch and sing and photograph the forest. After sharing their art in the woods, they organized a poetry reading and filled a local café with their stunning photos.

Then my husband noticed an ad announcing that renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman would be signing books in a nearby mall. He quickly emailed Bateman’s website and within a few hours Bateman himself responded, saying, “This is important. I’ll be there in the morning.”

Bateman commented on the irony of selling a vital ecosystem in order to build a recreation centre elsewhere. “This is the recreation centre, right here!” he said, gesturing to the earth. The attention he generated was a pivotal point, but once it was over we asked “What now?”

I remembered studying the zesty poems of an old hermit monk from ancient China named Han Shan from Cold Mountain. There, he scribbled poems on rocks and suspended them from trees. Just as he inspired the beatnik poets of the sixties, Han Shan resurrected once again to become my mentor and muse. The Han Shan Poetry Project was born.

I put out a call for tree poems. My calls soon appeared on people’s blogs and websites all over the world. Over 150 poems poured in within a week and a half and within two weeks the number had gone up to well over 200.

We placed the poems in sheet protectors, threaded them with colourful ribbon and festooned them from the trees. Poems poured in from all over the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and other provinces, as well as from New Mexico, California, Florida, the UK, Australia and Turkey. The exhibit included poems by celebrated Canadian poets like Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, Fred Wah (the Poet Laureate of Canada) and children as young as six years of age.

Poems pirouetted like white angels. Heavy drops of rain, frost, sprigs of moss and bark covered them, appearing to be the forest’s way of claiming them. Poets had set their small gestures of creative expression beside the vaster creativity of nature. People were attracted from all over the Lower Mainland, strolling through the woods and pausing to read the poems. Local visual artist Susan Falk donated a painting to the ongoing work of WOLF. The Opus Women’s Choir came out to sing carols in the forest.

Despite all this attention, the December fundraising deadline loomed and WOLF had to inform town Council they weren’t able to raise the three million. We learned that other offers to purchase were in-hand and it could be sold quickly. A letter from the BC Ministry of Environment arrived that afternoon saying that, based on its ecological evaluation, the forest should be protected as an ecological reserve, but they too didn’t have the money.

Decision-making was deferred and on January 29 the Langley Township announced it was taking three of the five parcels off the market. The community was relieved that 60% of the forest would be saved, but the compromise generated both elation and disappointment since the portion of land to be sold contains some of the most sensitive habitat for species at risk.

Clearly, it took many people to help persuade the politicians to reconsider a ‘done deal’ that could provide cash-in-hand. But what this experience prompts us to consider is the untapped potential of the arts to transform society. The success of this project shows how art and activism can dovetail in remarkable ways. Art pauses before beauty, raising the conflict between conservationists and developers beyond their various ends. It appeals to a common recognition of beauty in biodiversity.

An activist must live in the paradox of unknowing – perhaps without attachment to outcomes (though I find this difficult). Nature holds us within a larger story, a more expansive narrative; somehow, our words and actions matter. Yes, poetry matters, as old Han Shan himself told us some 1,200 years ago.

This story is not over, as taking the properties off the market is not the same as legal protection. There are some who recall fighting for the same patch of forest over a decade ago. You may wish to thank Langley township council and ask them to protect the species at risk habitat on the parcels to be sold and to follow through with formal dedication of the forests under section 30 of the Community Charter.

The McLellan Forest issue also raises a bigger question for the coming provincial election: given that all local government powers come from the Province, what is the duty of local governments to conserve biological diversity and habitat for species at risk?

For more information: (604) 866-2259
Township of Langley:
Hon. Dr. Terry Lake:

Susan McCaslin is a poet and Faculty Emeritus of Douglas College. Her most recent volume, Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press) was a finalist for the BC Poetry Book Prize (Dorothy Livesay Award, 2011) and the 2012 winner of the Alberta Book Publishing Award (Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award).

