Friday, February 27, 2015

Student blog #5: Transportation Tribulation

I dreamed a dream last night. In this dream, there were hardly any cars. There was no driver training, no driver exams, and no extensive hours of practicing to become a diligent and effective motorist. People were spending their time doing other things. Like engineering safe and efficient bullet trains. Or building eco-friendly solar powered buses. Or spending more time walking, running, and cycling places.

A little ambitious for North America? Most likely, but it’s my subconscious and I’m entitled to do whatever I want in there. Yet imagine if people were able to pool their resources together to create a transit system that all could share in. Imagine a system that benefited everyone beyond just addressing issues of mobility. With more developed public transport there would be less traffic in cities, which would reduce street congestion and engine emissions. There would be less need for vast parking lots, which would give opportunity to build more condensed infrastructure and allow for additional parks, community gardens, or recreational areas. There would be less vehicular collisions because finding a “safe” option home from the pub would be the only option. That is not to say there would not be unfortunate accidents with a highly developed public transit system, but these just might pale in comparison to our current mode of transportation (check out the statistics of American motor vehicle accidents in comparison to public transit and the Japanese high-speed rail safety record).

So what is a significant downfall of creating a communal system of mobility? Independence. Or rather lack thereof. How could people conveniently drive to 7-Eleven whenever a taquito craving hit, or leave five minutes early for school because that last “snooze” makes all the difference? In fact, this notion of convenience is often what drives us to drive. People who can afford cars can do a lot at the whim of a fancy, with a vehicle that takes them wherever they want to go whenever they want to go there. This is a great freedom, and why would there be a demand for a better public transit system when it is much, much nicer to commute and run errands in the comfort of a climate controlled Escalade rather than waiting for a transfer on a muggy side-street or in minus 40° weather.

But what about those people who cannot afford their own automobile? In a society structured so that not everyone can attain the level of financial security necessary to purchase and maintain a vehicle, the options of getting around become acutely limited. Especially in a city where the importance of well-developed public transportation can be summed up in one callow phrase: “People can just carpool more.” To be sure, individual car-culture plays an important part in the economy because people use their vehicles to drive to work (or use them for work).  Yet, there are also those who struggle to make it to their jobs with a system that does not cater to public commuter needs. A lack of effective public transport means that people who cannot afford a car to commute hours of their day to making transfers, meticulously planning routes, or limiting themselves to employment close to home if there are no routes in their area.

And what about the environmental costs paid for a little convenience? If decimating the Northern boreal forest to make room for extractive industry, pipeline spills, or using unquantifiable amounts of precious freshwater is not enough to scare you off from the oil dependency necessary to sustain individual transportation—think about all the fracking currently underway next to the Yellowstone Caldera (also known as “Supervolcano”).

Sure, most of us would say we value all citizens in society and value the environment. But do we value them as much as instant-taquito-gratification? Of course, there are complex personal, political, and economic challenges to building infrastructure for a highly integrated public transit system, taking much time, forethought, and investment. These questions, however are not an obstacle.  Rather they should push us to seriously reconsider how we organize our communities, not just on larger social levels but at the personal level as well.  Addressing these challenges would point us in the direction of more sustainable methods of transport, rather than continuing to build up a system that disadvantages some and promotes environmental exploitation.

The need for mobility is a reality, but like all needs, there are a plethora of alternatives for how to meet it. Individual car-culture is no different. Yet, is car-culture a necessary life requirement? Are we willing to re-think how our current desire for independent mobility ripples through the rest of our social and environmental world? Are we willing to relinquish some present-day personal convenience and freedom for a healthier future? And are we willing to seek out and invest in sustainable alternatives? Perhaps the goal of revolutionizing our mobility-needs seems out of reach, or entirely unfeasible.

But I encourage people to tear down those normative boundaries of what is possible, and what is permissible. And even if you do not agree with my hypothetical vision of transport alternatives, I encourage you to come up with your own vision for more sustainable methods of mobility. I encourage you to dream.

