Pregnant Women Beware

“Don’t worry, be happy” slogan could harm your baby

DRUG BUST by Alan Cassels

The people’s briefing note on prescription drugs

Portrait of columnist Alan Cassels• It’s springtime in Canada and with nature in full bloom, it’s timely to reflect on reproduction in all its forms.

If you’re in the drug manufacturing business, your organization exists to produce profits. While we might criticize pharmaceutical companies for putting profits before public health, my sense is you can’t fault a company for seeking profits any more than you can fault a cat for chasing mice; it’s what they do.

But if you place the business of selling drugs beside the business of human reproduction – i.e. having babies – you witness some strange things. You discover, for example, that some drug companies and the spokespeople they fund don’t seem all that worried about women taking drugs while pregnant.

Midwives, obstetricians and doctors are typically very cautious when it comes to counselling their pregnant patients around prescription drugs. Yet they can’t avoid the savvy drug manufacturers that clearly don’t want to cut themselves off from the lucrative market represented by millions of pregnant or lactating women. Manufacturers serve shareholders; in fact, that’s the only constituency they must report to so they can’t ignore any segment of the market. However, exploiting the pregnancy market has many potential challenges.

For starters, it’s not as easy as it looks to convince pregnant women to take drugs; you have to overcome one of the strongest forces on the planet – a woman’s intuition, which seems finely tuned towards precaution and safety. Things that don’t ‘feel right’ – such as the suggestion to ingest powerful chemicals when you’ve got a baby inside you –are hard to suppress. Regardless of the assurances of some experts, many medical treatments, including prescription drugs, vitamins and alternative therapies, have never been properly tested in pregnant women. When faced with this dilemma, I think women trust their intuition, often guided by outside sources of information that seems credible.

Drug companies and their paid surrogates have to work awfully hard to seem credible to women. What makes it difficult is the lingering taint of past drug disasters – the ones that were catastrophic for many women and their babies. Drugs such as thalidomide or DES (diethylstilbestrol) were given to pregnant women with disastrous consequences and so downplaying those examples by claiming that we do things differently today seems a key strategy. Many suggest the world is much safer now and that modern drug regulatory systems are ensuring those disasters could never happen again.

I interrupt this column to bring you a public service message: “Anyone want to buy a bridge?” Now, where was I?

The most infamous example is the thalidomide disaster of the sixties, which stemmed from a drug given to pregnant women to treat morning sickness. Thalidomide resulted in thousands of children being born with deformed limbs and digits. One would expect that images of “flipper babies” would be seared into our public consciousness, putting a halt to treating pregnant women with pharmaceuticals. Yet that disaster, however stark in its imagery, had a sister: DES was a synthetic estrogen prescribed to millions of pregnant women for nearly 30 years, causing cancers of the vagina and cervix in the daughters of women who took DES during pregnancy (among other things).

If you are pregnant and concerned about prescription drugs, where can you find good information? According to a recent article in Glow, a slick Canadian fashion magazine, the major source of information for Canadian mothers-to-be is the Motherisk program in Toronto – www.motherisk.org – which was created to “give women and health professionals accurate and reliable information.”

According to the Motherisk website, the group actively “reviews data from around the world and conducts studies to determine the risks of drugs during pregnancy.” They conclude “it is now clear that there are many drugs that are safe for use in pregnancy.” I seriously wondered about that – my intuition was telling me something different – so I decided to look closely at what Motherisk said about one major drug class used in pregnancy: antidepressants.

Their information says that some research “described a poor neonatal adaptation syndrome in newborns whose mothers had been taking tricyclic, SSRI or SNRI antidepressants near term,” adding that “the most common adverse effects associated with this syndrome are transient, mostly self-limiting, jitteriness; grasping muscle weakness; and respiratory difficulties that sometimes require use of a ventilator.” The suggestion is that these difficulties pale in comparison to the risk of the mother and fetus if the mother’s depression isn’t treated.

What is odd is that the Motherisk program fails to mention other major dangers found by independent research groups that have done fairly exhaustive research on the issue. The Therapeutics Initiative at UBC – which takes no drug company money – reports an extensive analysis of six studies of antidepressants in pregnancy and found “SSRI use was associated with more spontaneous abortions.” (See their newsletter at http://www.ti.ubc.ca/letter76)

Lejla Halilovic is a women’s health activist in Toronto and she has a number of problems with Motherisk’s information. Her biggest concern, besides feeling the information they provide women is outdated, is that Motherisk fails to point out specific drug safety advisories issued by regulators. She says “it’s outrageous that one of Canada’s biggest resources for pregnant women lacks Health Canada warnings,” such as the one warning of (Paxil) paroxetine’s risk posted in December 2005.

The UBC folks conclude that, based on a meta-analysis of 14 observational studies, paroxetine may cause as many as one in 200 women to have a baby with heart problems. Does Motherisk mention “cardiac malformations?” It’s not there. Well, what about other SSRIs, like Prozac (fluoxetine) or Zoloft (sertraline)? Do they have the same kind of risk? UBC research found an eight-year follow-up study of all births in Denmark, where women had filled at least two prescriptions for SSRIs while pregnant. Those women had a one in 246 chance of having a child with a heart defect.

Motherisk also fails to mention SSRIs can cause persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN), in about one per 1,000 live births and can be potentially fatal.

So let me recap: a major agency in Canada that alleges to inform women of the safety of drugs in pregnancy doesn’t mention major Health Canada safety warnings and fails to note that miscarriages, cardiac effects and other rare, but potentially fatal, dangers are associated with taking antidepressants while pregnant. I’m scratching my head; why would they leave such important stuff out?

Please don’t say they are pharma flacks.

Lejla Halilovic reminds me that Motherisk is staffed by very good and committed people but, alas, with any drug source you need to know who is paying the bills. A quick tour of the Motherisk site explains the website service is sponsored by a drug company (Duchesnay), a drug store (Shopper’s Drug Mart) and a foundation (Sick Kids Foundation), which itself takes money from most major drug companies.

Of all the information on the Motherisk website, the disclaimer is probably the most honest. It notes, “We do not guarantee or warrant the quality, accuracy, completeness, timeliness, appropriateness or suitability of the information provided,” adding, “you assume full responsibility for the use of the information.”

Amen to that.

Pregnant and told to take pharmaceuticals? Perhaps you can start by avoiding sources that are obviously drug-tainted. Remind yourself that thalidomide and DES were huge disasters, partly due to the biased information given to women.

Again and again, we need to be reminded that information, which is clearly being funded by an industry that lives to chase down and capture new customers, as the cat chases mice, cannot be acting in the best interests of patients.

This is especially worth remembering next time someone is trying to override your intuition with a “don’t worry, be happy” message around drugs in pregnancy.

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria and the author of the just-launched Seeking Sickness: Medical Screening and the Misguided Hunt for Disease. Read more of what he’s writing about at www.alancassels.com

Who’s eating who in organic food?

