How Hassan Yussuff won the CLC presidency

rabble news - Wed, 05/14/2014 - 12:51pm

On May 8, 2014, Hassan Yussuff made history as the only candidate in the history of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to successfully unseat an incumbent President. The convention was the largest in the organization's history with over 4,600 delegates casting ballots. In the end, Yussuff won by a razor thin margin of 40 votes, capturing 50.4 per cent of the total valid votes cast.

Why did Canada's labour movement opt for new leadership? There were multiple factors at play.

1. Desire for change

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Toxic Neighbours

Toronto Media Coop Featured - Wed, 05/14/2014 - 11:12am
A tour of Aamjiwnaang First Nation

The borders of Aamjiwnaang have been reduced over the years to where they are currently, just over 12 km2. A large portion cutting into the community's scenic waterfront area is now home to one of Suncor's refineries. Its numerous smoke stacks and flares tower over the surrounding trees. While standing on the road near the plant, the smell is formidable. So is the noise. Most of the industries in the area operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is no respite for your ears or nose and lungs. By the time the Toxic Tour got to the main entrance of Suncor, about an hour into our walk, my head was already pounding.

The community youth group, ASAP (Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia Against Pipelines), lead by Vanessa Gray, organized a disparate group of about 40 people on a tour to show what daily life on the reserve is like. The walk began at the Maawn Doosh Gumig Community and Youth Centre and worked its way to the St. Clair River, around a refinery and back to the centre. Participants held banners saying "Demand more from your Ministry of the Environment", "Cancer Alley" and two large snake puppets. The snakes, one blue and shiny, the other black and dripping represented the two combating forces of clean water and oil products being transported through the many existing and proposed pipelines.

Tar Sands crude 

A small road branches off Vidal St., the main road along the river, and wraps around the side of Suncor's refinery. The facility was modified in 2008 to refine heavier crude oil that is shipped in from the tar sands. There among the stacks and enormous holding tanks is the graveyard currently in use by the Aamjiwnaang community. It is surrounded by Suncor on two sides, a highway on another and the site of Suncor's proposed ethanol plant on the fourth. There is very little room left for the community to continue keeping families and loved ones together. Norm, a member of the ASAP group, explained that although this is the graveyard currently in use, traditional burial sites were all along both sides of the St. Clair. Many were disrupted by the construction of industry and the large Blue Water Bridge which connects Ontario to Michigan. Lindsay Gray, shouting to be heard, explained that in addition to past graves being unearthed, the constant noise of the machines and regular sirens prohibit the gravesite from being a serene place for her ancestors. She asks the rhetorical question, "Whatever happened to rest in peace? Is this respectful?"

In 2004, the community succeeded in stopping Suncor's plans to build what would have been one of North America's largest ethanol refineries. The proposal was a tipping point and caused them to rally together to prevent another facility being built next-door to their houses. For days Aamjiwnaang members blockaded the road in protest. The pressure helped persuade Suncor to utilize an alternative site further to the south by Mooretown.

Air and Water Pollution

As the tour moved along, Zak, a resident of Sarnia and independent environmental monitor, pointed to an area along the road that crosses Talfourd Creek and leads back into Aamjiwnaang. It was recently discovered that an underground benzene pipeline had been slowly leaking. The cleanup is ongoing and orange plastic fences now block off the areas. Benzene is one of many aromatic hydrocarbons that have been leaked into the ground and air all too frequently. It is also considered a human carcinogen, being a cause of leukemia and other cancers. In 2009, Imperial Oil had an accident in which a "material containing benzene" was released causing a shelter-in-place order for residents in the extended perimeter of the plant. More recently, in 2013, a tanker ship unloading at the dock of Lanxess spilled four to five gallons of ethyl benzene into the St. Clair River.

But those are considered accidents. Regular, government approved, emissions from many of the factories contain a host of chemicals. The World Health Organization released a report in 2011 that charted air quality in urban settings around the world. Sarnia registered the most polluted air in Canada. Although the individual plant's emissions are bad but usually within the Ministry of Environment's parameters, the individual facilities do not operate in a vacuum. The pollution from the area's 60+ factories is combined; the cumulative effect is a problem that Aamjiwnaang community members are concerned about. So concerned that in 2011 they started a law suit.

Charter Challenge

Ada Lockridge  and Ron Plain together with lawyers from Ecojustice, filed a suit against the Ontario Government claiming their Charter Rights are being violated, in particular their, "rights to life, liberty and security of the person, and the right to equality". Ecojustice explains the case by saying the community members "believe that Ontario must consider the cumulative impacts of pollution in Chemical Valley before approving more toxic emissions".

