Monthly Archives: June 2019

Social Justice and Reconciliation: First Essay

The Trans-Mountain Pipeline, of which I wrote last week, has become entangled in the question of what I am going to call Our Indigenous Social Justice, by which I mean the way we accommodate, or don’t accommodate, indigenous people who share this land with us. Their Indigenous Social Justice includes the way they accommodate, or don’t accommodate, us and each other, and is none of my business. And by “us” I mean the rest of us, ranging from recent immigrants to those who have lived here for centuries.

In my own case, just to set the record straight, the final immigrants in my family chain came here from the US over a century ago, to join some others who had been here somewhat longer. Immigration to the US, in my family, began much earlier. Before the US and Canada my ancestors came from the British isles and Sweden. The stories of their “settler colonial” adventures dwell more on stores and factories than on farms. We have been business people for the most part. The current generation is the first in which the young mothers worked outside the home, although their activities were always wider. My father was a tanner, my mother a dietician and a piano teacher. His father was a banker and then a tanner; her father an electrical engineer. Both my grandmothers raised children and ran households, and very well too. If they and theirs were “settler colonials”,—and I don’t wear the label with any comfort,—they were of a particular kind.

I myself have never walked even one pace in the moccasins of an indigenous person, although my work in research and social service has enabled me to walk beside them sometimes, and I hope I have learned from the experience. It has certainly made me extremely wary of judgements of any kind, except to agree that the sometimes aggressive migratory instincts of humanity, the mobility of germs, and the imperial urges of great nations, have given indigenous people an extremely raw deal. In this country they can take some comfort, but probably not much, from the realities that they were not annihilated, and that their particular imperial great nation accorded them a limited framework of legal rights, which it then proceeded to abuse, but did not cancel. The rewards of these realities, if they can be called that, are beginning to accrue to new generations. These are what make the idea, or some idea, of “Reconciliation” possible.

I do not like to use the term “Reconciliation” for what needs to be done now, because I believe it lies at the end of a long process that begins with pursuit of Social Justice. Social Justice is a practical thing, an Unsolved Riddle no doubt, but one that can be addressed with practical means. Reconciliation is in the spiritual realm, and will occur naturally when we have achieved a sufficient measure of Social Justice and have become accustomed to living with each other under its influence. Now we live together under other influences, which inhibit Reconciliation or render it merely a word amidst waves of arid political verbosity.

I think it both wise and useful to consider Our Indigenous Social Justice under the Four Fields I have proposed elsewhere: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Cultural Justice, Opportunital Justice, all of these having elements of Unsolved Riddles, or the full-blown kind, by themselves and all together. I have been proposing for some time that these may yield,—whatever that means,—to application of the Stephen Leacock Tetrad of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. More recently I have begun to suggest that the way to do that involves Creative Doublethink and Bi-Polar (Both-And) Accommodation. The process of working out these suggestions continues.

At this stage I will only present some hypotheses concerning Our Indigenous Social Justice and the Four Fields, leaving more complete discussion for later. It seems possible to me that any kind of Indigenous Social Justice, ours or theirs, is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible without a hefty degree of economic assimilation. In our economic system, most of us receive economic justice by allowing ourselves to be absorbed by the Yottapede (see the Monday Stalking Blog for more about it), or by voluntarily excluding ourselves from it; in the latter case the resulting inevitable poverty is not unjust because we chose it. To be involuntarily excluded is to be denied economic justice. A few people of supreme talent can find economic justice, even high prosperity, on their own terms. Most of us have to accept the terms dictated by the Yottapede. Economic justice is a necessary, but no longer sufficient condition for Social Justice. That’s one hypothesis.

Environmental justice and cultural justice, in several dimensions, hold immense importance for indigenous people in this country, and appear to gain more as their physical survival becomes assured. This is a poser for us. We are no longer sure that we can support environmental justice for our society as a whole, let alone for parts of it. Some parts may even be particularly deprived, as it appears the people of the Arctic, primarily indigenous, may well become or have already. I think our present Canadian government, and a few provincial ones, are trying their best to apply Creative Doublethink and Both-And Accommodation to environmental justice, thus opening themselves up to charges of hypocrisy. The NDP and the Greens are at best wobbly both-anders; the Conservatives still seem to believe in magic, as that kind of ideology often does and not only in environmental matters. If you want to see a touching faith in magic, just try trickle-down economics.