A chart showing the ownership of companies in the organics industry

by Phil Howard, Michigan State University

 

• I started studying consolidation in food industries when I was a graduate student at the University of Missouri. When I moved to California where this trend was rapidly occurring – despite the fact that many of the pioneering companies set out to be alternatives to the mainstream food system – people asked me to look into organic brands. In 2003, I put together a chart to visualize buyouts made by the largest food processors, many of which are hidden. Due to widespread interest, I’ve updated it every few years. Interestingly, some companies cited on this chart have told me that they loved it. They showed it to big retailers like Walmart, Costco and Target to convince them that organic was becoming mainstream. – Phil Howard

The organic industry has seen significant consolidation since the late 1990s. Many pioneering organic firms have been acquired by some of the largest food and beverage corporations in the world, such as Nestlé, Kraft and General Mills. But not all organic brands have fallen victim to this trend; at least 18 nationally distributed organic brands have resisted consolidation by remaining independent. The question is how have they managed to remain independent?

It is not for lack of offers. Arran Stephens, CEO of Nature’s Path, notes that, during the peak period of acquisitions, he received two bids on the same day and he continues to receive large, unsolicited offers on a frequent basis. Many other independent firms report similar patterns, with offers that are much higher than typical for the food industry. Refusing such offers means not only giving up millions of dollars, but also facing the near certainty of increasing competition from some of the world’s largest food companies.

These corporations can better afford to influence consumer demand for their products with expensive advertising. They can also subsidize price cutting on organic foods with sales from other products, in order to drive their competitors out of business. Remaining independent is therefore not what an economist would call a rational decision, but what these firms have in common is a strong commitment to values beyond just profit. In many cases, this is due to the principles and ideals of the founder, while in other firms, organizational structures are in place that discourage transfer of ownership.

Four of the remaining independent companies, for example, are organized as cooperatives: Equal Exchange and Alvarado Street Bakery are employee cooperatives, Organic Valley is a producer cooperative and Frontier Natural Products is a wholesaler cooperative. Equal Exchange goes a step further by trading directly with democratically organized, small farmer cooperatives – primarily in other countries, but also in the US –and should the company ever be sold, net proceeds are required to be given to another fair trade organization, not the worker-owners themselves.

The founders of organic food companies have learned firsthand or from others’ experiences the negative consequences acquisitions have on their more idealistic goals. Stephens, who once sold a natural food company called Lifestream – and later bought it back from Kraft – has said he has seen the “soul gutted out” of acquired companies, in most cases within three years. Mo Siegel, formerly of Celestial Seasonings and Greg Steltenpohl, formerly of Odwalla, both have regrets about losing financial control of their companies and the resulting emphasis on profit. Steltenpohl has said, “[Corporations] have an agenda to consolidate and concentrate power and wealth. That’s what their function is… The system itself forces certain outcomes and I really underestimated that.” This recognition is in stark contrast to the optimistic language founders often use when announcing buyouts, with many using some variation of the phrase “We’re not selling out, they’re buying in.”

Competing against an increasing number of such profit focused firms may lead independents to converge toward the rest of the industry in some areas, even as they remain more idealistic in others. Some independent firms sell to Wal-Mart, while others export their products all over the world, which may strike some organic farmers and consumers as contrary to the ideals of sustainability. Another example is introducing products that conflict with the organic movement’s original emphasis on less packaging and processing of foods. Amy’s Kitchen, for example, has introduced frozen, microwaveable oatmeal and while a certified organic Twinkie has yet to arrive, Nature’s Path has introduced organic toaster pastries.

Refusing to converge toward the mainstream is risky when, as Cascadian Farm founder Gene Kahn, who sold his firm to General Mills, explains, “The intense amount of consolidation… has sorted out of a lot of the smaller players. This has occurred on a variety of fronts, including farming, manufacturing, distribution and retail.”

Such changes in the organic distribution and retail sectors create some of the most significant challenges to independence. The entrance of mainstream supermarkets into organic food retailing, for example, has brought with it the practice of charging fees to manufacturers in exchange for shelf space. Dean Foods was able to subsidize such slotting fees for Silk soymilk to place it in the conventional dairy case, which contributed to its dominance in the supermarket channel. Smaller companies often cannot afford the tens of thousands of dollars per product for each retail chain that is required to implement this strategy.

While the more targeted natural/organic retail sector does not typically charge these fees, it is even more consolidated than conventional retailing, with Whole Foods dominating this category. Distribution of processed organic foods also occurs primarily through just two firms, United Natural Foods Inc. and KeHe. The smallest processors can bypass these giants if they sell directly to a nearby food cooperative, which totals approximately five percent of all organic food sales in North America. The shipping costs of expanding direct sales beyond local stores may be prohibitive, however. For larger, independent processors, unless they have already established strong brand identities and relationships with national distributors – or large retailers with their own distribution systems – getting products onto store shelves is quite difficult. As a result, some of the founders of these firms have stated that, if they were starting out today, they wouldn’t be able to make it.

Consumers who want food companies that embody more of the original organic ideals would do well to seek out products from independent organic firms. Although we may not agree with all of their practices, they tend to emphasize more non-economic values, such as a commitment to sustainability and are more responsive to consumer demands than the massive food corporations of the world. Given the very uneven playing field they are competing in, independent organic processors are unlikely to survive without such support.

Philip H. Howard, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies at Michigan State University. www.msu.edu/~howardp/

The Power of Poetry

In a leaf-strewn forest a girl in a black overcoat leans against a tree and writes in her journal

How a few choice words can change worlds within and without

• by Geoff Olson

 

• The world appears to be on a knife-edge again, with leaders from Tel Aviv to Tehran playing out idiotic games of brinkmanship better suited to pre-war Europe than the whistle-blowing world of WikiLeaks and Anonymous. To write about poetry in this context may seem faintly ridiculous. And with the planet threatening to blossom into a final exchange of nuclear weapons – or at least a global explosion of resistance to the banksters and robber barons – poetry seems like a pretty insipid thing. What are Wordsworth’s daffodils or Rumi’s singing reed next to a ballistic missile with multiple warheads, or even a riot cop’s truncheon? Not much, it seems.

But can poetry actually change the world for the better, in its own fugitive, hard-to-quantify way?

Unlike journalism, old poems have a way of staying fresh. W.B. Yeats’ short poem The Second Coming seems just as appropriate now as when it was written in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War. With its mysterious imagery of “some rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem,” this old standby of English lit classes conjures up a terrible future brewing in the birthplace of Christ. It also offers the most concise description of collective cynicism ever penned, perfect for the age of Fox News and neutered progressivism: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Yeats managed a living from herding words, but he was a rare bird. According to one estimate, a Canadian author who manages to sell over 700 volumes of verse can be considered a successful poet. Clearly, rhyme doesn’t pay. T.S. Eliot kept his day job at the bank, Wallace Stevens sold insurance and Ogden Nash once observed, “Poets aren’t very useful. / Because they aren’t consumeful or very produceful.”

Today, we tend to think of poets as quaint figures, wandering lonely as a cloud from their day jobs to the open mike. We normally don’t think of their efforts as world changing or life altering, although we give grudging respect to a few dead, white versifiers (mostly Shakespeare and a few romantic poets). Yet poetry has its place in the world, even if it’s shoehorned into tweets.

Personally, I can’t exactly say poetry changed my life, but there was a time when it definitely helped me cope. A little over a decade ago, I fell into a deep depression that lasted about a year. There were days were I would sit for hours on the couch, doing nothing but staring at the floor. During this purgatorial period, the opening passage from Dante’s Inferno became a touchstone for me.

“Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straight forward pathway had been lost.”

I would often listen to an album by singer Marianne Faithfull that opened with this recitation of Dante and ended with lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Hearing her nicotine-ravaged voice recite this college curriculum verse, I found a strange sense of solace, knowing my suffering was not unique. Although I had little interest in the company of others at the time, and even less in my own, I felt less alone listening to this recitation of mythically charged words.

Like many others, I had admired a few well-known poems from my college days, in the same way you admire delicate museum pieces protected behind glass. But these words were like a salve I could apply to a wound. I believe I escaped from clinical depression partly with the help of poetry, which came without a doctor’s prescription or negative side effects.

British novelist Jeanette Winterson tells of a similar effect from a single line of poetry she read when she was 16-years-old. She was in a library looking for a book for her adoptive mother, who was a fan of murder mysteries. She selected T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. “So I opened it and discovered it was written in verse,” she told Eleanor Wachtel on the CBC Radio series, Writers & Company. “ The first thing I read was a line in it where Eliot says ‘This is one moment, but know that another will pierce you with a sudden painful joy.’ And it made me cry because I was having a terrible time. I had fallen in love with a girl… It was like a message in a bottle… I didn’t know who this T. S. Eliot person was… It seemed a powerful message to me and something I could hold on to.” This was Winterson’s beginning as a writer.

In the beginning was the word, according to the Bible. To the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, the “Logos” – a word connoting language, speech or reason – was the divine animating principle that pervaded the Universe. The Roman poet Lucretius had a different idea. In his long poem, On the Nature of Things, he rejected the idea of a universe controlled by gods and proposed instead that matter is made up of tiny particles in constant motion, colliding and combining to weave the world around us. Amazingly, atomic theory originated from the most unlikely source: a ream of verse by an ancient poet.

Lucretius was widely read after his rediscovery during the Renaissance and his ideas contributed to the Enlightenment’s clockwork model of the universe – an idea of great power until its deconstruction at the hands of Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg in the 20th century. And once again, the poets preceded the scientists. The romantic poets of the 19th century didn’t just reject determinism; they also refuted the utilitarian viewpoint of human beings as replaceable factory widgets. In the late 1800s, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake were among the first to write against social injustice, with the latter poetically slamming child labour and the “satanic mills” of the industrial revolution.

“Poetry is tremendously influential,” notes respected British moral philosopher Mary Midgley in an interview in The Guardian. “…Some scientist dismissed Shelley as a beautiful but ineffectual angel standing in the void in vain or something, but, in fact, that revolutionary stuff was enormously influential. His conception of society and how it required equality and how bad it was, and his kind of atheism were very impressive stuff.”

“Writers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Shelley insisted. To put it another way, scribblers are sensitive seismographic instruments. They anticipate seismic social trends long before the journalists, politicians and policy makers. And for their part, political leaders have often appealed to poetry to give mythic power to their initiatives. The opening lines of the American Declaration of Independence were written in iambic pentameter:

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

That all men are created equal,
That they are endowed by their Creator
with certain inalienable rights;
that among these are life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness.

Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr.’s enormously influential and stirring “I Have a Dream” speech succeeded because its poetic structure was of a piece with King’s delivery. The Baptist minister’s electrifying call for equality, which drew its prophetic power from the language of the Gospels, became engrained into the consciousness of the civil rights movement and mainstream society.

After the First World War, the poems of Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon not only voiced a generational horror of the insanity of war, but they also found their way into classroom curricula in the English-speaking world. Percolating in the minds of young students, they undoubtedly had an influence on the pacifist movement and even the sixties revolution. W.B. Yeats’ 1919 poem, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, records the last thoughts of a man whose sense of duty lies outside the officially drawn lines of battle:

Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor…

The airman’s people will remain poor no matter what the war’s outcome, Yeats implies, with the victors always being the rich. In a similar vein, Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner has stuck in my mind ever since I first encountered it in high school. This five-line 1945 poem concerns the death of a gunner in a World War II American bomber aircraft:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

This is hard stuff, without a trace of sentimentality. So it’s no surprise the relationship of poets to powerbrokers has often been ambivalent. In February 2003, then First Lady Laura Bush cancelled her symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice” after she discovered that some of the poets on her guest list refused to attend a protest against the impending war on Iraq.

In November of last year, Robert Hass, former Poet Laureate of the United States, was present at Occupy Berkeley when Alameda County deputy sheriffs “in Darth Vader riot gear” pushed his wife to the ground and clubbed Hass. “One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest,” Hass recalled in an essay for the New York Times. The incident led to at least one memorable protest sign – “Beat Poets, not beat poets.”

In other parts of the world, poets have long had the ear of the people and the nervous attention of leaders. The Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was a diplomat and a senator. In Cuba, you will find few statues of Fidel Castro, but you’ll find plenty dedicated to José Martí, the 19th century Havana-born poet whose writings and political struggle were enormously influential in the Cuban struggle for independence.

“In France, Paul Éluard, René Char and Robert Desnos wrote dissenting poetry while fighting for the Résistance,” notes poet Rachel Galvin. “In Italy, Quasimodo and Cesare Pavese were repressed for denouncing the regime under which they lived, as were Russian and Polish poets such as Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz.”

“Contemporary Middle Eastern poets such as Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Nizar Qabbani, Adonis, Ghazi al-Gosaibi and Mahmoud Darwish have embraced the idea of committed literature, or a literature engagée, as Sartre termed it.”

And, of course, poetry has long accompanied music. John Lennon’s piece of chanting doggerel, Give Peace a Chance, has been a protest standard for years and his Imagine is still rotated on AM radio like it’s just another boy-meets-girl bauble, when it’s actually a radical hymn to a world freed of possessions, borders and religious dogma. Throughout the sixties to the present, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and a host of other poetic singersongwriters also expanded the protestor’s time-specific complaints into calls for universal justice.

Even the Irish nationalist Yeats has become a resource for singer/songwriters a half-century after his death – not what you’d expect of a man who was tone-deaf. Both Sinéad O’Connor and U2 have cribbed lines from Yeats in their compositions, although when Van Morrison converted Crazy Jane on God in its entirety into song, the W. B. Yeats estate refused permission, resulting in the destruction of the first pressings of Morrison’s 1985 album, A Sense of Wonder. (Yeats’ family believed the master’s compositions should only be set to classical music.)

For some reason, The Waterboys had more success with Yeats than the “Belfast Cowboy” did. Waterboys singer/songwriter Mike Scott has referenced Yeats throughout his song catalogue and in November of 2011 he went the whole hog with a superb reworking of the poet’s verse in An Appointment With Mr. Yeats. “September 1913 was written about 100 years ago about the money-grabbing clergy of the day and the bourgeoisie who were very unsympathetic to the plight of the Dublin workers,” said Scott in an online interview, discussing his remaking of one particular poem. “If Yeats were around today, I think he would have found much fuel for a similar emotive fire.”

The closest spiritual comparison to Yeats on bookstore shelves today is a hot-selling 13th- century Persian mystic, born in the eastern part of the Ancient Persian Empire, in what is now Afghanistan. To say Jelaluddin Rumi was prolific is putting it mildly. One of his works consists of 24,000 verses, making him an inexhaustible resource for his chief translator, the American poet Coleman Barks.