There has yet to be an exhaustive study of the impact air borne and water pollution has on the community. But some things have been well documented, such as the skewed birth ratio of two girls being born for every one boy. This anomaly is attributed to hormone disrupting chemicals such as PCBs, dioxins and pesticides, some of which are now banned but can remain in the environment for years.

Also, high levels of mercury have been found in the blood and urine of some Aamjiwnaang members and a community led survey reported asthma levels in adults and children far exceeding that of surrounding communities. Many of the health and environmental studies which show these results state that a link to the industry present all around Aamjiwnaang cannot be definitively made. It is an argument I can understand rationally but as I was standing with my headache, in the stink of Suncor, reading the warning sign posted at Talfourd Creek and hearing Vanessa say that when she was growing up, all the kids played in the creek, it was impossible for me not to make the connection between the industry and the negative health effects.

The charter challenge with Ecojustice is slowly making its way through the legal system. Suncor, one of the companies cited, has been tapping into their immense capital reserves to mobilize lawyers who are fighting the charge at every stage. It will be a long battle but in the mean time, members of Aamjiwnaang are living in what Lindsay sees as “chemical warfare”, an extension of Canada's genocidal policies toward First Nations.

North Sarnia

My hotel was north, along the St. Clair River, where the air does not stink and the cargo ships that glide along the horizon are like the industry to the south; a distant spectacle. I considered the history of the Blue Water community which was situated between Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang. It began in the 1940’s as housing for chemical plant workers and grew into a town of its own, reaching a peak population of over 2,000 people. But in 1966 the community was disbanded and all the residents relocated, largely to the north end of Sarnia, due to “health and safety concerns”.

It seems unjust to find a town full of factory employees too dangerous to live in, while the Native reserve just down the road is left to gasp for air and parents tell their children ‘don’t touch the water’. North Sarnia, with its lush golf course, yachts, and luxury cars reminds me that the petrochemical industry can be lucrative to some but toxic to many others. 

(all photos by the author)

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Join the campaign to protect public health care in Canada

rabble news - Wed, 05/14/2014 - 8:35am

We're part way through our campaign to protect, strengthen and expand public health care in Canada and we're thrilled with how the campaign is progressing. It's not surprising to us that many Canadians are unaware of the federal cuts to health care. The coming $36 billion of cuts haven't gotten a lot of media attention partially because many of the premiers are silent on the cuts and afraid to speak out because the federal government may claw back their funding in other areas (like the Canada Social Transfer). 

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World Urban Forum 7: Policy lessons from Colombia

rabble news - Wed, 05/14/2014 - 8:13am

For one week in early April, Sara Swartz (Universitas Programme of the KIP International School), Shauna MacKinnon (Manitoba Research Alliance [MRA] and University of Winnipeg [UW]) and Lynne Fernandez (MRA and CCPA-MB) visited Medellin, Colombia to take part in the seventh World Urban Forum (WUF7). Last spring, KIP, UW, UM, the Manitoba government, MRA, CCPA-MB and other Winnipeg community-based organizations signed a Memorandum of Collaboration and have since began working on an online journal highlighting "innovative practices of inclusive urban development and poverty reduction."

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A climate scientist taking it to the people

rabble news - Wed, 05/14/2014 - 8:07am

On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, climate scientist Paul Beckwith talks about his research as well as about his efforts to push beyond the usual role expected of scientists and engage directly with the public on scientific questions related to cliamte change.

A climate scientist taking it to the people

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Creative and direct action for climate justice

rabble news - Wed, 05/14/2014 - 7:52am
A good action tells a story, and a good story has a moral or lesson. Activists can and should create a story that shows the lesson they're trying to teach. Revolution 101: Creative and direct action for climate justice
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Shorn locks and missing bowtie suggest Thomas Lukaszuk's leadership announcement is imminent

rabble news - Wed, 05/14/2014 - 1:22am

Sporting a new haircut and with his trademark bowtie tossed aside, Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk hardly needs to provide more evidence he really intends to seek the leadership of Alberta's flailing Progressive Conservative Party.

And if key supporters of Tory heir apparent Jim Prentice actually tried to bully candidate Ric McIver into not running, as McIver told the Calgary Sun yesterday, could it be it's because they recognize there has to be a race against someone, and they'd really prefer it was against Lukaszuk?