-Michelle McLean

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Student Blog #4: An Unexpected Combination: torture tactics and celebrity worship

Earlier this week, an article appeared on The Independent United Kingdom with the headline “If Amal Clooney wins the 'Hooded Man' case, the embarrassment for the UK would be huge” and featured a large photo of a very stern and intimidating looking Amal Clooney. This article is about the case of the Irish “hooded men” who state that they were tortured 1971 by authorities in a British Army camp. As someone going to law school in the fall, the article peaked my interest and left me with two interesting takeaways.
First, regardless of the outcome of this particular case, it is very important for a number of reasons. The decision will further define what is considered ‘torture’ and what is considered ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ in international law. There is currently a large grey area between the two legal concepts and the more that cases like this call for a distinction, the more precedent is set for the future. A clearer definition of torture will not abolish it all together – it very well could push it further into hiding – but it would still force lawmakers to be explicit and not rely on legal or political grey area to avoid prosecution.
If the legal team representing the surviving men are successful, it will also have grave implications for the UK. Proving the British government lied in the court of law and engaged in torture tactics against Irish citizens will not bode well for what has historically been a turbulent relationship. Any discussion around torture tactics calls into question notions of the common good and whether or not there can be a version of it that allows the blatant disregard for basic human rights. Further, if torture tactics were considered to me permissible within the common good, would the governments be nervous to be associated with these types of actions?
Finally, as a sociology major, I found the framing of this article to be particularly interesting. Amal Clooney is an incredibly successful human rights lawyer that anyone living a privileged life likely has not heard of. Yet, she became known in the media when she married Hollywood actor George Clooney. Suddenly, everything she does makes headlines. This is not necessarily a bad thing – she is doing amazing work and deserves airtime over some other things I see regularly – but it is an interesting change. It invokes many commentaries on our society, from celebrity worship to the fact that a successful woman did not receive wide public recognition until she married a famous man. Even this specific legal case – which has been in the works for some time – did not receive wide media attention in North America until Amal Clooney joined the legal team. More importantly, in the article she was constantly referred to as “Amal Clooney and the rest of the hooded men’s legal team” as if she has been leading it since the beginning.  Based on her celebrity, she has become the figurehead of this case, despite only recently joining the legal team. Why was the article photo not of the men at the center of the case? Would this article have reached me in Canada before Amal Alamuddin became Amal Clooney? It is hard to say. What is important is to consider these socially constructed undertones in the media and keep what is important at the centre of our analysis: striving for a better understanding of the common good and ensuring justice for those people victimized by the state.

-Justine Shenher

Greece, Syriza and the "Grexit"

If you are not following the situation in Greece, you are missing one of the most important political and economic events since the great recession in 2008.  The election of Syriza in the last Greek election was a clear demonstration by the Greek people against the austerity provisions imposed by the Eurozone.  Since the election, Syriza has been in intense negotiations to get a new deal on its outstanding financial obligations to the Eurozone.  So far, Germany has relented (which Phillipe LeGrain at Foreign Policy has described as outright bullying) and Greece (and Syriza) are in a bind. You can read about those tensions between democracy and globalization by the great Leo Panitch here. The people at the Socialist Project have put together a great Hot Topics tab on Greece here.  So what do you think, should Greece leave the Eurozone? What would be the implications of such a move?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Malcolm X

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Malcolm X's death.  Looking at the twentieth century it is difficult to find a more inspiring leader rallying against the forces of oppression in the name of social justice.  In the words of Zaheer Ali "Malcolm X wielded history like a sword in his verbal assaults on American racism and European colonialism. He understood that a nation is first founded, not on land, but on the stories that it tells — and silences — to justify its existence."  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

World Day of Social Justice

Friday, February 20 is the United Nations Day for Social Justice.  It seems only fitting to discuss this important day here.  This year's theme is Ending Human Trafficking and Forced Labour. The UN defines forced labour as:

"takes different forms, including debt bondage, trafficking and other forms of modern slavery. The victims are the most vulnerable – women and girls forced into prostitution, migrants trapped in debt bondage, and sweatshop or farm workers kept there by clearly illegal tactics and paid little or nothing. In June 2014, governments, employers and workers at the ILO International Labour Conference (ILC) decided to give new impetus to the global fight against forced labour, including trafficking in persons and slavery-like practices."

The importance of ending forced labour and modern slavery is essential to a just and good society. Clearly this is a topic that should concern us all.  The Government of Canada has a National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking.  The Official Opposition's Isabelle Morin has also released this resource on the issue.  What do you think of the Government of Canada's plan? Does it address the issues raised by the UN?  Are there limitations?

Going forward, I think the UN's definition of social justice is something worth repeating here:

"Social justice is an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations. We uphold the principles of social justice when we promote gender equality or the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants. We advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability."

These are important principles and really centre our attention on how social justice can guide our political consciousness.    

