Peltier in November 2021 (Photograph by Blair Gable)

(Photograph by Blair Gable)

Autumn Peltier on youth activism, challenging Trudeau, and a future in politics

The 17-year-old climate activist spoke with Marie-Danielle Smith about working towards change, confronting Trudeau at 12 years old and what she's focused on now

In 2016, at age 12, Autumn Peltier came face-to-face with Justin Trudeau and, in front of hundreds of people in a conference hall in Gatineau, Que., she challenged his environmental record, extracting a promise from the Prime Minister that he would “protect the water.”

Peltier, who turns 18 next year, has since emerged as a powerful voice in the climate movement, appearing on the international stage next to the likes of Greta Thunberg and, at home, continuing to keep the pressure on Trudeau. She is also the chief water commissioner for Anishinabek Nation in Ontario. I spoke with her about her ongoing frustrations, and what she expects to see happen in what will be a critical year in environmentalism.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You’ve spoken before about attending a ceremony at Serpent River First Nation when you were eight, and noticing signage about toxic water, and how that led you to become interested in water activism. Can you tell me more about what inspired you?

I was raised in a traditional lifestyle, being taught my ways, my teachings, who I was as an Indigenous person, an Indigenous woman. The ceremony was the eye-opener for the work that I do. And my Auntie Josephine [Mandamin] was too: before she passed away two years ago, she told me to keep on doing the work. Carrying on her legacy is one of the most important things to me.

Your aunt was a well-known activist, known as “Grandmother Water Walker.” What’s the best advice she ever gave you?

It’s actually what she told me the day before she passed away. And it was, “People are going to try to stop you, but you just have to keep on doing the work and keep on loving the water.” And she was right. It was her saying that that helped me realize that I can’t let people get to me.

RELATED: Jody Wilson-Raybould on Ottawa’s power problem 

What kinds of things are people doing?

I get a lot of negative comments, negative feedback. It’s a lot more than I thought I would get, because the work that I do is for a good reason, and you wouldn’t generally think that people would be against this or try to bring me down. Like, “She’s just a kid, what can she do?” Or “Why does what she says matter?”

Young people bring up your name as someone they admire. How does it feel to know that you’re a role model to so many of your peers, and to younger kids too?

I speak to a lot of little kids in Grade 1 and kindergarten. They’ll come up to me and say, “I look up to you, I’m so proud of you,” and just hearing a little person say that is honestly so inspiring to me. I look at it as I’m a mentor to all these little kids. What kind of mentor would I be if I was to give up and let people get to me? So I have to be strong and show them this is how you do it.

RELATED: Mark Messier on leadership, trust and magic mushrooms 

What kinds of questions do they have for you?

I get questions like, “Are you Moana?” Or “Do you have magic powers to heal the water?” [laughs]

Peltier (Photograph by Blair Gable)

(Photograph by Blair Gable)

With an adult audience, especially with people in power, do you feel like they brush you off because of your age?

I do already feel looked down upon. Being a young person, and being a young Indigenous female, I do feel a lot of intimidation, especially at big meetings where there are big politicians and it’s a room full of all these big white men. It’s really intimidating.

Have you talked to other young activists about how to deal with that pressure?

I think where I experienced that the most was probably the World Economic Forum, because all the youth were put into a group. And we all spent every day together and would actually talk about, ‘Okay, well, I’m kind of uncomfortable here.’ We all have the same mindset when it comes to how we deal with it. It’s just remembering why we’re doing what we’re doing, and always ignoring the negative comments.

RELATED: Jagmeet Singh on relentless optimism and what’s next for the NDP 

When it comes to remembering why you’re doing this, what are the things you think about?

My ancestors survived racism, oppression and residential schools. You still see how resilient and strong a lot of Indigenous people are. Our culture is still here. We’re all still here. My ancestors survived and I will be an ancestor one day. I just need to be one of those strong ancestors too in my head.

I want to ask you about when you confronted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau five years ago at an Assembly of First Nations event. Do you think people were surprised to hear a 12-year-old calling him out like that?

Actually, nobody expected that, even my mom. That day, I was told not to say anything to him. I was told to just walk up, give him the gift and then walk away. You don’t say anything.

That was my opportunity to say something to the literal Prime Minister of Canada. Like, who gets the chance to actually share their thoughts with him? So I took the opportunity. I gave him a piece of my mind.

Who was it that was telling you not to talk to him?

It was the people that were organizing the event that day.

RELATED: Murray Sinclair on reconciliation, anger, unmarked graves and a headline for this story 

Do you feel like your message got through to him?

I don’t know if it was that message, but I’m sure he’s aware of my work. Because even at the World Economic Forum, the headlines for the European magazines and newspapers were that I called out the Canadian federal government. So that work was definitely recognized and noticed.

He made a big promise to me, which was: “I will protect the water.” I was 12 at the time, I am 17 years old now, and I’m still holding him accountable to that promise.

At 12, Peltier challenged the PM at an Assembly of First Nations event (Courtesy of Stephanie Peltier)

At 12, Peltier challenged the PM at an Assembly of First Nations event (Courtesy of Stephanie Peltier)

Do you believe that he cares about that?

I feel like he could care more. I know [his government] did make a commitment to resolve all boil water advisories in Canada by March of 2021, and of course that didn’t happen. To promise to resolve a big issue like that within a certain amount of time and [not do it], and there are still communities that can’t drink their water after over 25 years, how are we supposed to trust the government? How are we supposed to believe him? I feel he pretends to care.

Is there something he could do right now, today, to give you more confidence that he does care?

I think instead of making promises or just speaking about it, taking action and actually doing something. And address the issue instead of travelling all over the world.

What did you think, by the way, about his trip to Tofino on the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation?

It was pretty disappointing. How are you going to be the Prime Minister of Canada and be taking a vacation on a day like that? And you claim to care about these types of things? It was very upsetting.

Tell me a bit more about what you’re paying attention to right now, the problems that are not being addressed but should be.

I mainly focus on boil water advisories in First Nations communities, or lack of clean drinking water, and that’s, I guess, really my main worry right now. We’re in a pandemic and we’re told that we need to wash our hands and sanitize, but some communities don’t have access to those simple things. How is a community that has no clean running water supposed to wash their hands every day? How are they supposed to do simple sanitizing? That’s what doesn’t make sense.

Do you think that if the government would just put more money and attention toward boil water advisories they would be a thing of the past? Is it a matter of political will?

That’s always their excuse, that they don’t have the funding or the resources to do that. But just think about how fast it would be resolved and fixed if there was to be a drinking water issue in an area like Toronto or Ottawa, how fast they would call that a state of emergency and how fast they would fix that.

But a First Nations community of 200, 300, 400 people can go without clean drinking water for over 30 years, where they literally have to bathe their babies in bottled water, cook and clean with bottled water, wash themselves with bottled water.

The pandemic did teach us how quickly money and resources can be mobilized when there’s an emergency. That must be frustrating to think about.

Yeah, it is.


Some words to live by

Autumn Peltier wants you to be mindful of how much water you use, and to support First Nations with their advocacy. She also wants you to read and listen. Here are her suggestions: (Click through this gallery)


Looking ahead to the year 2022, what do you want to see happen?

No more broken promises. More communication, more working together and collaborating and listening and letting people have a say, not just politicians and people in big power. Less discrimination. More cultural sensitivity. And, of course, ending boil water advisories, or at least minimizing them, or finding a solution for it.

On discrimination and cultural sensitivity, what do you think would be a sign that things are getting better?

I guess when I stop hearing stereotypes, it will have gotten better. It’s crazy to think that even in Ottawa, where diversity is so common and there are so many different people, different colours, different races, it’s crazy to think that people are still using stereotypes in 2021.

You’re disappointed in the Prime Minister, but do you feel like politicians from other parties have anything better to offer?

I think my only hope with other politicians is just my opinion being heard more. I have really good support in the NDP. The [Ontario MPP] for Algoma-Manitoulin, his name’s Michael Mantha and he’s one of my biggest supporters.

You’ve talked in the past about going into politics and trying to become one of the decision-makers, like the minister of environment. But we’ve seen Indigenous women recently leaving the federal Parliament—people like NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq—saying that it’s a toxic place and that it’s really difficult to get anything done. Has that affected the way you think about your own future?

I know that it is a pretty toxic field. Seeing Mumilaaq talk about her experience, it kind of makes me scared of going into it. That’s why I might focus my career path more toward Indigenous politics. I don’t know.

But you still see politics as the best way to get things done?

I do. Because you know the people that I’m trying to get the attention of right now are politicians and people in power. Because they’re the people that make change.

What would have to change for you to feel less intimidated about trying to get elected?

No matter where you go, you’re going to be discriminated against. That’s what I face, that’s what I experience. Even just going to school you get stereotyped.

What kinds of things have you experienced at school?

When I first moved to Ottawa about three years ago, they would ask me, “What’s your ethnicity? Where are you from?” And I would get negative comments like, “Okay, well, are your parents drug addicts? Are your parents alcoholics? Are you poor? Do you live in a tepee?” It’s just, like, no.

Do you think those stereotypes are getting less common?

Honestly, I don’t really have hope for it changing too much, and it’s something that I’m okay with dealing with for the rest of my life if I have to. Because I know several Indigenous people who are doctors, lawyers, successful politicians—and even my grandma, she’s a professor at the University of Alberta. I know that not all Indigenous people, not all First Nations people are drug addicts or alcoholics and it’s a stereotype because of intergenerational trauma from residential schools. People don’t understand why some people are on those paths.

You’ve said before that you worry you’ll get to be 70 or 80 years old and will have spent your life advocating for change, but that nothing will have been done. Are you still worried about that?

Although I have seen change within the years that I have been advocating, it is not as much as I would like to see. And it’s not a lot. It’s something, but it’s not a lot. And it kind of makes me lose hope thinking about whether anything will have changed by the time I’m 70 or 80. It’s scary, but that’s how I look at it.


This interview appears in print in the January 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

Politics Insider

New COVID-19 travel measures cause confusion; and Freeland will give a budget update

Politics Insider for Dec 3, 2021: Omicron variant chaos; a financial reckoning coming; and an unpopular monarchy

Not up, not running: The plan to test all non-American travellers to Canada for COVID-19 has prompted confusion among passengers and airport operators alike, CBC reports. Few details are available about the federal response to the Omicron variant.

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Wednesday the new arrival testing program will take effect immediately. “That is starting today,” the minister told reporters. But there are no signs today that the program is actually up and running.

“One concern is just when this goes into effect … something even Air Canada and WestJet appear not to know,” Cameron Turner, a traveller from Victoria, B.C., asked CBC News. “Another concern is just where travellers are expected to self isolate while waiting for their test results.”

And on Thursday, the president of the Canadian Airports Council said he’s still not sure how the program will work.

Snowbird tests: Joe Biden announced a new testing regime on Thursday that will require all inbound travellers, including Canadians, to get tested no later than 24 hours before their departure, CP reports. That may complicate travel plans for snowbirds.

Unknown: Omicron’s impact on the world remains a mystery, the BBC reports, because although cases in South Africa are surging, it is weeks too soon to know what that will do to hospitalization rates.