Rumi drew little distinction between love for another, love for the world and love for the universal force behind the realm of appearances. The Sufi poet’s words offer a counterweight to the popular image of the fanatical Islamicist, and his expansive idea of the divine offers a challenge to a western culture addicted to dualisms: good/evil, freedom/slavery, God/Satan, inner/outer and democracy/any place without a McDonalds. Rumi writes of a creator who traffics in paradox and the inversion of values that happens when people are convinced of their own righteousness:

God has allowed some magical reversal to occur,
so that you see the scorpion pit
as an object of desire,
and all the beautiful expanse around it,
as dangerous and swarming with snakes.

This is how strange your fear of death

and emptiness is, and how perverse
the attachment to what you want.

Although it’s unlikely any Persian poets will end up on the reading list of West Point cadets, a 2002 Time magazine article pegged Rumi as the greatest selling poet in the US at the time (a quick check on Amazon shows a sales rank of 2,457 for The Essential Rumi, compared to 57,424 for The Poetry of Robert Frost). And as I noted above, Yeats is having a second life in a rock n’ roll format. Rap artists like the Afro-Peruvian Immortal Technique are widening their genre to fuse class analysis with scathing word play. There’s even a poetic angle to the Occupy movement with its ‘mike check’ routine, which pushes speakers toward the rhythm and cadence of verse.

As long as there are human beings communicating their truths of soul, self and social justice, poetry will continue to work its subterranean way through human hearts. Let’s hope that sonnets prevail over insanity.

www.olscribbler.wordpress.com

photo © Vyacheslav Bukhal

Gateway Pipeline pros and cons

A pipeline stretches into the far distance

An interview with retired economist Reimar Kroecher

by Joseph Roberts

• At press time on February 24, the Calgary Herald published an article by Rebecca Penty entitled “Transport Canada approves Enbridge’s supertanker routes.” Penty notes: “The federal department determined three shipping routes proposed by Enbridge are ‘appropriate’ and contain no obstructions for the 250 oil tankers the company expects would frequent the terminal each year, to take away some 30 million tonnes of crude annually. A quarter of those tankers would weigh 320,000 tonnes, three times larger than any vessels to have visited Kitimat Harbour since the 1950s.”

Joseph Roberts: Both Enbridge and the federal government are strong proponents of this pipeline, claiming that it is essential for Canada’s economic future. How many jobs will this pipeline create?

Reimar Kroecher: This pipeline will create new jobs and it will destroy old jobs. According to estimates, it will create approximately 3,000 temporary jobs during the construction phase and 100 permanent jobs after construction is completed. However, the increased oil exports will appreciate the Canadian dollar and there will be job losses in both the manufacturing and retail sectors. A good example of this is the Canadian film industry, which is already on the decline because of our strong petro dollar. A five-cent premium on the Canadian dollar would finish off our film industry.

JR: When exports of hydrocarbons appreciate a country’s currency, isn’t that referred to as the Dutch disease?

RK: That is correct. When the Dutch increased their export of hydrocarbons, the guilder appreciated, leading to substantial job losses in Dutch manufacturing. In addition, the Dutch travelled to neighbouring Germany and did their shopping there. Norway’s experience was similar. The Norwegians travelled to Sweden and Denmark.

JR: With a three or four-cent premium on the Canadian dollar, Canadians will head south to do their shopping – with job losses in Canadian retailing.

RK: Ironically, there will be job gains in all the US border states. In a 2009 study, Michel Beine, Charles S. Bos and Serge Coulombe of Luxembourg, Amsterdam and Ottawa universities, respectively, estimated that 42% of the 340,000 Canadian manufacturing jobs lost during the last decade were due to our rising petro currency. To my knowledge, there are no studies about job losses in the Canadian retail industry. These studies are badly needed, but they would have to be peer reviewed. And we would have to know who paid for these studies because, unfortunately, in today’s world the results of studies often depend on who paid for them.

JR: Do we know by how much the loonie would rise if the Northern Gateway pipeline were built?

RK: That is a very complex question. We need studies on that as well. We also must bear in mind that Kinder Morgan has applied for permission to more than double the capacity of its Alberta Tar Sands pipeline to Burnaby, BC. Most of this oil is supposed to be exported in large Suez type tankers. The Second Narrows channel would have to be dredged to accommodate these huge tankers. This pipeline would deliver almost as much oil to the west coast as the Northern Gateway pipeline is proposed to deliver to Kitimat. In addition, the Keystone pipeline to the US will likely be back on the table after the US election. Most analysts agree that we already have a petro currency, which rises and falls with the price of oil and the volume of oil exported. If these pipelines are built, we will definitely have a petro currency par excellence, and the rise in the loonie will be substantial.

JR: Does eastern Canada still import most of its oil from the Middle East and Venezuela?

RK: Yes, although it gets some from its own wells and some from the pipeline from Alberta to Sarnia. Twenty-years-ago, Canada imported about as much oil as it exported, but with the rise of the Tar Sands, exports have taken off and we now export about two barrels for every one barrel imported. This surge in exports is largely responsible for the rise in the Canadian dollar.

JR: It would seem to make sense to increase the capacity of the pipeline to Sarnia and to free eastern Canada from its dependence on imported oil. This would probably create more jobs, especially if the oil were refined in Canada. So why is this not on the table?

RK: I fully agree, especially since this would provide Eastern Canada with energy security. I suspect it is not on the table because the oil companies can make more money faster by exporting unprocessed bitumen to Asia.

JR: Do you agree with the environmental groups who have labelled the Northern Gateway pipeline an environmental disaster of epic proportions waiting to happen?

RK: I certainly agree – not only an environmental disaster, but also an economic disaster. The BC portion of the pipeline runs through earthquake country. It crosses hundreds of streams including the Fraser and the Stikine, two of the world’s great salmon rivers. Even without earthquakes, between 1999 and 2008 Enbridge had 610 leaks, spilling 21 million litres of oil. Some of these spills were quite large, like the recent three-million-litre spill into the Kalama River in the US. In Kitimat, the bitumen would be loaded on to tankers much larger than the Exxon Valdez. These vessels then move along narrow channels known for strong winds, strong tides and dense fog, with many sharp turns, for a distance of 140 kilometres to open water. This would be two-way traffic: tankers going in with natural gas condensate and tankers going out with tar sand oil. In addition, there will be all the marine traffic going to and from the smelter in Kitimat.

Once in the Queen Charlotte basin, these tankers have to cope with severe winter storms. According to the Royal Society of Canada, “Winter wind speeds average 35 kilometre per hour with gusts up to 200 kilometres. Monster waves of more than 25 meters may occur during severe winter storms.” In l949, Canada’s largest historic earthquake occurred here (8.1 on the Richter scale) According to Natural Resources Canada, “On Queen Charlotte Island, the shaking was so severe that cows were knocked off their feet and a geologist working there could not stand up. In nearby Terrace, cars were bounced around and walking on the street was described like being on a heaving deck of a ship at sea. Further south, the Juan de Fuca and North American Plates are currently locked. There is good evidence that some time in the future these plates will snap loose generating a huge subsuction quake similar to the 1964 Alaska Quake. During that quake, the docks in Valdez harbour collapsed.” Port Alberni was hit by a tidal wave, depositing ships in the downtown core.