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Patricia Hill Collins on intersectionality, part 2

rabble news - Tue, 05/13/2014 - 11:02pm

The F Word airs the first part of a keynote talk by Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, distinguished Professor of Sociology from the University of Maryland. Having coined the concept of the matrix of oppression, Collins work has been instrumental in examining how race, class, gender, sexuality and nationhood are inherently linked particularly in the lives of Black women. On April 24, she opened the conference titled "Intersectionality Research, Policy and Practice: Influences Interrogations, and Innovations" hosted by the Institute for Intersectionality Research and Policy at Simon Fraser University. Her talk is called "Toward Social Justice: Sharpening Intersectionality's Critical Edge."

The F Word airs the second part of Patricia Hill Collins' talk called Toward Social Justice: Sharpening Intersectionality's Crit

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Vancouver Dyke March and 10th anniversary celebration

rabble news - Tue, 05/13/2014 - 10:46pm

Helen Polychronakos interviews Michelle Fortin and Sam Levy, organizers of the Vancouver Dyke March for its 10th anniversary! They talk to about staying grassroots, juggling the politics of inclusion, and celebrating lesbian communities.

The F Word seeks to facilitate feminist dialogue and use media as a foundation for positive social change. For more information on The F Word, please visit our website at: www.feminisms.org or email: feminisms@gmail.com

Helen Polychronakos interviews the organizers of the Vancouver Dyke March for its 10th anniversary!
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Dan Heap remembered

rabble news - Tue, 05/13/2014 - 7:50pm

They gathered to remember and honour Alfred Benson, who died last month, and other homeless people who’ve died on the streets of Toronto over the decades. 

But at this month’s homeless memorial vigil they also came to honour a man who spoke loudly and openly on behalf of homeless people. As a councillor. Then as a federal MP. And later on in life after politics. 

His name was Dan Heap. Also known as Don.

“He was a lion,” said Michael Shapcott, director of Affordable Housing and Social Innovation at the Wellesley Institute. 

“He roared. And one of the things that Dan always roared about was that everybody matters.”

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In the urban green revolution, small is big

rabble news - Tue, 05/13/2014 - 6:32pm

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” That was American architect Daniel Burnham’s city-planning advice at the turn of the 20th century.

More than 100 years later, he couldn’t be more wrong. Big, top-down building projects no longer stir the imaginations of North American city dwellers. Now people are excited about little changes to our urban fabric.

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What is the state of Canada's democracy: Salvageable or broken?

rabble news - Tue, 05/13/2014 - 6:29pm
May 15, 2014

I'm not sure what's worse for democracy -- the truth, or fictional representations of the political world.

On the one hand, we've got shows like "House of Cards" that make politics look like the playground of the most manipulative, selfish and conniving people in our society, and on the other hand, we have constant real life scandals swirling around our elected (and non-elected) representatives.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, there are those who believe we can't give up on our democratic institutions.

Wishful thinking?

Is our parliamentary system destined to remain broken? 'Tragedy in the Commons' aims to salvage a system that seems beyond repair and asks the question, why are Canadians so disengaged from politics?

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Internet slow lane? Worst. Idea. Ever.

rabble news - Tue, 05/13/2014 - 6:14pm

You've heard the story over and over again. A couple of college friends are sitting in their dorm rooms, messing around with some code, probably getting a bit tipsy. They come up with a great website or app idea, hack together a working version, drink a few more beers, and wake up the next morning a little groggy but with the next great online innovation happily blinking away on their screen.

All they need now is an Internet connection and a decent marketing strategy, and our college buddies are on their way to creating a billion-dollar idea that could revolutionize the way that we use the Internet, the way we interact with each other, and who knows what else.

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What does a 'representative' sex worker look like?

rabble news - Tue, 05/13/2014 - 5:09pm

I have written a few op-eds about my experiences as a sex worker, most notably this one which appeared in the National Post. Since having my writing published, I have received emails from readers congratulating me on being so "articulate." I wonder: Do all authors of op-eds get this kind of feedback on their writing? 

I can't imagine a social worker or police officer being called "articulate" for producing a decent piece of writing about sex work. I suspect that what people are really saying when they call sex workers "articulate" is: "you're pretty smart...for a prostitute."

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In praise of looking down

rabble news - Tue, 05/13/2014 - 4:47pm
Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Last week a video called Look Up made the social media rounds. It features an earnest young spoken word poet, Gary Turk, extolling the virtues of ignoring the screen in your hand and enjoying the world, and the people, around you. It's a well-made video but is as subtle as a sack of hammers to the nose. And, I beg to differ.

Of course I agree that we should acknowledge the people and places in the moment. But I disagree that using a handheld computer prevents that. And, I think the poet generalizes about the value of face-to-face contact and makes sentimental mush out of contact with random strangers.