Boost or share? As medical experts call on rich countries to share vaccine, Western countries considering doling out boosters at home, because of studies that indicate the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines might begin to wane after six months, Global reports. More than 10 million Canadians will reach that deadline by the new year

Tories were right: Speaker Anthony Rota ruled Thursday that the board of internal economy — the all-party committee that manages the parliamentary precinct — overstepped its authority by mandating vaccines on the Hill, CP reports.

Rota sided Thursday with the Conservatives in concluding that the all-party board of internal economy did not have the authority to impose a vaccine mandate. He said only the House itself can make a decision to restrict access to the chamber and other parliamentary buildings. However, Rota’s ruling changes nothing for MPs or anyone else wanting access to the precinct. Last week, Liberals and New Democrats joined forces to approve a motion to resume hybrid sittings, which also specified that anyone entering the precinct must be fully immunized against COVID-19 or have a valid medical exemption.

Lab compromise: The Liberals offered a compromise Thursday to end a stand off over secret documents related to the firing of two scientists at Canada’s high security infectious disease laboratory, the Globe reports.

Government House Leader Mark Holland told the House of Commons late Thursday that the federal cabinet is now prepared to turn over all the documents to a special committee of MPs from the Liberals, Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and New Democrats. Any dispute about whether to make public records would be decided by a panel of three former senior judges.

Federal opposition parties have fought for records that could shed light on why Ottawa expelled and then fired two scientists from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

Financial reckoning coming: The Liberals are asking Parliament to approve billions in new spending during a four-week sitting but have yet to release a financial accounting of how it spent more than $600-billion last year during Canada’s pandemic response, the Globe reports.

Former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, who is now president and chief executive officer of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa, said he doesn’t see a reason why the government appears to be waiting to release key information, such as the public accounts and a fall fiscal update. “They should be at the front end [of the current four-week sitting],” he said in an interview, adding that committees should also be sitting to review spending requests. “That is the standard practice and a good practice and I’m not really sure there’s any reason not to have that. I’m sure that the work is done on the public accounts and there’s no reason not to table it. Finance [Canada] has had plenty of time.”

Update coming: Chrystia Freeland will release a financial update on Dec. 14, CBC reports.

Battle of wits: Speaking of Freeland, Aaron Wherry has an interesting column at CBC reviewing the parliamentary back and forth between her and Pierre Poilievre, and suggesting it could be just the beginning of a long battle of wits.

If O’Toole were to lose his tenuous grip on the Conservative leadership, attention would quickly focus on Poilievre — either as a potential candidate or as a potentially influential figure in deciding who leads the party next. Whenever Trudeau decides to step aside, Freeland will be foremost in the pool of possible successors.

O’Toole unpopular: In L’actualité, polling expert Philippe J. Fournier has an article (translation) on Erin O’Toole’s polling numbers, which are bad and getting worse.

Among his party voters, 70% say they still have a positive impression of him, a lower proportion than for Trudeau and Singh among their respective voters, but higher than the same measure by Abacus last spring (it was then 62%). However, we note that the Conservative leader scores anemic with voters in other parties: only between 8% and 13% of New Democrats, Bloc, Liberals and Green voters view O’Toole favourably.

Monarchy unpopular: A new poll, taken in the wake of Barbados becoming a republic, shows a majority of Canadians are in favour of cutting ties with the British monarchy, but it would not be easy, Global reports. There would be complicated implications for treaty relationships with Indigenous peoples, and also the constitutional amending formula makes a such change next to impossible.

Livestock deaths: Hundreds of thousands of livestock perished in floodwaters in British Columbia, Bloomberg reports.

— Stephen Maher

Politics

A united House of Commons passes a Liberal bill banning conversion therapy

Politics Insider for Dec. 2, 2021: Unanimous approval in the House; praise for Erin O'Toole; and a COVID boondoggle

Surprise move: Conservative justice critic Rob Moore moved Wednesday that a Liberal bill banning conversion therapy be adopted unanimously, which it was, which will ban the practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation, CP reports. It was a surprise to see the Conservatives suddenly support the bill, because socially conservative Tory MPs had spoken against the bill, in a milder previous incarnation. The passage of the motion led to non-partisan hugging and dancing in the House.

Praise for O’Toole: The Globe’s John Ibbitson writes that it was a great day, and praises Erin O’Toole for handling it “beautifully.”

I suspect MP Michelle Rempel Garner, who has fought to advance LGBTQ rights within the party for years, and MPs Eric Duncan and Melissa Lantsman, who are gay, must have had some interesting conversations with their colleagues. They appear to have convinced the social conservatives within the caucus that they had already registered their opposition to the bill when they voted against its predecessor last spring, and that any further opposition would only typecast the party as intolerant.

See you in court: Elsewhere in the Globe, Robyn Urback writes, though, that the provisions of the bill that ban the therapy for adults likely violates the Charter.

Proponents of an outright ban will argue that it should not be legal to help people injure themselves. But in Canada it is legal for homeopaths, for example, to prescribe nosodes – which are essentially vials of water, infused with hope and dogma – in lieu of vaccines for illnesses such as whooping cough, measles and mumps. Health Canada even actually approves and regulates these “treatments,” though the agency has said that none are approved as alternatives to real vaccines. And there is real harm being done in these cases: Canadians are essentially being scammed into believing certain homeopathic remedies will protect them from a variety of illnesses, and as a result they leave themselves (and often, their children) vulnerable to infection. Yet the practice of offering, advertising and/or financially profiting from homeopathy has not been criminalized, even though it could cause lifelong, irreparable damage to those who voluntarily seek its service.

Test wait: Travellers arriving in Canada from outside the United States can expect to isolate for up to three days as they wait for COVID-19 test results, the Globe reports. The government announced the new testing regime on Tuesday in an effort to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

More boosters: The Globe also reports that Ontario and Alberta are planning to expand eligibility for third-dose COVID-19 booster shots.

We can do better: In the Star, Bruce Arthur writes that the booster change is “lightning fast,” and urges the province to do more, faster.

Hopefully the news on Omicron will be positive, but this pandemic remains a societal challenge, every day, and a personal one, too. A powerful public information campaign on boosters would be welcome. A more durable infrastructure on vaccine passports, mandates and delivery may be a must. We can do better to protect people.

Ban panned: Theresa Tam is defending Canada’s decision to ban travellers from some African countries but many experts aren’t buying it, Global News reports.

Same battle: In Le Journal de MontréalEmmanuelle Latraverse writes that the battle against COVID bears a resemblance to the battle against climate change (translation).

In either case, the same phenomena are at work: scientific consensuses sacrificed on the altar of partisan politics and disinformation, not to mention the failures of an international community increasingly withdrawn into herself. Think of anti-vaxxers, those skeptics of science who ruin our lives with insults and stubbornness. They are a bit like the oil lobby against the climate.

Slow track: The Conservatives and NDP won’t agree to fast-track legislation to extend pandemic supports, insisting on a review by the House’s finance committee, CBC reports.

“The government is proposing new expenditures without accountability,” Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre told reporters Wednesday. “We’re setting conditions in order to get our support for this bill. These conditions must be met or we will oppose it.”

The Conservatives say they want to see four conditions met before they’ll support the bill: an independent investigation into reports that organized crime received pandemic supports; a complete study of the bill at the finance committee — with Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland appearing for four hours of questioning; amendments preventing people who could take jobs from taking benefits; and amendments to prevent prisoners and criminals from accessing benefits. The NDP also want to see Bill C-2 go before the finance committee. NDP House Leader Peter Julian told CBC news that his party will not support the bill in its current form and wants specific amendments to address their concerns.

Clerk scrutinized: The CPC  called for a parliamentary committee to probe claims of political bias made against Charles Robert, the clerk of the House of Commons, while Roberts was in the chamber, CBC reports. CBC News has reported three senior managers went on sick leave and left their jobs over concerns about Robert.

To seek compensation: Canadian telecom companies spent more than $700 million on Huawei equipment while the Liberal government delayed a decision on banning the company, Global News reports. With a rejection imminent, Global News has confirmed that the companies have asked the federal government for “compensation” if they have to replace Huawei equipment.

Tough Green: Interim Green Leader Amita Kuttner tells CP they will be ready to get tough on party members who “have been at each other’s throats.”

The astrophysicist, who identifies as nonbinary and transgender, said Wednesday they want to “listen and love” to “heal” the party, which has been riven by infighting and accusations of racism and antisemitism. But, if that does not stop a minority of Greens, Kuttner said they would “absolutely” be prepared to take tough disciplinary action under the party’s code of conduct.

COVID boondoggle: Ontario’s auditor general has found that businesses that weren’t eligible for pandemic relief programs received more than $200 million in provincial supports,  CBC reports.

Deer with COVID: The National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease has detected COVID-19 in three apparently healthy Quebec deer, CTV reports.

Well deserved: Congrats to health columnist André Picard, who was awarded the 2021 Sandford Fleming Medal for excellence in science communication by the Royal Canadian Institute for Science on Wednesday!

Welcome to Ottawa: David Cohen, the new United States ambassador to Canada, has reported for duty.

— Stephen Maher

Politics Insider

Canada announces new travel restrictions as the world braces for Omicron

Politics Insider for Dec. 1, 2021: Omicron sparks new restrictions; new vaccine questions; and a political challenge

Omicron measures: Canada announced Tuesday that air travellers from all countries except the United States will need to take COVID-19 tests when arriving in Canada, CBC reports, as the world braces for the Omicron variant.

The tests will be required of all travellers, regardless of their vaccination status, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said today. The requirement will also apply to Canadian citizens and permanent residents. Incoming travellers will have to self-isolate until they receive results of the test. Duclos said the new testing requirement will go into effect “as quickly and as much as possible over the next few days.”

The government also added Egypt, Malawi and Nigeria to its restricted list. Travellers from 10 countries will have to quarantine in designated facilities.

The world is waiting for scientists to figure out how effective vaccines are against Omicron. Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an expert at Toronto General Hospital, said we will have to wait to find out, but he thinks available vaccines will still prove useful in the fight against COVID-19: “It would be extremely unusual for a variant to emerge that completely erases the protective immunity of vaccines. It might chip away at some of the effectiveness but it would be extremely unusual that our vaccines, and or vaccine programs, are now rendered useless.”

May do more: Justin Trudeau told reporters the government may have to do more, Global reports.

Patience: In Maclean’sPatricia Treble lays out what we know so far—not that much—about Omicron.

Omicron entered our lexicon at exactly 12 p.m. Eastern Time on Nov. 26, according to Google Trends, which recorded a massive spike in online searches. Since then, searches have only increased as people scour the web for news on the newest variant of concern. So new is the variant, however, that researchers are scrambling to unravel its secrets—likely for few weeks but possibly more—and pleading for patience.

Bans questioned: Even as Canada tightened travel restrictions, news was breaking that the variant had already spread to Europe before South Africa raised the alarm, raising questions about the fairness and efficacy of restrictions on African nations, the Globe‘s Geoffrey York reports from South Africa.

Over 60s stay home: The World Health Organization has urged those over 60 not to travel because of the increased risk posed by the variant, the New York Post reports.

Vaccines for poor countries: Opposition politicians and medical groups are urging the Liberals to support a global initiative to temporarily waive intellectual property restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines, CTV reports. The government says it will discuss the issue with the World Trade Organization.