I will stick my neck out and say that I believe we are doing not too badly these days with cultural justice, at least of the superficial kind encompassed by what we awkwardly call multiculturalism. I believe that indigenous people mean something deeper, something outside the Yottapede yet enabling intra-yottapedal economic benefits. We may support such an idea in principle, but I do not believe we have a clear idea how to bring it about, for indigenous people or any others,—such as artists,—who may dream such dreams. A guaranteed minimum annual income has been suggested as one possibility.

I am not quite sure what I mean by Opportunital Justice, except that I am trying to preserve Stephen Leacock’s emphasis on equality of opportunity, which in his day meant economic opportunity, and in ours is more complicated. I promised last week that I would consult Olde Stephen, his ghost, for this week. I did, and that’s what he said.

Of course there are other dimensions of justice that cannot be entirely excluded, such as political justice and legal justice, the former being of great interest to politicians, and the other of concern to those whose desire to remain extra-yottapedal brings them into court or jail, both intra-yottapedal places par excellence. It’s uncomfortable enough trying to broaden Social Justice beyond the purely economic. Adding political and legal justice to the mix, in any except their strictly environmental, cultural, and opportunital dimensions, renders Social Justice a meaningless ideal. It becomes equal to Justice on the whole, which has been an Unsolved Riddle since Socrates, and maybe longer.

That’s enough for this week. Sorry about the length. These are deep waters, as P.G. Wodehouse would say.


What Do We See Coming in the Trans-Mountain Pipeline?

Social Justice intrudes itself into our political discourse in most instructive ways this week. The Federal Government has approved the Trans-Mountain Pipeline Expansion (a.k.a. the TMX). This decision has evoked a fine contradictory chorus of partisan prognosications, with Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats, Greens, and the Governments of Alberta and British Columbia all seeing something quite different coming as a result. Whether the Government’s decision proves decisive remains to be seen. At least they have made it, as they always said they would. “Our position is in the national interest,” they declare. The Conservatives, New Democrats, Greens, and the Governments of Alberta and British Columbia all say the same thing.

I suggest that under these circumstances it would be entirely reasonable to predict a further torrent of verbiage, and good times ahead for lobbyists, advocates, and lawyers on all sides of the question.

My own proposal is fairly straight-forward. I believe the pipeline should be built to carry refined bitumen, what used to be called and maybe still is “synthetic crude”, and that the refining should be done in Alberta, before the pipeline reaches the mountains. I acknowledge the greenhouse gas effect, but simply point out that this stuff is going to be refined somewhere, with the same effect globally. At least if it is done in Alberta we can specify the technology and, to some extent, control the emissions. Furthermore, I believe that every stage of this process, from mining to shipping, should be done at the highest possible level of fail-safe technology, and that the inevitable extra costs should be built into the chain of prices. If this makes oil sands oil unprofitable, then so be it. The pipeline will not then be built. If oil sands oil is only profitable when mined and shipped on the cheap, then considering the risks involved, the market for it is not really a market, and it should stay in the ground. A pipe-dream of wealth doth not a market make.

In arriving at this proposal, which I believe to be sensible all things considered, I am using a technique I call “creative doublethink” and “bi-polar accommodation”. Double-think, you may recall, was identified by George Orwell in his book 1984 as meaning “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” In his context he was against it; in the context of Unsolved Riddles, it can serve us well if we learn how to use it.

To be specific: I support the dreams of prosperity of the people of Alberta. I came to know them well in the twenty-five years I lived there. Two of my children and four of my grand-children live there now. I was and am involved with the prospects of Alberta. I support the dreams of preservation of the astonishing landscapes and coastlines of British Columbia. I have never lived there, but have become somewhat familiar with the country from Dawson Creek and Prince George to Sparwood and Williams Head. The idea of a bitumen spill anywhere along the route of that pipeline or in the shipping channel beyond fills me with horror. I want to see the pipeline built, the oil sold, for Alberta’s sake, and I want the passes, valleys, and coasts to be protected, for British Columbia’s sake. I hold these two beliefs, apparently contradictory, in my mind simultaneously and accept both of them. That is the “doublethink” part of my proposal.

The “bi-polar” part is an alternative to the “compromise” idea, the latter suggesting a reasonable amount of prosperity for Albertans and a reasonable amount of protection for British Columbians. I believe the compromise is inherently unbalanced, and that we can do better. I believe in maximums, of both prosperity and protection. When it comes to Unsolved Riddles, which TMX is, I am a follower of Charles Simeon who said, in 1825, “that the truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme; but in both extremes.” He then went on to say to his reader: “I see you are filled with amazement and doubting whether I am in my sober senses.” I think I am. Considering our wealth and ingenuity, I see no reason why we should not strive for both extremes of prosperity and protection. I do understand, however, that in order to achieve that doublegood we may have to think differently about cost and profit. If we think about them in the old accustomed way, then someone is going to gain, someone is going to lose, and I think I know who they are. The pipeline industry’s spill record is not nearly good enough to justify the accustomed risks.

