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Canada’s Coercive Diplomacy: How the Liberals Impose the Woke Agenda on Developing Countries


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From the C2C Journal

By Anna Farrow
When – or perhaps if – Canadians think about “foreign aid”, they probably imagine idealistic aid workers treating patients in a remote health clinic, a technical expert designing a new bridge or perhaps an academic offering advice on operating fair courts of law. But these are all being pushed into the background as ideology takes over the planning and provision of Canada’s foreign assistance programs. Not only have bridges and tractors given way to morning-after pills and wind turbines, but aid programs are being shaped to serve only certain kinds of people. The kinds Liberals like. Anna Farrow charts the radical remaking of foreign assistance in which Canada uses foreign aid to interfere in the domestic politics and local cultures of recipient countries, turning the mild-mannered middle power into a practitioner of coercive diplomacy and cultural imperialism – arguably even neo-colonialism.

“Far from deploying Canadian aid workers to African countries to listen, learn and craft policies that promote development in line with local goals and aspirations,” Mulroney said in an e-mail interview, “Canada simply transfers funds to its likeminded partners in multilateral organizations, progressive foundations, and the big abortion providers like Planned Parenthood.”

Climate, contraception and the queer-nexus. This unlikely triad of foreign assistance priorities has become the face of Canada in the developing world. Foreign policy – and how Canada applies it on the world stage – usually receives scant public attention. Amid the current array of domestic troubles – cost of living, housing crisis, urban blight, opioid overdoses, revolving-door criminal justice – it is hard to excite voters about how Canadian taxes are being used overseas.
Spectacular fiascos: Canada’s “front end” international reputation has been in decline throughout the Liberals’ nine years in office – thanks to, among other incidents, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s odd sartorial decisions during his 2018 visit to India (top), Canada’s disintegrating military (middle), and the foreign policy establishment’s failure to secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2020 (bottom). But what happens in the “back end” – like foreign aid – is equally important. (Sources of photos: (top) The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick; (middle) Canadian Army; (bottom) IAEA Imagebank, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

When foreign affairs do get noticed, typically the front-facing actions of the prime minister, foreign affairs minister or defence minister are scrutinized. And why not, since it’s a target-rich environment, with Canada experiencing some spectacular failures over the Liberals’ nine years in office. In 2020, after an intense and costly push, Canada failed to secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council that its foreign policy establishment had long craved. A year later, Canada was left out of AUKUS, a new defence and security pact among the United States, United Kingdom and Australia intended to counter China’s expansionism. Just last month, 23 U.S. senators from both parties issued a letter deeply critical of Canada’s parsimonious defence spending. And then there’s the symbolic damage wrought by Canada’s performative prime minister, such as his cringeworthy decision on a 2018 state visit to India to dress himself and his family in traditional Indian wedding garb.

A largely unexamined though arguably even more important feature of foreign policy, however, is the back end, the foreign assistance administered and funded through Global Affairs Canada. Under the Justin Trudeau government, assistance diplomacy has been transformed – and in ways at least as worrisome and damaging as the more high-profile examples cited above.

The words “development assistance” probably conjure up images of Canadian specialists overseeing the provision of clean water in dirt-poor rural areas, conducting immunizations of vulnerable children, building roads, planning much-needed energy infrastructure in regions that still use dung fires and candle-light, constructing new schools, fighting forest fires, or organizing and staffing colleges that turn out agronomists, foresters, hydrologists, engineers and so on. In other words, doing the things needed to, first, address crises that are killing people and shortening lives, and second, providing poor countries the tools needed to lift themselves out of poverty over the long term.

But if these were ever the priorities, they have been deliberately cast aside. In 2017, then Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau produced a 77-page policy document, Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy. The paper is explicitly calibrated to the United Nations-sponsored Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Agenda, a multilateral agreement signed by Canada in 2015, describes itself as “a global blueprint…to achieve gender equality, reach net zero emissions, halt and reverse nature loss, build resilient and inclusive societies and economies, and make sure everyone has access to quality education and health care.”

Sharing whose “values”? Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, unveiled in 2017 by then Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland (left) and Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau (right), places “the right to access safe and legal abortions” “at the core” of Canada’s foreign policy, accompanied by a $14-billion budget over a 10-year period. (Sources of photos: (left) OEA-OAS, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; (right) The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

Like the 2030 Agenda, Canada’s Feminist Foreign Policy advocates an “intersectionality” that ties together climate action and feminism. Bibeau described it as a “new vision for international assistance” and proclaimed that Canada should play “a leading international role.” In her preface to the document, Freeland wrote that, “Canadians are safer and more prosperous when more of the world shares our values.” For the average Canadian, the word “values” probably brings to mind things like a commitment to democracy, individual equality, tolerance of minorities and religions, or being left at liberty to pursue a livelihood and build a family. But those are apparently not the most important values of the people who plan and implement Canada’s foreign assistance effort.

Freeland performed a nifty conceptual shuffle by moving from the innocuous statement that “women’s rights are human rights” to an explication that those rights include “sexual and reproductive rights – and the right to access safe and legal abortions,” and then to the pronouncement that, “These rights are at the core of our foreign policy.” In Freeland’s world Canadian “values” – and the values Canada seeks to transmit to other countries – are focused in very particular areas and skew towards a particular end of the ideological spectrum. Whatever your view is on contraception and abortion rights, the idea that sexual and reproductive “health and rights” are top-tier Canadian values, should drive foreign assistance funding and lie at the “core” of the nation’s foreign policy should surely all be matters for serious public scrutiny and debate.

The money was fairly quick to follow the policy directives flowing from the 2017 paper. In 2019, Trudeau announced that Canada would spend $14 billion to “support women and girls’ health around the world”, with half of the funds earmarked for sexual and reproductive health and rights. The funding envelope was to extend for 10 years. The $1.4 billion per year represents 9 percent of the approximately $16 billion Canada spent on foreign assistance in fiscal 2023 and 79 percent of the amount allocated to health. The Liberals’ most recent budget includes a further $4.2 billion over six years for the provision of contraception and abortion globally. This funding was included in the section of the budget document entitled “Upholding Canadian Values Around the World.”

It appears the ideological commitment to what is always termed “modern contraception” and abortion as the tickets to women’s freedom and economic independence precedes engagement with the countries in which Global Affairs is involved. David Mulroney, Canada’s former ambassador to China under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has consistently hammered away at this point. “Far from deploying Canadian aid workers to African countries to listen, learn and craft policies that promote development in line with local goals and aspirations,” Mulroney said in an e-mail interview, “Canada simply transfers funds to its likeminded partners in multilateral organizations, progressive foundations, and the big abortion providers like Planned Parenthood.”

Billion-dollar business: A foreign aid effort that once focused on roads, bridges, immunization and schooling – and did not discriminate among favoured identity groups – now lavishes billions of dollars on sex-ed, contraception and abortion – couched euphemistically as support for “women and girls’ health around the world”. (*Sexual and reproductive health and rights.) (Source of graph: Global Affairs Canada)

In many cases, Global Affairs is not doing the development work but outsources it to agenda-driven, left-leaning non-governmental organizations (NGO) whose missions align with that of the current government. A quick search of the government grant site gets 48 hits on the keywords “Planned Parenthood”. Many of these are smaller grants to local Planned Parenthood Canada offices through the government’s Summer Jobs program, but the search shows that close to $78 million has been provided to International Planned Parenthood or Action Canada through Global Affairs programming.