Same spiel: The situation reminds Isabelle Hachey, writing in La Presse (translation), of the fight over AIDS drugs for Africa, and points out that Big Pharma can be expected to do whatever it can to prevent losing out on income.

The 168 member states of the WTO should take the opportunity to try to reach a consensus on the temporary lifting of patents protecting vaccines. So far, they have failed to come to an agreement. One can imagine that Big Pharma is doing everything to discourage them. The sums at stake are pharaonic. If we go by the past, it may be a long time before the member states come to an agreement. Millions of Africans died of AIDS before the WTO adopted the Doha agreement in November 2001, after years of intense activism.

Challenging times: In the Star, Susan Delacourt writes that the variant presents a challenge for the political class, because polling shows Canadians are anxious and depressed because of the pandemic.

But all signs are pointing already to a large, looming morale crisis, which politicians are going to have to struggle to contain in the days and weeks ahead. Just when Canadians were starting to plan holiday gatherings and winter trips to sunnier climes—and a long-awaited return to normal — the threat looms again of more lockdowns and renewed travel restrictions. So what does the political class have left in its arsenal — after nearly two years of this pandemic — to head off what could be the biggest wave yet of COVID-19 fatigue?

No jab? No travel: Unvaccinated travellers over the age of 12 can no longer board a plane or passenger train in Canada, CP reports. A grace period ended Tuesday.

Finished fight: In Maclean’s, your correspondent takes the temperature of the anti-carbon tax foes, who once looked like they might win, and concludes that the fight seems to have gone out of the main players, having lost in court and in several elections.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who won support from grassroots Ontario Tories by opposing a carbon tax, was happy to fight too. Manitoba’s Brian Pallister, who had a carbon tax plan of his own, joined in after Trudeau stood next to him and used him as an example of a co-operative premier. Behind the scenes, Stephen Harper was cheering the premiers on. “Let the other guys do a carbon tax, because we can all win the next federal and provincial elections on that issue alone,” he said in speeches. It did not seem far-fetched: in 2008, the Liberals lost an election built around Stéphane Dion’s Green Shift (a mix of carbon taxes and tax cuts). Today, Pallister is gone, Kenney is setting new records for unpopularity, Ford is no longer talking much about the carbon tax he once loved to attack and Moe is complaining. “They’re complaining but complying,” says Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, about the carbon tax.

Make it work: In the Post, Tasha Kheiriddin ponders the pandemic hybrid Parliament and concludes that it might be fine.

Virtual participation might even enhance productivity in certain contexts, such as committees, which could continue sitting even when Parliament is not. The ability to hear witnesses remotely could expand connection between legislators who would otherwise not be able to present themselves in person. The reality is that, with the work-from-home revolution, some form of hybrid Parliament is probably here to stay. We had better make it work.

— Stephen Maher

Politics Insider

Omicron cases start to climb as WHO warns the variant poses a 'high infection risk'

Politics Insider for Nov. 30, 2021: New cases in Canada; a military apology; and Steven Guilbeault's bicycle

More cases in Canada: Two people in Ontario and one in Quebec have been infected with the Omicron variant of COVID-19, CBC reports, in addition to the two Ottawa cases announced on Sunday. Patricia Treble, writing for Maclean’s, has a roundup of what we know now. Cases are being detected daily around the world, CNN reports.

High risk: The World Health Organization warned Monday that the variant poses a “high infection risk,” the BBC reports: “Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” the WHO said.

Alarm bells: In the Globe, André Picard explains that it is too soon to know whether Omicron is more dangerous than earlier variants.

Despite its ominous moniker – Omicron, the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, sounds like the name of a bad guy in a superhero movie – it’s not a given that the newest variant will be dramatically worse than previous ones, nor that it will displace Delta, the now-dominant variant. The reason Omicron has scientists worried is its “Frankenstein mix” of mutations. Viruses mutate, but usually do so fairly slowly. The new variant has set off alarm bells because it has 32 mutations on its spike protein alone. The spike protein is what coronaviruses use to enter human cells, so that raises fears (at least theoretically) that Omicron could spread more easily and circumvent immune protections, both those from infection and vaccination. But none of this is clear yet.

Reluctant Ontario: In the Star, Bruce Arthur argues that Doug Ford’s government should ponder the uncertainty and get more serious.

Israel moved hard on ventilation, contact tracing, boosters, and border restrictions, because Israel knows an emergency when it sees one. If Omicron is a real leap — and many virologists say its 25 to 30 mutations are at least hypothetically suited to potential immunity evasion, transmission and virulence — then the rules of the game will change. Some would likely stay the same, too. This government has set certain boundaries at this point which will influence the vulnerability to whatever Omicron or any other variant might be. It’s a broken record at this point, but this government has been truly reluctant to push vaccination from the premier on down. The result is about 1.4 million unvaccinated Ontarians over the age of 12, including some 350,000 over the age of 50. Every one is a walking alarm bell.

Why only Africa? The Globe has an opinion piece from U of T prof Ambarish Chandra, who argues that our travel restrictions are poorly thought out.

The speed with which the latest travel bans have been imposed on southern African countries suggests yet again that Canada is quick to impose harsh measures on the developing world but reluctant to do so with wealthy, Western countries. Multiple reports suggest that the Omicron variant was already present in Belgium and the Netherlands at the time these bans were imposed, but there is no discussion of extending measures to those countries.

Not vaccine apartheid: In the PostRupa Subramanya argues that vaccine hesitancy and logistical problems, not access to vaccines, are behind slow uptake in the global south.

There is no doubt that the purchasing power of rich countries makes it easier for them to procure vaccines, yet it is not true that poorer countries don’t have access to vaccines, as they can purchase them at concessional rates from the pharmaceutical companies, or draw from the World Health Organization’s COVAX facility. Rather than a lack of access, much of the disparity in vaccination rates in the developing world results from logistical problems and vaccine hesitancy, sometimes coupled with outright COVID-19 denial.

Conversion therapy ban: The Liberals tabled a bill Monday to ban conversion therapy, and not just for children, the Star reports.

The bill goes beyond the government’s previous attempt at a ban on conversion therapy. Bill C-4 would make it a crime to make anyone undergo conversion therapy, regardless if they consent. That was a key demand from survivors and advocates, who said the government’s previous attempt at a ban, Bill C-6, still allowed for conversion therapy to be provided to adults who consented. Advocates have said a person cannot consent to what amounts to fraud and torture.

Minister, CDS to apologize: Defence Minister Anita Anand, deputy minister Jody Thomas, and Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre will apologize to victims of military sexual misconduct on Dec. 13, CTV reports.

“As part of our efforts to restore relationships with those harmed, we will offer a public apology to all current and former members of the Defence Team who have been affected by sexual assault and sexual misconduct, including harassment, and discrimination, “ the release states.

A prop bike? Conservative MP Ed Fast accused Steven Guilbeault of using a bicycle as a prop during a session of hybrid Parliament on Monday, CTV reports.

Fast raised a point of order following question period, arguing that Minister Steven Guilbeault hung the bike behind him to “make a statement about his environmental cred.” “Mr. Speaker, the point is, there’s a rule that you cannot do indirectly what you cannot do directly. What the minister has done is blatantly use a prop because he’s now doing it from the safety of some other office,” Fast said.

Guilbeault responded on Twitter: “The bike has been there long before we started doing virtual Parliament. In fact, it has also been there for months as I was taking questions as heritage minister. Strange that after almost a year, it’s become an issue,” he said.

In a related story, the deputy speaker warned MPs appearing from home to keep their garb professional, CP reports, but he didn’t say anything about bikes.

Tech tax: The Liberal government intends to proceed with plans to implement a digital services tax targeting tech giants, the Post reports. Critics in the business community think the government should wait for an international agreement before acting.

Nomination survey: Some Conservatives think a membership survey is laying the groundwork so that Erin O’Toole can centralize the nomination process, the Hill Times reports.

Confront dissidents! Also in the Hill Times, former CPC MP Tom Lukiwski argues that O’Toole should call a leadership review so that he can silence internal critics.

Still fighting: Green Party officials are still engaged in a damaging internal feud, CBC reports.

Syrup to flow: The people behind Quebec’s strategic reserve of maple syrup said Monday they will release 50 million pounds of maple syrup–worth about $150 million–onto the market by February, responding to rising international demand, CP reports.

— Stephen Maher

Vaxx Populi

Omicron: Here's what we know so far about the latest variant of concern

Vaxx Populi: From how vulnerable Canada is to what the vaccine makers are doing in response, here's what we know about the newest variant of concern

Omicron entered our lexicon at exactly 12 p.m. Eastern Time on Nov. 26, according to Google Trends, which recorded a massive spike in online searches. Since then, searches have only increased as people scour the web for news on the newest variant of concern. 

So new is the variant, however, that researchers are scrambling to unravel its secrets—likely for few weeks but possibly more—and pleading for patience. “We know that getting a rapid understanding of disease severity with Omicron (particularly in vaccinated individuals and re-infections) is absolutely critical, but it’s just too early for reliable data,” cautioned Dr. Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. 

So, as more cases are detected around the world, including in Canada, no one is sure how Omicron will stack up against the current COVID-19 variant heavyweight, Delta, or how it will affect the vaccines currently approved for use. Still, there are some things that we do know: 

RELATED: The team of scientists guarding Canada against COVID variants—’the known unknown’

What is Omicron?

First, a bit of background: Viruses regularly mutate, it’s in their nature. So while experts have identified many mutations or evolutions of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, only a few rise to the level of being labelled variants of concern. Perhaps the two most famous are Alpha and Delta, which were the causes of Canada’s second and third waves in the winter and spring of 2020-21. (The Pango Network tracks their lineages; or instance, Alpha—a.k.a. B.1.1.7—comes from the B.1.1. Lineage, sandwiched between B.1.1.5 and B.1.1.8, neither of which amounted to much.) 

The researchers in South Africa were concerned about Omicron because of its specific mutations, and because of a rapid rise in cases in the region. Dr. Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation (CERI) in Stellenbosch, told a press conference that “this variant did surprise us.” In particular, they had found more than 30 mutations on the spike protein of the coronavirus. 

That spike protein is important, not only because that’s how the SARS-CoV-2 virus latches onto healthy cells in the body but also because the current crop of vaccines take aim at that same spike protein by using harmless versions of it to generate an immune response in people.

READ: COVID vaccines for children are here. How well have we protected the kids so far? 

Experts are concerned that the mutations in Omicron’s spike protein may mean that vaccines are less effective, or that people who have already recovered from COVID-19 could be susceptible to this new variant. At the same time, researchers caution against thinking we’re returning to March 2020. For one, they don’t believe that Omicron will completely evade the vaccines. Moreover, there are now many more treatments for COVID. And vaccine makers are already pouring over data to see how they may need to tweak the make-up of the COVID-19 vaccines. 

The other concern is how transmissible Omicron could be. From this virus’s perspective, transmissibility equals success. The Gamma variant was perceived as a dangerous brute until it was effectively swept aside by the far more transmissible Delta. 

Who found it?