In a video called "Look Up," spoken word poet, Gary Turk, extolls the virtues of ignoring the screen in your hand and enjoying the world, and the people, around you. I beg to differ.

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On Bud Osborn: A poet never dies

rabble news - Tue, 05/13/2014 - 4:34pm

It's raining right now while I write this in that dreary Vancouver kind of way. On Tuesday May 6 at night, the city lost an irreplaceable giant and we are all diminished by this sad, sad news.

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Andrea Horwath leads NDP into a new right-wing era

rabble news - Tue, 05/13/2014 - 3:42pm
Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Andrea Horwath has led Canada's NDP into a new era. They've floundered over an absence of clear principles for a long time, which has been true of formerly socialist and social democratic parties everywhere. It's been a hard run, with the zeitgeist firmly in their face. But they maintained a sense that, despite their own behaviour, they still believed they were in the grand old traditions. It may have been delusional but it was an honourable attempt to stay anchored. Horwath marks the change. She's a right-wing populist, full out.

For a long time, the NDP has floundered over an absence of clear principles while trying to stay anchored to its social democratic principles. Andrea Horwath marks a change.

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Coffee Industry Fails Farmers

Toronto Media Coop Featured - Tue, 05/13/2014 - 2:47pm
Amidst the leaf rust Roya crisis, co-operatives and organic farming shine a light

MONTREAL—I begin each day with my usual routine: enjoying a morning cup of organic fair trade coffee and wondering how millions of small-scale coffee farmers across Latin America are getting through the current leaf rust crisis—or "Roya" as it’s called in Spanish.

I’ve worked in different niches of the coffee industry since 1994 in both production and marketing projects with small-scale farmers, while living in Central America and Mexico, and now in direct import, communications and production improvement projects from Montreal. In two decades, I’ve never seen anything quite as devastating as the current production crisis—which according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO) is expected to cause an estimated loss of 2.5 million 69-kilogram sacks of production, or $550 million of financial loss in farmer income.

The initial industry reaction was a call to summit meetings. A first emergency gathering sponsored by some of the world’s largest coffee companies and research organizations, was held in Guatemala in April 2013; the second was in El Salvador in November 2013. But while experts theorize about whether or not climate change is the culprit and share their findings on plant-DNA research, small-scale coffee farmers wait impatiently for viable relief plans.

“Our government has declared a state of emergency, but to date we have seen no concrete supports to producers on the land,” said Rodolfo Peñalba, General Manager of the small-farmer organization Café Organico Marcala (COMSA) in Marcala, Honduras.

“The Nicaraguan government has passed a new law that will tax an additional $3 to $5 (depending on the fluctuating market price) on every sack of coffee exported in order to create a Roya Credit Fund for field renovation and other recovery activities,” said PROCOCER Coffee Farmer Cooperative Manager Roberto Villegas. “But since the government put the management of those funds in the hands of the National Bank, for us this only represents an additional expense. With the Roya crisis, the National Bank considers campesinos (small-scale farmers) too risky and have stopped lending to us. We will never have access to those credits.”

The most consistent message communicated to farmers from industry and technical-support offices has been to spray more fungicides and hope for the best. But nowhere do we hear about the deep-rooted causes of the poverty in the soil and the precarious situation of farmers.

Miguel Medina, Vice Chairman of the Guatemalan national coffee association Anacafé and one of the Guatemala summit organizers bluntly set the stage. “I don’t know how organic coffee can have a future. There is nothing that works to control rust in the field and I am not seeing anyone in the market offering more to create additional incentives for organic farmers,” he said during the working sessions.

But while Mr. Medina and so many industry leaders dismiss the potential for organic solutions, members of the small-scale farmer organization COMSA in Honduras watched the slow decay of their neighbours’ conventional (chemically treated) trees—while they were busy harvesting a bumper crop of premium-quality organic coffee from their fields.

Unfortunately, the experiences of farmers like these COMSA members are not being showcased at high-level summits.

Instead of acknowledging and strengthening successful organic practices proven on the land, coffee farmers are being pushed to quick-fix solutions. Some 45% of all green coffee imports are purchased by the five largest roaster parent companies—Philip Morris (Kraft, Maxwell House, etc.), Nestlé, Sara Lee, Procter & Gamble and Tchibo. The large coffee buyers are primarily concerned with getting the volume they need and with satisfying shareholders' expectations of profit. Organic solutions take time, labour investment and financial resources that most small-scale farmers simply don’t have.