What do Indians want?

by Thomas King

Portrait of Thomas KingThomas King is one of Canada’s premier Native public intellectuals. For the past 50 years, he has worked as an activist for Native causes. He has also taught Native literature and history at universities in the US and Canada. He is the bestselling author of five novels, including Medicine River and Green Grass, Running Water, two collections of short stories and the 2003 Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories. He most recently published The Inconvenient Indian. Look for more non-fiction writing by Thomas King in subsequent issues of Common Ground.

Great question. The problem is it’s the wrong question to ask. While there are certainly Indians in North America, the Indians of this particular question don’t exist. The Indians of this question are “the Indian” that Canada and the United States have created for themselves. And as long as the question is asked in that way, there will never be the possibility of an answer. Better to ask what the Lubicon Cree of Alberta want or the Brantford Mohawk of Ontario or the Zuni of New Mexico or the Hupa of northern California or the Tlingit of Alaska.

Inconvenient Indian

But I’d just as soon forget the question entirely. There’s a better question to ask. One that will help us to understand the nature of contemporary North American Indian history. A question that we can ask of both the past and the present. What do Whites want? No, it’s not a trick question. And I’m not being sarcastic. Native history in North America as written has never really been about Native people. It’s been about Whites and their needs and desires. What Native peoples wanted has never been a vital concern, has never been a political or social priority.

The Lakota didn’t want Europeans in the Black Hills, but Whites wanted the gold that was there. The Cherokee didn’t want to move from Georgia to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), but Whites wanted the land. The Cree of Quebec weren’t at all keen on vacating their homes to make way for the Great Whale project, but there’s excellent money in hydroelectric power. The California Indians did not ask to be enslaved by the Franciscans and forced to build that order’s missions.

What do Whites want? The answer is quite simple, and it’s been in plain sight all along. Land.

Whites want land.

Sure, Whites want Indians to disappear, and they want Indians to assimilate, and they want Indians to understand that everything that Whites have done was for their own good because Native people, left to their own devices, couldn’t make good decisions for themselves. All that’s true. From a White point of view, at least. But it’s a lower order of true. It’s a spur-of-the-moment true, and these ideas have changed over time. Assimilation was good in the 1950s, but bad in the 1970s. Residential schools were the answer to Indian education in the 1920s, but by the twenty-first century governments were apologizing for the abuse that Native children had suffered at the hands of Christian doctrinaires, pedophiles and sadists. In the 1880s, the prevailing wisdom was to destroy Native cultures and languages so that Indians could find civilization. Today, the non-Native lament is that Aboriginal cultures and languages may well be on the verge of extinction. These are all important matters, but if you pay more attention to them than they deserve, you will miss the larger issue.

The issue that came ashore with the French and the English and the Spanish, the issue that was the raison d’etre for each of the colonies, the issue that has made its way from coast to coast to coast and is with us today, the issue that has never changed, never varied, never faltered in its resolve is the issue of land. The issue has always been land. It will always be land, until there isn’t a square foot of land left in North America that is controlled by Native people.

At the Lake Mohonk conference in October of 1886, one of the participants, Charles Cornelius Coffin Painter, who served as a lobbyist for the Indian Rights Association, pointed out the obvious, that the treaties made with Native people had been little more than expediencies. In his talk, Painter quoted General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had said that treaties “were never made to be kept, but to serve a present purpose, to settle a present difficulty in the easiest manner possible, to acquire a desired good with the least possible compensation, and then to be disregarded as soon as this purpose was tainted and we were strong enough to enforce a new and more profitable arrangement.”

This is the same General Sherman who philosophized that “The more Indians we kill this year, the fewer we will need to kill the next.” Painter didn’t necessarily agree with Sherman, but he understood that the overall goal of removals, allotments, treaties, reservations and reserves, terminations and relocations, was not simply to limit and control the movement of Native peoples, but more importantly to relieve them of their land base.