According to local reports, the new variant was discovered by Dr. Sikhulile Moyo, a Zimbabwean-born scientist working at the Botswana Harvard H.I.V. Reference Laboratory. He was doing genomic sequencing on positive COVID-19 test samples and noticed that several had scores of mutations not previously seen. At around the same time in neighbouring South Africa, researchers were discovering the same mutations in test samples from a cluster of cases in Gauteng. 

READ: What to do as we walk into the pandemic’s fifth wave 

South Africa reported the new variant, B.1.1.529, on Nov. 26 and asked for an emergency meeting of the World Health Organization. On Nov. 26, the WHO named it Omicron and classified it as a variant of interest.

Right now, researchers, especially those in southern Africa, are sharing information with colleagues around the world. On Nov. 29, Dr. de Oliviera stated that South Africa’s Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation had uploaded all its raw sequencing data for Omicron to the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information website. (Things are moving so quickly that Twitter is a de facto notification system.) 

What does this mean for the world?

Well, no one is sure right now. It takes time to examine new variants and determine their threat level. 

At the same time, the virus will continue to mutate. It can be slowed and possibly stopped by vaccines but only if the entire world is vaccinated. And right now, much of Africa is still waiting for doses to arrive, while other areas are fighting disinformation that is slowing immunization efforts. In sub-Saharan African, the vaccine leader is South Africa, with just 25 per cent of its people fully vaccinated, followed by Botswana at 20 per cent, according to Our World in Data

READ: The roadblock to full pandemic recovery: ‘Pockets’ of unvaccinated Canadians 

What does that mean for Canada? 

Canada is still quite vulnerable: 22 per cent of our entire population is unvaccinated, according to Health Canada. And, as we saw this summer during large outbreaks in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the viruses can easily circulate in areas where vaccination rates are low. Plus, when case counts rise, so do hospitalizations, which means that overstretched health-care systems have to postpone other non-emergency surgeries and treatments.  

Why are countries so quickly finding cases of Omicron? 

Researchers in South Africa figured out how to quickly identify Omicron through a standard PCR nasal swab test. As the World Health Organization explained in its technical briefing document on the variant: “Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and this test can therefore be used as marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation.”

Public health authorities around the world now had a way to quickly scan positive COVID tests for the new variant, even while waiting for full confirmation through genomic sequencing, which takes around 10 days. And sure enough, they started reporting cases. 

READ: Will this flu season be worse than usual?

Some countries like Israel and Japan are closing their borders. Should Canada?

One can’t help but be concerned by the possible dangers of Omicron, which is why many governments, including Canada, quickly piled on extra public health requirements on travellers. On Nov. 26, when no cases had been detected in Canada, Ottawa put new testing measures in place for Canadians and residents who had been in southern Africa, while banning nationals who had recently been in those nations. Two days later, two probable cases were found within our borders.

As more specific testing is done, more cases are being found around the world, including throughout Europe and Australia, which aren’t on Ottawa’s travel restriction list. By Nov. 29, there were at least 184 confirmed and 1,305 probable cases around the world, according to a tracker from Newsnodes.com

As Canada and the world discovered with Delta,once there is community spread, border restrictions rapidly lose their value. 

Why is it called Omicron?

Well, B.1.1.529 is a mouthful. On June 1, the World Health Organization adopted a more user-friendly naming system based on the letters of the Greek alphabet for the general public. While the next unused letter after Mu (a variant identified in Colombia in the summer) was Nu, both it and the next letter, Xi, were deemed too confusing (many pronounced Nu as “New,” which implies its something different, while Xi is a very common surname). So, the WHO went to the next option: Omicron. 

Politics Insider

The COVID-19 variant Omicron is in Ottawa; and WHO disputes travel restrictions

Politics Insider for Nov. 29, 2021: A worrying new COVID variant is here; an inflation fight; and some Ryan Reynolds

Worrying news: On Sunday, Ontario announced that the Omicron COVID-19 variant was detected in Ottawa in two patients who recently travelled to Nigeria. CBC has a story. These cases will likely be just the first.

In a statement released Sunday, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the confirmation of two omicron cases is a signal that the country’s monitoring system is working but to expect more cases of the variant. “As the monitoring and testing continues with provinces and territories, it is expected that other cases of this variant will be found in Canada,” Duclos said.

It is not yet clear if Omicron is more virulent or transmissible than previous variants, or if it has developed vaccine resistance. Moderna’s chief medical officer told the BBC, though, that the company could roll out an updated vaccine early in 2022 if necessary, CNBC reported.

Bans disputed: On Friday, Canada imposed travel restrictions on foreign nationals who had visited southern Africa. WHO has complained about the bans, calling them unscientific and unhelpful, and some Canadian experts agree, Global reports.

Not racist: In the Toronto Sun, Lorrie Goldstein reminds readers that travel bans were once considered racist.

Not Ottawa’s fault: Don’t blame inflation on stimulus spending, former Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz told CTV Sunday: “In fact, what the stimulus did was to keep the economy from going into a deep hole in which we would have experienced persistent deflation.” (Video)

Inflation has reached 4.7 per cent, according to the latest numbers released by Statistics Canada in October. The Bank of Canada expects it to peak at the end of this year and start to decline in the latter half of 2022.

Conservative Finance Critic Pierre Poilievre blames the Trudeau government for causing inflation, and recently got into a Twitter debate with Even Solomon about CTV’s coverage of the question.

ICYMI: Maclean’s Jason Markusoff has a good explainer on inflation in our January issue.

Culture change: New Chief of the Defence Staff Wayne Eyre promised to change the culture of the Canadian Forces, to get rid of the idea that it’s an “old boys’ club,” he told CTV on Sunday, the Globe reports.

General Eyre said there are many aspects of military culture he wants to keep – such as protecting others and service above self – but he wants to address the “exclusionary aspects” and bring in the values of inclusion as the “face of Canada is changing.” “So if we want to be able to attract and retain the best talent from all segments of Canadian society, we have to embrace that value of inclusion,” he said on the television program. Gen. Eyre said that over the next few weeks, the Canadian Armed Forces will be announcing a number of initiatives in greater detail around culture change, support for survivors of misconduct, and the complaint reporting system.

Not only women: In an interview on Global, Eyre pointed out that more than 40 per cent of the nearly 19,000 claims submitted by survivors and victims of military sexual misconduct are from men.

ICYMI: In the Globe on Saturday, Andrew Coyne has a persusasive column arguing that a patchwork of policies aimed at reducing emissions is dramatically more costly than simply raising the carbon tax.

Relying on carbon pricing alone to hit our target, the Trudeau government says in the 2016 Framework, “would require a very high price.” Very high, compared with what? Compared with the current price, undoubtedly. But compared to alternative measures? What the government really means is that the price would be visible to the public and therefore politically toxic. Whereas the cost of subsidies and regulations, though higher – and though the public just as surely pays for them – is invisible.

Not as efficient: In the Star on Saturday, Robin Sears writes that, in comparison with Germany, where a businesslike new coalition government has just released “a 177-page set of specific policy pledges, with detailed agendas and time frames,” Canada’s government takes a “dilatory approach to governing by legislation.”

ICYMI: Ryan Reynolds received a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, and got a musical tribute from Steven Page, Global reports.

— Stephen Maher

Politics Insider

The U.S. doubles its tariff on Canadian softwood lumber

Politics Insider for Nov. 26, 2021: Softwood lumber pressure; a raucous Question Period; and a new Chief of Defense Staff

No bueno: Good morning. The U.S. is doubling its tariff on Canadian softwood lumber, despite efforts at the recent Three Amigos summit to lobby against the proposed change. Though figuring this out is a “top priority” for Liberals, per trade minister Mary Ng at yesterday’s Question Period, the government is taking heat. 

Can I get a Q? Can I get a P? We’re two very noisy QPs into the pre-holiday sitting (during yesterday’s, Speaker Rota had to chide MPs after hearing something “not very parliamentary”). Aside from the softwood lumber issue, Conservatives have clearly identified cost-of-living woes as their main line of attack. Aaron Wherry, at CBC, has a column that tries to poke holes in their argument that inflation is Justin Trudeau’s fault. And in case you missed it, our Jason Markusoff has a detailed explainer on what exactly is going on—and why the problem will get worse in 2022. 

Global economic trends have a way of mocking predictions. But on inflation, we’re down to choosing between illness and cure, and nothing in the past points to a pleasing outcome. We either pay more in the future to borrow money and service our public debt, or we pay more to do just about anything else. Something’s going to give in 2022, and perhaps for years to come.

Missed opportunities: A scathing new report from the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Jerry DeMarco, gives Canada poor grades on its climate change mitigation efforts. Read it here. Per DeMarco, in a statement to media:

Canada was once a leader in the fight against climate change. However, after a series of missed opportunities, it has become the worst performer of all G7 nations since the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change was adopted in 2015. We can’t continue to go from failure to failure; we need action and results, not just more targets and plans.

Worth it? Erin O’Toole’s team spent more than $1 million in party funds to set up the hotel-based broadcast studio from which he did much electioneering, per reporting from Alex Boutilier over at Global News. The kicker, of course: this year’s pandemic-era campaign tour cost a couple of million less than in 2019. Pretty modest next to the $600 million election figure the party is still bandying about in new ads that promise O’Toole is now ready to win against PMJT (despite, of course, his very recent loss). 

That’s Gen., not Jane: General Wayne Eyre is taking over as Chief of the Defence Staff after nine months of doing the gig in an interim capacity—despite his predecessor trying to hang on to the role. Sez new minister Anita Anand in a tweet: “General Eyre and I will continue to work together to build a military where all members feel safe, protected, and respected, wherever they are, whatever they are doing.” Internal culture change was the lead theme of her recent speech at the Halifax International Security Forum, where Canada was asked to up its military game farther afield—something being actively considered, reports the Globe and Mail, as Russian military buildup continues at the Ukrainian border. 

In other job news: Congratulations to Dr. Amita Kuttner, who is the new interim leader of a beleaguered federal Green Party looking to start fresh after the departure of Annamie Paul. Kuttner, 30, is the first nonbinary person, and the first person of east-Asian descent, to lead a national party, per the Greens. They are also an astrophysicist with an expertise in black holes. Maybe that, uh, puts them in a good position to stop the party from slipping into one?

Oh hey! It’s Friday! Press play on a new mainstay in the podcast fray (or is it more of a melee?). “Eh sayers” debuted yesterday. We pray they slay. Okay. Okaaaay. That’s enough rhyming for now. (And for actual poetry, see Maclean’s for takes on the year ahead from poet laureates across the country.) The pod is from Statistics Canada and promises “the stories behind the numbers.” Episode one digs into disability statistics and discusses activity limitations and COVID-19. Happy listening!

—Marie-Danielle Smith

Politics Insider

A new Chrystia Freeland biography signals possible Liberal leadership ambitions

Politics Insider for Nov. 25, 2021: Freeland has a new book; Erin O'Toole gives a 'fiery' speech; and some inflation talk

Next Up? The Globe and Mail notes that a new Chrystia Freeland biography in the works “will feed into a growing perception” that the finance minister will gun for the top job whenever Justin Trudeau steps aside. Myriad unnamed sources cite other possible cues in the form of Freeland’s greater responsiveness to backbenchers and a letter she wrote scolding the CEO of Air Canada for crowing that he’d lived in Montreal 14 years without managing to learn French. Other leadership possibilities trotted out include Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly, Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and, of course, Mark Carney.

