23 Nov 2011

Occupy Movement a valuable partner:
'Idea' to build a united Canadian progressive
movement that can have more clout

In its very beginning, the Occupy Movement inspired millions of people around the world with its slogan “We are the 99 per cent.” It changed the nature of public discussion, focused on the evils of greed, and emphasized the need for a truly democratic form of our tired, ineffective so-called democracy.

The success of the Occupy Movement – along with the continuing growth in power of right-wing forces in the country – are providing the inspiration for the possible creation of a large Canadian cooperative movement or coalition that would tackle major issues in the country.

A larger, stronger progressive force made up of hundreds of already-existing groups is needed in Canada.

Now that Stephen Harper has a majority in Parliament, he is slashing in all directions, and it’s only going to get worse. Unfortunately, right-wing forces are very strong. They control all the key levers of power – access to billions of dollars to promote their beliefs, control over our federal government, and ownership of the mainstream media propaganda machines.

The progressive community must learn it has to confront power with power – something we don’t do well in Canada. It seems enough to most Canadians to simply point out that something is wrong, and leave it to someone else to shoulder. This doesn’t cut it any more. We need to stop being nice, and start fighting harder!

By any account, there are possibly 10,000 progressive and liberal-minded organizations (including branch offices) in Canada, and many of them work in isolation of each other, sometimes even at cross purposes. This means that the 10,000 organizations might be fighting on, what, 300 or more different causes at any one time?

Individual groups do need to work on their own priorities, but when it comes to tackling major problems, or when a campaign needs to be mounted quickly, Canada needs to have one strong and effective vehicle: The creation of nationally coordinated movement that would work on the most pressing issues of our time.

Progressives in Canada – including the Occupy Movement as a tactical force – have the potential to establish a movement to be reckoned with. The way Canadians responded so positively to the Occupy Movement’s attack on the banks and the powerful is proof that tens-of-thousands of people out there are in need of leadership. And remember that more than 60 per cent of Canadians voted against the Conservatives in the May election.

While there is some excellent coordination among groups working in the same arena – such as environmental groups cooperating with other environmental groups – there appears to be very little cross sector coordination on common interest issues – such as environmentalists and anti-poverty advocates uniting on, say, the future of health care.

Campaigning on major issues could be greatly strengthened if a national coalition were to unite many different kinds of groups around key issues.

The Occupy Movement scared the hell out of many bankers just a few weeks ago. Imagine what a network of local Occupy groups coming together with, say, 200 or 500 other progressive groups, could do!

Many of those traditional 10,000 groups have staff members and financial resources, some of which could be allocated to work on key issues. Combine this with the energy and determination of the Occupiers, and it could become a very effective force. If some sort of process were developed, leaders and ideas for the creation of a strategy would emerge.

There are dozens of skilled and seasoned groups that could play a leadership role in bringing together a coalition or cooperative movement. An organization as large and as skilled as the Council of Canadians is not strong enough to win all of its battles on its own, but it has tremendous knowledge and resources that could be shared with others as part of an even larger and more powerful force – but not a new organization, but perhaps a cooperative venture with a small team of activity coordinators.

Many groups are weak when it comes to developing campaign strategies, but Greenpeace is among the best in the world at building hugely successful campaigns. Many groups work on income disparity, but it is unlikely that they think to seek out the person running the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Growing Gap Project.

Such a movement would develop a set of broad, national objectives by identifying the right’s weak points and exploiting them. Hopefully, the coordinating process would be run by the same consensus mechanisms used by the Occupy Movement.

From my perspective, here are three major issues that a movement could unite around:

   1. Income disparity
The bulk of the wealth created in Canada in the past 22 years has accrued to the top one-fifth of the population, and one-third of that has gone to the top one per cent.

Because of its initial strong work in this area, perhaps the Occupy Movement could play a “front line” role on income disparity. After a strategy has been developed in cooperation with other groups, the Occupy Movement would go into action with disruptive protests, marches, office occupations, and other activities to expose the greed of wealthy Canadians.

