I spent the past five days in Halifax taking in what is quite possibly one of the most beautiful cities in North America. While I was enjoying myself on vacation, my mind repeatedly came back to a familiar theme - the question of public space. Much like when I first explored Ottawa in the spring of 2010, my trip to the East Coast was one that made me really reflect on the importance socially and politically of the public space in the modern city.
The idea of having spaces open to the public, often referred to as "the commons", is central to the conceptualisation of the urban centre. In fact, it has been a massive part of civic life historically across all cultures. The spaces can take numerous forms that range from parks, to squares, to boardwalks, to libraries, to municipal government buildings. What makes a space public is that in theory (and hopefully in practice) it is owned by the citizens, subsidised by tax dollars, and democratically operated.
These spaces have always been important for societies, and they are equally crucial at present. Public spaces are open for everyone, providing space for them to gather and interact. By virtue of being common areas, the state, which is the guardian and caretaker for the space, is to keep them clean, safe, and accessible. Moreover, neither religious nor corporate interest has authority on the land, allowing users of the space freedom from persecution.
Access to public space has dwindled over the past decade or so as it is deemed expensive to maintain. As the state has pulled out of responsibilities which are deemed unaffordable, public spaces have very quietly become private ones. The most shocking example of this is the famous Zuccotti Park in New York City. Part of Lower Manhattan, this park is what is called a privately-owned-public-space. These arrangements are truly scary. Masquerading as a place that is free for use by the people, the park is actually open to New Yorkers on special terms determined by the parks wealthy private owners. Ordinarily, this would be of little or no consequence; however, the Occupy Movement, which started in Zuccotti Park, was not legally able to be on this property as it is not a public space. However you feel about "radical" movements, consider for a second the parameters of a privately-owned-public-space. Activities that take place here are sanctioned by those heavily invested in the status quo. If they are afraid of what feminists, steel workers, or Muslims might do on their property, they have license to intervene.
Public place is supposed to be designed for the use of the people, but unfortunately a trend over the last few years in Canada is producing some devastating results. It's not only corporations that are taking away our free spaces; it's the part of the neoliberal state. In Canada, Harper has gradually introduced legislation that criminalises people who are excercising their rights to strike, demonstrate, and even assemble. Alternate viewpoints, such as anti-gloablisation, anti-capitalism, and anti-oppression, displayed at demonstrations such as the G-20 summit in Toronto, Occupy across North America, and most recently the Québec Student Movement, have been attacked in a brutal fashion. Politicians like Stephen Harper and Jean Charest have introduced new measures that are truly dangerous. Limiting the rights of people to assemble, demonstrate, or conceal their identity is somewhere between undemocratic and totalitarian. Regardless, it's absolutely frightening. What's worse: the average Canadian does not feel threatened by these moves and sits idly by as fellow citizens are stripped of fundamental rights.
Blaming the state is a relatively partial response. Pressures on government from capital are substantial and help to give a sense of what is acceptable assembly and what is not. It's evidently okay to mass for a soccer game or to pitch a tent in front of Best Buy before a new release. However, it is inappropriate to rally in the streets or to camp out in a public park. This image here does justice to this issue.
Of course the idea of the divide between private and public space is interesting when we are looking at the urban environment, but what about the digital context? I could not help thinking about this as a link to my last blog was removed from Facebook, and not out of my own volition. At first I was angry, but then I realised that I have no right to post whatever I want on a website. Facebook, or any other private enterprise, gets to decide what is posted on their pages - and their say is ultimately final. The reality as I see it, and that a shocking few understand, is that there is no public space on the internet. A web site, however well intentioned, is never owned by anything that even comes close to representing "the public". There is no appeal process through legal systems, there is no representation, and people hide behind anonymity in scathing personal attacks. The internet is not a democracy.
To conclude, the defense of the commons is a real battle at present. It will continue to be a struggle - one that is not helped by apathy on the part of the general public. I sincerely hope that those of you who read this take some time to reflect on what public space means to you.
Thursday, 17 May 2012
This month marks one year since Stephen Harper was elected with a majority mandate. On 2 May, the Conservatives won a majority government with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote. The 2011 election was certainly an exciting one, and it has been viciously debated in the year since. The collapse of the Liberal Party and the Bloc Québecois prompted much talk, particularly since neither party leader managed to retain his seat in Parliament. The Conservatives won a strong mandate despite the margin increasing by a mere 2 percentage points. There has been a significant amount of discussion in the time since regarding how our electoral system works, and certainly much attention toward the alleged fraudulent behaviour of the Conservatives in the so-called Robocall scandal.
Iblogged about the spectacular events of 2 May last year, and that is not the focus of this post. I intend, here, to provide a summary of the malicious and misinformed policies of the Conservatives now that they have a majority government.
Just to set up the context properly, I will provide a basic explanation of how the system works. Our parliamentary system fuses the power of the executive and the legislative in the leader of the largest party in Parliament. Unlike in the United States, where there are incessant checks and balances, preventing either Congress or the President from getting anything done. The Canadian system gives the Prime Minister free reign over the executive branch, regardless of whether or not the largest party has more or less than half the seats in Parliament. This means the since 2006, when the Conservatives were first elected, Harper has been able to control government departments, such as the Ministry of Defense, the Canadian International Development Agency, the Bank of Canada, and Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Again, regardless of whether or not the Prime Minister has a majority, the executive is always run solely by the largest party.
