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Jamie Biggar and Ben Powless on the lack of debate about aboriginal rights and climate change

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. Monday, May 2, is federal election day in Canada, promises to be quite a surprise if the polls turn out to be correct. The left-of-center social democratic New Democratic Party may well form the official opposition, may–predictions have it as as many a 90 as–and 100 seats, maybe with a Conservative minority government, which is expected, or maybe so small this could actually lead to a coalition of the NDP, the Liberals, and the Bloc Quebecois, which could even see Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party, as prime minister. Non-Canadians will have no idea how unimaginable that was just a few weeks ago. Now joining us to talk about all of this, first of all, joining us from British Columbia–you are in British Columbia, aren’t you, Jamie?


JAY: Okay. Good. Jamie Biggar is the cofounder and executive director of Lead Now, a youth-led activist organization. Ben Powless is in Canada, a member of the Mohawk Nation–I should say a citizen of Mohawk Nation. He’s cofounder of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, and he’s also a member and activist within the Indigenous Environmental Network. Thanks for joining us, both of you.

BEN POWLESS: Thank you.

BIGGAR: Thanks, Paul.

JAY: Ben, let’s start off with you. If I understand it correctly, you’re planning not to vote in this election. Can you tell us why?

BIGGAR: Well, as a sovereign member of the Mohawk Nation, you know, a First Nations indigenous community in Canada that has never actually been, you know, formally integrated into the [incompr.] Canadian constitution, and one that was basically [incompr.] negotiated treaties to operate at a nation-to-nation level of government with the government of Canada, our, you know, government, our people, don’t really recognize the fact that the federal government has any sort of hierarchy over our people and have traditionally not participated in the Canadian electoral system, and have instead preferred to proceed and participate in their own government systems, seeking, basically the guaranteed rights to self-determination and self-government and have those respected by the Canadian government as a preferred sort of goal.

JAY: Now, there are certainly members of the various aboriginal First Nations who do participate. In fact, there’s been members of Parliament and such. So do you have any sense of how many native do participate in the elections? And those that do, why do they?

POWLESS: Well, I’ve seen many statistics saying about, you know, 10 percent of native populations do participate in the elections, which is, you know, basically, probably the lowest population of any, you know, distinct group within Canada. And I think that that, you know, more says–it says a whole lot more about, you know, where the status of natives and their relationship to the government than a whole lot of things. I think that, you know, there are a lot of people who of course do want to vote, and of course that’s very sort of understandable. There’s a lot of social problems. There are a lot of problems that are faced in a lot of First Nations communities. And, you know, if we’ve–very few communities see any real progress. And so there’s some sort of sense that, you know, if some of these policies would have been changed, if some sort of favorable government got in place, you know, then we might see some sort of beneficial changes to a lot of First Nations communities. But up to this point, you know, there hasn’t really been a serious consideration.

JAY: Right. Jamie, your organization, one of your main activities over the course of the election has been to get out the vote. You ain’t getting out Ben’s vote. What do you make of that? And what also do you make of the fact that in terms of native issues–and we know suicide amongst young native kids is in amongst the highest in the world. In many parts of Canada and most prosperous in Ontario, you find half the reserves are boiled water alerts, apparently. You can’t get clean drinking water in many reserves across the country. Yet native issues are simply a non-issue in this election. So what do you think, Jamie?

BIGGAR: To be honest with you, I don’t really feel qualified or in a position to speak to native issues. I’d have to redirect that back to Ben. I just don’t feel qualified to answer that question.

JAY: But, Ben, what do you make of it? The–there–you simply don’t hear native issues being discussed at all.

POWLESS: Yeah, I think Jamie’s answer says a lot [incompr.] fact that, you know, it’s not been one of the issues that’s come up. It’s not been debated in [incompr.] policy debates. It’s not something that, you know, leaders get asked [incompr.] and they don’t really have anything that they’ve, you know, come out strongly and say, you know, this is how we’re going to address our native issues. You know, most parties have basically ignored them or basically offered, you know, a slight improvement to the status quo. There’s been very, very little discussion about, you know, significantly changing [incompr.] relationship between Canada’s national government [incompr.] government and other institutions and First Nations communities and citizens within the country and really tackling some of the root causes of, you know, these incredible crises that you sort of outlined that have to do with everything from, you know, incredible amounts of poverty, the fact that over half of First Nations children across Canada live in poverty. The current number–the fact that we have the highest number of suicides, lowest number of education, people going into high schools, and even post-secondary education, the astounding numbers missing across Canada, incarceration rates, all these issues, you know, basically summed up, you know, they don’t really enter into the sort of modern political debate, and all we hear [incompr.] is basically a bunch of old white men debating issues that don’t seem to have a lot of relevance to people in First Nations communities who are dealing with these dire needs.