At the same time, other organizations in the coalition would conduct research, issue reports, and demand that the media give this important issue the proper attention.

   2. Lobbying the NDP and Liberals
The next federal election is likely to be held in 2015. A coalition could explore all possible ways of defeating the Conservative so they will not be able to govern until 2019 or 2020.

With both the New Democrats and the Liberals selecting new national leaders during the next few months, a coordinated effort needs to be carried out to determine the positions of leading candidates on key issues – such as whether they pledge to tackle programs identified by the coalition, explain their economic and social policies, and indicate whether they support changes to the electoral system.

   3. Poverty and unemployment
Research shows that about 17 per cent of the population at the bottom of the income ladder are pretty well firmly lodged there. While government figures show the unemployment rate at 7.3 per cent, the real figure is likely closer to 12 per cent when those unemployed that are no longer seeking work are included. The situation for native peoples is much worse.

A full and ongoing strategy needs to be developed for campaigning around these three issues, as well as others.

* * *

If the idea appeals to you, please indicate your interest by putting a comment at the end of my blog post. Perhaps you would like to add additional suggestions. And maybe you could raise the issue on Facebook and Twitter.

Updates will appear on my blog as warranted.

In addition to his work as a journalist, Nick Fillmore’s main organizational experience involved leading the creation of the now 95-member International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX). He also has helped organize campaigns against repressive regimes in many under-developed countries, and was one of the main organizers of the Catch 22, aimed at defeating Conservative candidates in the last election.

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16 Nov 2011

'Upstanding Citizens' Escape Justice
in Tory 'In-and-Out' Scandal

This is a story about illegal activities, deceit and lying involving an overzealous group of Canadians who seemed prepared to do just about anything to accomplish their mission – win a federal election. 

In their private lives, all have considerable achievements and are well respected citizens in their communities.

Doug Finley is a former businessman who held senior positions in several companies, including Rolls Royce Canada and Standard Aero.

Irving Gerstein has been a highly successful businessman, best known for being president of Peoples Jewellers. He is also the former Chairman of the Board of Mount Sinai Hospital, and a member of the Order of Canada.

Michael Donison played a prominent role in his church and has been a Senior Policy Advisor on Democratic Reform and Legislative Review. The fourth, Susan Kehoe, is a skilled and well regarded financial officer.

These highly-regarded citizens were named as the key players in a Conservative scheme to deceive Elections Canada and pump an extra, illegal $1.4-million in radio and television advertising into Stephen Harper’s 2005-06 election campaign.

The party and its advertising arm last week admitted as part of a plea bargain they had exceeded the $18.3-million spending limit imposed by the law and that they did not report all the expenses incurred. Maximum fines totaling $52,000 were imposed. As part of a plea bargain, charges were dropped against the four individuals.

Referred to as the “in-and-out scandal”, Conservative Party staff used a series of wire transfers to move money from head office into and immediately out of the accounts of 67 of their candidates and back to head office to try to evade the spending limitations on the national campaign. An advertising agency, later issued invoices to the local campaigns.  This tactic allowed the party to far exceed legal limits on campaign spending.

This is how the key individuals were involved:

Finley was the Party’s campaign manager and director of political operations but, in real terms, he was Harper’s “political pit bull” and a “bully.” He personally carried out a lot of Harper’s dirty deeds, such as removing Tory candidates Harper didn’t like even though they had been had democratically nominated. Finley, who is married to Cabinet Minister Diane Finley, admited he had proposed the 'in-and-out' scheme on the first day of the election campaign.

Gerstein was the party’s official agent and responsible under the Elections Act for ensuring the accuracy of the party’s election financial returns. He has primarily been a party fundraiser.

Donison was the party’s executive director, and one of the two “hands on” people most involved. He was involved in the advertising purchases at the centre of the affair. He wrote emails planning the financial transactions.

The other “hands on” person, Kehoe, was chief financial officer. Her name was printed on the invoices submitted by the party’s media buyer.