Given the level of funding that many of these organizations receive, and the close ideological affinity between the two parties, they cross the line from NGO to QUANGO, or quasi-non-governmental organization (better terms might be “pseudo-governmental organization” or “government proxy”). One example is Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, also known as Planned Parenthood Canada. The organization disclosed in its 2022-2023 financial statements that close to 60 per cent of its annual funding is derived from government sources.

Global Affairs Canada delegates much of the program implementation to like-minded organizations such as Planned Parenthood, whose Canadian program funding is used to produce sex-ed (top) and school learning material with explicit (and wildly promotional) sexual content, and whose international branches distribute similar material in developing countries.

Much of the program funding is designated for sex-ed, which is couched in grant-writing language as a matter of access to reproductive rights. But the curriculum developed for these subsidized programs is not comprised of straightforward biology lessons with age-appropriate information about available forms of contraception. The keyword is “comprehensive” sexual education (CSE), which follows a “pleasure-based” methodology. The “right” to sexual pleasure – to “satisfy yourself”, as a Zambian government document aimed at children puts it – is now one of the reproductive rights children are being taught they are entitled to.

In 2020, Global Affairs funded a four-year, $11 million project with Action Canada and the International Planned Parenthood Federation entitled “Rights from the Start” that targeted four South American countries: Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana and Peru. To take a few selected development indicators, less than 20 percent of Ecuador’s road system is paved. The average life expectancy in Bolivia was 63.6 years in 2021 – and falling. Guyana’s was slightly higher – but also falling. Peru ranks 129th worldwide in the number of motor vehicles per capita.

Coercive diplomacy in action: Canada’s “Rights from the Start” project pushes unrestricted abortion access along with “gender equality outcomes” in Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana and Peru – countries where abortion is illegal or severely restricted and opposed by large proportions of the population. Shown, anti-abortion demonstrations in Quito, Ecuador (top) and La Paz, Bolivia (bottom). (Sources of photos: (top) AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa; (bottom) AP Photo/Juan Karita)

But these nuts and bolts issues aren’t of any concern to the Action Canada project, which instead lists a number of expected “gender equality outcomes”, including the “strengthened capacity of partner organizations to develop and implement advocacy plans for the fulfilment of human rights comprehensive sexuality education.”

Abortion, interestingly, is illegal in Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, except for cases of rape, incest or endangerment to the mother’s life, and illegal after eight weeks’ gestation in Guyana. It is not a big leap to conclude that the choice of those four countries upon which to push unrestricted abortion is not accidental and that Global Affairs is essentially funding an activist group to lobby a foreign government to effect legal and political changes there. Whatever one thinks of abortion and how freely available it should be, such programs appear to cross the line from “development assistance” to ideologically driven political agitation.

The queer-nexus (aka LGBTQ2SI) funding also sees Global Affairs outsourcing program delivery to advocacy groups. In 2019 – the year Trudeau announced the $14 billion for women’s health – Bibeau announced $30 million over five years and $10 million in every subsequent year “to advance human rights and improve socio-economic outcomes for LGBTQ2 people in developing countries.” We are now a very long way from building the proverbial water well in the poor village – let alone one that’s available to every villager. Canada is instead targeting its expertise and its taxpayers’ funds at particular types of people deemed worthy of help – and they happen to be the very sorts of people the Trudeau Liberals also favour in their domestic policies.

Under an agreement entitled LGBTI Pathways, Global Affairs last year granted over $1 million to ILGA World (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association) “to improve the lives of LGBTI persons across the world.” How was this goal to be achieved? Largely, it seems, by teaching global LGBTI organizations how to lobby for more funding. The project’s two expected outcomes were “enhanced awareness of donors on the priorities, strategies, and funding gaps of the international and regional LGBTI movements…and an increased capacity of LGBTI-led organizations…to advocate with donors to influence policy making and funding strategies.”

The same year, Global Affairs gave nearly $500,000 to Égides, a Francophone non-profit, to advance the “Rights and Well-being of LBTQI+ Women and Girls in West Africa and International Spaces.” Also in 2023, a Global Affairs-funded agreement with Rainbow Railroad, a U.S. and Canada based non-profit that “helps at-risk LGBTQI+ people get to safety worldwide,” provided $700,000 to conduct a meta-analysis, convene roundtables and hold a “3-day conference on policy issues related to forced displacements in a Global South transit country.”

One might think it would be hard to tie feminism, sexual liberation, queer- and transgenderism, foreign policy and climate policy all together but, according to the Government of Canada, “environment and climate action is a pillar of” the Feminist International Assistance Policy. Why would that be? “Research has shown,” the document continues, “that climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately affect women and girls, and that women and girls can be powerful agents of change if given access and control over environmental resources. Since the introduction of the [Feminist Policy], Canada has strengthened its work at the nexus of gender and climate action.” This has become a standard intersectional verbal slide of ministers and apparatchiks.

Improbable nexus: The Trudeau government’s foreign aid effort has somehow merged feminism, sexual liberation, transgenderism and climate-change policies – by, for example, claiming that “climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately affect women and girls.” (Sources of photos: (left) agroffman, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; (right) Julie Gorecki, retrieved from The Feminist Wire)

The Liberal policy also is being pushed by Canada’s left-wing opposition parties. In late May, NDP MP Laurel Collins addressed the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, saying (at 16:00 in the linked video for May 23), “Climate emergencies are not gender neutral. The degradation of ecosystems disproportionately impacts women and girls, and I am wildly emotional. This is the existential crisis of our time.”

Whether it is actually occurring or not, this “existential crisis” is certainly costly, already resulting in the transfer of large amounts of money from taxpayers in the Frozen North. Canada is currently on the tail end of a five-year, $5.3 billion International Climate Finance Program that encourages recipient countries to adopt practices that may not even be to their benefit.

A portion of those billions was, for example, allotted to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, which received $35 million to undertake a project entitled “Nature Positive Food Systems for Climate Change Adaptation.” The project “aims to improve low carbon, climate-resilient economies in rural areas of Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Zimbabwe for enhanced well-being of communities, especially women, girls, and other vulnerable groups.”

Canada’s $35-million “Nature Positive Food Systems for Climate Change Adaptation” project seeks to enhance “well-being of communities, especially women, girls, and other vulnerable groups” in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – countries where men live far shorter lives than women. Shown are rural areas of Ethiopia (top) and Kenya (bottom). (Sources of photos: (top) Rod Waddington, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; (bottom) ELIX, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The average life expectancy at birth in these four countries is, incidentally, five-and-a-half to seven years longer for women than men, suggesting men might actually be the “vulnerable group”. Instead, men presumably will be left to fend for themselves in the allegedly hotter, drier, more hostile and unpredictable climate that is to come. Who knows, perhaps simply by stealing some of that delicious “nature-positive food” that will be grown by all those aid-receiving, longer-lived women and girls.

Even were we to stipulate that women and girls in certain developing countries are in greater need of Canadian largesse than their shorter-lived male compatriots, the evidence doesn’t appear to matter one way or the other, as the Liberals are immune to facts that undermine their woke agenda. Consider war-torn Ukraine, a country whose men are exposed to nearly all the risks of combat, do nearly all the fighting and dying – with 200,000 killed or wounded (many of them permanently crippled) since Russia’s invasion in February 2022 – and are subject to special laws preventing men aged 18-60 from leaving Ukraine, while over 6 million Ukrainian women and girls have sought safety abroad.