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


There can be no greater threat to justice than war.  War is the breakdown of all that is just or good in the world.  That being the case, the situation in the Ukraine is troubling.  The calls for war from separatists, the intrusion of Russia into the Ukraine and NATO's ever eastward push are all concerning.  You can read about the breakdown of the latest ceasefire attempt here.  Needless to say, the situation in the Ukraine will need to be watched closely.  One hopes that cooler heads will prevail and that all sides can come to mutual resolution that respects sovereign borders and peace.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Resources in Social Justice

Students always have questions about where to access resources for the study of social justice and the common good.  It is difficult to navigate all the resources available and depending on topic it can really seem overwhelming.   Thus, I'll try and regularly update suggestions for some good resources. Here are a few that I regularly examine:  
  • Studies in Social Justice:  An open access journal with a ton of great articles.  Definitely worth a look. 
  • Socialist Project: An eclectic mixture of current events, scholarly pieces and expert commentators on a host of progressive issues.  Check out their Hot Topics tabs and the Bullet for expert commentary.
  • Labour/Le Travail: One of Canada's most progressive journals on labour history and working class politics. 
What would you add to this list?  There are of course hundreds.  Let me know and I'll post regularly. 

Idle No More and grassroots justice movements

Probably one of the most important social movements in the past three years has been Idle No More. Dedicated to building Indigenous grassroots struggles, Idle No More has raised awareness of Indigenous issues and pushed for a more inclusive anti-colonial politics across Canada and the world. Read more about the Idle No More movement here.

The Idle No More newsletter is also very informative.   Here is an excerpt from the website:

"The goal of the #INMroots newsletter is to share news stories that promote Indigenous rights and sovereignty and the protection of land and water.   The newsletter will share our stories, actions, and honour resistance while celebrating the world that we are protecting."

Take a look.  What do you think are the most important struggle for Idle No More in the year to come?  

Monday, February 9, 2015

Student Blog #3:The education system under nondemocratic rule

The education system under nondemocratic rule

Having grown up in a country that used to be under an authoritarian government for almost 20 years, I have come to see how the arguments given by Jeff Noonan can be related to countries like Chile. Why and how does a country have a totalitarian government for so many years? Why do people not revolt against an autocratic ruler or the nondemocratic military rule?

Those are the kind of questions I asked myself when my high school history teachers discussed how the military government rose to power in Chile in 1973. Teachers sometimes provided bias answers to these questions based on how they and their families were affected by the military government. Until now I have not been able to fully understand and answer these questions.  Over the past month, Jeff Noonan’s book Materialist Ethics and Life-Value provided me with some really good answers.

First of all, Noonan (2012) notes that education is a primary way in which citizens of a country learn “how to test and then go beyond established limits” (69). I believe this argument allows me to answer the two questions I proposed at the beginning. First, during the Pinochet years, civic classes were prohibited in all schools and the history of the country was taught until the 1950s, right before the country started moving towards electing socialist governments. Almost everything was taught under the vision that capitalism was a superior system to communism and the USSR were an evil that needed to be stopped.

Second, we later learned of that external forces such as the United States supported the Pinochet government. As Noonan points out, when a society is incapable of solving the problems in their own country, countries like the United States often come to intervene and “help” solve these problems. However, I see this as what Noonan says: “obey and succeed, challenge and be destroyed.”[1] Given that in the 1970s Chile was under the government of Salvador Allende, a member of the Socialist Party, the US saw this a threat and, therefore intervened to remove the elected government of Chile.

Returning to education, if an authoritarian government controls the education system it prepares people to obey, and therefore, to not be able to challenge power and authority. In the case of people that challenged the system, they were tortured, kidnapped or even killed. People were living in fear, thus they were scared to challenge the government. This led Chile, and other South American countries to have military governments for many years.

There are many things that could be said about this topic but I will leave you this for you to apply the situation to Noonan’s propositions about liberalism and how the money-value system works. Are people from other countries being treated as mere instruments for the sake of the ruling power system? Is there a way to prevent the intervention of other countries? And how does the education system reinforce a system that allows for such intervention?

-Felipe del Campo-Donoso

[1] Jeff Noonan, Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, 2012: 159.

Social Justice in the News: Doctor Assisted Suicide and Peace Activism

Almost daily there are issues in the news that touch on issues of social justice and the common good. Today there are two issues that caught my attention.

