Friday, June 8, 2012

Is Canada Turning Into The United States?

Jokes about the similarity of the two countries have gone on for decades, but some recent moves by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper do beg the question: is Canada turning into the United States?

Environmental and civil rights groups in Canada are up in arms over new proposals from Harper to reform the regulations that manage Canada's natural resources.  The Harper government says that the reforms are meant to reduce redundancy and streamline the approval process for projects in Canada's energy sector, which will benefit all Canadians through lower energy prices and increased exports; environmentalists say the changes are just meant to remove environmental protections, particularly those blocking the expansion of Oil Sands operations in Alberta.  Harper's plan will have the largest impact on a proposed pipeline that will run west from the Oil Sands region through British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, where tankers can be loaded with the heavy Oil Sands bitumen for shipment to China.  Currently, the pipeline route would have to be evaluated for its environmental impact on each watershed it will cross, and there are many of them in British Columbia; the Harper proposal would mandate that environmental approval would only need to be sought where the pipeline crossed an “official” watershed, a far smaller number.

Harper is presenting this as a net good for Canada: increased exports that will boost the Canadian economy, more jobs and more domestic energy security; opponents say that it is a massive handout to Big Oil and that environmentally sensitive, though not federally-protected, lands will be destroyed by the pipeline.  The Harper government is also putting Canadian environmental groups under closer scrutiny.  Officially, the closer look is meant to uncover donations from foreign sources, which in many cases would be a violation of Canadian law; but again, opponents say that the official story is merely a smokescreen and that the investigations are simply an attempt to silence groups opposed to Harper's policies. 

These investigations come on the heels of a new law passed in Quebec that gives authorities the power to block public demonstrations.  The law follows weeks of street protests by college-aged youth in Quebec protesting hikes in the tuition at provincial universities.  Again, the government and civil libertarians take differing views of the new law: authorities in Quebec say that the law will only be employed in extreme circumstances, noting that the tuition protests have dragged on for weeks, with the protestors refusing to compromise on a proposed deal regarding tuition and that the continuing protests are having a negative impact on the economy in a number of Quebec's cities; civil rights groups though see the new law as nothing more than an attempt to limit the public's right to free speech and assembly and to eliminate dissent.

Meanwhile, Canada is also flexing its military muscles.  Canada is sending 1,400 military personnel, along with five ships and a submarine, to participate in the biannual “Rim of The Pacific” military exercise; all at a time, Toronto's Globe and Mail notes, when the Canada's Defense Department is cutting back on its overall budget.  Canada is also in negotiations for a place in southeastern Asia to host a military “hub” as they're calling it.  The hub would be a way for Canada to have a military presence in a region that is rapidly growing in economic and strategic importance; a likely candidate is reported to be a small port facility next to an airfield in Singapore. Canada's Defense Minister Peter MacKay said that the hub would signal “Canada's intention to reassert our credentials in the Pacific.”

MacKay's announcement followed on the heels of a statement by his opposite number in America, Leon Panetta that the United States was planning to base 60% of its naval forces in the Pacific by 2020. But when you pair Canada's desire for their own slice of the military pie in southeast Asia with Harper's pro-business, and according to critics anti-environmental, energy policy, and new laws that are having a chilling effect on public protests that employ some of the same strategies as the PATRIOT Act, you're seeing policies coming out of the Canadian government that are looking very American.
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