Among its aid programs, Canada in February announced it would contribute $4 million to help Ukraine remove some of the millions of dangerous mines sown during the war. But instead of focusing on the technical aspects of doing this difficult job safely and efficiently, i.e., getting the most mines removed for the effort expended, Canada has pressured Ukraine to ensure there are plenty of demining jobs for members of designated groups – namely women and transgenders. Along with this “gender-inclusive demining” aid, multiple other Canadian aid programs also explicitly tell the Ukrainian recipient agencies to focus “in particular [on] women and vulnerable groups” (other than men, of course).

“There is no Western nation that developed minus oil, minus [natural] gas,” says Jusper Machogu (top), a Kenyan engineer, farmer and advocate of modern agriculture and fossil fuel development in Africa, which he argues should be far higher priorities than worrying about the threat of future climate change. At bottom, Kenyan farm workers process maize in Uasin Gishu County. (Source of bottom photo: Jen Watson/Shutterstock)

Returning to the issue of climate, there are plenty of Africans who believe their continent is facing bigger and more immediate problems than the threat of future climate change. Jusper Machogu, for example, is a young Kenyan man who uses social media to advocate “fossil fuels for Africa” because he believes Africans above all need access to reliable, affordable energy. “Most people over here don’t really know what [the UN’s] Sustainable Development Goals are about or what the UN is truly doing in Africa,” Machogu says in a lengthy interview. “They say that there are these 17 big problems that Africans, or developing countries are facing. I’m surprised to see climate change as one of those problems.”

Machogu bristles at the hypocrisy of prosperous aid-giving countries now expecting Africa to develop in an ideologically prescribed – and, he argues, ineffective – manner. “There is no western nation that developed minus oil, minus [natural] gas,” he notes. “The four pillars of modern civilization are cement, fertilizer, plastics and steel.” This is the core argument made in How the World Really Worksthe 2022 book by Vaclav Smil, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba (Smil specifically cited ammonia, a key constituent of fertilizer). Machogu says Africa requires much more of each pillar – and all four in turn depend on large amounts of plentiful, affordable and reliable energy to produce (with fertilizer and steel also containing a fossil fuel as an ingredient).

In addition, natural gas and propane are much cleaner-burning fuels than the wood and dung still used by millions for cooking and heating. There’s even a gender-equity dimension, notes journalist Anthony Furey in a recent column: millions of African women and girls spend hours each day walking in search of wood fuel and carrying it back home. Making fossil fuels widely available at reasonable cost could begin to liberate them from this drudgery while improving air quality in homes and villages.

But instead of helping Africa develop more of its significant oil and natural gas potential, Western nations and multilateral institutions are relentlessly pushing wind and solar power. “They say we’re going to get you loans, but if we’re going to give you a loan, you must invest in renewable energy,” says Machogu. “When they say renewable energy, they don’t mean hydro or geothermal. Power usually means solar and wind.”

“If we’re going to give you a loan, you must invest in renewable energy”: Global Affairs Canada and other globalist institutions seek to control Africa’s development by agreeing to sponsor only solar and wind energy. Shown at left, solar panels outside shacks in a remote village with no electricity in rural Woqooyi Galbeed region, Somalia; at right, a wind and solar power installation on a farm in Upington, Northern Cape Province, South Africa. (Sources of photos: (left) Voyage View Media/Shutterstock; (right) Grobler du Preez/Shutterstock)

He is certainly right about Global Affairs Canada. A recent analysis by the Epoch Times shows that aid for renewable energy was the fastest-rising category of foreign assistance, reaching $555 million in fiscal 2023, and expected to rise further in the coming years. Virtually zero was allocated to natural gas or even nuclear energy, which emits no carbon dioxide while generating electricity. Meanwhile, spending on traditional bread-and-butter areas like transportation, storage and disaster risk reduction has been cut sharply in recent years.

Machogu remains unconvinced that solar and wind power – which are expensive, intermittent and unreliable – are the solution for Africa. “What’s going to make an average African rich?” he asks rhetorically. “Solving agriculture. Today about six to seven out of 10 Africans rely on agriculture for their livelihood. How do we solve agriculture? Of course, we need fossil fuels. We need farm machinery. We need irrigation. We need nitrogenous fertilizers. That’s what the crop needs to grow or to do better.”

The West’s climate fixation means that oil and natural gas development in Africa remains woefully underfunded, and hydroelectric facilities receive much of their capital from Communist China. Shown at top, liquefied natural gas project at Cabo Delgado, Mozambique; middle, the Mukuyu-1 exploration well in Zimbabwe’s Cabora Bassa Basin; bottom, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which will generate 5,100 megawatts of electricity on the Blue Nile. (Sources of photos: (top) Sigrid Ekman, retrieved from African Arguments; (middle) The Africa Report; (bottom) Daily News Egypt)

But on this issue, Canada is as stubborn as the EU, the World Bank and other international organizations with which its policies are aligned, refusing to provide any loans or other financial assistance for oil and natural gas development in Africa. As Machogu notes, even hydroelectric dams – a foundation of the electricity networks in numerous Western countries, especially Canada – are now virtually anathema. Ethiopia, for example, recently began producing power from the enormous Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the fabled Blue Nile, and wishes to build several more dams on other rivers. It seems a reasonable goal, as barely half of its population has access to electricity.

And yet while this dam site was originally surveyed using U.S. aid money in the 1960s, Western nations bowed out of the project one by one, while environmental groups as well as neighbouring Egypt fought vehemently against it, and the World Bank now stubbornly pushes only wind, solar and geothermal power. So Ethiopia had to scratch together funding from its own meagre public finances, from crowd-funding, investment by dam employees and, finally, a $1 billion loan from China. China unapologetically uses aid to advance its geopolitical agenda while enriching Chinese construction companies and equipment manufacturers to which some of the loan funds are tied. The story has been similar on several other recent Ethiopian dam projects. These are foreign policy win-wins for China, Ethiopia gets its dams – and Western nations look arrogant and inept.

Canada’s Liberal Party prides itself on its woke bona fides. From the early days of Trudeau’s appointment of a gender-equitable Cabinet “because it’s 2015” to its intimate ties with Canada 2020, the self-described “upstart think-tank for Canada’s progressive community”, the current government understands itself as a standard-bearer of progressivism. Most Canadians know that by now; but most perhaps don’t know that this agenda extends to pretty much every South American or African village where Canadian aid money finds its way.

After one recovers from the eye-watering – and rising – amounts of money that the federal government is spending on climate, contraception and the queer-nexus triad, the next question is, is it money well-spent? Even if you are ideologically aligned with the goals, are the people Canada’s government favours in developing countries – women, girls and LGBTQI+ – less poor than they were before? More climate-resilient? Eating nature-positive foods? Where is any bang for the billions of Canadian bucks? In what world could this magic be brought into effect, one where reducing the carbon footprint, providing contraception and changing the mores in developing countries increases the safety and wealth not only of the (sometimes unwilling) recipients, but of Canadians (as Freeland claimed her policy aims to do)?

The experience of other aid-giving countries suggests such an approach does not work and eventually may even backfire in the donor country. Freeland and Bibeau may have taken their lead in crafting the 2017 Feminist International Assistance Program from Sweden, which in 2014 had adopted a similar policy directive. Perhaps Global Affairs Canada should look once more to the Nordic country, because in 2022 Sweden announced it was abandoning its feminist foreign policy. Tobias Billström, Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, that year told the newspaper Aftonbladet that, “Gender equality is a fundamental value in Sweden and also for this government, but we’re not going to continue with a feminist foreign policy because the label obscures the fact the Swedish foreign policy must be based on Swedish values and Swedish interests.”