Kids without enough: A new report from the national coalition Campaign 2000 warns that the battle against child poverty in Canada stalled during the pandemic, and the poverty rate of Canadian kids is likely to be even worse now than the latest available tax data shows. As of 2019, 1.3 million Canadian children, or 17.7 percent, were living below the poverty line. “That’s a pretty significant number of kids who are suffering from the harms and the effects of missing meals, not having the right kinds of clothes and parents working really long hours,” Leila Sarangi, the Campaign 2000 national director, told CBC news. Progress on child poverty was one of the big accomplishments of the Trudeau government’s first term, with Statistics Canada estimating that the Canada Child Benefit lifted 278,000 kids above the poverty line in the first full year of the program. But Campaign 2000 is calling on the government to significantly increase the CCB, warning that at the current pace, it will take 54 years to raise all Canadian kids above that bar. 

Help wanted: Following through on one of their Throne Speech priorities, the Liberals introduced a bill in the House of Commons on Wednesday that would target specific industries and workers with more precise financial support coming out of the pandemic. The hard-hit tourism and hospitality sectors will get a boost if this measure goes through, and it is one of four pieces of legislation the government hopes to pass in a hurry, before MPs head out on their winter break in mid-December.

Enough is enough: British Columbians have barely caught their breath from the flooding that devastated their homes, infrastructure and lives, and now more severe weather is predicted over the next several days that could make things even worse. Up to 80 mm of rain was forecast for certain areas, along with high winds, snow and fluctuating temperatures that have officials worried about river levels and further flooding. Some highways remain closed, clean water supplies have been interrupted and residents have been warned against non-essential travel as the province braces for more punishing conditions.

Thumbs Down: Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, unsurprisingly, was not a fan of the government’s Throne Speech delivered on Tuesday. In a “fiery speech” to caucus on Wednesday morning, O’Toole vowed to fight what he portrayed as Trudeau’s assault on prosperity, national unity and the oil and gas industry. O’Toole accused the Liberals of being in cahoots with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh on a left-wing coalition, and, in keeping with Tory messaging over the last few months, took aim at inflation and the rising cost of living, which he and his MPs have blamed on Trudeau’s pandemic spending.

“What is Justin Trudeau’s response? Instead of standing up for Canadians, we have a prime minister who always puts his own needs ahead of yours,” he said, as CBC reported.

Cost of isolation: A new analysis from the parliamentary budget officer estimates the cost of keeping federal prisoners away from the general population in “structured intervention units” that are supposed to mitigate some of the worst effects of solitary confinement. The PBO says that with the 15 units that already exist, the annual cost of operation will be $42 million in five years, but with up to 32 units needed, the price tag could rise to $91 million a year. 

In other PBO news, former PBO Kevin Page, now CEO of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa, talked to Power & Politics about the factors driving inflation in Canada. In his estimation, high energy costs driven by supply and demand issues, low housing stock and heightened demand as a result of the fiscal supports pumped into the economy during the pandemic are what’s behind Canada’s inflation rate, which is “on the high side” among G7 nations but dwarfed by that of the U.S. Page is sanguine about the potential for things to smooth out if the government winds down pandemic supports soon in order to avoid over-stimulating the economy. “The market is going to have to adjust from a 100-year shock from the pandemic,” he said. 

—Shannon Proudfoot

Canada

What happened to the Liberals' concern about hunger and food insecurity?

The Throne Speech shook hopes that the Trudeau government will take meaningful action on a fast-growing problem

Tuesday’s Speech from the Throne was intended to lay out the Trudeau government’s plan to, as the Liberals like to say in their public communications, “keep moving Canada forward.” But at least one constituency following the speech felt a distinct lack of progress by the time the Governor General wrapped up her address.

Academics, researchers and community advocates worried by swelling rates of food insecurity and the rising cost of living were watching closely, hoping the government would promise substantive moves to help the one in seven Canadians now struggling to access sufficient amounts of nutritious food. Their hopes had risen after last year’s Throne Speech, which signalled support to address surging rates of food insecurity, strengthening local food supply chains, supporting farmers in building resilience against climate change and protecting Canadian and migrant workers who play an indispensable role in the food system. 

But as the list of this year’s commitments and aspirations unfurled, disappointment set in. There was no direct mention of food insecurity; the labour shortage in the agriculture and agri-food industry; the impacts of climate change on Canada’s food supply or financial assistance for millions of employed Canadians who fall below the poverty line. 

The speech did commit for the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) monthly payment amount to be adjusted for inflation, claiming it had “already helped lift hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty.” But research from PROOF, an interdisciplinary research group examining food insecurity in Canada, had previously found that the monthly amount for the CCB was not sufficient in bringing hundreds of thousands of households out of food insecurity, the root cause of which is poverty.

“I’m dismayed by the continued rhetoric around the CCB being an effective poverty reduction tool,” said Valerie Tarasuk, who leads the PROOF research team tracking rates of food insecurity. “There are debates surrounding how many people really got moved out of poverty as a result of this the benefit, but there’s no debate about the fact that we still have a horrific problem of food insecurity and families of children.” 

The speech also committed to “combatting hate and racism with a renewed Anti-Racism strategy”—and it is true that food insecurity is an issue that differs across racial lines. Recent research conducted by PROOF and FoodShare Toronto found that Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities are more likely to be food insecure than white Canadians. 

“When we’re thinking about how we approach solutions [to food insecurity], we not only have to think about income,” said Melana Roberts, a board member at Food Secure Canada. “We also have to think along racial equity lines and understand how an anti-racism approach is a critical piece in building healthier, more sustainable communities, which were key priorities in the Throne Speech.”

Still, without evidence-based income policy solutions, the “food insecurity crisis” is only going to get worse, Roberts said. “We’re not going to see the significant benefits in the commitments around disaggregated race-based data, commitments around an Indigenous-led approach to mental health interventions, or the benefits of investment in housing unless we also see an anti-racism and a decolonization lens across the board.”  

The Throne Speech was heavily sprinkled with calls to action—action on reconciliation, action on collective health and well-being, action on climate change, action on rising prices and action on systemic racism. But advocates have heard many of those calls before.

“Action would look like creating new political frameworks that would support regenerative food systems or agriculture,” said Dawn Morrison, founder and curator of the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty, who thought the speech fell short in addressing the depth of social justice issues that lie at the heart of climate action and reconciliation.

Morrison says viewing climate change through the lens of food is vital, “because drivers of climate change exist in the food system.”

“We need a new framework for thinking of the food system beyond the settler-colonial narrative of just agriculture,”  Morrison added. “Of course, agriculture feeds a lot of people. But the model of agriculture that dominates is having serious impacts on the climate and was designed to favour the top one per cent of the corporations who control the food system.”

Nathan Sing writes about food security and hunger issues in Canada. His one-year position at Maclean’s is funded by the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security, in partnership with Community Food Centres Canada. Email tips and suggestions to nathan.sing@macleans.ca.

 

 

 

Image of the Week

Mary Simon's land acknowledgement isn't symbolic: ‘It is our true history’

Image of the Week: The governor general is a symbolic role and Simon's appointment a symbolic victory. But her land acknowledgement—a bit of symbolic prose—is more than that.

Land acknowledgements, once a good-faith effort to start a dialogue about Indigenous history, have come under heavy fire since going mainstream. They’ve been criticized for being ineffectual, superficial and essentially a list of names read off a piece of paper. But no one could lob those critiques at Inuk Governor General Mary Simon’s land acknowledgement, which flew in the face of its more casual counterparts. “This land acknowledgement is not a symbolic declaration,” she began. “It is our true history.” She then urged MPs to learn about their own communities’ Indigenous communities, segueing into the hundreds of unmarked children’s graves, which in turn segued into reconciliation, before addressing climate change, the pandemic, housing and other issues ripped from the recent election campaign. As has been pointed out in this publication, there are no new promises to be found, no revelations that diverge from the Liberal platform. But it’s easy to be cynical of the speech, the promises, the land acknowledgments. The governor general has always been a symbolic role. Simon’s appointment was a symbolic victory. And her land acknowledgment, like all land acknowledgments, is a symbolic bit of prose—yet also one worth our attention.

READ: Mary Simon, at the moment she’s needed most
RELATED: Five takeaways from a very cautious 2021 Throne Speech

Politics Insider

Parliament returns; and Gov. Gen. Mary Simon delivers her first throne speech

Politics Insider for Nov. 23, 2021: A Speaker is picked; David Suzuki makes a controversial speech; and jailed journalists are freed

The gang’s all back: Gone was the large Zoom screen and swaths of empty seats. The first day of Parliament’s 44th session featured a basically full house of MPs for the first time since mid-March 2020. Members and observers alike seemed happy to be back. All wore masks, and while the seating order isn’t ideal for social distancing, it cannot possibly be any worse than the classrooms millions of Canadian children have sat in for months.

The sea of returning and rookie MPs was most conspicuous in the Conservative benches, after much speculation that Parliamentary rules on COVID vaccination proof would keep some MPs out. Virtually all Conservatives were in attendance, and save for Richard Lehoux (who tested positive) the few others were away for travel or other non-COVID reasons. Aides announced that all of Erin O’Toole’s MPs were either vaccinated or had medical exemptions, though it remained unclear how many were in each camp.

This gave Government House Leader Mark Holland room to pour more salt on this Conservative wound; he noted that the odds that multiple MPs would qualify for medical exemptions is statistically “extraordinarily low,” given that only 1 in 20,000 would normally have legitimate medical reasons to not get immunized. Candice Bergen, deputy Conservative leader, said the Liberal was “disparaging the House of Commons officials and medical experts tasked with overseeing the vaccination verification process,” CTV News reported.

Duly reelected and redragged: After an election that changed so little in the House of Commons, it stood to reason that the Speakers’ election would deliver a status-quo result as well. Anthony Rota, the sixth-term Liberal MP for Nipissing–Timiskaming, was reelected in the secret preferential ballot against six MPs from various parties. It will be his second term occupying Commons’ biggest, greenest chair—and a residence known as The Farm in the Gatineau Hills—after first getting the post after the 2019 election, when he beat the incumbent Geoff Regan. After he was ceremonially dragged through the Commons by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Opposition Leader (he feigned going limp a few times, he sprinkled his victory speech not only with comfortable French and English, but also Italian and Ojibwa.

It will remain a mystery how the other Speaker candidates fared in their peers’ voting. Among them, Conservative MP Joël Godin and New Democrat MP Carol Hughes were unsuccessful in 2019.

Simon says: While the House of Commons had most of the fun ceremonial proceedings on Monday, the pomp and ornate hats shift Tuesday to the Senate chambers, where Gov.-Gen. Mary Simon will deliver her first throne speech at 1 p.m. This is not one with particularly high expectations around it, given the fact the Liberals’ agenda was already laid out by the party election platform. Government House Leader Mark Holland already laid out much of the Liberals’ immediate legislative priorities—bills on conversion therapy, extended pandemic benefits, 10-day paid sick leave and protecting health workers from harassment, all to be passed by the time the House calls it a calendar year on Dec. 22.