First, was the decision by the Supreme Court of Canada on Friday about the complex issue of doctor assisted suicide.  There are no clear answers to this question, but the Supreme Court has placed the issue firmly into the public domain.  The CBC has done some good reporting on this issue here. National Post columnist Andrew Coyne has written a very good column questioning where the Supreme Court decision will likely lead.  Spiritual leaders have weighed in with some very important questions pertaining to how doctor assisted suicide challenges the common good.  Meanwhile the social movement Dying with Dignity has defended the decision and outlined some of the important issues moving forward. Also, the John Gormley show (podcast) had a very good discussion (with Saskatchewan callers weighing in) on the importance and challenges arising from the decision.  If you see other viewpoints, please let me know and I'll post them here.

The second issue arose right here in Saskatchewan.  A group of peace activists with Peace Quest are marching on the provincial legislature today demanding an end to school programs that give educational credit for military training. You can read about that here. Where do you stand on this question? Does military training in high school curricula contribute to the common good? Or does it violate principles of social justice?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Right to Strike and the Charter's Notwithstanding Clause

What a busy few days in Saskatchewan politics.  On Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Saskatchewan government's essential services bill violated freedom of association rights in the Charter of Rights.  In coming to that conclusion, the Supreme Court ruled that there is a constitutional right to strike.  You can read my early thoughts here.

In response to the SCC's decision, today the premier of Saskatchewan floated the idea of using s. 33 of the Charter to override that decision and keep his unconstitutional bill.  This raises some interesting questions about the politics of human rights and justice in the Canadian context.  A few early thoughts.

Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms

For those who have never heard of s. 33 of the Charter, you're probably in good company.  The reason for that is that it has hardly ever been used.  S. 33, or the Notwithstanding Clause, was inserted in the Charter during the negotiations of the constitution in 1981-1982.  The clause came to read as follows:

  • 33. (1) Parliament or the legislature of a province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter
In essence, the clause allows any government in Canada to override a judicial decision that strikes down legislation if it violates the fundamental freedoms in s. 2 (religion, expression, assembly or association) s. 7-14 (the legal rights) or s. 15 (equality rights).  By all accounts, Prime Minister Trudeau hated the notwithstanding clause but he compromised in order to entrench the Charter in the constitution. Those pushing for s. 33 included Saskatchewan NDP Premier Allan Blakeney and Manitoba Conservative Premier Sterling Lyon both of whom were concerned about the erosion of Parliamentary sovereignty by so-called "activist" judges.  The premiers won this struggle and s. 33 was entrenched in the constitution.

There were early signs that s. 33 might be used aggressively. Stung by its defeat in opposing the constitution in the first place, the Parti Quebecois government of Rene Levesque immediately returned to Quebec City and imposed s. 33 on every provincial law passed by the National Assembly. Quebec used it again in 1988 when the Supreme Court overturned Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language.  

Outside of Quebec, the Conservative government of Grant Devine also chose to use s. 33 in order to maintain back-to-work legislation against striking dairy workers.  Unlike in Quebec, however, Devine used s. 33 proactively before the case went to court.  In other words, Devine stacked the rules of the game in his favour by stating his legislation would stand no matter what the courts did.  In the end, Devine's draconian tactic proved unnecessary as the Supreme Court concluded in the 1987 "labour trilogy" that there was no constitutional right to strike.

Although there were a few minor examples of governments using s. 33, the Quebec and Saskatchewan examples remain the most prominent and both occurred in the early days of Charter jurisprudence.  By the early 1990s, few government's were willing to risk being seen as overriding the fundamental rights of Canadians.  To date, it has never been used by the federal government.

To Use or Not to Use s. 33

Premier's Wall's musing on using s. 33 to overturn the Supreme Court's decision on the constitutional right to strike has certainly set off stirring debate about his legitimacy to do so.  Yet, he certainly has the legal and constitutional authority to use the clause.  Whether one likes it or not, s. 33 remains as much a part of the Charter as any other section.  At its roots, s. 33 remains a tool to balance decisions of the Supreme Court against the democratic will of Legislature.  

That being the case, any objection to the premier's use of s. 33 is not legal or constitutional but political.  By floating the idea of using s. 33, the premier is also taking a political position in opposition to the collective rights of workers' to strike. He is doing so because he believes he is defending the safety of the public. In taking that position, he is very much following in the footsteps of Saskatchewan's last Conservative premier who took similar steps in opposing workers' right to strike.