JR: Sounds like we have learned nothing from Japan’s Fukushima experience, where Japanese industry and government were assuring the public that nuclear plants would be safe and secure in severe earthquake zones.

RK: That seems to be true. I would like to make a final point. What is good for the ecology is also good for the economy. What is bad for the ecology is also bad for the economy. We do not have to choose between something that is good for the economy and bad for the ecology. To argue that these pipelines are good for the economy and bad for the ecology is missing the point. Even if, by the grace of God, there were no spills, burning these hydrocarbons accelerates global warming. Ocean levels rise and millions of acres of fertile, productive land are lost. The cost of rebuilding entire cities, port facilities, highways and railways, etc. will be astronomical. It is much less expensive to prevent global warming than to deal with its consequences.

As Susan Riley, columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, so poignantly put it: “Pipeline opponents will win only if Canadians, en masse, rally to defend their beautiful, blessed country rather than stepping politely aside while it is plundered again for short-term gain.”

Canadians are waking up; an unprecedented 4,500 of them have signed up as official interveners at the NEB hearings on the Northern Gateway pipeline. It is a classic David vs. Goliath battle – citizens against big oil; citizens against their own government.

Reimar Kroecher taught Economics at Langara College for over 30 years. For more information, visit the website: www.dogwoodinitiative.org

When greed meets green

a spiral lightbulb looks like it's growing out of the grass

by Ken Peters

• Just so we are clear, I love the planet and believe we are fast destroying it. I believe that debating global warming is a brilliant piece of sleight-of-hand by business. We used to just call it pollution and it was clearly bad; now they’ve got us debating global warming while we continue to rape the land and foul the oceans worse than ever. But when the government decides to tell you what you can and can’t do, based on what is best for you, we have entered into what the British call the “nanny state.” Those in favour of this approach to governing will cite tobacco regulations as an example of this being a reasonable approach (though smokers might disagree).

Who do you trust?

If we were able to actually trust the government, this might be a valid argument. But the fact is that, like science, the government has been co-opted by business. And the military serves government/business by fulfilling the function of resource extraction from other countries. Not much different now than it was during the Roman Empire (our philosophical forefathers). If you disagree with this belief, you may as well stop reading now; if you have a healthy disdain for those in power, please continue. There was a time when the medical profession encouraged smoking as a safe and healthy pastime and the government of America ensured soldiers at war were provided with tobacco, both for the benefits it offered – dealing with insane levels of stress – and for the handy pocket reminder of what they were fighting for: home and freedom.

Now, we have medical and government officials telling us EMFs from cell phone towers, wireless networks, etc, are safe enough to expose our children to them. The level of concern from those supposedly protecting our health is so low I see cell phone towers put on top of apartment buildings designed for seniors and the disabled, just to pick up a few extra bucks. And with no concern for how this might affect those weakened individuals who would be most susceptible to problems caused by EMF (electro-magnetic field) exposure. Wireless networks are in schools and parents can’t do anything about the fact that undeveloped brains are constantly exposed to electro-magnetic fields.

“Green” for whom?

Now the business/government model has a new paradigm to use to manipulate us (the “market”). They have the “green” movement, which was easily co-opted since it is a meme that engenders extreme emotions. Since most of us want to save the planet, obviously anything green must be good and if it is good and we are too stupid to do what’s “right,” right away, sometimes the government just has to step in and make us do what they know is best. They know it is best because a lobbyist told them so and provided them with the “evidence” they need for the press releases.

Green bulbs and smart meters, oh my

Case in point: “green” light bulbs and “smart-meters” for recording electrical usage. The “green” bulbs save energy. That is their claim to fame and their one advantage. Yet for those of us in the temperate to cold zones, the energy saved from the light bulb will have to be replaced with an identical thermal unit of energy acquired from conventional heating sources. So the green light bulb is really only of value, from an energy perspective, in warm and hot areas, and in the summer for the rest of us. The problem with these bulbs according to critics is threefold. They put out high levels of ultraviolet radiation, enough to damage the skin if you sit too close to them, unless they are “shielded,” which appears as a cover over the familiar spiral shape. These bulbs also emit huge amounts of EMFs, which tend to have the strongest negative effect on people who are already ill, those with compromised immune systems and those with electro-magnetic sensitivities. The effects of high EMFs are also very damaging to those with neurological diseases such as ALS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, severe autism and those with mercury toxicity. These people are the canaries in the coal mine. They are our early warning system and they are treated like hypochondriacs.

Is mercury now green?

If these green bulbs break, they release a toxic amount of mercury and one must follow hazardous material clean-up protocols. Mercury is not very green, is it? Yet someone decided for you that saving energy outweighs dumping more mercury into the environment because ultimately they are headed for the landfill. They decided this and then they mandated it so that incandescent bulbs have been outlawed at the higher wattage levels. Eventually, they will all be outlawed, varying somewhat based on where you live. This is an example of General Electric lobbyists starting this ball rolling in the US, with Canada following suit like a good lapdog, a position we seem to be happy with.

“Smart” for whom?

The so-called “smart-meters” are a great cost saver for the electric company, in part because they can lay off many workers who used to do the job of collecting data from each home. Many people are worried about yet another electro-magnetic field running through their homes 24/7 and I’ve seen video footage of one in California where all the plant material around it had died. Do you have a choice in this matter? No. They will be installed in every home unless you want to pay thousands of dollars to have yours relocated.

Freedom of choice

Where does personal choice come in and to what point are you comfortable with the government telling you what is good for you and that you have no options? After all, historically, the government’s track record is not that good. Our government is still paying reparations and making apologies to races they abused in the past. In hindsight, governments are not ever very trustworthy, as the best interests they have at heart are not those of its commoners. Now that the green movement has been co-opted by industry, it is used as a mandate to push forward profit-making agendas without anyone actually looking at the full picture or at the possible downsides to these new technologies. I suggest we continue to question authority and demand from our politicians the right to personal choice.

Ken Peters has been a nutritional consultant for more than 20 years. He is the author of Health Secrets for the 21st Century (available at amazon.com) and a natural health products formulator with nutristart.com

Time for change at the Federal Reserve

How Wall Street & the Fed fleeced the U.S.

by Senator Bernie Sanders

A portrait of Senator Bernie Sanders• As a result of the greed, recklessness and illegal behaviour on Wall Street, the American people have experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Millions of Americans, through no fault of their own, have lost their jobs, homes, life savings and the ability to send their kids to college. Small businesses have been unable to get the credit they need to expand their businesses and credit is still extremely tight. Wages, as a share of national income, are now at the lowest level since the Great Depression and the number of Americans living in poverty is at an all-time high.

Meanwhile, when small-business owners were being turned down for loans at private banks and millions of Americans were being kicked out of their homes, the Federal Reserve provided the largest taxpayer-financed bailout in the history of the world to Wall Street and to too-big-to-fail institutions, with virtually no strings attached.

Over two years ago, I asked Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, a few simple questions I thought the American people had a right to know: Who got money through the Fed bailout? How much did they receive? What were the terms of this assistance?

