Recently, two events occurred that at first glance seemed unconnected or even at odds: Canada bought a pipeline and General Motors (GM) closed a factory.
Late in August of last year, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline from Kinder Morgan – an interesting choice for a government ostensibly committed to environmental protection – while in November, GM announced that its plant in Oshawa, Ontario will be one of several to close worldwide as part of a shift towards electric car production. While GM claims to be adjusting to a future with fewer fossil fuels, the Trans Mountain expansion is about freeing up export capacity for some of the planet’s dirtiest fossil fuels.
The government’s role in each of the two cases also appears to be at odds. Kinder Morgan shareholders were “bailed out” via a federal government purchase of their ailing investment project, while GM workers in Oshawa have received no additional help even as they are set to lose their livelihoods.
Behind these divergent appearances, however, an important thread links not just the two decisions, but the communities in northern Alberta and southern Ontario that rely on industrial giants like Kinder Morgan and GM. Connecting these events is profit for the fossil fuel sector and large corporations like GM. The Liberals claim that the Trans Mountain pipeline will produce a return for the country – and it might in the short run – but the real motivation behind the purchase are the threatened returns of the oil industry. GM, for its part, says it is moving towards a new era of electric car production, but a genuine retooling would have happened much earlier given the drastic climate challenge we face, and it would also not have come at the expense of skilled manufacturing workers and their communities. Alas, returns for investors are more important than the climate and workers’ well-being.
Today, Canadian politicians still pander to large corporations instead of pursuing meaningful industrial policy. Trudeau’s Liberals imagine that they have managed to negotiate the binary between economy and environment but that binary only exists because they continue in their well-trod rut. They are putting off the transition from the inevitable end of fossil fuel extraction, letting the manufacturing sector erode rather than retool, and are foreclosing public sector expansions that could be leading the way to a new economy.
Is this the model of industrial development that Canada should follow into the 21st century?
The alternative for Canada is a Green New Deal, a program of economic and social transformation commensurate to the twin crises of inequality and climate change facing the country.
It is a cruel joke that investment in a pipeline – ultimately a relatively small sum – is a major policy move, while other far larger, far more necessary investments are not being made on the scale required. Imagine energy workers in Alberta’s north setting up wind farms rather than mining bitumen. Imagine manufacturing workers in southwest Ontario mass producing new electric public transit vehicles. Both would be integral to a Green New Deal; both prioritize people over profit.
Beyond energy and transport, imagine investments in universal child care (and the good, green child-care jobs they create), in truly affordable, dense public housing, and in public pharmaceutical companies that build on the public funds already going into basic research. A just transition should not just foster new technology, it should redistribute social power and increase living standards for the many – these are the common interests between nurses and autoworkers, and energy workers and early childhood educators.
In 2009, during the depths of the financial crisis, the Canadian, Ontario, and U.S. governments invested in GM, effectively bailing out the auto behemoth. They, however, exercised ownership without foresight. Just as in the purchase of Trans Mountain pipeline, the Canadian government ultimately supports the aims of several private shareholders over the interests of all of their citizens.
Instead, a Green New Deal could greatly expand the scope of collective decision making – heralding democratic planning and marshalling of social resources on a large scale. With every passing year and with every new decision to support fossil fuel infrastructure and corporate restructuring in the name of profit, the scale of the alternative plan to counter these actions needs to become more ambitious and far-reaching. A Green New Deal can put workers and the environment at the centre of economic policy and ensure that the necessary transformation reaches all areas of people’s lives. Unlike pipelines and plant closures, an expansive, just transition could unite workers and communities all over Canada in a broad common task.
Michal Rozworski is a union researcher and writer. One of Canada’s leading young left economists, he blogs at Political Eh-conomy.
This article appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Canadian Dimension (Injustice at Unist’ot’en).