The problem, as I see it, is that the premier is using an unpopular tool to sidestep what really was a moderate remedy from the Supreme Court. To be sure, the court did constitutionalize a right to strike. That has ramifications beyond Saskatchewan and will continue whether the premier uses s. 33 or not. But what the court also said in SFL v. Saskatchewan was that the province could maintain essential services legislation but not one as restrictive as the one passed in 2007.  If the government wishes to maintain an essential services bill, all it needs to do is sit down with the unions bargain a new one.  S. 33 is simply unnecessary.

Final thoughts

The right to strike is now a constitutional right beyond the reach of any one government in Canada. While he has the legal ability to do so, it is unclear why the premier continues to run roughshod over the rights of workers.  There are certainly better ways to achieve legislative objectives without reverting to an unpopular constitutional clause that will achieve little.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Politics of the Constitutional Right to Strike

I spent the weekend dissecting the recent SFL v. Saskatchewan case by the Supreme Court of Canada. In that case the Supreme Court constitutionalized the right of workers to strike.  My early thoughts on this historic case can be read here.  Do check out for more updates on questions of workers' rights in Canada.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Student Blog #2: Food, Justice and the Common Good

Over the past year or so I have become more and more immersed in ideas and questions about Social Justice and the Common Good (SJCG). It has more or less consumed my academic life.  This interest comes from many classes that have allowed me to explore the subjects in more detail that has humbled me because I have discovered so much, known so little, and realize that there is so much more to learn.

The common denominator between all that I have learned, is the importance that all cultures place on food. When I was first introduced to the idea of SJCG I do not think I would have ever reduced the idea of SJCG to the simplicity of food, other than issues directly related to poverty and hunger. I do think it is disgusting the amount of food we are capable of producing and distributing globally compared to the amount of people who die of hunger each year, yet that is only partially my point.  What I am trying to say is that the accessibility of healthy food offers the possibility of solidarity between all cultures because it is a basic necessity of life.

One of our main texts, Matarialist Ethics and Life Value by Jeff Noonan is a complex book that gives a critical perspective on liberal democratic societies. Noonan argues that we should attribute value to all things in life in a way that is more intrinsic, and thus very different than we currently live. Amongst various terms he elaborates on are what he calls “Physical-Organic Life Requirements.” These requirements are what we need to survive that are common to all peoples. Chief among these requirements is access to food, as we must consume the proper nutrients in order to survive. Therefore a society must develop a sustainable system of food, which is a very basic social rational. Yet we have developed a system that does not place this basic life necessity as accessible to all.

Noonan argues that we have taken our Physical-Organic Life Requirements (universal human needs in order to survive) and created a system that does not allow everyone access to these requirements. The goals of profit, under current economic systems, create a blindness to issues of basic life requirements.  A simple example can help explain Noonan’s thinking here. A banana worker in Ecuador might ignore the fact that her work conditions are completely unfair, the pesticides used are harmful to both herself and her environment, and that it is not a sustainable process. Yet, she will still work at this place because she needs to feed her family today.

Noonan argues that there is a fundamental contradiction in this system because those who are benefitting from the commercialization of these basic life necessities are benefiting at the expense of someone else. Furthermore, under capitalism, food may be distributed throughout the globe but we still limit people’s access based on its price. The fact that everyone needs food is a great opportunity for global cooperation and solidarity, yet it has turned into a system of exploitation through profit margins and the gross divisions of profit between the worker and the employer.

All of that said, I think we use food as a tool for building community and solidarity quite naturally in social settings. Every meal I share with family or friends is a chance for discussion, whether it is an issue in the family, current events, or something totally random and completely over our heads. I do not think that these conversations would happen in the same way if we were not sharing that space together centered on food.

This was no different when I went to Honduras this past summer. I was able to feel at home in a place so much different than where I am from because I was welcomed at the dinner table. The boundaries of difference were eliminated due to the fact that they, my host family, literally shared food with me, a total stranger (at first). This sharply contrasts the experiences of other students where food was not shared so kindly and a sense of community was harder to create.

For me, the community we create around access to food is what makes this a call to make radical change in order to create a system of food that is sustainable and available for everyone. The fact that our system is not sustainable and not available for everyone is the first step to recognizing that we live in an unjust system. If we are not able to create a system where everyone gets what they need to survive, then how are we going to solve more complex issues that are unjust?

I think this is an easy argument to make: We need to change our unjust system of food, and create one that feeds all.

Anson J Liski - 3rd Year Political Studies - SJCG