It's early saturday morning, no time for a miserable alarm clock to be disturbing my dreams. But I've got to give respect. So I shake off the protesting inner voices to see what Canada's elder patriots are serving up at the cold, cavernous Metro Convention Centre.No trouble finding a few seats to spread out on in the gigantic, dwarfing sweep of space that's home base for the Canadian Conference on Unity, Sovereignty and Prosperity. To make the event's label even more unappealing, organizers seem to prefer using the acronym CUSP.
But I'm interested because this is a major roundup of the soldiers who have been in the trenches for a long time fighting a losing war against U.S. integration. "Thirty-five years ago I would have scoffed at making a speech like this," says Canada's Don Quixote leader-in-waiting, Paul Hellyer. "We are in danger of losing our democracy."
Now that Bush has added a new global war on civil liberties to a foreign policy and trade agenda that were already terrifying, it seems time to listen up.
The sponsors list includes the names of many prominent Canadians with diverse political affiliations who at some point back in the day befriended our Canadian nationalists -- Lincoln Alexander, Avie Bennett, Norman Jewison, Karen Kain, Patrick Watson. Even John Turner is on the list.
Pioneering journalist Doris Anderson and anti-NAFTA crusader David Orchard are prominent on the agenda, along with well-known pundits like Linda McQuaig and Jim Stanford.
Typical of the featured speakers and first one up is Mel Hurtig, founder of the Canadian Encyclopedia and the Council of Canadians. In the U.S., he says, unpaid medical bills are the second-largest cause of bankruptcy. "Canada is a much better country, and we shouldn't be afraid to say so." Like many here, he says we need to "walk away from the FTAA and NAFTA and become activists in the WTO." Among a rich list of reforms, he supports the proposal (along with maybe Jean Chretien) to get rid of corporate and trade union political donations to achieve "complete transparency at every level of politics." Listen up, Paul Martin.
But it's topics like Agriculture And The Biosphere and Implications Of International Trade Agreements For Municipal Governments And Local Sovereignty that pull me in.
They no longer feel like optional study areas that can wait until later. Here's a chilling example from agriculture panelist Jim Mackenzie, a general surgeon from Sarnia: "Statistics show that new cancer cases and deaths due to cancer are rising at an alarming rate (if the declining deaths for males due to smoking are removed). The National Cancer Institute in the USA expects the incidence of cancer to double by 2050.
"Public policies are often based on research provided by the affected companies (who produce suspected carcinogens). They often advise arbitrary maximum standards for human exposure and then use their research to show that the population is never exposed to that level. It is obvious that rats are too expensive for the companies, so they prefer to use the North American population as their research laboratory," he says.
"The same companies that make the toxic products used on the fields own seed companies that are hell-bent on making genetically engineered crops that withstand even higher doses of pesticides. They also make the pharmaceuticals that treat patients once they get the diseases caused by their products. And they build the machinery such as mammography units that diagnose the diseases. Talk about the fox in the hen house," he concludes.
This is a movement that started fighting against "foreign ownership" in the 60s in response to the way American "branch plants" were beginning to take over Canadian business. We probably have these folks to thank for whatever restrictions against foreign ownership still apply despite the best efforts of NAFTA and the WTO.
But in the last year, the context has changed. So even though this is a seemingly respectable group of lofty Canadians, including past and sitting MPs, they are in many ways more on the front line of the anti-corporate agenda than a group of International Socialists.
Sitting MP John Godfrey (Don Valley West) describes the change from his perspective. During the Clinton era in the 90s, he says his government "fudged issues of sovereignty." Because Clinton was less in-our-face, there were no "hard-edged issues -- nothing to coalesce around." At first, at least, Bush's foreign policy wasn't substantially different, but there was a definite "shift in tone." He describes being in caucus in March 2001 and hearing "Chretien's increasing frustration (at) how the U.S. was expressing itself."
Godfrey calls the new American tone a combo of "triumphalism and paranoia" and warns of the importance of resisting any "phony linkages between trade and security." He says those who argue that increased military integration will win trade concessions from the U.S. might remember how much good the Free Trade Agreement has done for Canada's softwood lumber industry.
I keep wondering why this conference is taking place at a time when university students are deep into essay deadlines and exams. That's one reason why a majority of those in the sparsely occupied seats might qualify for one of Canada's beloved universal social programs -- the old age pension.
At the same time, though, the place is full of passion. Which is what it takes to pay good money to sit here for two days of solid back-to-back speeches and love it right to the end, as a number of participants tell me they do.
When it starts, I look at the agenda and can't imagine how I will be able to make it through. Canada's nationalist old guard hasn't really learned a lot about selling its ideas in the last 30 or 40 years. Still, after finding myself surprisingly alive and OK at the end, I'm left feeling appreciative of these senior-citizen activists.
Of course, some of their preoccupations -- like David Orchard's vision of a Canadian car "created and manufactured in Canada" -- leave me utterly cold. But it strikes me that, all in all, this group is a major resource, a rich reserve of potentially renewable political energy in desperate need of a generational pipeline.
Paul Hellyer tells me that it's the spectre of sliding quietly into disastrous military integration with the United States that has prompted the (bad) timing of this gathering. Such are the decisions taken by Ottawa, particularly around the Northern Command, that by next April Canadian troops could be "in essence under U.S. command."
It is this thinking that has awarded the keynote speech to U.S. representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. He's the leader of the progressive caucus of the Congressional Democrats and the sponsor of proposed legislation to ban space-based weapons. While the pre- 9/11 Star Wars militarization plan may have dropped off the media's purview, growing numbers suspect that it has not dropped off Bush's agenda.
Rather than filling the heavens with weapons of mass destruction, Kucinich asks us to "imagine the earth and sky reconciling, the moon bathed in the love of earth. Seeking to ban weapons in space is a sacred mission for every prayer with wings."
The same huge sense of urgency fuels the panel on health care. "This is our year to make gains or lose the whole system," says Ontario Health Coalition coordinator Natalie Mehra.
Social Planning Council program director Armine Yalnizyan corrects her. It's more like six weeks, she says. If the money for Romanow's recommendations aren't in the February budget, she says our public system is done for.
"When we learn how to take care of ourselves, we are a beacon for people around the world." To start her session, she asks us all "to take a moment to reflect on how blessed we are."
I give thanks for being at an event with no corporate sponsors. Duh. Only a big bold Canadian flag is taped to the curtained podium backdrop. Symbols speak volumes in the ways their meaning shift and resonate. As I've sat here, that flag has become a symbol of democracy, social values and resistance to the corporate and U.S. "perma-war" agenda. I'd stand on guard for that. firstname.lastname@example.org