As to the “national interest”, I believe it is just as bi-polar as mine, shared by the great mass of Canadians. In dealing with Unsolved Riddles, compromise has its place when the stakes are relatively small. Such is not the case with the Unsolved Riddle of TMX. For that one we need Creative Doublethink and Bi-Polar Accommodation.

I have left Stephen Leacock’s ghost out of this discussion, poor shade. I’ll consult him next week.

What Do We See Coming?

The Erewhonians say that we are drawn through life backwards; or again, that we go onwards into the future as into a dark corridor. Time walks beside us and flings back shutters as we advance; but the light thus given often dazzles us, and deepens the darkness which is in front. We can see but little at a time, and heed that little far less than our apprehension of what we shall see next; ever peering curiously through the glare of the present into the gloom of the future, we presage the leading lines of that which is before us, by faintly reflected lights from dull mirrors that are behind, and stumble on as we may till the trap-door opens beneath us and we are gone. (Samuel Butler, Erewhon, 1910)

B.W. Powe of York University, poet, writer, and teacher, closes his latest book The Charge in the Global Membrane, with a question: “What do you see coming?” We correspond from time to time. I wrote to him last evening, as follows:

Your question is a vexed one to my mind, because I believe we can never see anything coming except in the very narrow and immediate visual sense, or through Samuel Butler’s mirrors looking backward, and pretty darkly at that. I was trained to be deeply suspicious of linear extrapolation in complex situations, and to watch carefully for tidal oscillations that may appear for the moment to be flowing rivers. I am not sure how to reconcile that caution with your observations about the Charged Global Membrane. I have no doubt that what you describe is happening, and that if reactions so far persist the consequences could be dire. But will they persist, or will adjustments occur when people become accustomed, and if so what kind?

Of course, your question is not “What is coming?” but “What do you see coming?”

In other words, I don’t see anything coming, because some intensive training in my younger days and a working lifetime of practice have conditioned me not to look. The closest I come is to examine carefully the available data, and to extend them forward using some kind of formula to see what might come, and to attach a reasonable set of probabilities to their coming. Because what I “see” by this method is always a plural set of possibilities. On no occasion do I use linear extrapolation from the present or the recent past. What is happening is not necessarily what is going to happen, and so I stoutly maintain. This makes me unwelcome company sometimes when the dire predictions are being passed around the conversational circle.

This does not mean that I live in a Pollyanna world where dire predictions are summarily drummed out of the room. Let’s look at climate change, for example. When we take into account the masses of first-rate data we have of past global climate patterns and the sophistication of the models used for projections, we must believe that a global catastrophe is possible. If we attach any significant probability to that outcome,—and we should!—then what decision theorists call the “expected value” of the outcome is the global cost of the catastrophe multiplied by its probability. Since the cost, in human terms, of this outcome is so huge as to approach the infinite, then the expected value (cost) of the outcome is the same. Faced with that kind of possibility, then we had better act, even though there may be some probability attached to a miraculous reaction of planet or humans that mitigates the effect.

Since a climate catastrophe, even a mild one, is certainly an issue for Social Justice, then any reluctance to act, or effective resistance, contributes to the Unsolved Riddle that we are trying to understand here. In fact, if we look at it that way, we may even find that the reluctance and resistance are grounded in just that realm, for example, in the quite legitimate fear of lost livelihoods. We must deal with them accordingly. I am not going to do that today, although I promise we will in this metaphorical collective I have created for the purpose. We will deal with climate change as we will deal with global population growth, inequality of opportunity and prosperity, pluralism, tribalism, individualism and collectualism, precarious livelihoods, our relationship with Nature, democracy, consumerism, culturism, education, and any other issues of like importance.

In order to set the stage for that process I have drafted Stephen Leacock’s ghost, Olde Stephen, from his former setting in what I am now calling the Stalking Blog, updated Mondays, and sent the Yottapede, along with Mnemochiron, the feminequine centaur, over there in exchange. This is, after all, now the Talking Blog. Olde Stephen will be a lot happier here than burrowing around in the Charged Ooze disguised as a star-nosed mole. We will charge this blog with verbosity, his natural element, at least it was when he was alive.

All verbosity will be suspended, however, for until the week after next, due to other commitments. Our newly aligned saga will resume on Wednesday, June 19th.

Thank you for reading, and for your patience. The preliminaries are completed; we will get down to brass tacks very soon.