Land. If you understand nothing else about the history of Indians in North America, you need to understand that the question that really matters is the question of land. Land has always been a defining element of Aboriginal culture. Land contains the languages, the stories and the histories of a people. It provides water, air, shelter and food. Land participates in the ceremonies and the songs. And land is home. Not in an abstract way. The Blackfoot in Alberta live in the shadow of Ninastiko or Chief Mountain. The mountain is a special place for the Blackfoot and friends on the reserve at Standoff have told me more than once that, as long as they can see the mountain, they know they are home.

For non-Natives, land is primarily a commodity, something that has value for what you can take from it or what you can get for it… The Alberta Tar Sands is an excellent example of a non-Native understanding of land. It is, without question, the dirtiest, most environmentally insane energy-extraction project in North America, probably in the world, but the companies that are destroying landscapes and watersheds in Alberta continue merrily along, tearing up the earth because there are billions to be made out of such corporate devastation. The public has been noticeably quiet about the matter, and neither the politicians in Alberta nor the folks in Ottawa have been willing to step in and say, “Enough,” because, in North American society, when it comes to money, there is no such thing as enough.

We all know the facts and figures. Carbon emissions from the production of one barrel of tar sands oil are eight times higher than the emissions from a conventional barrel. The production of each barrel of tar sands oil requires at least three barrels of fresh water, 90 percent of which never makes it back into the watershed. The waste water winds up in a series of enormous tailing ponds that cover some 50 square kilometres and is so poisonous that it kills on contact.

Yet, in spite of all the scientific evidence, oil corporations, with the aid and abetment of government, are expanding their operations, breaking new ground, as it were, and building thousands of miles of pipeline – the Keystone Pipeline, the Northern Gateway Pipeline, the Transmountain Pipeline – that will take Alberta crude from Fort McMurray to refineries and markets in the United States (Illinois, Oklahoma, and Texas) and in Canada (Kitimat and Vancouver)… there is little chance that North America will develop a functional land ethic until it finds a way to overcome its irrational addiction to profit. Unfortunately, there are no signs that that’s going to happen any time soon.

In 1868 the Lakota and the U.S. government signed a peace treaty at Fort Laramie which guaranteed that the Black Hills would remain with the Lakota Nation, and that the Powder River Country in north­eastern Wyoming would be closed to White settlement. However, just six years later, in 1874, an army expedition led by, of all people, George Armstrong Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills at French Creek and before you could say “Fort Laramie Treaty,” White miners swarmed into the Black Hills and began digging mines, sluicing rivers, blasting away the sides of mountains with hydraulic cannons and clear-cutting the forests in the Hills for the timber. The army was supposed to keep Whites out of the Hills. But they didn’t. A great many histories will tell you that the military was powerless to stop the flood of Whites who came to the Hills for the gold, but the truth of the matter is that the army didn’t really try.

The Fort Laramie Treaty still stands as a valid agreement and the Lakota have never given up their claim to the Hills, nor have they stopped fighting for the land’s return. So I can only imagine how they felt as they watched Six Grandfathers being turned into a national tourist attraction. Six Grandfathers is the mountain in the Hills that became Mount Rushmore after it was renamed for a New York lawyer in 1885.

Then in 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills had been illegally taken. The solution, however, wasn’t to return the Hills to the Lakota. Instead the court instructed that the original purchase price of $25,000 plus interest be paid to the tribe. After the long addition was over, the total came to over $106 million.

$106 million. And as they had done in 1875, the Lakota refused the settlement. Money was never the issue. They wanted the Hills back. As for the money, it stays in an interest-bearing account to this day.

From a Native perspective, Indian land is Indian land. From a contemporary, somewhat legal North American perspective, Native land is land that belongs to the federal government and is on indefinite loan to a certain category of Native people. To say that these two views are in conflict is to state the obvious. Indian land as Indian land was certainly the idea behind early treaties and agreements.