Pushback from aid-receiving countries: “Many Western leaders have revealed themselves to be modern colonial masters,” asserts Nigerian scientist Obianuju Ekeocha, who warns of the West’s manipulative tactics to impose the globalist agenda on Africa. (Source of photo: Catholic Digest)

Something needs to give in Canada as well, because not only is the current approach not working, there’s at least some evidence it’s angering more and more people in aid-receiving countries. Groups have been founded, in fact, specifically to oppose Western aid if it comes with too high an ideological price.

Obianuju Ekeocha is a Nigerian scientist and founder of Culture of Life Africa, an organization that seeks to push back against what it terms “unbelievable cultural pressure that is beginning to erode and alter the trajectory of the African cultural values of life, marriage, motherhood, family and faith.” She has written and spoken extensively on the misalignment between the actual needs and desires of African women and the funding priorities of Western nations. To her, the 21st century coercive diplomacy and haughty ideological conditions evoke sinister overtones of relations in past centuries. “Many Western leaders have revealed themselves to be modern colonial masters, threatening to withdraw aid from countries such as Nigeria and Uganda unless they accept their global sexual agenda,” Ekeocha writes in her 2018 book Target Africa: Ideological Neo-Colonialism Of The Twenty-First Century.

Machogu, for his part, goes even further. “I think it boils down to [a goal of] depopulation,” is his stark assessment. “They’re trying to keep Africa poor.”

Anna Farrow is a Montreal-based journalist for The Catholic Register.

Source of main image: Shutterstock.

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Malign Neglect: What Calgary’s Water-Main Break Reveals about the Failure of City Government

Published on

From the C2C Journal

By George Koch

The rupture of Calgary’s biggest water main revealed more than the problems of aging infrastructure. It showed a civic bureaucracy unable to provide basic services or fix things when they break, and a mayor eager to blame others and scold citizens for their selfishness in wanting city services in return for their tax dollars. Above all, it laid bare the increasing tendency of governments to neglect their core responsibilities in favour of social policy fetishes, and to sidestep accountability when things go wrong. Clear, competent, mission-focused public servants are a vanishing breed, writes George Koch, and governing a city is now mainly about keeping city workers, senior officials and elected politicians happy.

As the enormous task forces of the U.S. Navy steamed westward across the Pacific Ocean in the final year of the Second World War, aiming ultimately for Japan but with some of the most vicious fighting still to come on islands like Okinawa and Iwo Jima, commanding admirals issued orders that any man who fell overboard would be left behind. No ship was to slow down for search-and-rescue; nothing was to get in the way of the mission. Several weeks ago, during one of the Stanley Cup semi-final games, a player was hit hard, fell to the ice, got up with difficulty, hobbled towards the bench and disappeared down the “tunnel”. The game went on, uninterrupted. Here too, the mission – entertaining millions – took precedence.

But when two municipal workers on a crew attempting to repair a catastrophic infrastructure failure in a major North American city are injured, the work immediately halts. Although the broken item serves a function vital to civilization and life itself, the mission of restoring water supply as quickly as possible becomes secondary. This happened 10 days ago, a week after the rupture of a high-pressure water main in Calgary had sent water shooting up out of busy 16th Avenue, triggering frantic 911 calls and initiating a “one week” repair saga that as of this writing is still weeks from completion.

Mission failure: The rupture of Calgary’s high-pressure water main on June 5 flooded 16th Avenue and threatened the city’s water supply; repairs were halted for a day after two workers were injured, an excess of caution that led to anger and frustration over the city’s basic competence. (Sources of photos: (top) Acton Clarkin/CBC; (bottom) CTV News)

The two injured workers were taken to hospital (thankfully, with non-life-threatening injuries) and the repair work eventually resumed the next day. But the interruption, piled atop days of confusing, contradictory, self-serving and at times seemingly false explanations and promises from senior city officials and embattled mayor Jyoti Gondek, generated further mistrust and anger among Calgarians over their city bureaucracy’s inability to operate the basics and get things fixed when something breaks down. The safety stand-down came on the very day the city had originally promised to restore water service, a time when every hour was precious, when the sacrifices by city residents and businesses were still bearable, when a return to normality seemed imminent. So why imperil the mission with nearly 24 hours of navel-gazing?

Though soon forgotten as new problems arose, the decision is emblematic of governments’ misplaced priorities, subordination of their core mission to their social policy fetishes and confusion over whose interests they exist to serve. Governing a city appears to have become primarily about keeping city workers, senior officials and elected politicians happy. Above all, to shield them against real accountability. Residents and businesses – the people who vote and pay the bills – are basically problems to be managed.

Built in 1975, the Bearspaw South feeder main draws from the Bearspaw Water Treatment Facility on the Bow River (bottom) and supplies 60 percent of Calgary’s drinking water. (Sources of photos: (top) The City of Calgary Newsroom; (bottom) Environmental Science & Engineering)

A few key facts for readers distant from Calgary. The 2-metre-diameter Bearspaw South feeder main burst its concrete casing on the afternoon of June 5. Installed in 1975, it draws from the Bearspaw Water Treatment Facility on the Bow River in the city’s northwest, and normally supplies up to 60 percent of the city’s drinking water. The break required the city to rely on a much older but very reliable plant drawing on the Glenmore Reservoir, which dams the Elbow River in the city’s southwest. The rupture prompted Stage 4 water restrictions with various bans and recommendations (more on that below), including a call for Calgarians to collectively cut the city’s water consumption by 25 percent, to 480 million litres per day. People immediately responded and, within several days, the city was reporting a water surplus. (For those seeking more details, the Calgary Herald has logged the key daily events.)

From the beginning, the city’s attempts to explain things did not quite add up. The water main had been inspected and tested regularly, officials said, or at least once for sure, and had received “maintenance” as recently as April. Most people probably assumed this involved physically examining it from the inside, then subjecting it to excessive pressure to see if it would hold, and patching up any weak areas. But all that would require first draining a pipe that, after all, 1.6 million people depend on every minute of every day. Later it came out that the line had last been drained and inspected in 2007.

So then it was explained that sophisticated external sensors had not detected any leaks in the most recent inspection. But then someone pointed out that catastrophic failures of an entire multi-layered structure of inner concrete core, steel piping, wire tension coils and outer concrete don’t usually begin with small leaks. And then someone else let slip that the line’s robustness had been confirmed by modelling, i.e., relying on theory.

“This pipe is only at the halfway point in its life cycle,” lamented Sue Henry, Chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency. “By all accounts, this should not have happened, but it did.” But others pointed out that the 100-year-lifespan claim was itself bogus. Lines of this type, said Tricia Stadnyk, Canada Research Chair in hydrologic modelling with the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, are rated to last 50 years. And the Bearspaw South line was built…49 years ago. (The lifespan issue gets even worse – more on that below.)

A story full of holes: City officials said the water main had been inspected and tested regularly, and that no leaks had been found; experts pointed out a catastrophic breakage of the line’s multi-layered structure would not likely begin with small leaks – and it emerged the line had not actually been drained and inspected since 2007. (Sources: (left photo) The City of Calgary Newsroom; (right image) The City of Calgary Newsroom)

Gondek, for her part, extended her track record of blaming anyone but herself by claiming the disaster could have been averted if only Alberta’s UCP government had “paid enough attention” and not denied Calgary the money it desperately needed for preventative maintenance and repair. The implications of her claim didn’t quite gibe with city officials’ assurances that the line was considered just fine. And Alberta Premier Danielle Smith shot back that Gondek “has never asked us for funding to repair their water supply infrastructure,” and that the province is providing the city with $224 million to allocate as it pleases. Others noted it was never a question of money at all, because Calgary has generated successive annual budget surpluses but either spends those funds on more congenial pursuits or carries them over into future years.