Incredibly, the chairman of the Fed refused to answer these fundamental questions about how trillions of taxpayer dollars were being spent. The American people are finally getting answers to these questions, thanks to an amendment I included in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill which required the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to audit and investigate conflicts of interest at the Fed. Those answers raise grave questions about the Federal Reserve and how it operates – and whose interests it serves.

As a result of these GAO reports, we learned the Federal Reserve provided a jaw-dropping $16 trillion in total financial assistance to every major financial institution in the country as well as a number of corporations, wealthy individuals and central banks throughout the world.

The GAO also revealed that many of the people who serve as directors of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks come from the exact same financial institutions that the Fed is in charge of regulating. Further, the GAO found that at least 18 current and former Fed board members were affiliated with banks and companies that received emergency loans from the Federal Reserve during the financial crisis. In other words, the people “regulating” the banks were the exact same people who were being “regulated.” Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse.

The emergency response from the Fed appears to have created two systems of government in America: one for Wall Street and another for everyone else. While the rich and powerful were “too big to fail” and were given an endless supply of cheap credit, ordinary Americans, by the tens of millions, were allowed to fail. They lost their homes. They lost their jobs. They lost their life savings. And they lost their hope for the future. This is not what American democracy is supposed to look like. It is time for change at the Fed – real change.

Among the GAO’s key findings is that the Fed lacks a comprehensive system to deal with conflicts of interest, despite the serious potential for abuse. According to the GAO, the Fed actually provided conflict of interest waivers to employees and private contractors so they could keep investments in the same financial institutions and corporations that were given emergency loans.

The GAO has detailed instance after instance of top executives of corporations and financial institutions using their influence as Federal Reserve directors to financially benefit their firms, and, in at least one instance, themselves.

For example, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase served on the New York Fed’s board of directors at the same time his bank received more than $390 billion in financial assistance from the Fed. Moreover, JP Morgan Chase served as one of the clearing banks for the Fed’s emergency lending programs.

Getting this type of disclosure was not easy. Wall Street and the Federal Reserve fought it every step of the way. But, as difficult as it was to lift the veil of secrecy at the Fed, it will be even harder to reform the Fed so that it serves the needs of all Americans and not just Wall Street. But that is exactly what we have to do.

To get this process started, I have asked some of the leading economists in this country to serve on an advisory committee to provide Congress with legislative options to reform the Federal Reserve.

Here are some of the questions I have asked this advisory committee to explore:

1. How can we structurally reform the Fed to make our nation’s central bank a more democratic institution responsive to the needs of ordinary Americans and end conflicts of interest and increase transparency? What are the best practices that central banks in other countries have developed we can learn from? Compared with central banks in Europe, Canada and Australia, the GAO found the Federal Reserve does not do a good job in disclosing potential conflicts of interest and other essential elements of transparency.

2. At a time when 16.5 percent of our people are unemployed or under-employed, how can we strengthen the Federal Reserve’s full-employment mandate and ensure the Fed conducts monetary policy to achieve maximum employment? When Wall Street was on the verge of collapse, the Federal Reserve acted with a fierce sense of urgency to save the financial system. We need the Fed to act with the same boldness to combat the unemployment crisis.

3. The Federal Reserve has a responsibility to ensure the safety and soundness of financial institutions and to contain systemic risks in financial markets. Given the top six financial institutions in the country now have assets equivalent to 65 percent of our GDP – more than $9 trillion – is there any reason why this extraordinary concentration of ownership should not be broken up? Should a bank that is “too big to fail” be allowed to exist?

4. The Federal Reserve has the responsibility to protect the credit rights of consumers. At a time when credit card issuers are charging millions of Americans interest rates of 25 percent or more, should policy options be established to ensure the Federal Reserve and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau protect consumers against predatory lending, usury and exorbitant fees in the financial services industry?

5. At a time when the dream of homeownership has turned into the nightmare of foreclosure for too many Americans, what role should the Federal Reserve be playing in providing relief to homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages and in combating the foreclosure crisis and making housing more affordable?

6. At a time when the US has the most inequitable distribution of wealth and income of any major country and the greatest gap between the very rich and everyone else since 1928, what policies can be established at the Federal Reserve which reduces income and wealth inequality in the US?

Given the growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the concerns of millions of Americans about Wall Street, we now have a unique opportunity to make significant changes to one of the most powerful and secretive agencies of the federal government. One thing is abundantly clear: Americans deserve a Federal Reserve that works for them, not just for the CEOs on Wall Street.

Bernard “Bernie” Sanders is the United States Senator from Vermont and the former mayor of Burlington, Vermont.

Our oceans need help

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki

david suzuki• It’s been 20 years since Canada’s East Coast cod fishery collapsed and we still have no recovery target or timeline for rebuilding populations. That’s just one finding in a damning report from a panel of eminent Royal Society of Canada marine scientists. “Sustaining Canada’s Marine Biodiversity” notes Canada has “failed to meet most of our national and international commitments to protect marine biodiversity” and “lags behind other modernized nations in almost every aspect of fisheries management.”

For a country surrounded on three sides by oceans, with the longest coastline in the world, that’s shameful. Successive federal governments have failed to recognize our oceans as much more than reservoirs of resources to exploit for short-term gain. You’d think the decline of the Northern cod fishery, largely caused by mismanagement, would have taught us something.

The Royal Society panel focused on climate change, fisheries and aquaculture… The problem, it found, was not an absence of knowledge, science or policy, but rather “a consistent, disheartening lack of action on well-established knowledge and best-practice and policies, some of which have been around for years.”

Although Canada has made an international commitment to establish a protected network covering 10 percent of our ocean territory, it has protected less than one percent.

In fact, the federal government recently rejected millions of dollars in funding for a collaborative effort to establish a marine spatial plan and network of protected areas in Canada’s Pacific North Coast waters. First Nations, industry, government and environmental organizations, including the David Suzuki Foundation, had been making progress on the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area (PNCIMA) for years, but the federal government stymied the process by failing to invest adequate funding and by rejecting support from a philanthropic organization.

Its reason? The government was worried marine protected areas and marine use plans based on ecosystem science might restrict oil tanker traffic. The loss of more than $8 million dollars from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was a blow to the process and the government has not stepped in to make up for the shortfall.

Rather than protect the Pacific’s valuable resources, opportunities, and habitat… it appears the government would rather risk it all by pushing the Northern Gateway pipeline project to ship crude bitumen from the tar sands through precarious Pacific Coast waterways to China and California.

Besides an apparent lack of interest on the part of government regarding the health of Canada’s oceans, the report identifies a major problem that puts us behind most developed nations: a “major conflict of interest at Fisheries and Oceans Canada between its mandate to promote industrial and economic activity and its responsibility for conserving marine life and ocean health.” The panel offered a number of sensible recommendations, which include addressing the conflict of interest and living up to our commitments to marine biodiversity.

Our government is gaining a reputation for ignoring or discounting the advice of scientists. Let’s tell our leaders our future depends on the future of the oceans and this advice must be heeded. The science is clear; it’s time to do more.