One of the great phrases to come out of the treaty process is “as long as the grass is green and the waters run.” The general idea behind the phrase is not new. Charlemagne supposedly used such language in the eighth century, when he declared that “all Frisians would be fully free, the born and the unborn, so long as the wind blows from heaven and the child cries, grass grows green and flowers bloom, as far as the sun rises and the world stands.”

Great Britain, the United States and Canada, depending on how you want to count, signed well over 400 treaties with Native tribes in North America. I haven’t read them all, but none of the ones I have read contains the phrase. So, I’ve always wondered if “as long as the grass is green and the waters run” was ever actually used in a treaty.

I’m betting that poetic constructions such as “as long as the grass is green and the waters run,” “Great White Father,” and “Red Children” were part of the performances, the speeches and the oral promises that attended treaty negotiations and did not necessarily find their way into the official transcript.

Treaties, after all, were not vehicles for protecting land or even sharing land. They were vehicles for acquiring land. Almost without fail, throughout the history of North America, every time Indians signed a treaty with Whites, Indians lost land. I can’t think of a single treaty whereby Native people came away with more land than when they started. Such an idea, from a non­Native point of view, would have been dangerously absurd.

In fact, treaties have been so successful in separating Indians from their land that I’m surprised there isn’t a national holiday to honour their good work. But we could fix that. We could, if we were so inclined, turn Columbus Day and Victoria Day into Treaty Day. After all, Columbus didn’t discover America, and Queen Victoria never set foot in Canada… Of course, no one in Canada or the United States is going to support a holiday that isn’t a celebration of national power and generosity, so we’d have to disguise it, much the way we do Thanksgiving.

Now I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I think treaties are a bad idea. Treaties aren’t the problem. Keeping the promises made in the treaties, on the other hand, is a different matter.

One of the complaints that Whites have had about Aboriginal people is that they didn’t know what to do with land or that they weren’t using the land to its full potential. And North America has been quick to rally around the old aphorism “use it or lose it.” Ironically, Canada currently finds itself in a pseudo-Native position with regard to the far north. Knowing that the Arctic is a treasure trove of oil and gas, minerals and precious metals, and fish, the United States has been pushing jurisdictional boundaries, insisting that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway rather than a part of Canada. In 1969, the United States sent the S. S. Manhattan to sail into the Passage without first getting Canadian permission. In 1985, the U.S. icebreaker Polar Sea did the same thing. Nasty words flew back and forth. One solution to this problem that is being bandied about is to strike a treaty, wherein the United States recognizes the Passage as Canadian waters and Canada gives the United States the right to travel the waterway unimpeded.

A treaty with the United States. That should work out well. Lost in all of this gunship diplomacy was the 1953 saga of 87 Inuit who were moved from Port Harrison to Grise Fiord. The official reason Canadian bureaucrats gave for the move was that it would allow the Inuit to continue to live off the land and maintain their traditional ways. The unofficial reason was that Canada wanted to use the Inuit as placeholders in the continuing debate over who had territorial rights to the High Arctic and its resources. The government has always maintained that the families who relocated did so voluntarily, while the Inuit maintain that the moves were forced.

Wherever the truth lies, it is amusing to watch politicians validating Canada’s land claims in the far north on the backs of Aboriginal people. It’s ours, Ottawa tells the world. Our people are there. When it comes to the matter of land, one of the key questions is “What is the proper use of land?” This is both an historical and a contemporary consideration in Native rights. In the early days, hunting and gathering were seen as inferior uses of the land compared to farming. Where Indians did farm, their farming practices were considered inferior to those of Whites. And these days, heaven help the tribe or band that wishes to keep a section of land in its natural state when a golf course or a ski resort or a strip mine comes looking for a home.

Sometimes, a close reading of history is helpful in understanding the question of land and sometimes representative stories will do just as well. Personally, I prefer stories. And I happen to have several that you might consider.

Adapted from The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King (Doubleday Canada). Reprinted with permission.