Still, for a few days it seemed as if water service would be restored within, or very soon after, the promised one week. But on June 15 it was announced that line inspections (which apparently had occurred in the physical world and not merely in city officials’ media narrative) had found five more “hot spots” – i.e., potentially calamitous weaknesses. The repair timeframe was abruptly extended to three to five weeks, well into July. And with that, the City of Calgary declared a State of Local Emergency.

Pointing fingers: Calgary mayor Jyoti Gondek blamed Alberta’s UCP government for denying Calgary the money for maintenance and repairs; however, Calgary had never asked for such funding, and in any case received $224 million this year to allocate as it pleased. (Source of screenshot: The City of Calgary Newsroom)

There is an emergency in Calgary – and virtually every city across North America and the Western world. At least two types of emergency, actually. The first type is the open, at times almost gleeful refusal to focus on the basic responsibilities of municipal government. Such as paving roads – Calgary’s are notoriously cracked and potholed – instead of removing lanes from busy thoroughfares and lowering speed limits in order to create still more unused bike lanes. Or ensuring that public transit facilities are clean and safe for law-abiding users, as opposed to all-but abandoning buses and C-Trains to drug addicts, while still pushing for funding of the next multi-billion-dollar transit line.

Many Calgarians have grown exasperated at such neglect and indifference, and quite a few are paying close attention. One letter-writer to the Calgary Herald pointed out that aging water infrastructure is a well-known problem in civic government circles, noting that the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association in 2014 set the goal of getting “unaccounted for” water down to 10 percent of total treatment plant outflow. While that figure seems unsettling enough, five years later a third-party engineering report estimated that Calgary was losing 17-28 percent of all its treated water. While some of that was for fighting fires and some was theft, the majority was believed to be leakage. That makes it sound like very few of those “100-year-rated” lines had ever been inspected, tested and confirmed sound.

Core failures: As in many Western cities, Calgary’s leadership refuses to focus on the basic responsibilities of municipal government, like fixing potholes, clearing snow or ensuring public transit is safe and effective; it prefers building bike lanes people don’t use and planning the next multi-billion-dollar transit line. (Sources of photos (clockwise starting top left): Dave Gilson/CBCRachel Maclean/CBCPostmediaMatt Scace/Postmedia NetworkNick Blakeney/CityNewsRebecca Kelly/CBC)

The staggering water volume implied by that percentage range – and worse, the toleration of the problem for at least a decade – evokes a deeply disturbing decrepitude analogous to the massive leakage from oil pipelines in the dying years of the Soviet Union or the chronic tapping of oil pipelines by thieves in Nigeria. Neither is a place Calgary should emulate. The 17-28 percent range is also, coincidentally, similar to the amount of water Calgarians are now expected to conserve. If Calgary’s pipes didn’t leak, we’d hardly have to conserve water at all even with the city’s biggest water main down. “It’s time,” declared attentive letter-writer Guy Buchanan, “to rethink projects such as the Green Line LRT project and concentrate the $4-billion of reserves that council is hoarding to fortify life-sustaining infrastructure.”

This fiasco is, unfortunately, just one example of an operating mentality averse to focusing on dreary real-world problems. The City of Calgary also hates clearing roads in winter and, every year, whenever it snows hard, the warming Chinook winds fail to arrive on schedule and streets remain snowbound, chaos erupts and the excuse – every single time – is that the city lacks the money and equipment needed to plough its roads and, in any case, does not have a “bare pavement policy.” These words come out of the city spokesperson’s mouth right about the time that private-sector operators wrap up clearing streets and sidewalks at private condo developments and old folks’ homes, have restored Walmart and Safeway parking lots to pristine expanses of black pavement, and can all head to Timmy’s for a well-deserved round of late-morning dark roasts and crullers.

The second type of emergency is what has been termed the “crisis of competence” that is afflicting not only governments but utilities and complex systems in general. Put simply, two generations of experienced technical specialists, managers and tradesmen have been gradually retiring, quitting in disgust or getting purged from organizations that now prioritize adherence to internal process and conformity to progressive ideology over the nuts and bolts of keeping systems running, heeding numbers that don’t lie and respecting unforgiving physical reality. The incoming cohorts, meanwhile, often don’t know what they’re doing and don’t want to learn, hiding their ignorance behind a veil of virtue-signalling arrogance.

Crisis of competence: Experienced technical specialists, managers and tradesman have been leaving or getting purged from organizations that prioritize conformity to progressive causes like ESG and wokism over the nuts and bolts of keeping systems running. At bottom, engineer James Buker, a retired city waterworks employee. (Source of bottom photo: Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia)

The National Post’s Jamie Sarkonak had a good column on this over the past week. “Today’s students can’t read as well as their predecessors; workers are increasingly hired on non-meritocratic basesmedical errors and aviation ‘safety issues’ are on the rise,” Sarkonak wrote. “Meanwhile, decision-makers are often so risk-averse they struggle to decide anything. At small scales, everything still works. But at large scales, the effects can be disastrous.” His piece also references a more detailed description of the phenomenon in the Palladium online journal.

As luck would have it, Calgary’s water main debacle produced an archetype of that vanishing breed. James Buker was an engineer in what used to be called the Waterworks division from 1975 to 2016, serving as head of water transmission and distribution for much of the period. Following the Bearspaw rupture, Buker told journalists that such an event became foreseeable after a similarly catastrophic though less damaging water main rupture in 2004. Excavation revealed that pipe had deteriorated to “talcum powder”, as Buker described it, in barely 20 years. This in turn led to the conclusion that the precast concrete used in an entire generation of city water infrastructure installed between 1950 and 1990 was insufficiently resistant to corrosion from soil. Buker was present for the installation of the Bearspaw South line in 1975. The problem, in other words, was well-understood. By some, at least.

But the inversion of priorities that sees the city authorize spending on ugly cactus-like plants for roundabout verges or cartoon-like bas-reliefs of leaping trout in dank freeway underpasses, and the extirpation of men with a mindset like Buker (or another retired city engineer who revealed that 2007 inspection date mentioned above), are not the kinds of emergency Gondek or other public officials have in mind when they declare one. Their kind of emergency mostly involves increasing their powers to boss the rest of us around. In their minds, the critical task is getting the citizenry good and compliant, in this case focusing us entirely on water conservation, so that we don’t ask too many questions about how the work is going and we blame ourselves when “we” fall short.

Hectoring and lecturing: When the state of emergency was declared, local media focussed increasingly citizens’ compliance with water restrictions; the mayor lectured Calgarians on the need to “dig in and do a little bit more”. Shown at bottom, people filling their water jugs at the city’s emergency supply trailer. (Sources of photos: (top) Helen Pike/CBC; (bottom) The Canadian Press/Jeff Mcintosh)

This is more than a rhetorical flourish. Following the state of emergency declaration, local media coverage shifted emphasis from the situation’s technical aspects to water conservation and more water conservation. Multiple articles were devoted, for example, to showcasing how residents in bedroom communities like Airdrie, which draw their drinking water from the city, were “rallying” to cut their water use.

Gondek has been lecturing Calgarians as if we are schoolchildren or simpletons, noting “how well you’re doing” and “when you need to dig in and do a little bit more.” She urged businesses to ask employees to work from home because this, after all, “would save them the time of having a shower in the morning and no one has to worry what they look or smell like, for that matter.” The mayor, though, always turned up looking good, and there were no reports she didn’t smell good.