JAY: Well, one of the issues that affects native people and all Canadians, but I know native people have been particularly interested in, but so, Jamie, are you–you’ve been an activist on the climate change environmental question for quite some time. And there’s been a little bit of addressing of this, but not a lot. What do you make of the way climate change is being dealt with in the election?

BIGGAR: I think one of the things to understand with this election is that all of the parties are, in terms of the kinds of issues that they’re speaking to, all of them, with the possible exception of the Greens, but I would say even them to a certain degree, are completely focused on the groups of people that they think are most likely to vote in a couple of swing ridings around the country. So it tends to be older voters, voters that are male voters, older voters, male voters, more prosperous voters, number of highly educated voters in, you know, two dozen, three dozen swing ridings across the country. And all of the messaging and all of the policy is completely focused on those people and their interests and the interests, and the values of the rest of Canadians, which I would say make likely at least a majority of Canadians get left to the side of that, including from a youth perspective, including a focus on climate change, one of the greatest issues of our time, one of the greatest issues of our generation. We’re in fact only really seeing climate change now entering into the debate in a significant way in the final days as the NDP have surged ahead and the Conservatives have decided that attacking the NDP for their climate policy will be a successful strategy for them precisely amongst that subgroup of Canadians that make up the most likely voters in a few swing ridings around the entire country. So we’re now seeing attacks on the NDP cap-and-trade plan as a carbon tax that’s going to raise people’s electricity bills, because it’s seen to be an effective attack on them in those particular places.

JAY: Right. Now, a lot of the young people that are coming out to vote for the NDP, a lot of them who haven’t voted before, in the past, if they have voted, it’s been kind of a stop-Harper vote, and sometimes people would kind of decide whether to vote Liberal, vote NDP. But because of the polling showing NDP is a choice that could stop Harper, a lot of more people are coming out to say they’re voting NDP. But a lot of young people are doing it precisely because of the climate-change issue. They think NDP really has a more effective climate change policy. Ben, do you think they do?

POWLESS: From the reports that I read, they seem to have a fairly strong and credible approach to climate-change issues. One particular [incompr.] support their call to, you know, get Canada to lower its greenhouse gas levels 80 percent by 2050 and putting in, you know, short-term and medium-term steps to get there. In particular, we want to also see, make sure that Canada is [incompr.] and allowing for proper funding and support for adaptation and mitigation efforts, especially in developing countries and impacted populations, including First Nations in Canada. In comparison with the other parties, I think that the NDP’s sort of proposal around, you know, some specific measures, including the cap-and-trade, could definitely use some work. And I think that it’s been one of the areas that’s been sort of trickiest with talking with the NDP is that they’ve had some very specific plans, and some of them are very good, but others, I think, definitely need to be a little bit more informed. And our organization, for example, the Indigenous Environmental Network, is not one that is in favor of a lot of the basic green capitalism fixes to climate change, including talking about just simply putting pricing mechanisms on carbon [incompr.] but really [incompr.] in terms of really getting rid of a lot of the structural issues, which we see [incompr.] the NDP is actually talking about in its candidate from Edmonton, discussions about putting more [incompr.] for example, the extraction of fossil fuels in the tar sands, which are devastating a number of First Nations communities in the area. It’s those kind of things I think we need to really be having serious conversations [incompr.] reconcile with and not just put sort of Band-Aid solutions that kind of look good. And that comparison, I think, that the NDP plan probably stands out [incompr.] the other plans, but I haven’t looked into [incompr.] into, for example, the Green plan.

JAY: Right. Now, when I look at the NDP official program, the whole strategy about climate change and carbon emissions seems to be centered around a cap-and-trade program. I’ll read a little bit of it to you here. It says, we’ll put a price on carbon through a cap-and-trade system which will establish hard emission limits for Canada’s biggest polluters to ensure companies pay their environmental bills to create an incentive for emission reductions. But then you say to yourself, okay, that sounds good, but how is that going to be accomplished? And here is the next point. They say, we’ll work closely with the Obama administration in Washington to ensure a coordinated response to climate change; we’ll seek at every opportunity to advance an integrated continental cap-and-trade system. Let me read that again: integrated continental cap-and-trade system that ensures a level economic playing field for North American businesses. So I take from that that means, number one, a cap-and-trade system like the Obama plan, which is a kind of derivatives trading that also allows offsets for what most people think are completely unaccountable. You could have–supposedly some treaty gets put up in Peru, and a factory in Canada gets to say they’ve cut their carbon emissions ’cause they’ve sold off the offset. But most evidence so far is that seems to be very ineffective. And who knows what gets passed in Washington. Right now, no cap-and-trade’s getting passed in Washington. So, Jamie, how effective a proposal is this?