A number of things about this case are very troubling.

First of all, it is very possible that the well planned $1.4-million burst of advertising that was purchased in swing ridings helped change the course of Canadian political history.

The 2006 election ended the 12-year Liberal reign, allowing Harper and the Conservatives to win the slimmest minority ever in the House of Commons.  The Conservatives won 36.2 per cent of the popular vote and 124 seats, while the Liberals were held to 30.2 and 103 seats.

Later, a public interest group, Catch 22, calculated that the Conservatives won the election by just 4,502 votes in 11 ridings. How many of those votes were won because of the extra $1.4-million in ads?

Finley clearly knew the value of the extra advertising. He said well before the ads were placed that the party would “run a major slam dunk” over competitors in the final weeks of the campaign.

Liberal Leader Paul Martin resigned and the Conservatives have been in power in Ottawa ever since. Had Harper lost, perhaps he would not have remained as leader of the Conservative Party.

In terms of the morality of – or lack there of – this scandal, it would be interesting to know what discussions took place when the Conservatives realized that had more money at the national office than they could legally spend. The fact that the Crown withdrew the charge that the Tories knew they were violating the Elections Act is an indictment of the Elections Canada management. Was Prime Minister Harper, who normally controls just about everything that happens in the party, involved in making the decision to proceed with the deceitful plan?

Secondly, in view of the seriousness of the violations, it is surprising that the Crown decided not to proceed with charges against the four individuals involved. Crown Prosecutor Richard Roy told reporters that “the public interest does not require that we continue on these charges.”

Wait a minute! Not in whose public interest? Certainly it was in the interest of the four staffers and the Harper regime that the charges were NOT proceeded with.

But surely it was in the interest of maintaining integrity in our electoral process and to show the Conservatives that such behaviour will not be tolerated.

The Crown almost certainly found a smoking gun – even several smoking guns – in the hundreds of documents it seized from at the Conservative Party Offices. Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch said “the Crown should have pursued the case against the individuals, as there was a likelihood of conviction . . . .”    
If convicted of Elections Act violations, any one or all of the four could have faced fines and jail time. 

There could be other reasons why the Crown did not proceed with the charges against the four party staffers. The case reaches right inside the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), and a thorough airing of all the events might have revealed whether Harper was involved in the 'in-and-out' scheme. Perhaps some people feared, that if Harper was involved, the findings might have a negative impact on the ability of the minority Tories to govern.

With the case closed and the files buried away in some Ottawa office building, we likely will never know the answers to these and other questions.

Well before a decision came down, Harper went into damage control mode. He reduced the PMO’s exposure to the scandal by moving out the four staffers who were charged. Remarkably, with charges still pending against them, Finley and Gerstein were appointed to the stately sanctuary of the Senate, where they continue to perform their fine work on behalf of the Conservative Party.

Donison now works for the Ottawa public relations and lobbying firm Crestview Public Affairs, and Kehoe is with the office of the Auditor General of Canada, serving as secretary of the Canadian Council of Legislative Auditors.

As usual, PR types and Cabinet Ministers began spreading the BIG lie about the case just as soon as the decision was released, saying that it was a “total victory” for the party.

Pierre Poilievre, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport, interviewed by Carol Off on CBC’s As It Happens, stonewalled and lied during the interview, saying over and over again that there had been only “minor administrative problems”.  Somehow, Off stopped herself from laughing out loud.

More than anything else, this is a story about individual morality in the public domain. Yes, the charges against the four were abandoned – but many important facts were earlier admitted to. While the Conservative Party took the rap, we know that the transactions were carried out by real people – people who live in our neighbourhoods, attend our community churches and send their kids to our schools. If our institutions are to be respected, the individuals who run them should be held accountable for their actions.


JABS AND LEFT HOOKS: Further concerning this story: The mainstream media provided good traditional coverage of the case during the four years it unfolded. However, no columnist, no editorial, and no media organization expressed outrage – or even concern – over the final outcome of this case. . .

