Opinion

Glavin: Canada can’t solve its burning issues with empty gestures

On both climate change and reconciliation, our government must do more than urge us all to ‘reflect’ about ourselves and our history.

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Well, here we are, not even halfway through Canada’s summer of profound discontent, and smoke from wildfires blazing all the way from northern Ontario to the prairies has been turning the skies above Toronto a strange grey colour. A weird haze from forests burning west of the Rockies has drifted as far east as New England and the Maritimes.

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At the same time, the Maple Leaf, lowered to half-mast on May 30 above the Parliament buildings, and on all federal buildings across the country, is to stay in that state “until further notice.” The lowered flags have to do with the Trudeau government wanting to give the impression of caring deeply that Canada’s residential schools were horrible places, and there had been a report of a “mass grave” discovered in Kamloops. The following week, Tk’emlups Chief Rosanne Casimir patiently corrected the initial news reports: “This is not a mass grave, but rather unmarked burial sites that are, to our knowledge, also undocumented.”

There is no official reason why the forests are burning, even though as close as the best meteorological science can determine, the cause is the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere. It’s “climate change” and it’s the extreme weather events that are associated with the phenomenon.

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The same cause is properly cited in the extraordinary case of British Columbia, where an unprecedented “heat dome” hovered over the province for several days late last month. The B.C. Coroners Service reported 719 sudden deaths during the week ending July 2, more than triple the usual number, and the heat is understood to have been the reason.

The heat dome baked people to death and swept away the town of Lytton in B.C.’s southern interior in a blaze that followed several days of record temperatures around the town. At one point, Lytton reached 49.6 C, the hottest ever recorded in Canada, hotter than Death Valley that day, and the hottest temperature ever recorded above the 45th parallel, anywhere on earth.

On Tuesday, after days of appeals from local communities across the province, B.C. premier John Horgan finally declared a state of emergency. The wildfires are raging still, around Osoyoos, Oliver, Kamloops, Penticton and Sicamous — 300 active fires, at least 30 totally out of control, and “fire season” has just begun. The Canadian Forces have been mobilized to help in the firefighting effort, in B.C. and in Manitoba as well.

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If you spend any time paying attention to the wider world beyond Canada you would not be entirely mistaken if you came to the reluctant conclusion that everything out there is falling to pieces, too. It’s not just the flooding in Germany and Belgium in what was a 500-year event, possibly a 1,000-year event, that has destroyed old towns and villages and swept away bridges and killed at least 200 people. In the Chinese province of Henan, streets have been turned into rivers, 100,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, and 25 people have reportedly died so far.

The point here is that it can’t go on like this. We appear to have lost the battle over climate change, although maybe not the war. Canada is the only country in the world with a fossil-fuel industry of any significance that has adopted a national carbon-pricing effort, for what little contribution we make to the global greenhouse-gas total, so you could say we should get points for trying. Last month, the Biden administration dropped the Democratic Party’s on-again, off-again commitment to carbon pricing, expecting other measures will have to do.

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In any case, the U.S. contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions has been shrinking over the years — it’s now 11 per cent of the global total — while China’s output has tripled over the past three decades. With more than 1,000 coal plants humming, not counting the coal mines and coal-powered electrical production of China’s “belt and road” empire around the world, China now spews out more greenhouse gases than the entire output of North America and Europe combined.

Canada flags continue to fly at half-mast in Ottawa.
Canada flags continue to fly at half-mast in Ottawa. Photo by Sean Kilpatrick /The Canadian Press

It hasn’t helped that the globalization enthusiasts who facilitated the rise of the worldwide Chinese police state persist in the delusion that we’ll all have to cooperate with China to put the brakes on climate change. Earlier this month, a coalition of purportedly “progressive” American groups sent a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden telling him to stop the “demonization” of China and collaborate with Beijing instead. The letter-writers propose that China and the U.S. should work together to support “international best practice environmental, human rights, social, and governance standards.”

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That is precisely the disingenuous approach that paved the road for Beijing’s ruthless destruction of the “rules-based” international order in the first place. Beijing responds to squishy diplomacy with extortion. International human rights norms can’t be negotiated away on the assumption that Xi Jinping’s parasitic billionaires won’t want to save their own skins from the rage of China’s 1.4 billion people unless we ask them to, and ask nicely.

Meanwhile, the official reason for the flags being lowered and staying at half-mast is described in the official notices of the Rules for Half-Masting the National Flag of Canada. Pursuant to the “exceptional circumstances” provisions of Section 16, it was the “discovery of remains at the former Kamloops Indian residential school.” The gesture appears to have been Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s idea. It is not at all clear when the flags might be raised again.

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The thing about the Maple Leaf at half-mast on Parliament Hill is that this strange semi-permanent state of federally mandated mourning over the “discovery” of burials that were not just discovered, in “mass graves” that Indigenous leaders have insisted are not mass graves, suits Beijing just fine. The Chinese Communist Party’s foreign-language propaganda has been brimming with this stuff.

The Chinese Communist Party has praised the cowardice of Canadian senators as “people of vision” for using the hideous legacy of Canada’s Indian residential schools as an excuse to shut up about Beijing’s ongoing genocide of the Muslim Uyghur people of Xinjiang. Canadians will have to decide what to make of the uses to which symbolic flag-lowerings and other such gestures and performances are being put by the Trudeau government.

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But sooner or later, those flags are going to have to fly at full mast again. A “reckoning” with the legacy of Indian residential schools is not long overdue. We’ve been at this reckoning for years and years. What’s long overdue is a radical restructuring of the relationship between the federal Crown and the Indigenous peoples of this country, and a new relationship based on mutual respect that leaves all of us with some dignity.

That would certainly go a lot further than homilies from the Prime Minister’s Office about how all of us have to reflect thoughtfully about ourselves, about this country’s history, about how “each of us, in our daily lives can say, ‘this is part of my problem, my responsibility.’ ”

That’s what a group therapist says. And what Canada needs right now is a prime minister, and a federal government that is genuinely committed to Indigenous recovery and resilience, and that believes this country is worth saving, that the fires are worth fighting: a country that is capable of flying its own damn flag at full mast above its Parliament.

Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.

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