With the international price of coffee set by a wildly fluctuating commodity market, driven as much by supply and demand as by completely unrelated investment portfolios buying and selling coffee futures contracts, small-scale farmers are price takers and have endured a long history of the low prices offered by the New York “C” market.

Perhaps it is simply because of the sheer magnitude of the coffee business that the idea of changing production and pricing models at this point is just too much to digest. And with new coffee producing countries, like Vietnam or up-and-coming China, many traders will simply seek out replacement coffee sources from countries not yet affected by the epidemic—leaving Latin American coffee farmers devastated by Roya to fend for themselves.

I had the opportunity early in 2014 to organize a roaster-producer gathering at the COMSA headquarters in Honduras. This event, sponsored by Cooperative Coffees—an organic green coffee importing cooperative owned by 23 independent and locally based artisanal coffee roasters across Canada and the USA—was intended to demonstrate that organic solutions, in keeping with the economic and cultural realities of small-scale farmers, are the most viable long-term path for a sustainable livelihood. Together with Latin American coffee-farmer representatives, coffee roasters, importers and allied organizations, we united around the crisis to talk about production, quality, price and Roya recovery.

For the roasters present, who base their businesses on values dedicated to fair, direct and sustainable partnerships with small-scale farmer organizations, simply substituting coffees from other regions was not an option.

"As a Canadian boutique roaster sourcing 100 per cent organic and mostly Latin American coffees, I was amazed and encouraged to see how these small-scale organic farmers were able to tackle the Roya problem using a creative combination of sustainable, organic solutions," said Al Teflissi, owner of Coutts Coffee in Perth, Ontario and roaster member of Cooperative Coffees participating in the Honduran event.

"My livelihood is linked to theirs—our customers are asking for organic coffee from small-scale producer co-ops, so we’ve made it a priority to support these farmers through a special project that will bring information, organic training and additional financial support to cooperatives like COMSA."

This “Roya Summit” was cooperatively organized and led by expert farmer practitioners and intended to help them see, touch, learn and exchange information with each other about the innovative and highly successful organic solutions that many small-scale farmers are implementing to resist and recover from Roya.

Roya, a naturally occurring fungus in coffee fields, can be held in check when the fields are kept in ecological balance. But during the 2012–2013 growing season, with peaks of abnormally high temperatures and prolonged periods of excessive humidity combined with vulnerable soils and trees due to the lack of investment and healthy agricultural practices, the orange fungus spread like wildfire. Once the fungus hit its tipping point, it spread across Central America, affecting between 15 and 85 per cent of yields, depending on local conditions. Roya attacks the leaves, the primary source of photosynthesis of the coffee plant, which not only affects ripening of the current-season cherries, but can also cause the flowers of the following season to drop, and depending on the intensity of the infestation can kill a branch or the entire tree—thus affecting the current harvest and harvest yields for many years to come.

COMSA Organic Promoter Victor Contreras explained, “We frequently talk about nutrients, but we often forget about the life-giving energies found in minerals and micro-organisms. Here at COMSA, we are learning to create a model of agriculture in harmony with the laws of nature to feed and nurture the life energy in the soil.”

Ironically today in 2014, the “International Year of Family Farming” (IYFF), the perfect storm of environmental, economic and humanitarian disasters is lining up to push struggling small-scale farmers off the land. And with the exception of a very small niche of fair trade or direct commercial relationships between farmers and consumers, no one seems to notice. Is this just another David and Goliath story? Just another unfortunate chapter in the long and twisted story of coffee? Perhaps. But, it’s one in which Canadians take part—inadvertently or not, on a daily basis.

According to the Coffee Association of Canada's newly released 2013 Coffee Drinking Study, coffee is second only to tap water as the most consumed beverage in Canada. Nearly two-thirds of adult Canadians will have consumed coffee in the past day, and coffee drinkers consume on average 3.2 cups of coffee per day, for total annual retail sales of some CAD$1.6 billion.

The goal of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations for the 2014 IYFF is to “reposition family farming at the centre of agricultural, environmental and social policies in national agendas by identifying gaps and opportunities to promote a shift towards a more equal and balanced development...to promote broad discussion and cooperation at the national, regional and global levels to increase awareness and understanding of the challenges faced by smallholders and help identify efficient ways to support family farmers.”

Sadly, small-scale farmers are experiencing just the opposite.

Prior to her work in Fair Trade coffee, Monika has worked as a freelance writer and has supported a variety of locally based development projects, while living in Central America and Mexico from 1991 to 2000. Monika holds a Master's Degree in Journalism as well as a BA in International Relations and German.

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