... Perhaps you have seen people carrying a black shopping bag with big white letters saying: Who is JOHN GALT? Well, this is a catchphrase from the 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged written by Ayn Rand. The book rails against government and advocates self-interest and greed as key ingredients of a better world.  The bag is being given out by Lululemon Athletica. Company founder Chip Wilson says he was inspired by the book when he read it when he was 18 years old.  Thumbs Down to Lululemon! 

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9 Nov 2011

Crisis in the encampments:
Can the Occupy movement be saved from itself?

Millions of Americans are as mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore!

In the largest action of defiance since the 2008 economic collapse, an estimated 650,000 angry citizens moved their bank accounts from corporate banks to local citizen-controlled credit unions in just one month.

The transfers, which amounted to about $4.5-billion, were made mostly during October in response to the much-vilified Bank of America unveiling its now-rescinded monthly $5 debit card fee. Fearful there might be a run on their resources, some big banks refused to allow customers to close their accounts. Following clashes with bank employees, some customers were detained or arrested.

This kind of action by the bankers is one of the main factors that led to the creation of the upstart Occupy Wall Street movement. 

The movement has been an inspiration for millions of people in the U.S., Canada, Europe and elsewhere who want to fight back against the greedy banks, powerful corporations, and manipulative and ineffective governments that have damaged their lives.

The early successes won strong praise from many prominent people, including leading leftists. Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein wrote on October 6: “Let’s treat this beautiful movement as if it is the most important thing in the world. Because it is.”

But that was then. People are still angry at the banks and the rich, but many are disappointed – and some upset – with the Occupy movement.

Looking back just a few short weeks ago, the movement’s greatest achievement was the way it sparked heated discussion on fundamental issues such as greed, the failure of western democracy, and the need for an entirely new way of tackling the greatest problems of our time. Topics previously banned by the corporate media were discussed everywhere.

Creation of the expression, “We are the 99 per cent, while the super rich are the 1 per cent,” was a stroke of genius – the envy of any ad executive. It is an amazingly successful rallying slogan.

During its first few weeks, the gentle, Woodstock-like environment and consensus process practiced by the dozens of occupations won the respect of millions of people.

But opinions are changing.

The most damaging development – certainly in the eyes of the general public – was the death at the Vancouver Occupy site of a 23-year-old woman, likely from a drug overdose.

The death led to a Globe and Mail front page article by columnist Gary Mason who wrote: “The (occupy) camp is now a rabble of homeless youth and others drawn to the free accommodation, food, clothing and other supplies that can be enjoyed at the site. People presenting with serious mental illnesses are also said to be arriving at the grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery.”

For many people, the face of the movement are the TV images of police dragging screaming, placard-carrying, bearded protesters from encampments in several locations as winter closes in. The most violence occurred in Oakland, California, where anarchist hangers-on clashed with police.
An opinion poll conducted in the U.S. in late October by the Pew Research Centre indicated that only 39 per cent of Americans supported the movement.  A Canadian poll carried out before the death in Vancouver showed that 58 per cent of Canadians supported the protesters.

The question now is whether the Occupy movement can survive as an effective force for political and social action.

Sadly, to some extent, the movement has to be saved from itself.

The decision made some time ago to set up permanent encampments is turning out to be a disaster and is taking attention away from other more productive activist events. If there was any chance that a few hundred struggling, but highly dedicated mostly young people could change the world by holding their ground in their communities, I would be among the first to support them.

If the “non-organizing organizers” would suspend the encampments until spring they would be doing themselves a favour in the public arena.  This would allow them to forego a lot of negative publicity, avoid the costly and tiring job of keeping small groups of protesters from freezing, and give them time to develop their strategy. 

Both Canada and the United States need radical social and political movements that could scare the hell out of the establishment and force change in ways that traditional left and liberal forces have failed to do.

A number of local protests are being carried out in the U.S. For instance, a small group from the New York camp is walking 240 miles to Washington to request that tax cuts to the rich be rescinded so the money could be used to pay for social programs. In Canada, attention seems to be focused on problems at the encampments.