Putting the love in revolution

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

 

• On March 17, it will be six months since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street and the subsequent cascade of grassroots occupations that followed across the Western world. Two local filmmakers who have been documenting the Occupy movement – from the Arab Spring, through Zuccotti Park to the Vancouver Art Gallery – are philosopher-filmmaker Velcrow Ripper and Port Moody-based Ian MacKenzie. Their online series of inspirational thought pieces and vignettes captures the diversity and idealism of the Occupy movement in its most intoxicating form. The pieces are just the appetizers for the main course, Occupy Love, which is the third documentary feature in a trilogy. It started with the award-winning Scared Sacred, in which Velcrow Ripper tried to find hope in the ground zeros of the world; subsequently, in Fierce Light he recognized the awesome potency of non-violent protest and Occupy Love, he says, will answer the question “How are the economic and ecological crises we are facing today a great love story?”

The film is due for theatrical release later this year, but the film’s gestation has been a shared social media activity. Occupy Love just raised $53,000 through the crowd-funding website indiegogo.com to help complete the film and its ideas have been seeded in pithy, short videos. Check out Occupy Wall Street – The Revolution Is Love (it’s only five minutes) where MacKenzie melds an articulate monologue by Sacred Economics author Charles Eisenstein with intriguing visuals of Occupy participants. It’s a wake-up call. Our monetarist system is failing us. “What we want to create is the more beautiful world that our hearts tell us is possible. A sacred world,” says Eisenstein.

Eisenstein’s latest, the 13-minute Sacred Economics (online from March 1), elaborates more on his thesis that we are evolving a new, holistic “story of self” in our relationship with others and the planet, having realized that aggressive individualism and the commodification of nature and community are a source of loneliness and unhappiness. Our monetarist system weakens, reduces and impoverishes us. “We’re nearing the end of growth,” he adds. “That’s why the crisis that we have today won’t go away.”

I’m not sure how much it resonates with Jennifer Baichwal’s Payback (out on March 23), which is based on Margaret Atwood’s 2008 Massey Lectures book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/massey-lectures/) I haven’t seen the film yet, but with local ecological footprint inventor Bill Rees featured among the five separate stories, the debt in question is clearly not just a financial affair.

With hearings on the Northern Gateway pipeline joint review panel underway, it’s also a good time to revisit the 45-minute Spoil (www.ilcp.com, http://vimeo.com/19582018). The film follows a team from the International League of Conservation Photographers and members of the Gitga’at Nation in Hartley Bay, as they gather imagery and stories about the ecologically rich Great Bear Rainforest to share with the world, in particular, the elusive white-coated, spirit bear. It’s abundantly clear why oil tankers must have no place here.

Finally, the director of Einsatzgruppen, Michael Prazan, is guest speaker for his lauded, three-hour investigation into Nazi death squads (March 11, 1PM, www.vjff.org).

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

Act now to save the Canadian Wheat Board

Closeup of a field of wheat

Or face the end of food sovereignty in Canada

by Ken Larsen

• While the popular media is full of stories of globalization and its corrosive effects on local communities, most are unaware of the back-story when it comes to the Canadian Wheat Board. In the grain trade, globalization is not a new story. In fact, it pre-dates the settling of Canada’s west by over half a century. The Wheat Board was a uniquely constructive and successful response to globalization created in Canada’s west.

By the time our grandfathers and grandmothers were settling homesteads to grow wheat on the prairies in the early 1900s, the global grain market was already a mature, fully globalized market dominated by just five giant corporations. These privately owned companies, mutations of which still operate today and still control 80% of the tradable grain on the planet, were connected to international commodity markets and the world’s grain growing areas by the telegraph. Through the telegraph, stocks were traded and grain prices set instantaneously around the globe. Faced with these giant grain companies, western farmers found they were powerless to negotiate a fair price for their crops. Farmers saw the idea of collective bargaining through a single-desk Wheat Board as a way to have market power through cooperation and thereby get a fair price.

It was not until 1920s that the first Wheat Board was created. An agricultural depression began at the end of WWI and by 1920 speculation had essentially frozen the futures market pushing the international price of wheat to near zero. The west’s farmers faced financial ruin. Under strong pressure, Ottawa created the first Canadian Wheat Board to bypass the dysfunctional private market. This Board acted as the collective sales agent for the west’s farmers. It sold the crop in an orderly manner directly to customers bypassing speculators and the private trade. The Board was very successful at getting fair prices and was immensely popular among the west’s grain farmers.

Under pressure from private trade, then Prime Minister Arthur Meighen’s Conservative government removed the first single-desk CWB in August 1920. Prices in the west promptly collapsed and Canadian grain flooded into the US. To protect their own farmers, the US closed its border to Canadian grain and cattle in May of 1921. In response, Canadian farmers used their Wheat Pool cooperatives to set up a Central Selling Agency (CSA) in an attempt to create another wheat board. However, without government support they did not have the single-desk mandate needed to create the conditions for true orderly marketing to keep prices stable. Western farmers also defeated every Conservative MP in the west in 1921 and continued to lobby for the return of the single-desk Wheat Board.

By 1935, times were so desperate Conservative Prime Minister R. B. Bennett (a former railway company lawyer from Calgary) finally listened to farmers and passed the Canadian Wheat Board Act. Farmers continued pushing for the federal government to take the last step and proclaim the single-desk provision in the Canadian Wheat Board Act. Mackenzie King’s government finally did so in 1943, a little over 22 years after farmers lost their first Wheat Board and more than 43 years since farmers first began lobbying for a single-desk. The initial price for wheat set by the single-desk CWB was $1.25 per bushel, five cents above the private market. The single-desk was supported by all the Wheat Pools and every major farm group in the west. The single-desk finally gave farmers full control over their grain from the farm gate to the customer; the barriers of the private trade had finally been broken.

In 1998, amendments to the Canadian Wheat Board Act enabled farmers to elect 10 out of the 15 members of the Board of Directors. The CWB, which had always been farmer-owned, was now fully farmer-controlled. In every CWB election, 8 of the 10 directors have supported the CWB’s single-desk. The new directors took an aggressive role when it came to protecting farmers’ interests.

In an attempt to undermine the farmer-controlled organization, the two foreign owned railways slowed grain shipments to the coast during 1996 and 1997 costing farmers money for tardy delivery and lost sales. The CWB responded by successfully suing the two railways, winning $15 million in compensation from CP Rail and an undisclosed amount from CN Rail in 1999.

More significantly, Monsanto and other biotech companies started a process to introduce genetically modified (GM) wheat into Canada, the US and Australia. After consulting its foreign and domestic customers, the CWB opposed the introduction on the basis GM wheat was non-salable – nobody wanted to eat it. Ultimately, the proposal was withdrawn in Canada, but it is still in process in the US and is being re-introduced into Australia now that the Australian Wheat Board, which functioned similarly to the CWB, has been removed.

Trouble had been brewing since 1989 when Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney arbitrarily removed oats from the Wheat Board. Private interests persuaded Mulroney to remove oats in the middle of the crop year, creating a $32 million deficit when the Board’s inventory plunged in value – a deficit that amounted to a windfall for private trade. Brian Mulroney went on to sit on the Board of Directors of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), one of the five giant grain companies.