Speculation about what’s in the vice-regal address is fairly low-key—many attempts at French by Simon? Hastily added lines about the flooding disaster in B.C.?—but it’s now abundantly safe to say this will not be the Commonwealth’s worst major political speech of the week. Take a bow (and don’t fall on your face in so doing), U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. From The Guardian:

Boris Johnson has been criticised by senior business leaders and Conservative MPs for a “rambling” speech to top industry figures that saw him extensively praise Peppa Pig World, compare himself to Moses and imitate the noise of an accelerating car…

He said that “the true driver of growth is not the government”, but the private sector, whose energy and originality the prime minister praised. To illustrate this, he explained: “Yesterday I went, as we all must, to Peppa Pig World. Hands up if you’ve been to Peppa Pig World! “I loved it. Peppa Pig World is very much my kind of place. It has very safe streets, discipline in schools, heavy emphasis on new mass transit systems. Even if they’re a bit stereotypical about Daddy Pig.”

Johnson also imitated the sound of an accelerating car with grunts that the official Downing Street release transcribed as “arum arum aaaaaaaaag”.

Manitoba also has a throne speech Tuesday, the governmental reset by newly minted Premier Heather Stefanson, sworn in two weeks ago to replace Tory Brian Pallister. And don’tcha know, vaccination rules are also causing stress in the legislative chambers over in Winnipeg.

Build back or bust: The landslides and floods in British Columbia have soundly discredited the false dichotomies: the greens versus the bean counters, safety of the planet versus Canadians’ pocketbooks, writes Rick Smith of the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices. This climate disaster has been an economic disaster to supply chains and businesses. Smith observes in Maclean’s:

It’s clear from looking at the washed-out highways and rail lines in B.C. that we need a huge investment in climate-resilient infrastructure. B.C.’s current crisis shows that such investment is the most cost-effective way to protect the services that people and businesses depend on. Canada already has an infrastructure deficit, with governments, utilities, businesses and homeowners already struggling to keep what already exists in good condition; we need to ensure that this deficit is addressed with future-fit, low-carbon infrastructure that builds for the climate of today and tomorrow.

Speaking of climate change, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault delivered his own report from COP26 in Canada’s National Observer. It was his 19th climate summit; the previous ones he attended as a climate activist. You’ll be no doubt shocked to hear how proud he is of what Canada’s doing now. While he insists this isn’t time for victory laps, it does appear time for back-patting: “Amid the ups and downs of summit diplomacy, one thing stood out that I wasn’t fully prepared for in Glasgow. Inside those negotiating rooms, and behind the closed doors of my bilateral meetings, I heard a genuine appreciation and respect for the constructive role Canada is playing in the climate fight.”

Far, far, from inside the corridors of environmental decision-making, David Suzuki raised the spectre of violent destruction by activists  if politicians don’t act. “We’re in deep, deep doo-doo,” the legendary environmentalist told an Extinction Rebellion protest on Vancouver Island this weekend. “This what we’re come to, the next stage after this, there are going to be pipelines blown up if our leaders don’t pay attention to what’s going on.”

Suzuki later said he doesn’t support bombing pipelines—“of course not,” he told National Post’s Tyler Dawson—but did say few other options remain for those who feel government isn’t moving rapidly enough. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was quick to condemn Suzuki’s remark as “dangerous,” and Environment Minister Jason Nixon blasted him for preaching ecoterrorism. More neutrally, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said “statements like that are not helpful,” particularly during so much displacement due to this natural (though climate-change-induced) catastrophe.

Journalists out of jail: It’s unseemly for journalists to spend three nights in jail for doing their jobs, but at least photojournalist Amber Bracken and Michael Toledano don’t get more, at least for now. On Monday, a B.C. judge released them both on bail after their arrests Friday in an RCMP raid along with 13 others while they were chronicling protests of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline that would run through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. They were released on conditions, including an order to abide by the pipeline company’s injunction limiting access to the pipeline construction site. The journalists remain charged, with Bracken’s hearing set for February.

—Jason Markusoff

Politics Insider

Tories under pressure as MP tests positive for COVID-19

Politics Insider for Nov. 22, 2021: A CPC MP tests positive for COVID; the Liberals look for deals; and Garneau sticks around

The Liberals are threatening a showdown today as Parliament sits for the first time since the election amid uncertainty about the vaccine status of CPC MPs, Joan Bryden reports for CP. The issue is coming to a head because Beauce MP Richard Lehoux tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a caucus meeting with his colleagues, an unknown number of whom are not vaccinated. Government House Leader Mark Holland wants the House to verify medical exemptions issued to Tories, while Erin O’Toole is preparing to challenge a mandate on the Hill.

O’Toole has said his party intends to challenge a rule imposed by the board of internal economy, the all-party governing body of the House of Commons, requiring anyone entering the Commons precinct to be fully vaccinated. Given the Conservatives’ mixed views on vaccination, Holland suggested the party can’t be trusted to police its MPs who claim a medical exemption. “I’m deeply uncomfortable with their circumstance,” Holland said in an interview Sunday.

Wheeling, dealing: Holland told the Globe that he is seeking to cut deals with other parties to get the government’s agenda through the House.

One of the Liberals’ top legislative priorities is to obtain approval for an October government announcement that scaled back pandemic wage and rent supports for businesses while extending the duration of the benefits for the hardest hit companies. The government also announced at the time that it was ending the Canada Recovery Benefit pandemic-relief program … Holland told The Globe and Mail he’s continuing to talk with other parties to find agreement on how the new Parliament will function. Mr. Holland is seeking a long-term deal on practical issues, such as continuing to allow “hybrid” meetings, in which MPs can participate either in person or remotely via video link. He is also seeking to determine what parts of the government’s policy agenda other parties may support.

Affordability: MPs would be wise to focus their efforts on the rising cost of living, according to a new poll from Ipsos, which found concerns about rising prices outranks issues like the COVID-19 pandemic, health care and housing as Canadians’ top concern, Global reports.“They’re really focused on what’s going on in their own homes and what’s happening in their own lives, particularly relative to their own personal prosperity,” said Ipsos CEO Darrell Bricker.

Speaker first: MPs will elect a Speaker today, CBC reports, and listen to Mary Simon read the Throne speech tomorrow.

Kenney upbeat: Jason Kenney is feeling confident after a weekend UCP convention, where he received little resistance, CP reports.

Jean on the scene: The Globe‘s Kelly Cryderman reports that although Kenney was not confronted directly, not everyone is united behind him.

Despite the lack of open defiance, divisions in the UCP, and potential challenges to Mr. Kenney’s leadership, were still a key feature of the convention. In conversations on the sidelines, some members and MLAs maintained the Premier lacks introspection on issues of trust, and they criticized his leadership style, which they described as top-down. At least two potential leadership challengers roamed the convention halls at the in-person gathering at a casino hotel on Calgary’s western city limits.

Former Wildrose party leader Brian Jean, a consummate political rival to Mr. Kenney who lost the UCP leadership contest to him in 2017, is seeking the party’s nomination in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche. He made no bones about his intention to some day seek the leadership of the party. “If the Premier takes this party forward into the next election, we’re going to lose. There’s going to be an overwhelming NDP majority,” he told reporters.

Garneau to stay on: Former astronaut, foreign affairs minister (and leadership rival to Justin Trudeau) Marc Garneau intends to serve out his term as MP, and not, as rumoured, become the ambassador to Paris, La Presse reports (translation).

According to information obtained by La Presse, Mr. Garneau was keen to set the record straight about his political future while Liberal strategists began to speculate on possible Liberal candidates who could run for votes in the constituency of Mr. Garneau, considered a Liberal stronghold, if the latter obtained a diplomatic appointment. The name of former President of the Liberal Party of Canada Anna Gainey was mentioned in particular.

Locked up reporters: The Canadian Association of Journalists is calling for the release of two journalists—Amber Bracken and Michael Toledano—who the Mounties arrested at a weekend B.C. pipeline protest, the Globe reports.

“They were doing their job,” said Brent Jolly, the president of the CAJ. “That’s the real coldness of this whole situation. People are there to serve the public – that’s what journalists do – to be the public’s eye and ears, and this is how they’re treated.”

Jabs for kids: The first batch of COVID-19 vaccines for children five to 11 landed in a Hamilton airport on Sunday, CP reports.

Health Canada announced Friday that it had approved a modified version of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for use in that demographic, and Ottawa immediately promised some shots would be on Canadian soil 48 hours later.

Tests waived: CBC reports that B.C. border community residents will be allowed to cross the border to the U.S. and return without requiring a COVID-19 test or quarantining because of the floods, the feds said Sunday.

In the Globe, Robyn Urbank writes that Canadians should resist the temptation to go to ride roughshod over individual rights in the effort to get everyone vaccinated.

— Stephen Maher

Politics Insider

Three Amigos summit: No awkward handshakes—but no concessions on the electric vehicle tax credit, either

Politics Insider for Nov. 19, 2021: The PM has a tough trip; the military heads to B.C.; a big vaccine day

At least the handshakes went well: When Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau and Mexican counterpart Andrés Manuel López Obrador entered the White House’s East Room for their much-hyped trilateral confab, the three masked hombres sat as far apart from each other as the long table would allow. And it does not appear that Trudeau nudged much closer to getting the U.S. President to inject compromise into Congress legislation that includes an electric vehicle tax credit that could freeze out Canadian-made cars and trucks.

Biden, before his earlier one-on-one with Trudeau, was non-committal on what’s suddenly become the top bilateral issue for Canada, one that could wallop its auto sector. “The answer is: I don’t know,” Biden said, when asked about neighbourly exemptions. “And I don’t know what we’re going to be dealing with, quite frankly, when it comes out of legislation.”

It was the first policy topic Trudeau brought up in the one-on-one, the Toronto Star’s Washington-based Edward Keenan writes:

Meanwhile, over in Congress, the House of Representatives was pushing toward a vote on the Build Back Better economic package—including the Buy American policy—possibly late Thursday night. There appeared a good chance that while Trudeau was still in town making the case against it, the House was going to vote in favour of it. So, maybe not a smashing success story for the Canadian delegation. But then, no one expected success on that file in the form of any kind of decision or announcement in Canada’s favour. The best anyone was hoping for was to keep talking about it as the bill makes its way through the political process. And there’s plenty of process left.

The meeting of the leaders from the old NAFTA zone lasted close to three hours. Their joint statement glided past irritants like trade and (on the U.S.-Mexico border) migration, and was predictably thick with terms like “reiterated” and “commit to launch efforts to enhance cooperation” on matters like climate change, trade and the pandemic.

In a break with tradition, there was no three-headed news conference, leaving Trudeau to hop a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue to speak with reporters at the Canadian Embassy. Asked repeatedly about what progress he made on the tax credit issue, Trudeau replied the Americans are “very aware of Canada’s position on this… and the threats it poses to over 50 years of integrated auto-making in our two countries.” The Globe’s Adrian Morrow observed: “Translation: he raised repeatedly, but the Americans aren’t budging.”