In the U.S., Occupy members have twice helped people stop their homes from being seized, once in New York and again in California. This kind of activity is useful, inspiring and could be turned into a full campaign in some parts of the country.

A well-planned campaign to challenge the banks and other financial institutions – perhaps with quickly organized rotating occupations as well as the closing of more accounts – would win the support of hundreds-of-thousands of Americans. Canadian groups should be protesting income disparity.

The Occupy concept is ideally suited to take on other specific tasks, some of which could entail acts of civil disobedience. A particular company or government violating the best interests of the public could be challenged by sit-ins carried out at appropriate times or by a handful of young people using the Internet effectively.

People involved with the movement have so far ridiculed the U.S. political system as being ineffective. Indications are that they will not support either President Obama or Democratic candidates in the election next November.

While it is impossible to tell what tactics other groups might adopt, one group says it will occupy and try to shut down some key elements of the U.S. presidential campaign. Iowa activists are planning to “shut down” campaign offices of all presidential contenders in the week leading up to the January 3 caucuses. The Occupy group hopes that hundreds of journalists covering the first Republican Party primary will cover their issues – the debate on income inequality, money in politics, and the needs of the “99 per cent.”

But if the movement decided to soften its approach and support President Obama, the President might be able to bring the still out-of-control financial sector under greater control, reverse some of the tax cuts given the rich and corporations over the past few years, and reduce the amount of funding the rich can put into the U.S. federal election process.  In Canada, local groups could work hand-in-hand with existing, seasoned radical groups that have experience and financial resources.

At this point in time, the Occupy movement is still very much a wild card.  I am hopeful that the struggle will mature, that it will survive a difficult winter and emerge in the spring with well-thought-out plans of action backed by thousands of supporters to carry the struggle forward. 


JABS AND LEFT HOOKS: It is shocking how the mainstream media refuses to put the half-truth claims of James Flaherty, the man in charge of stealing from ordinary Canadians, into context. Flaherty is whining again about how difficult it is going to be to get the deficit down – after he and Harper have purposely bankrupted their own government by giving billions in tax breaks to the rich and corporations . . . . Margaret Wente and her CBC Radio panelists were discussing the CBC the other day, and she had the audacity to say that the Mother Corp. hasn’t been getting much good publicity in the mainstream media lately. Could this be because just about any journalist who likes the CBC has been fired from the corporate media?

2 Nov 2011

Occupy Canada movement remains unscathed
following phoney attack by MACLEAN’S

The right-wing Canadian media establishment unleashed one of its loudest barking dogs this week as MACLEAN’S Andrew Coyne tried to tear a strip off the Occupy Wall Street movement in Canada.

Coyne’s cover story acknowledged that anyone living in the United States would have “good reason to be ticked” because of the wide range of serious problems in that country, but then, talking about Canada, he cited dozens of often odd statistics to attempt to show that, except for the poorest-of-the poor, things are hunky-dory here.

Coyne sets up a straw man, falsely saying that the justification for the Occupy movement is based largely on the claim that the top 1 per cent is exploiting the other 99 percent. Using more stats, he claimed that, while the top 1 per cent in the U.S. in 2007 (not counting capital gains) included anyone making about $400,000, the equivalent income figure for Canadians was about $170,000.

So the headline of the article contends that the Occupy movement in Canada is “A phoney class war” because we don’t have a huge number of people who earn millions of dollars every year.

He is right on this point, but it hardly makes the Occupy movement “A phoney class war” – as claimed in the title.

The real point of the Occupy movement and missed by Coyne is that the powerful and wealthy ruling class in Canada – perhaps 10 or 15 per cent, not 1 per cent, of the population – have been appropriating the resources belonging to the rest of us for more than 30 years.

Nowhere in the article does Coyne address many of the key issues Canadian Occupy supporters are angry about, such as the cost of student education, a lack of employment for young people, a real unemployment rate of some 13 per cent, high household debt, a lack of savings, and the undermining of our pension system.  

