Photo: Protests shine spotlight on skewed priorities

The Montreal protesters are drawing attention to a growing trend: governments often skew decisions in favour of short-term priorities, often for industrial interests. (Credit: fatseth)

By David Suzuki

When I heard about the student protests in Montreal, I swallowed the line that Quebec's pampered youth pay lower fees than those in other parts of Canada but aren't aware that education costs money. And then I went to Quebec. There, I heard a different story.

After weeks of demonstrations, clearly something more profound is going on. The protesters are forcing us to confront a crucial question: What is government for? Governing is about priorities. Students can't help but notice they aren't high on the list.

Governments all across Canada have no qualms about investing vast amounts of money to exploit "natural resources", yet they all but ignore the most precious, our children. Young people will take charge long after current leaders are gone, and they'll also be stuck with the ecological, social, and economic costs of the decisions we make today.

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The increasing challenge of getting a postsecondary education isn't the only issue motivating people to take to the streets of Montreal. On April 22, Earth Day, 300,000 went outside to celebrate nature. On May 22, tens of thousands spontaneously mobilized to oppose the draconian measures enacted to stop the student protests.

The Montreal protesters are drawing attention to a growing trend: governments often skew decisions in favour of short-term priorities, often for industrial interests. To promote those priorities, government, industry, and their supporters try to stifle discussion around the real issues and demonize those who press for change or question the status quo. So, because Al Gore lives in a big house (even though he's worked at being "carbon-neutral"), he's labelled a hypocrite, leading anti-environmentalists to make the illogical leap that we should therefore ignore or deny the science of climate change.

This advancement of logical fallacy reached new lows with a blunder by the Heartland Institute, a U.S. climate change denying organization. The Institute launched a billboard campaign implying that because the Unabomber, Fidel Castro, and Charles Manson believe in climate change, those who agree with the scientific evidence for global warming must also be tyrants, madmen, and murderers. One could as easily, and as wrongly, conclude the opposite on the basis that Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway on July 22, is a climate change denier who referenced Heartland Institute "experts" in his manifesto!

Heartland aborted its campaign because of massive public outrage and because funders and supporters tried to distance themselves from the organization. But the episode was another demonstration of attempts to deflect rational discussion of important issues such as global warming. And, if even tyrants, madmen, and murderers get it, why don't our politicians?

The Occupy movement also questions priorities, especially those regarding the pro-corporate agendas of many governments. Corporations are not people but they have similar rights and generate vast amounts of money to invest in budding politicians and lobby groups that help sidetrack important discussions.

This sidetracking tactic also pops up with the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project, especially when it comes to First Nations' concerns. Many coastal and northern communities are desperate for jobs and economic development. Enbridge is offering incentives, including employment, yet coastal First Nations realize that some things are more important than money. Why aren't we all getting that?

We're constantly bombarded with the message that jobs and economic growth are government's highest priority, but the coastal First Nations, Occupy protesters, and Montreal students, among others, tell us the economy and growth are not the end but the means to a better society. A society that values its young people balances industrial and economic development in ways that don't compromise their future, and makes higher education accessible to all.

Many of us have watched with interest the remarkable "Arab Spring" movement. Although protests and demonstrations here may be about "first world" problems as opposed to the more serious struggle for basic democratic rights in the Middle East, they remind us that we can't be complacent.

As Canada's government axes programs and organizations that inform us about the environment and climate change, guts environmental protection measures, and shovels money to promote fossil fuel interests while wilfully ignoring urgent calls from scientists, students, First Nations, and tens of thousands of citizens, it's up to all of us to listen and join the conversation.

May 31, 2012

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Jan 29, 2013
2:33 PM

Would that the Quebec students have mobilized for something other than, essentially, self-interest. Unfortunately, if the cost of tuition was linked to social good and environmental performance as a line item, they would still protest that though the benefits are theirs to reap, the cost would be on their backs. Despite the massive discounts and benefits they receive while in school, and the opportunities that abound that simply did not exist 15 years ago when tuition was first frozen, they truly believe that they are poverty-stricken and that they never will be otherwise, and they do not want to contribute anything other than 4 — 6 years of schooling, to which they feel entitled.

Skilled in civil disobedience and pulling rationales out of the media and social science abstracts, when asked to demonstrate on any one of those rationales without their self-interest having a stake, they get a lot more equivocal…they don’t have the fire for actual social change in them, or else they would have taken seriously the obligation that they contribute more to their own education. Being in Quebec at the time, I felt extraordinarily angry trying to advocate for submissions against Enbridge/Northern Gateway while people would blink “what’s that?” or else try to link it to their case as the superior issue. It was wrong to conflate Occupy with Quebec labour unions with the tuition protest, but it was great fun, wasn’t it?

Unfortunately, though environmental justice is by far the greatest issue in Canada and there are so many factors that Canada and Canadians get wrong in our approach, until we — particularly the investment “community” and municipal governments, who need to rein in their development decisions — make it starkly clear and relevant to people’s individual self-interest by disclosing the full present and future costs, engineers and politicians are just going to view the costs of environmental protection and constraint on using resources as unnecessary, or ignore the issues entirely.

Jun 17, 2012
10:44 PM

You, David Suzuki, are a wonderful open-minded man. Thankyou for your support and understanding, from the bottom of my Québecois heart! There is a piece written by a philosophy professor at the University of Montreal which distills, I think, all of our feelings about morality and democracy and transparency and egalitarianism and…hope. It also, through art and music, theatre, and ironic humour, expresses the culture of Quebec to me better than anything I know. It is called Un Grand Tonnerre and it is translated to A Great Thunder. It can be seen on You Tube. Thankyou all for your support!

Jun 06, 2012
1:50 PM

I believe that our government is taking on a very short-term approach to economics. One that is illogical, at best. The economy and going green don't have to be opposing priorities. Instead of offering Asia our fossil fuels, we should help provide them with the expertise and equipment to implement green technologies as well as implement them ourselves.

It is possible to provide sustainable economic development instead of one that will end abruptly and leave us in a worse situation. There will be growing pains as with every shift in focus, however

Jun 03, 2012
12:45 PM

When you put all the pieces together, it's becoming clear that many governments around the globe, even those touted as democratic and progressive, are presently incapable of making decisions that gently steer the economy in directions which lead to a healthy and sustainable future for all. Global scale corporate influence appears to trump the public good and even democracy itself when it comes to competing interests.

The alternative to gradual movement away from consumerist extremism is future disaster for both the real economy and the environment among many other things.

The main job of state is to use it's vast resources and influence to protect the health of the society it represents, not corporate interest or the popular trends of the day. Failure to accomplish this may represent failure of the state model itself.

Jun 02, 2012
7:15 AM

We must act now for the sake of our kids

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