Feds go west: Speaking of Team Canada, that’s a term Defense Minister Anita Anand used when talking up the federal response to the catastrophic flooding in British Columbia. Anand was joined at a briefing Thursday by Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, along with Gen. Wayne Eyre, acting Chief of Defence Staff. (Notable absence, given the devastation to Fraser Valley farms: Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, but this was already a personnel-heavy news conference.)

Much of it was platitudinal in these early stages of a (gulp) long crisis to rebuild from, an all-hands-on-deck sort of show, an emphasis on getting people to safety for now—and some clear linkage with climate change, adaptation and rebuilding with resiliency from Wilkinson, the former environment minister. Anand and Eyre had the most concrete messages to send, with 120 pairs of Canadian Armed Forces boots on the ground now in Abbottsford, 350 more ready for deployment from Edmonton for immediate response. “If needed, we have thousands more members on standby ready to help the province,” Anand said.

Logistical support, human support and financial support—British Columbia will need it from Canada. Asked Thursday about any early price tag, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth could only say: “It’s going to be an awful lot.”

Biden offered his thoughts during Trudeau’s visit: “I know we are both keeping our minds close to the families affected by the storms flooding the British Columbia area in the Pacific northwest.” It’s likely B.C. will lean on the Americans for more than thoughts, given how many supply chains were severed—Premier John Horgan is already suggested they’ll need support from U.S. fuel reserves, Global News reports.

Kid, this won’t hurt a bit: The news Canadian parents and their kin have awaited for months finally lands today at 10 a.m. ET, when Health Canada officials announce regulatory approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged 5 and up. (Don’t expect a cameo by the Prime Minister; his itinerary says his flight from Washington will still be airborne when briefing begins.)

Canada has expected 2.9 million of Pfizer’s kid-sized doses of the mRNA shot to arrive “shortly” after this approval—a first dose for every child eligible, the Toronto Star’s Alex Boyd explains.

From there, provincial governments will rush to set up and announce their own vaccination approaches. A few provinces have offered parents the chance to “pre-register” their kids, but that mostly amounts to signing up for be notified promptly when there’s something to actually register for.

In the United States, which green-lighted the juvenile Pfizer vaccine on Nov. 2, has vaccinated nearly 10 per cent of its newly eligible children in the first two weeks of that country’s COVID immunization program.

Kenney’s dysfunctional family gathering: After the year Jason Kenney’s had, one imagines Alberta’s premier wishes a weekend spent with his United Conservative Party faithful would be a pleasant refuge from all his other challenges. Not so, not at all.

The UCP holds its first in-person annual convention since 2019 this weekend at a casino hotel on Tsuu T’ina Nation, just outside of Calgary. The grassroots are restive, arguing he doesn’t listen much, and more than 20 constituency associations want a fast-tracked and broader leadership review by March. (One’s currently scheduled for April.) There’ve been leaks all over UCP-land pointing to the various ways Kenney’s team will try to tilt the convention votes and motions in his favour—a corporate executive enlisting employees to sign up and rock the convention floor, as Calgary Herald’s Don Braid reports, or the premier’s office telling legislature staffers how to vote to downplay policy motions that don’t jive with Kenney’s agenda, as CBC Calgary’s Elise von Scheel chronicles.

A motion designed to derail an early leadership review gets debated Friday night, and Kenney will shake off the hospitality suite Saturday morning to deliver a pre-lunch address to the delegate’s ballroom. He’ll almost certainly survive this weekend, whether his tacticians prevail or whether the unhappy members do. But it’s hard to see how he emerges stronger, Maclean’s writes in its scene-setter.

—Jason Markusoff

Environment

The B.C. floods are a mere hint of what climate change could do to the food supply

Barren store shelves will refill, and farmers will rebound in the short term, says food security expert Lenore Newman. But the system just can't take disaster after disaster.

Officials in Abbotsford, B.C. predicted the worst on Tuesday night, as a month’s worth of rain gushed over parts of the province in just days. Floodwater from the Nooksack River on the U.S. side of the border had poured onto Sumas Prairie, the rich agricultural land reclaimed from what was once known Sumas Lake. A vital pumping station was in danger, they warned, and if it failed, waters from the Fraser River would pour onto Sumas Prairie, too—an even greater catastrophe. 

On Wednesday evening, officials announced the community had narrowly escaped that scenario, after hundreds of volunteers and city workers built a makeshift dam of sandbags around the pumping station, easing the strain on it. 

Still, the area has been devastated, its dairy farms, egg farms and greenhouses swamped. Farmers were forced to abandon their farms, leaving thousands of animals left to drown. 

It was part of a horrific weekend for B.C., which is now under a state of emergency due to the so-called “atmospheric river” that dumped unprecedented amounts of precipitation through much of the province. In an extreme weather event many are linking to climate change, entire communities were evacuated; homes and vehicles were submerged; landslides washed out roads and highways; raging rivers destabilized bridges.

Lenore Newman, the director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, has long warned of the dire effects climate change has on food security and production. The floods in B.C., she says, are partly a consequence of inaction.

Nathan Sing spoke to Newman about the reverberations of the floods on B.C.’s food supply, the history of this key piece of farmland and the long-term implications of political inertia toward climate change. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


When you saw the reports on Tuesday night that the Fraser River could flood Sumas Prairie and the surrounding areas would flood, what went through your mind? 

That was the worst-case scenario, and I’m very glad it didn’t come. I was teaching in Abbotsford when the storm hit on Monday, and we had to close the university because the water came up really quickly. Right then, I knew there was going to be trouble, because the Nooksack River was incredibly high. When the Nooksack breaks its banks, the only place for the water to go is across the border into Sumas Prairie region where the Sumas Lake used to be, and because it is an old lake bed you’ve got to pump the water out to keep it dry. I expected there’d be some flooding, but the scale of it is much more extreme than I originally thought. 

How ruinous is this flood and its reverberations for the people who live in the area?

It’s heartbreaking. I have a number of students and friends who farm in the evacuated region who are off the grid. But farmers are tough, and I really do think most of them will bounce back and hopefully they will have a lot of government support and disaster relief. But farmers care about their animals and there’s a lot of animal loss today. Many of these farmers have also just gone through the heat dome months ago, and we can’t keep having disaster after disaster. We have to start hardening our infrastructure and our farmscape against climate change. If we have two or three states of emergency every year, we can’t weather that long term. The emotional and economic toll is too big. 

Abbotsford is Canada’s most economically productive farming community, with 1,400 farms located within the Sumas Prairie. What immediate impacts could the floods have on the food supply in B.C. and the rest of Canada? 

The main impact is to animal agriculture, but hopefully any shortages or price changes will be temporary. The bigger problem for the food supply chain is the loss of the roads and rail. Eastern and Central Canada are probably not going to notice this as much, but in Western Canada there will be shortages of some goods that are getting hung up here at the [Port of Vancouver] that can’t find a way around until we get at least one road open. This is a bit of a wake up call to how fragile our supply chain is, and that fragility cascades right back across Western Canada. Anything that comes off a ship here has to go on to the road or rail to get across the mountains and there’s only a few routes. Right now they’re all closed.

What food products were most affected by the flood, and how much of this food goes beyond B.C.? 

There has been a pretty massive impact to chicken and egg production. Most of the impacted supply would have stayed within the province. And while B.C. normally doesn’t get eggs, dairy, and milk from other provinces, they will during this crisis because that’s how the supply chain system works. There are other small-scale farms, but it’s the offseason right now. There’s reasons you don’t want your vegetable farm to flood, because floodwater is dirty and it’s really not what you want to talk your crops, but it will dry out. 

Grocery store shelves across B.C. are bare. Is this another case of irrational panic buying, or should individuals in certain areas be worried about food scarcity? 

It’s not entirely irrational, it’s just a bit selfish. We’re going to have trouble getting supplies to these towns for a little while, so running out and buying some things makes individual sense; the problem is then everyone does it. We need everyone not to hoard because this is all temporary, and panic buying everything only makes the problem worse.

Grocery story shelves were emptying quickly in Abbotsford after the flood. (Beverley Field)

Grocery story shelves were emptying quickly in Abbotsford after the flood. (Photo: Beverley Field)

Are cataclysmic events like this something that farmers and experts like yourself in the area foresaw? 

I didn’t expect for a disaster to hit now, and so fast. Farmers are resilient, and they expect the odd cataclysm because nature does that. The problem is the cataclysms, because of climate change, are coming too frequently.  Some can’t take the emotional toll of having a couple of them—and the thought there might be more—in the same year. 

The floodwater on the Sumas Prairie is coming from the U.S. side of the border, having overwhelmed whatever protections there are along the Nooksack River in Washington State. Do authorities in the two countries communicate with each other about these dangers and conditions of the infrastructure? 

There is a lot of coordination across the border to try and protect shared resources. Still though, the Nooksack is a river that floods, and it’s long been thought that we need to do a little more on our side to be able to handle it. There are a few weak points in the local system, where there’s dikes that aren’t quite up to snuff, so we’re not well protected from external threats. The Nooksack River broke its banks in Washington State, so that’s not in our control. But we’ve long known we need to improve our defences against that floodwater because the water doesn’t know the borders. It just comes at us and doesn’t stop.

Can you describe the area and the agricultural operations in the areas affected by the flood? 

The Sumas Prairie was originally a very shallow lake [with the same name] that was drained in the early part of the 20th century to create about 100 sq. km. of farmland. The Nooksack River diverted water into the Sumas Lake—the Fraser River sometimes backed up into this lake as well. So there’s a very elaborate series of dikes and a major pumping station to keep this all dry. The land is mostly used for animal fodder and for grass, it’s very good for that. It’s also excellent soil—you can grow anything there—but there is a lot of animal agriculture. Most of the animal agriculture infrastructure is raised above the lake, which is basically at sea level. 

During this flood, a lot of infrastructure, technology, and machinery was exposed to water. Most tragically, a lot of animals found themselves on shrinking islands of land. There has been mass animal death because there was no way to get them out. We had a lot of farmers put their own lives at risk to try and save their their animals, but the water came up too fast. that speed of rise really caught everyone by surprise. It goes to show how intense the rain was and how unusual it was—we’re talking about 200 or 300 millimetres in a couple of days—and all of that south of the border then came our way. 

A 2013 report from the City of Abbotsford claimed that if the Barrowtown pump station were to fail, it would “significantly impact food producers and food processing companies, and cause job losses which typically takes 5-10 years to recover.” The state of the pump no longer remains critical, but what would happen if it were to fail? 

Yeah, we dodged a bullet. There are four large pumps there, and on an average day one pump is plenty to keep the Sumas Prairie dry. During the flooding, even with all four running, we were losing ground. If the Barrowtown pump station failed—and it came pretty close—the Fraser River would be high enough that it would backfill the original lake. So we would have a lake where lake used to be, and there would have been very little we could do about that other than stand and watch it happen. We probably saw about a third of the original Sumas Lake suddenly returned, which it’s pretty damaging, but it’s not as catastrophic as it could have been. 

What are the next steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again?

We need help from the feds. We need funding for infrastructure repair to immediately begin the infrastructure improvements that we’ve long known we needed to do—strengthening dikes and flood control. We have plans that have slowly been rolled out, but we need to get on it. We’re going to need help with recovering our highways and assessing whether we need more links with the rest of Canada, because it’s very lonely out here right now. We’re on an island, basically, surrounded by ruin. And if it rains hard in the next few days that’s a problem for us, but it looks like it will be dry enough. All of this has to be a budget priority.