Moreover, both Canadians and Americans are protesting the handling of the world economy by the neo-liberal elites that Coyne admires and  cosies up to. The powerful, the banks, and subordinate governments across the west continue to lurch from crisis to crisis. They are obviously incapable of stabilizing the economy let alone satisfying the needs of everyday citizens.

Coyne suggests that Canadians should be content because we have more consumer goods than ever before. “Since 1980, the percentage of Canadian homes with a dishwasher, for example, has more than doubled, from less than 30 per cent to 60 per cent. Fewer than one in 10 homes had a microwave oven in 1980; today it is upwards of 90 per cent.”

While the article is pretty much a sham, it deserves our attention because it is featured on the cover of once-trustworthy MACLEAN’S, which is read most weeks by more than 300,000 Canadians – many of whom, unfortunately, are overly trusting.

The article reveals more about Coyne and MACLEAN’S then about the Occupy movement.

Coyne was born into an elite Canadian family. He is the son of former Bank of Canada Governor James Coyne, most likely a member of our country’s top 1 percent. He is a charter member of a group of Canadian journalists who support the neo-liberal ideology of big business and the Harper Conservatives.

National Editor of MACLEAN’S, he has been with the magazine for four years. His highest profile gig is appearing on CBC-TV’s The National weekly segment At Issue.

A profile in the Ryerson Review of Journalism a few years ago labelled him Mighty Mouth for his outspoken, often critical behaviour.  A man who espouses a strange mix of liberal and neo-liberal views, Coyne has liked to make a strong impact with his journalism over the years.

He does believe that it’s okay that a very small percentage of Canadians are stinking wealthy. “What exactly is the harm to others if a few people get obscenely rich?”, he writes in the article.

Coyne is not in favour of hiking taxes on the super rich – (here comes a right-wing myth) – because higher taxes would have a negative effect on a multi-millionaire’s desire to make more money. He adds higher taxes would also mean wealthy people would not declare all of their income - i.e. break the law.

Another problem with Coyne’s article is that, even when he tries to show a little compassion for the multitude by expressing concern for the poor, he shows no real empathy. His writing is cold and calculating.

Coyne’s poorly conceived attack on the only fresh progressive movement western countries have seen in many years does not reflect well on MACLEAN’S, but the magazine has published more than its share of shoddy articles in recent years.

Under the direction of Publisher Kenneth Whyte, MACLEAN’S has faced a number of charges of bad journalism and sensationalism. Three examples:
  • In December 2007, the Canadian Islamic Congress filed complaints with three Canadian human rights bodies that MACLEAN’S published 18 Islamophobic articles between 2005 and 2007.
  • In March 2010, the magazine was reprimanded by the Quebec Press Council for a controversial cover in 2009 that called Quebec the most corrupt province in Canada. Besides the headline, the publication triggered widespread outrage in the province by running a front-page photo of the beloved Bonhomme Carnaval snowman clutching a briefcase stuffed with cash.
  • In November, 2010, a feature story about worries that too many Asians were attending Canadian universities brought charges of racism, as well as nearly close to 1,900 mostly angry on-line comments. The article was entitled: “Too Asian?”

I understand that many people boycott MACLEAN’S because of its misadventures in journalism. Coyne’s article is another reason to stay away from this Rogers’ product. Personally, I haven’t read the magazine for years.

JABS AND LEFT HOOKS: Who ever thought that the people of Greece would get to vote in a referendum on whether they will accept the crippling “bail out” package? No doubt every financial wheeler dealer in the west is shocked by this unusual bit of democracy . . . . In Canada, where we have minority rule because of an antiquated electoral system, I wonder what would happen if we held referendums on issues such as the crime bill, the secret trade pact with Europe, and spending billions and billions on warships and military aircraft . . . . The Globe and Mail is dutifully covering and praising Harper’s redesigning of our charitable donation system. You don’t have to read between the lines very much to see the thrust of the changes is to put much more of the control of fundraising into the hands of wealthy donors and business.