Going by the city’s rhetoric, the crisis was largely about our failures. As if a construction company owner worrying he’ll have to shut down the jobsite and lay off his workers because the “Stage 4” water restrictions have forbidden welding, applying hot tar or even using glue due to the purported fire hazard is being narrow-minded. As if the costly disruption to thousands of businesses employing tens of thousands of people can just be shrugged off. As if a retired business owner who laboured for 40 years to afford a decent house in a good neighbourhood and now wants to enjoy gardening – and who, after all, pays many thousands in property taxes and water fees every year – is being selfish in worrying that her plants will die. As if receiving water from the City of Calgary is a gift, a privilege the city has every right to withdraw.

Water, water everywhere: The clampdown was based on a fear the city would not have enough water to fight a single major fire, this in a city posting daily water surpluses of 100 million litres, with two rivers (including the Bow River shown at top), two large reservoirs (including the Glenmore Reservoir shown at bottom) and multiple small water bodies to draw from.

Governments today appear to have only two basic states: immovable indolence and unchecked panic. When the first state trips over to the second, a machinery of absurd over-reaction kicks in, including costly campaigns to eradicate phantom risks. The clamp-down on industrial fire hazards was so severe that a reported 800 Calgary construction jobs were at risk of shutdown. The city feared it would not have enough water to fight even one major fire. This despite posting daily water surpluses as high as 100 million litres and having available two rivers, two large reservoirs and dozens of smaller water bodies to draw upon with pumps. The blanket ban on outdoor fires wasn’t lifted even when it rained four days in a row.

The postmodern world’s inability to rationally assess risks and balance possible risk-reduction measures against foreseeable costs and benefits includes a blindness to the principle that too much caution itself creates danger. Every additional precious hour lost during the water main repair process – such as through that nearly day-long safety stand-down – placed additional weight on the 92-year-old Glenmore facility. It was considered an engineering marvel of its era and its feeder main has proved better-built than anything installed in the last 50 years. But if it failed too, Calgary would be without safe drinking water. People might actually die.

Of course it is great – stirring, in fact – how Calgarians rallied almost as one and did what needed to be done under inconvenient circumstances. Limiting water consumption has been a topic in every conversation; people really do care. The same civic-mindedness was shown during a brutal cold snap last winter, when southern Alberta’s electrical grid became overloaded and the system operator was on the verge of ordering rolling blackouts. People responded within minutes to an urgent request to shut off unneeded lights and electrical devices, and the problem passed. But if a whole city’s population can instantly do the right thing on more than one occasion, why can’t that city’s government also do the right things, like paving roads and inspecting aging water mains?

They don’t make ‘em like they used to: The water main break forced the city to rely on the 92-year-old Glenmore Water Treatment Plant (right), built on the north side of the Glenmore Reservoir (left), an engineering marvel of its era.

In the same spirit, I’m certain there still must be dozens, hundreds, even thousands of earnest and well-meaning city managers, tradespeople and technical specialists who know what they’re doing and would love to focus on just getting the job done, if the internal culture would only let them. The repairs are getting done – even if it’s with the help of a small army of private-sector “partners” – so the entire city payroll can’t be incompetent.

But if the Bearspaw South rupture had been felt and not merely declared to be an emergency, then the repair work wouldn’t stop for two injured workers. As Star Trek’s Mr. Spock liked to intone, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” All good progressives used to nod in rhythm to that line; but either the present-day City of Calgary is from a different other planet, or the “many” whose needs must be met aren’t actually the city’s residents.

It’s worth noting that the same progressives who now worry about two injured workers more than 1.6 million city residents were happy to destroy anything and anyone who got in their way during Covid-19. Those questioning the narrative were cast aside like used Kleenex or crushed like cockroaches. The (futile) mission of “stopping the spread” took precedence over everything: the economy, the individual, religion, social relations, common sense, basic rationality.

“Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” said Star Trek’s Mr. Spock (left); the same progressives who used to nod in agreement to that line seemed more worried about two injured workers than the mission to repair infrastructure critical to 1.6 million Calgarians. Shown at right, a Japanese kamikaze pilot in a damaged single-engine bomber over the U.S. Aircraft Carrier USS Essex, off the Philippine Islands, November 1944. (Source of right photo: Rare Historical Photos)

But when it comes to civic infrastructure, the mission doesn’t top the priorities list. Unless the real mission is something other than what is stated. If the mission is to avoid accountability, to go back to the way things have been for the past 30 or so years, and to save the faltering political career of a deeply unpopular mayor, then it all makes a kind of sense. Bringing in specialists from the private sector (from the oil and natural gas industry, no less) to help get them out of the mess, as they quietly announced about 10 days into their week-long repair job – “our best and brightest”, as Gondek put it without any apparent self-awareness – should be seen as confirmation of their desperation, not as a hopeful sign they’re about to change their ways.

George Koch is Editor-in-Chief of C2C Journal.

Source of main image: @cityofcalgary/X.

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C2C Journal

The Fight Against Ottawa’s Crazy and Unconstitutional Single-Use Plastics Ban

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From the C2C Journal

By Christine Van Geyn
In their rush to strike a virtuous blow against plastic waste, the federal Liberals skipped a few important steps. The 2022 ban on plastic straws, shopping bags and other useful household items deliberately ignored the basic facts of waste disposal in Canada, as well as the economic reality of substituting other materials for cheap and effective plastic. What else got overlooked? Canada’s Constitution. With a court hearing set for later this month to decide on the fate of the ban, Christine Van Geyn takes a close look at the legal arguments involved in Ottawa’s efforts to phase out certain plastic items, and the vast constitutional threat this poses if allowed to stand.
Like many writers, I prefer to work surrounded by other busy people going about their day. And as I sat down in a bustling café in downtown Toronto to begin writing this story with my laptop and an iced matcha latte before me, I instinctively reached for a straw. And my heart quickly sank – ugh, paper.

I care about sea turtles, I really do. But as I poked that flimsy thing through the lid and took a sip, it was not sweet enjoyment I was experiencing. It was bitter disappointment. Almost immediately the straw started to soften and it soon collapsed upon itself. It was like trying to drink through a soaked napkin. Frustrated, I tossed the straw aside and drank straight from the cup, hoping that I wouldn’t end up with bright green latte all over my laptop or sweater. Yet another small indulgence ruined by Ottawa.

Small indulgences, ruined. Across the country, Canadians are growing frustrated with a single-use plastics ban that has given them useless paper straws and taken away useful items such as plastic bags. (Source of right photo: CTV News)

I’m not alone. Across the country Canadians are griping about dissolving cardboard straws, berating themselves for forgetting their reusable shopping bags (made of a much thicker and unrecyclable plastic) and wondering exactly how they’re supposed to eat their takeout meal without a fork. Life is stressful enough with inflation, rising public drug use, street protests, overseas wars and other major calamities. Now even the tiniest details of our lives – like enjoying a cold drink on a hot day – have been imperilled as well. And yet a soggy, useless straw is not just a lousy way to start your workday. It’s also another worrisome example of the Justin Trudeau government’s relentless intrusions into provincial and local jurisdictions.

There is hope, however. In November 2023, a Federal Court judge struck down the government’s regulatory efforts against certain plastic items as “unreasonable and unconstitutional”. The ban, however, continues to remain in force while Ottawa appeals that ruling. The appeal will be heard later this month; and the legal charity I work for, the Canadian Constitution Foundation (CCF), will be an intervenor because we think this is a very important case. At stake are the very foundations of Canada’s Constitution. And a chance to get some straws that actually work.