BIGGAR: Yeah, I think it’s concerning that it’s linked to the United States, I mean, both in terms of the timing of its implementation and in terms of the actual content. I mean, by linking to the United States, you’re essentially setting the bar for Canadian climate policy at a level that’s going to be decided by quite either conservative Democrat or, obviously, very conservative Republican senators in some oil-rich, coal-rich, and manufacturing-heavy swing states in the United States [incompr.] when you peg your policy to the US. So I think that’s definitely of concern. I think one of the things, though, that [I] do like about the NDP plan is that it focuses on raising revenue from the cap-and-trade plan and also from adding a cent to the gas tax. It focuses that money onto investment in renewable energy, and in particular into improved public transit. So that side, I think, quite happy with, and happy to see the focus on moving those funds into renewable energy and into public transit, but definitely concerned about both the timing and the structure of the cap-and-trade plan, given that it’s going to be linked to the United States.

JAY: Ben, are you at all concerned about the NDP’s plan? And, I mean, I understand that people from a kind of progressive position see Harper as someone who probably doesn’t even–at least based on real action, doesn’t seem to really think there really is a climate change problem. But is the NDP plan a bit Obamesque in the sense that it’s kind of a green capitalism but not necessarily very effective?

POWLESS: Right. I think you highlighted some of the main issues there is that it starts to identify the problem. But the solutions that it puts forward, I think, are completely inadequate and, like you identified, could end up creating some sort of false offsets, some sort of false solutions to be proposed and implemented in place of that program. And I want to tell a little story is that in the US, you know, when Obama came in [incompr.] basically hired a sort of green economy czar, and that was Van Jones, who became very sort of public-figure. He came from the green economy movement in the US. And he was one of the ones that was behind this big push for the cap-and-trade system and this whole sort of solution in the US. And the whole thing kind of, you know, as you noticed, fumbled. They basically lost the bill and it didn’t get passed. And I recently saw him give a talk in California, and he was basically saying that, you know, the lesson that they learned was that, you know, [incompr.] businesses don’t want cap-and-trade, what’s the alternative? It’s a type of command and control. It’s where you actually set actual limits for these industries that they have to comply with, and you set, you know, sort of either fines or whatever sort of [incompr.] to make sure that they sort of comply with these, and, you know, you can rely on taxes and other things. In the meanwhile, [incompr.] generate this revenue that helps build an alternative economy and [incompr.] alternative structures. But it’s that kind of approach that I think is really necessary in this era that, you know, we really can’t afford to start implementing loopholes like offsetting and like other ways to [incompr.] our way out of this real crisis the way that the US has really been pushing within the climate change negotiations.

JAY: Jamie, your organization’s been mostly about getting out the vote the last few weeks. Are young people responding?

BIGGAR: Yeah, there’s been a real surge, especially in the last week and a half. We saw at advanced polls last week a 34 percent increase in the number of people turning out to advance polls compared to the 2008 election. And as part of that, a significant chunk of those were young people heading out to the polls. And we’re hearing more and more excitement from a lot of places around the country, particularly from university campuses. I think we’re still concerned that there are large chunks of the youth population, especially young people, who aren’t at university or aren’t part of campus life, but are out in the workforce or unemployed, who are probably not getting caught up in this kind of voting, this surge in voting interest that’s occurred. And so we’re still concerned that there are a lot of people who feel deeply alienated about the political system [incompr.] it’s not speaking to them and they’re not being reached by it. But we’re excited to see that there’s also [incompr.] this growth and interest, and, I think, excited by that, because we’re hoping that it’ll help contribute to changing the status quo in Ottawa come Monday.

JAY: Thank you both for joining us. And we’ll come back to you about all of this after Monday, and we’ll see whether in fact there’s been this NDP breakthrough. Thank you. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

BIGGAR: Thanks, Paul.

POWLESS: Thanks.

End of Transcript

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Ben Powless is an independent journalist and photographer based out of Ottawa, Canada. He is a regular contributor for the Canadian news website, He has been an active member of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition since its inception and is heavily involved with the Indigenous Environmental Network. He also sits on the board of the National Council of the Canadian Environmental Network, as well as the Youth Advisory Group to the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.

Jamie Biggar is the Executive Director of He completed a Masters in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. His work focused on the politics of preventing catastrophic climate change.

Ben Powless is an independent journalist and photographer based out of Ottawa, Canada. He is a regular contributor for the Canadian news website, He has been an active member of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition since its inception and is heavily involved with the Indigenous Environmental Network. He also sits on the board of the National Council of the Canadian Environmental Network, as well as the Youth Advisory Group to the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.