What has changed in the past year is that now the Conservatives are virtually unchallenged in the legislative branch, Parliament. This not only strengthens their ability to defend the policies they choose to implement in the executive capacity, it also allows them full control over the creation of legislation. Parliament can pass a law about essentially anything that falls under the mandate of the federal government, so long as it is not deemed unconstitutional.
All this to say – the game has changed in the past year. It shows. Harper, who now faces no real opposition, now has control over both the executive and the legislative. He has the power to create laws and to change the policies of government bureaux that affect the day-to-day lives of people across Canada and the world. In the past year I have been keeping an eye out for examples of Harper’s long train of abuses. There are many examples and I intend to outline them below and give you some links to check out for more information.
First and foremost, items surrounding the budget have been heated. While budget season has passed, there is still much public attention concerning several important initiatives of the Conservatives. The two that strike me (and most Canadians) as most outrageous are the decision to buy F35 fighter jets and the cancellation of the CDI. The issue of the fighter jets is more comical than anything else. We are spending money that we don’t have on items that don’t work and that we don’t need, Considering Harper’s viewpoint of fiscal restraint, it seems very out of place that the party is supporting a multibillion dollar deal that serves to hardly have any measurable benefit for Canadians. Make no mistake – Harper’s rhetoric of “we only spend what we take in” is just that, rhetoric. Case in point: a significantly less expensive programme, the Co-operative Development Initiative, which helps to set up and sustain co-operatives across Canada, was cut just months ago. You are probably remarking that you haven’t heard anything about this. Well, that is because Harper has failed to announce this – in fact, he quietly informed the sector (I work for a co-op federation) and essentially made us the messengers. Again I say, the Conservatives’ line of reasoning on so-called austerity is doublespeak. Programmes which benefit large corporations, particularly in the energy and technology sectors, tend to be supported, while smaller operations, green industry, and social enterprise are attacked savagely.
Harper is also attacking our civil liberties. The Internet Bill, which invades the privacy of ordinary Canadians by both corporations and the state, is a misguided policy trying to protect intellectual property rights on the web. In reality, it provides sweeping powers to the powerful in society, much to the detriment of ordinary citizens. In addition to attacking internet users (which is a rather substantial proportion of the Canadian public), the Conservatives have highlighted a few other groups that they are actively targeting. The Crime Bill, which has thankfully been very controversial, is a misinformed solution to fighting crime in our society. Rather than focusing on factors like inequality or lack of access to resources, the government is seeking to fight crime by labelling more Canadians as criminals, providing harsher sentences, and putting them in privatised jails. Moreover, the Conservatives are seeking to make it more challenging for offenders to reintegrate into society with such measures as making it virtually impossible to get a pardon. The criminal justice system will become a series of vast holding chambers, rather than cooperating institutions that have a mandate to try to rehabilitate those who have offended against society. But Harper doesn’t stop there - his attacks on Muslims have been quite staggering. Last fall Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenny introduced new policies stipulating that all people (read: Muslim women) must have their faces clearly visible during the oath. The justification for this was, essentially, that the identity of the person swearing the oath must be confirmed, but the ceremonies as they are conducted are entirely ceremonial anyway.
The last theme I will address here is the ridiculous war on science that the conservatives are conducting. There are, broadly, two lenses through which to view this. The first is socially – the Conservative party has continually prevented a sex-positive discourse, most recently with pressure put on an Ottawa museum for having “inappropriate” content – sex ed. The response from a Conservative MP was that children should not be learning this information from a museum, rather they should be getting their information from pornography. Nowhere in the ranks of the Conservative Party is there an understanding that this reinforces verynegative practices and ideas in society regarding sexuality. The second lens, which has been far more prominent, is economic. Predominately, I’m referring to a series of ridiculous policies and positions around the intersection between the environment and capital. Harper has clearly sided with “economic growth” over sustainability. The best evidence is the two large pipelines that are being promoted: the XL Pipeline and the Gateway Pipeline. Both of these originate in the Tar Sands and export our country’s unethical oil to foreign countries. The pipelines are one thing, but the defense of the Tar Sands is even worse. The environmental and social damage is exceptionally evident, but Harper refuses to give credit to climate change or even to the fact that the oil industry is destructive. Harper has attacked researches that work for the government, threatening them with job losses to keep them in line. Tony Clement recently commented that he hopes that NDP leader Thomas Mulcair will stop “dissing” the oil sands when he goes to visit them. Rather than trying to promote both economic growth and the environment, Harper is forcing Canada to pick just one. And anyone who disagrees, or even refers to Northern Alberta as the Tar Sands, is labelled a terrorist. So science is being attacked full-tilt, meanwhile, the pseudo-science of economics is being promoted, more specifically the neoliberal model, which advances privatisation, deregulation, and liberalisation. These policies, unsurprisingly, benefit those in society who have access to capital, to the detriment of those who are poor.
Ultimately, Harper is pitting Canadians against each other in more ways than one. The only remedy is awareness and it is up to all parts of society to become aware of these realities and stand up together. As Lincoln once said: “you can fool all of the people some of the time, or some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool everyone all the time”.