Canada’s Plastics Ban 101

It’s easy to understand the desire to reduce plastic waste. Images of masses of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean or videos of sea turtles and birds choked by ring-carriers and bags have a visceral impact on many people. We all want a clean environment that is safe for wildlife and humans alike.

Ottawa knows best: While many Canadian cities, including Edmonton (shown at left), were experimenting with various regulations for single-use plastics, the federal government usurped their jurisdiction by announcing a nation-wide ban on six common plastic items to take effect in 2022. At right, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveils the federal plastics ban at a press conference in Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Que., 2019. (Source of right photo: The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson)

And it is for these reasons that reducing plastic waste has been a policy goal for governments across Canada for many years. Numerous cities and towns have experimented with different approaches. Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal and Guelph, for example, have all imposed some type of ban on what are termed “single-use” plastics. Toronto has not done so, but recently introduced a bylaw requiring businesses to ask customers if they’d like a single-use item and requiring them to accept reusable bags and cups. In early 2024, Calgary introduced a single-use plastic bylaw prohibiting businesses from giving customers single-use straws and food-ware unless they specifically asked, and requiring a 15¢ charge for single-use bags. Calgarians immediately went ballistic, however, forcing City Council to repeal the measure just weeks after coming into effect.

Despite these many diverse local innovations, in 2022 the federal government imposed its own vision on the country with a sweeping attempt to eradicate or severely curtail the use of six single-use plastic items: straws, cutlery, takeout containers, stir sticks, plastic bags and ring-carriers. These banned items would need to be replaced by substitutes made of other material, such as paper, wood, ceramic or metal.

As environmental policy, the federal plastics ban has some very large problems. As this C2C Journal article pointed out, Canadian plastic waste comprises a perishingly small share (0.02 percent to 0.03 percent) of total ocean plastic pollution. Almost all plastic waste in Canada is either recycled, incinerated or landfilled; it is not polluting the environment. The federal government’s own analysis also revealed that eliminating single-use plastics would actually increase overall waste generation rather than reduce it. While the goal is to remove approximately 1.6 million tonnes of plastic waste from 2023 to 2032, the amount of other waste streams is expected to grow by 3.2 million tonnes. This is because substitutes tend to be heavier than the plastic items they replace.

Sea turtles are safe with us: Despite widespread concern over the effect of plastic pollution on ocean life, the overwhelming majority of plastic garbage in Canada is either recycled, landfilled or incinerated; Canada’s share of plastic ocean pollution is estimated at between 0.02 percent and 0.03 percent. (Sources: (photo) Shutterstock; (chart) Greenpeace)

It gets worse. According to the government’s Strategic Environmental Assessment, substitutes for plastic products, such as paper bags, “typically have higher climate change impacts” including higher greenhouse gas emissions and a reduction in air quality. By banning plastic bags, straws and so on, we will end up with not only more garbage, but also a dirtier environment.

The plastics ban fails on basic economics as well. A cost/benefit analysis prepared by the federal government puts the ten-year monetary benefits arising from a reduction in plastic garbage across Canada at $616 million. On the other side of the ledger, the costs – including the impact on businesses required to replace perfectly useful plastic items with lower-quality substitutes that are generally more expensive – comes in at $1.9 billion. By the federal government’s own reckoning, its policy thus entails a net loss of $1.3 billion. In sum, the plastics ban does nothing to reduce worldwide ocean pollution, creates twice as much garbage as it saves and imposes costs exceeding its benefits by a substantial margin. Based on these rational measures alone, we should bin the ban. But the biggest reason to oppose it is constitutional.

Ottawa Takes Charge

Waste management is a provincial matter which provinces typical delegate to municipalities. This process is working well, as evidenced by all the experimentation in plastic waste policies described above. Yet the Trudeau government desperately wanted to be seen as a leader on this issue. And to get around the fact Ottawa has no clear authority to do so, the Liberals had to get creative.

Their solution was to add all “plastic manufactured items” to the list of toxic substances maintained under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Thus an Order-in-Council signed in April 2021 brazenly declared all products made from plastic to be a threat to human health. This includes everything from children’s toys, water pipes, health-care devices and protective helmets to car parts and computer keyboards. Items that are indispensable to our daily lives instantly became “toxic” as the result of a single federal Cabinet order. The policy took effect at the end of 2022.

Toxic, every last one. As a result of a 2021 Order-in-Council, the entirety of “plastic manufactured items” – including everything from children’s toys to life-saving medical devices – was declared hazardous to human health under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. (Source of bottom photos: Pexels)

In response to this obvious absurdity, a group of plastic industry companies called the Responsible Plastic Use Coalition demanded a judicial review, arguing the federal order made no practical or scientific sense. Faced with the prospect of defending its decision to declare, among other things, a wide variety of life-saving and medically-necessary devices as officially toxic, the federal government claimed it only intended to restrict the use of plastics that posed a real risk to the environment. Despite categorizing all plastic as deadly, Ottawa said it was only looking to regulate the harmful bits, like straws and plastic bags. Bureaucrats, using the new authority granted them by Cabinet, would later decide which was which.

The federal government tried a similar line of argument when defending another piece of controversial environmental legislation, the Impact Assessment Act. This act purported to subject proposed new infrastructure projects to review across a vast range of economic, social, health, environmental and even gender-related impacts. The law was challenged in court by Alberta on the grounds that it intruded into provincial jurisdiction. In court, Ottawa argued that it only intended to regulate projects with environmental impacts of significant national concern. The Alberta Court of Appeal was unmoved by this attempted rationale, finding the Act unconstitutional, and last October a 5-2 majority of the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the lower court’s findings. Chief Justice Richard Wagner wrote for the majority that Parliament “plainly overstepped their constitutional competence” by purporting to regulate projects that would otherwise fall within provincial jurisdiction. The vast majority of the Act was found to be unconstitutional.

Calling out an absurdity: Responsible Plastic Use Coalition, an industry lobby group, challenged the Trudeau government’s declaration that all plastic is toxic in the Federal Court of Canada.

A similar thing happened with the plastics ban. In November 2023, Federal Court of Canada Justice Angela Furlanetto sided with the plastics coalition and struck down the law, calling the government’s sweeping attempt at banning plastics as “outside their authority.”

In her ruling, Justice Furlanetto shredded the government’s tortuous logic defining every form of plastic to be a threat to human health, observing that “plastic manufactured items” is far too broad a category to include on a list of toxic substances; the government provided no evidence to establish that every product listed was actually harmful. “The broad and all-encompassing nature of the category of [plastic manufactured items] poses a threat to the balance of federalism as it does not restrict regulation to only those [items] that truly have the potential to cause harm to the environment,” she wrote. She also noted that “for a chemical substance to be toxic it must be administered to an organism or enter the environment at a rate (or dose) that causes a high enough concentration to trigger a harmful effect. In this instance, the reverse logic appears to be applied…”

Justice Furlanetto also held that the Cabinet order extended far beyond the federal government’s ability to regulate the environment through the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. As a result, she ordered the ban quashed and declared invalid and unlawful. Ottawa immediately appealed this ruling, with the case to be heard at the Federal Court of Appeal on June 24 and 25. Alberta and Saskatchewan are both intervenors and will argue that the Federal Court ruling should be upheld. British Columbia is intervening to support the federal government’s position that the order is within federal jurisdiction. There are other public interest interveners as well, including the CCF, EcoJustice, and Animal Justice.