It was not long before other private groups were demanding the Wheat Board stop selling durum wheat, used for pasta, so they could process it on the prairies. Not unreasonably, farmers asked why they should effectively subsidize a private business by providing cheap grain. Coincidentally, in 1997, the National Citizens Coalition (NCC) found itself with generous funding to allow its then vice-president and later president, Stephen Harper, to attack the legitimacy of the Board with print and radio advertisements across western Canada. Farmers asked where the NCC was getting the funding for these efforts but Mr. Harper remained tight lipped.

Later, farmers again raised questions when the Commons Ethics Committee hearings held in 2007 heard testimony that former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Karlheinz Schreiber had a business arrangement in 1993, which Schreiber at least contended included pasta. Mulroney contended the arrangement was legitimate and private, created later based on a special position he took on the Board of Archer Daniels Midland.

Ten years before the hearings, in October of 1996 ADM was fined $100 million in the US for price fixing and two subsequent books based on those court cases documented how ADM financed farmers and other groups to advance its business interests in grain processing. Naturally, Canadian farmers wanted to know if the Mulroney-Schreiber pasta business included financing the NCC’s attacks on their Wheat Board.

By this time, Stephen Harper was Prime Minister. In November 2007, he appointed David Johnston, now our Governor General, then president of the University of Waterloo, to recommend a course of action. Johnston’s January 2008 report recommended conducting a commission of inquiry restricted to dealings between Mulroney and Schreiber pertaining to matters of legitimate “public interest” and not covered in other inquiries. Harper appointed Justice Oliphant to conduct the inquiry.

Justice Oliphant followed the Schreiber-Mulroney money trail on pasta and wrote: “I have concluded that, whatever Mr. Mulroney did respecting Mr. Schreiber’s pasta business, it was not done as part of the mandate he received from Mr. Schreiber on August 27, 1993. Any work done by Mr. Mulroney in respect of the pasta business was done on behalf of his friend and former colleague Mr. [Elmer] MacKay, as well as a friend of Mr. MacKay’s who was involved with Mr. Schreiber in the pasta business.” (Page 233, Chapter 6: The Agreement, Oliphant Commission Report, May 2010.) (Editor’s note: Elmer MacKay is the father of Peter MacKay, our current Minister of National Defence.)

Within days of the conclusion of the Commission, the Harper government ordered the extradition of Mr. Schreiber, over his objections, to Germany where he disappeared into the penal system.

Mr. Harper and the NCC’s obsession with pasta and where the NCC got the funding to spend so freely on its attacks on the CWB never became an issue before the Oliphant commission and remains a mystery to this day.

During the bi-annual CWB Directors’ Elections, private trade-friendly farmers were encouraged to seek Directorships on the Wheat Board, but farmers consistently rejected such candidates, at least in part thanks to the preferential balloting system. Using that system, farmer-voters are able to rank candidates from first to last. On a preferential ballot, if a voter’s first preference of candidate loses, the voter’s second choice comes into effect. This system ensures that, in elections with multiple candidates, no vote preferences are lost and the winner must have secured 50% plus one to win. Over the years, some contests have been simple two-person elections, but even in those cases, CWB single-desk supporters usually won.

Today, Steven Harper is the Prime Minister and on December 15, 2011, the Conservative- dominated Senate passed Bill C-18, legislation ending the Canadian Wheat Board single-desk and dismissing its farmer-elected directors. The Harper-appointed Governor General gave it Royal Assent the same day.

These actions were done in spite of a ruling by Federal court judge, the Honourable Douglas Campbell, that Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz had broken the law by introducing legislation to gut the Canadian Wheat Board without consulting the farmer-elected Board of Directors and holding a fair vote among farmers to determine their wishes on the fate of the organization that they owned, controlled and paid for as the law stipulated.

With the passage of Bill C-18, Canadians have a Prime Minister who contends that following the law is optional for his government. Judge Campbell called this “an affront to the rule of law.” There have only been three times since the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982 when a government has implemented legislation the courts have determined is illegal; all three occurred under the Harper Conservatives.

On December 14, in an act of courage and integrity, the farmer-elected directors of the Canadian Wheat Board held a news conference in Winnipeg, announcing they would be challenging Harper’s arbitrary and unlawful use of executive power and would ask the courts to make the Harper regime follow the law. Since C-18 removed them from their elected positions, the elected-directors brought the challenge forward as individuals.

This news conference was reminiscent of another historic news conference held decades ago in Alberta. In 1929, a group of women, prominent among them Irene Parlby, a farmwoman from Didsbury, Alberta, announced they had successfully used the courts to establish that women were persons under the law. This established the basis for our modern system of individual rights. These women were heavily supported by the western farm community and Mrs. Parlby, as a Cabinet Minister in the United Farmers of Alberta government, had its full support.

Like the above-mentioned case, the results of the farmers’ challenge to C-18 will set the course for the future of Canadian democracy. By ignoring Judge Campbell’s ruling and implementing Bill C-18, Prime Minister Harper and his government have shown disdain for the rule of law. This is not how Canadian democracy should function. In his ruling, Judge Campbell quoted Chief Justice Fraser who wrote: “The detrimental consequences of the executive branch of government defining for itself – and by itself – the scope of its lawful power have been revealed, often bloodily, in the tumult of history.”

Farmers from western Canada are now fighting a battle by standing up for Canada’s traditions of community action, democracy and the rule of law. Court cases on this matter will be ongoing in 2012 and farmers could use your financial and moral support.

Donations for this critical court case may be made:

– To Friends of the CWB online at http://friendsofcwb.ca/j/donate

– Cheques may be mailed to The Friends of the CWB, P.O. Box 41, Brookdale, MB, R0K 0G0. – Donations may also be sent to the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance, Box 125, Hussar, AB, T0J 1S0. Please make cheques payable to Canadian Wheat Board Alliance, noting it is for court challenges. There is also a paypal donation button at www.cwbafacts.ca/donate/

For more information, see cwbafacts.ca. Ken Larsen runs a commercial-scale farm west of Red Deer, Alberta, using organic principles to grow barley, non-GM canola and forage crops. A long- time farm activist, he has participated in most of the major farm policy debates in western Canada over the past 25 years. He has numerous publications and articles to his credit and is an occasional commentator on CBC radio. He helped to found the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance.

The Alliance is a politically non-partisan organization of several hundred farmers focused specifically on the Canadian Wheat Board. Members of the Alliance recognize the advantages the Board brings to producers through the single-desk and price pooling, quality assurance through the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC), as well as the important role the CWB plays as an advocate for farmers in transportation, producer cars and on the world stage in trade disputes and negotiations. The Alliance draws memberships throughout the west.

Footnotes:

1. Lieber, James B. Rats in the Grain – The Dirty Tricks and Trials of Archer Daniels Midland. Four Walls Eight Windows Publishing: New York, 2000.

Eichenwald, Kurt. The Informant. Broadway Books: New York, 2000.

2. Johnston wrote: “These are concerns about the integrity of high-level government officials. The key issue is the relationship between Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Schreiber that led to cash payments. An inquiry should not be a wide-ranging review of Airbus, Eurocopter, the Bear Head Project or any of Mr. Schreiber’s other dealings.” (Page 22, Report of the Independent Advisor into the Allegations Respecting Financial Dealings Between Mr. Karlheinz Schreiber and the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney, David Johnston, January 2008)