There is a political intertia that characterizes responses to climate change, even though disastrous natural events continue to occur. What will happen if the response to the global climate crisis remains reactive without many proactive solutions? 

If we all don’t do anything about climate change—which tends to be the case, despite having lots of fancy meetings—eventually the disruption to infrastructure will break our civilization. It will simply be catastrophic, and more than we can handle. We need to figure out how to pull carbon down out of the air, and at least not be putting any more in. We also have to adapt for the inevitable problems that we’ve baked in by totally dithering for 30 years. Certain things, like sea level rise, we cannot control. Some low lying nations will just disappear. We’re going to lose parts of our landscape that are too close to the ocean. We’re just going to have to live with that. We could have prevented that 20 years ago. We can’t now. Now what we need to do is make sure we don’t make it worse. 

How can the food system be made more resilient against climate effects? 

Anything we can produce indoors and locally, we should, especially in places like B.C., where we have lots of renewable energy that is carbon neutral. We can shorten the food supply chain by producing food locally; doing so is much more land efficient and it allows us to return some land to natural systems. We need to eat less meat or produce protein in different ways; we can’t keep clearing forest to turn it over to animal agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is also a good way to go where supply chains would allow the land to actually be a carbon sink again. Agriculture is one of the only areas where you can actually flip it carbon positive, because 40 per cent of the Earth’s land surface is used to produce food, either through field crop or through grazing.

Nathan Sing writes about food security and hunger issues in Canada. His one-year position at Maclean’s is funded by the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security, in partnership with Community Food Centres Canada. Email tips and suggestions to nathan.sing@macleans.ca.

Politics

What will happen when Jason Kenney's dissidents—and even some fans!—spend a weekend together

Not everyone in the Alberta premier's party wants him gone, but believing he'll hang onto the leadership and win another election requires some magical thinking

Folks were quick to draw comparisons when now-former Conservative Senator Denise Batters publicly declared her petition to depose Erin O’Toole as party leader. Why, it’s open dissent in the ranks, just like the United Conservative Party unrest plaguing Jason Kenney! If you couldn’t see me flailing my hands in disagreement from Calgary, rest of Canada, let me shoot down this for-now facile comparison. For one, the internal strife Kenney faces runs much deeper, broader and has lingered for nearly a year now (about as long as his governing crew has trailed the NDP in Alberta polls).

The bigger difference, though, is that O’Toole has lieutenants leaping to his side. Melissa Lantsman’s “hard no.” Michelle Rempel Garner saying the “Liberals are popping Champagne.” Bob Zimmer: “an unnecessary distraction.” In his many months of turmoil, Kenney has had precious few cheerleaders, though the rural backbencher who called him “the leader God raised up for these times” now has business cards that call him “Minister.”

READ: Jason Kenney is sinking. How it all went wrong for him.

So when United Conservatives hold their annual convention this weekend at a casino hotel on Tsuu T’ina Nation, the novel utterances won’t be coming from Kenney’s detractors,  like the 20-some constituency associations that demanded a fast-tracked leadership review, or the latest caucus member to publicly air grievances. Like the mating call of a strutting sage grouse, rare sounds will be heard in this Alberta habitat: calls in defence of Jason Kenney. A minister’s warble; a lobbyist’s crow; a campus keener’s chirp; a pamphleteer’s… cuckoo?

How full-throated these trills will be, or how ritualistic they will sound, are open questions. If genuine Kenney loyalists exist, after this many disastrously managed COVID waves and a tanker-load of other problems, now is certainly their time to speak out. We’ll hear from the many UCPers who want Kenney to quit as leader, pronto; perhaps new voices from caucus will join  that chorus, giving the party and public  a truer picture of whether that crowd is pervasive or, as the premier insists, just a disillusioned minority.

More important, though, will be the ones in the middle of the United Conservative base—those who believed in Kenney when he descended from federal Parliament to run Rachel Notley’s NDP out of office, but have found him disappointing as premier. These members are either pragmatically quiet about wanting him gone, or are anxiously hoping he’ll change his ways and become that leader they thought he would be.

Jack Redekop finds himself in that camp, somewhat to his surprise. He’d been a firm Kenneyite before—for a while, he was president of Kenney’s federal Conservative riding association in Calgary, and was an early backer on his provincial leadership bid. This week, Redekop was among the 22 UCP riding presidents who publicly demanded the leadership review now scheduled for next April—a date already advanced once due to internal pressure—be held by March at the latest. The riding presidents also want the vote to be made an all-members, grassroots referendum, not simply an AGM vote among delegates who trek to an Edmonton hotel and shell out convention fees. Those 22 constituencies amount to one-quarter of Alberta ridings, the threshold requiring their wishes be carried out, under rules drafted when Kenney helped birth the United Conservatives in 2017. Now that this grassroots-friendly rule isn’t so friendly to the leader, a party staffer will try during the convention to raise that threshold. To Redekop, that’s the sort of top-down crap that got Kenney into this trouble. “They screw around with this and the party’s dead,” Redekop tells Maclean’s in an interview.

READ: What Jason Kenney’s ‘mission accomplished’ moment has reaped for Alberta

But Redekop doesn’t want others to call him a dissident. Some of the constituency leaders surely want Kenney’s head, many of them rural opponents to COVID restrictions and the vaccine-passport system Alberta eventually imposed. But Redekop counts among those who still think Kenney can regain Albertans’ trust, and even victory in the 2023 election. He can, that is, if he comes out at this convention as contrite for having fallen short on his “grassroots guarantee” to his followers, and seeks to overhaul his approach to governing, with more consultation and listening to United Conservatives and Albertans. “How do you develop a team and a caucus that totally does a 180 in whatever their departments are, [that] becomes completely consultative before they bring in legislation?” he says. “He has to surround himself with a group, ministers and caucus that are totally responsive to listening to Albertans and what they’re saying. Jason has to give very specific direction, and some of those ministers probably need to be changed.”

That’s a mighty big ask, especially of a premier who tends to be stubbornly confident in the rightness of his decisions. Change up his staff, his cabinet and the way he’s led Alberta for the last 2½ years. Yet Redekop believes it’s more simple than it sounds, as long as Kenney remembers and takes seriously the grassroots-y rhetoric that he wooed so many Alberta conservatives with in the first place.

PAUL WELLS: Erin O’Toole, unresponsive

This hope for a radically reinvented Jason Kenney points to one of the premier’s most catastrophic problems in his five years of dabbling in the woolly world of Alberta politics. He got United Conservatives to engage in a tonne of magical thinking. He got his base to believe, among other things, that a wonky referendum on a wonky issue—equalization—would somehow bring the Ottawa Liberals to their knees and rejig federalism in Alberta’s favour. That an inquiry into foreign funding of environmental groups and a well-funded energy war room would humble greenies and give the petro-province an upper hand in the Climate Wars. That by leaning hard on personal responsibility and libertarianism, Alberta could weather the COVID storm and get churning on economic recovery. And that this savvy Ottawa operator under Stephen Harper genuinely wanted to know what Duane and Jane in Two Hills believed should be encoded in legislation, even if that blue pickup truck he toured the province in was an obvious bit of prairie cosplay.

It’s all fizzled—his anti-Ottawa push, his “fight back” antics for the oil patch, his pandemic approach and, in what may ultimately be the fatal self-blow, his proper care and feeding of the grassroots. Now, even as Kenney nears his political deathbed, there are those who believe he can magically become the leader he claimed to be.

Kenney’s leadership will probably survive this weekend’s convention. There’s no measure that can fell him or trigger an immediate review, and his team will no doubt scheme to gain the upper hand over those meddlesome constituencies. People will say mean things about Kenney; others will say pleasant things. But it’s hard to see how he emerges from all of this stronger.

Politics Insider

Trudeau meets with Biden and the president of Mexico at the Three Amigos summit

Politics Insider for Nov. 18, 2021: The Three Amigos reunite; Trudeau warns U.S. lawmakers on an EV tax credit; Manitoba drops its fight against the carbon tax

¡Buenos días! It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with American President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the Three Amigos Summit in Washington, D.C. After the requisite small talk (and light cajoling over sports, surely) is out of the way, there are big policy questions on the agenda.

…But, who are we kidding. We are mainly watching out for an awkward family photo.

Last-minute warning: Trudeau spent Wednesday on Capitol Hill and raised concerns with Democrats on an electric vehicle tax credit that’s included in a massive bill they’re trying to push through the House of Representatives “any day now,” reports Alexander Panetta for CBC. (It’s a file on which Ontario has been missing in action, while its trade rep post in D.C. sits empty.)

The PM warned lawmakers about a potential “real negative impact” to American trading partners, since the tax credit would eventually apply only to U.S.-manufactured vehicles, Panetta reports: “The prime minister argued that the tax credit plan flies in the face of decades of continental integration of the auto sector, from the signing of the 1965 Auto Pact to the new North American trade deal.”

By the way, quick international trips like the PM’s (lasting less than 72 hours) will no longer require Canadians to produce a negative COVID-19 test upon return, the government is expected to announce Friday (hat tip to CBC). Cue a chorus of colourful commentary on the arbitrariness of the three-day rule.

Look over there! With everyone atitter about how weak Erin O’Toole looked or didn’t look at his caucus meeting after the ouster of Senator Denise Batters and her choice words Wednesday morning, his party decided to blast political inboxes on a wide variety of other topics. There was, naturally, a plea that the PM stand up for Canadian interests at the Three Amigos Summit. (It’s a good thing they suggested this; there’s just so much to say about the sports.) There was also a screed on inflation, a statement on the ongoing disaster in B.C. and a demand that Liberals scrap Bill C-10. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a distraction from Conservative existentialism!

…Meanwhile: Amid the flurry of missives came a different sort of press release. Presumably in response to a plethora of media requests, the office of Senate Conservative leader Don Plett sent a one-liner to all Hill journos in the middle of Wednesday afternoon asking them to “please note” a tweet Plett had posted the night before. (The tweet acknowledged O’Toole’s decision to kick Batters out of caucus, and affirmed Plett’s support of the leader.) … And over at Global News, Alex Boutilier has the scooplet that Canada Proud’s Jeff Ballingall is back in action as an “election readiness” adviser to O’Toole.

Child care is for everybody: So argues our Shannon Proudfoot in a fresh clapback to the commentariat as it chews on a newly-inked Alberta-Canada child care deal. (Ontario, the biggest holdout, is still working on it.)

“It is bizarre and immensely counter-productive that even in conversations intended to be progressive, childcare is often presented in an offhanded way as a boutique women’s issue,” she writes. “You know, a little something for the ladies, in case they want to sell Tupperware to earn pin money while Junior is at his playgroup. This messaging only reinforces the idea that children are the natural domain and default responsibility of their mothers—which is presumably not what the architects of this national childcare plan are after.”

And so is the carbon tax? Manitoba’s new premier, Heather Stefanson, is dropping the province’s court fight against the federal carbon tax and getting ready to negotiate. Reports CP: she’s looking for “a more collaborative approach” with Ottawa… that is, if she gets to keep her job.

—Marie-Danielle Smith