The Bogus Fight Against Plastic Criminality

“Unreasonable and unconstitutional”: In her November 2023 ruling, Federal Court of Canada Justice Angela Furlanetto found that Ottawa overstepped its jurisdiction in classifying all plastic goods as toxic. Ottawa is now appealing her ruling. (Source of photo: @FedCourt_CAN_en/X)

One of the main issues at the appeal will be the role of the federal government’s criminal law power. Section 91(27) of the Constitution Act grants the federal government exclusive authority to make criminal law. And previous court rulings have found and affirmed that prohibiting truly toxic substances, like lead and mercury, under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act is a legitimate expression of that power.

But it is no magic wand. Ottawa cannot simply claim a need to invoke its “criminal law power” and instantly transform any issue into an area it can regulate. As Justice Furlanetto held in her 2023 Federal Court decision, “The machinery of criminal law cannot be used to assume control over something that is not within Parliament’s authority.” In this case, criminal law power should not be allowed to justify the sweeping inclusion of every imaginable plastic product on the list of “toxic” substances and therefore place them all under the umbrella of federal authority. This is what lawyers call ultra vires – Latin for “outside the power”, in this case, of a government.

Criminal law powers should be applied cautiously. To claim authority to regulate something based on this authority, Parliament must clearly demonstrate the criminal aspect of the targeted activities. The federal government cannot assume control over an entire area which is not, in itself, harmful or dangerous. This is particularly important when Parliament has asserted control and jurisdiction over an amorphous subject matter prone to overlapping jurisdictions, like environmental regulation.

“Harm should be real”: According to University of Alberta law professor Eric Adams, the federal government’s criminal law power must only be used when there is a real threat of criminal behaviour. Fretting about plastic pollution does not meet such a test. (Source of photo: University of Alberta)

When the framers of Canada’s original Constitution in the 1860s decided that the federal government and not the provinces should control criminal law, this was premised on Parliament using its authority to prevent actual harm. University of Alberta law professor Eric Adams has written that criminal law power rests on the notion that “harm should be real in the sense that Parliament has a ‘rational basis’ for seeking to suppress it with prohibitions” and that it can be “demonstrated with evidence.” Accordingly, federal criminal law power must be focused, justified and rationally connected to a real criminal threat to the area in question, in this case the environment. Deeming every single imaginable plastic manufactured item “toxic” does not meet this test.

Hardly Incidental

The federal government will be defending the Cabinet order listing non-harmful plastics as toxic by arguing that any intrusion into provincial jurisdiction is merely “incidental” and not worth worrying about. There is, indeed, an aspect of Canadian constitutional law called the “incidental effects doctrine” which recognizes that it is practically impossible for one level of government to legislate without touching on the powers of another level of government in some way.

Negotiating the application of the incidental effects doctrine requires a flexible approach to federalism that permits collateral and secondary effects on another jurisdiction without threatening the main intent of the originating jurisdiction’s legislation. This concept was crystallized in the 2007 Supreme Court ruling in Canadian Western Bank v. Alberta that found Alberta was within its constitutional right to regulate the sale of insurance (a provincial responsibility) at banks in the province, even if the banking sector itself fell under federal jurisdiction.

Hardly incidental: Ottawa argues its intrusion into provincial jurisdiction over plastics is merely “incidental” and should be allowed to stand. In previous rulings, however, the courts have rejected such arguments when the outcome would make an “otherwise unconstitutional law valid”. In 2019, the B.C. Court of Appeal struck down a proposed B.C. law intended to stop the federally-regulated Trans Mountain pipeline (shown) on similar grounds. (Source of photo: Adam Jones, Ph.D. – Global Photo Archive, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

But such incidental effects cannot be limitless; they must indeed be incidental. Courts have repeatedly emphasized in other cases that a flexible approach to federalism must not “erode the constitutional balance” inherent in Canada’s division of powers and cannot make an “otherwise unconstitutional law valid”, as a 2019 B.C. Court of Appeal ruling stated in striking down a proposed B.C. law intended to stop the Trans Mountain pipeline, a federally-regulated endeavour. The classification of effects as incidental or consequential must be made with clarity and rigour.

The Trudeau government’s Cabinet order that all plastics are “toxic” clearly crosses the dividing line between incidental effects and intrusion into provincial jurisdiction. Plastic is ubiquitous in modern society and most matters requiring the regulation of plastic materials properly fall under provincial jurisdiction. By listing all imaginable types of plastics as toxic, without regard to whether they actually cause any harm, the federal government sought to greatly expand its jurisdiction across an exceedingly broad subject area. Like criminal law powers, the incidental effects doctrine should not be misused to cloak far-reaching legal effects from constitutional scrutiny.

The Bigger Threat

The brilliance of Canadian federalism is that it prevents the concentration of power within any single institution or level of government and creates laboratories of democracy across Canada where different jurisdictions can tailor different policy solutions and test what works best. Canada’s constitutional division of powers is thus a pathway to better policies that lead to a freer Canada. It also acts as a restraint on government overreach. It deserves to be protected.

But in numerous recent court cases and policies, the Trudeau government has demonstrated its extreme ambivalence – if not outright hostility – to Canada’s constitutional federal structure. In examples including the Greenhouse Gas Emission Pricing Act Reference, the Impact Assessment Act Reference and now the Cabinet order on plastics, the mechanism, if not the intent itself, is to grab additional authority from other levels of government in order to impose national policies that violate the founding structure of our country. This is why the plastics case has implications far beyond saving Canadians from soggy straws.

The CCF will argue in the Federal Court of Appeal that federal environmental regulation poses a unique challenge to the division of powers, particularly where the purported federal target is submerged in a sea of local and provincial jurisdiction. Accordingly, federal statutes must be tightly focused on federal targets and not allowed to wander deeply into provincial jurisdiction.

If plastics of all kinds are confirmed as toxic substances, and Parliament is given authority to regulate them, this could trigger a whole host of other regulatory environmental mechanisms in the areas of licensing, regulation of substitutes and offset mechanisms that would further encroach on provincial jurisdiction. It is widely discussed, for example, that the federal government will seek to uphold its planned cap on oil and gas emissions, as well as its Clean Electricity Regulations (both currently in draft form) through similar listings under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. It would also likely use its criminal law power to get a foothold into the regulation of methane, carbon dioxide and other substances in order to control them in a detailed manner. And there is reasonable concern the federal government could also attempt to regulate things like electricity markets and other technologies under these newfound powers. Ottawa would essentially become the master of all environmental policy in the country; and since so many other policy areas have an environmental dimension, the federal government could gradually come to rule them all. The only thing necessary for each new intrusion will be for the Liberals – or some other future activist federal government – to whisper the magic phrases “criminal law power” and “incidental effects” and it becomes so.

Where will it end? According to the Canadian Constitution Foundation, allowing the federal government to get away with labelling all plastic products as toxic will inevitably encourage further intrusions into local and provincial jurisdiction, allowing Ottawa to set itself up as the master of all environmental policy. Shown, protesters gather outside the Federal Court in Toronto during the initial plastic-ban hearings in 2023. (Source of photo: Michael Cole/CBC)

If the division of powers under Canada’s Constitution means anything, the Federal Court of Appeal must find the Trudeau government’s plastics ban unconstitutional. My struggle to drink my straw-free iced latte is thus a small part of a much larger struggle for balance and respect in Canada’s foundational framework. I am slurping with purpose.

Christine Van Geyn is litigation director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation.

Main image shows an anti-plastics slogan projected onto the Supreme Court of Canada building in Ottawa on Earth Day, April 22, 2024. Source of image: The Canadian Press Images PHOTO/Oceana Canada and EARTHDAY.ORG.
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