Monthly Archives: January 2013

#Idlenomore as an existential threat

Almost three years ago (although I only worked up the nerve to post it two years ago, so sensitive is the topic), I wrote a blog post about First Nations youth, and how I suspected they were going to radically alter Canada’s relationship with First Nations, and likely change the very notion of how people understand and think about First Nations peoples.

If you haven’t read that old post, please consider taking a look.

To be clear, I’m not claiming I predicted #idlenomore, but thanks to an amazing opportunity to be part of the Environics Institute and the  Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, it was plainly obvious to me some tectonic shifts were occurring.

Now I want to go further out on a limb.

Back in May 2010, I said the next First Nations debate won’t include you (e.g. non-aboriginals). And despite what Idle No More looks like, I don’t think it does include most non-First Nations. My sense – which could be completely off-base, but which I posit in my previous post – is that there is an internal debate within the First Nations community about leadership, identity, power, institutions and First Nations’ relationship with Canada. Yes, #idlenomore is about the omnibus bill, and about First Nations’ role in Canada, but it is also about  how First Nations organize and see themselves. And it is fostering conversations and relationships within their community that will not create a single unitary consensus, but that will change the way First Nations relate and talk to the rest of Canada, their expectations of their leadership, and equally importantly, their expectations of us. They will be better prepared for the next conversation they want to have with non-aboriginal Canadians.

It will be exciting. And we non-aboriginals will be utterly unprepared.

This is because we don’t want to talk about these issues. Worse, we don’t know how to. And, most critically, we’re deeply scared to. In the minds of many Canadians, Idle No More represents an existential threat to the notion of Canada.

Why? Because it challenges us in deeply uncomfortable ways.

It challenges core notions of Canadian identity. Canadians believe people should be given a fair chance and that they should be treated equally. A conversation about #idlenomore would force Canadians to engage in a dialogue about equality and fairness on terms we might find uncomfortable. Canadians know many First Nations live in third-world conditions, but they mostly want the government to make the problem go away.

It challenges our sense of history. Few Canadians – and the current government especially – like to explore or understand the role of First Nations in our history. The First World War and our connections to “empire” earn more attention in curriculum than a complex exploration of the fact that Canada is a colony, and has embraced some of the darkest aspects that come with colonialism. There is racism in Canada. There is structural inequity. It doesn’t mean that Canada is racist, or that Canadians are racist. But there is racism. And we can’t even talk about it. Indeed, at present we seem fixated on celebrating pitched battles that defined the state, not the relationships, choices, and elements of our history that define our culture and critically explore who we are as a people.

And it challenges our institutions: Canadians fear that a conversation about First Nations threatens to undermine the role of parliament, of non-aboriginal rights to decide what happens in their community. In Vancouver – a complex place for First Nations/non-First Nations relations – many residents pass a giant glowing billboard erected by First Nations next to the Burrard Street bridge and fear that is the future in a renegotiated world. Don’t underestimate the scope and power of these fears. Just look at Christy Blatchford – a columnist who in one week mocks both the validity of First Nations as entities and the treaties we signed since they “were expected to be in place ‘as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows,'” and sees no irony in arguing the very next week that the unwillingness of the police to execute a judge’s order to dismantle a First nations barricade is a threat to the rule of law. So clearly, inconvenient treaties with First Nations – cited in our constitution – are disposable, while an order from a provincial judge is sacrosanct. It takes a special sense of privilege to believe these two ideas are compatible. Challenging our institutions will feel threatening, particularly to the beneficiaries of our current system (and let’s face it, non-aboriginals do pretty well by the status quo). This will create fear. Some of the concerns will be legitimate. Just as the fears, concerns and aspirations of First Nations are also legitimate. But fear is not a legitimate reason to avoid having a conversation.

Today, First Nations are having an internal conversation, as well as a debate with the Canadian state. But at some point, this conversation will be had with Canadians writ large. It might not be a single national conversation – it might be a million small ones that happen as an increasingly urban, educated and confident First Nations cohort become co-workers, neighbours and friends of more and more Canadians. And when that conversation happens, my hope is that we’ll recognize that it is an existential threat to what we believed Canada was. And much like #idlenomore is changing First Nations communities, this conversation will create a new understanding of Canada – in the same way a still ongoing conversation about Sikhs, Chinese, Jamaicans and other immigrants changed who we are and how Canadians saw themselves.

I just hope we handle the conversation well. And I confess I have no idea how to get prepared. Engaging the other is never easy, whether you are aboriginal or non-aboriginal. But think about attending a protest; don’t shy away from the articles (though, try to find stuff actually written by someone who is First Nations, rather than a pundit in a newspaper); and mostly, be open to the possibility for conversation and prepare to be triggered, and think about how you want to react when it happens.

So far, New Zealand is the only country I’ve seen that has had this conversation with its indigenous peoples in any meaningful way. I’m working on trying to find out more about how that process – which I’m sure was far from perfect – emerged and took place.

Because maybe it is time non-aboriginals get prepared, too. It would be a basic expression of respect.

The Northern Gateway Brief: Unhappy Political Options & Geo-Political Assessment

I spent much of last week in Alberta which, as anyone who has traveled across Canada knows, is a very different place from BC. While there, it became increasingly clear that talking about the oil sands in general, and the northern gateway pipeline in particular, was verboten. I spent my week in a Fawlty Towers episode: whatever I did… I couldn’t mention the war pipeline.

In Alberta, it seems an article of faith that the pipeline is going to be built. It was interesting contrast since, in British Columbia, it is virtually accepted that the Northern Gateway pipeline is not going to be built (and there is equally great opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline). At some point these two realities are going to clash. And that makes for interesting questions.

This post is not designed to be a definitive piece on the subject. I’m not an energy expert and don’t claim to understand this issue as well as others. However, I’ve not read anything like this to date and thought it might be interesting to outline a short intelligence brief for those curious about where things may be headed. Based on conversations I’ve had with people in the natural resource sector, government, environmental groups and first nations this is an effort to explore what I think are the likely scenarios and choices for our government, as well as what it may mean for foreign governments with an interest in the outcome.

Some Assumptions

If, as you begin to read this piece you are saying – err… what does David mean by the pipeline, I suggest a brief scan of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, which will run across Northern British Columbia and allow oil from Alberta’s oil sands to be exported from the west coast port of Kitimat. While I won’t talk about them as much, a reader will benefit from being aware of the proposed Kinder Morgan Pipeline expansion and Keystone Pipeline. However, knowing about them is not a strict requirement.

In case anyone takes the time to read what I suspect will be a lengthy post… yes, I, like a large and growing number of BC residents, have deep reservations about the pipeline. My interest here however is less about whether the pipeline will happen – although I dive into that – and more about what I think that means for the choices of various players, which I think is quite interesting.

The New National Energy Policy: Why the Pipeline (Probably) Won’t Happen

I confess, sitting in British Columbia, it is very hard to imagine the pipeline being built. The fact is, most British Columbians – 60% – are opposed to the project, and that number has been growing, not shrinking. Each day, the project becomes more tarnished and unpopular.

At this point, a massive negative backlash against any political party set on ramming the project through British a very real possibility. It is hard to imagine the current government could have handled the communications around this project in a more inept manner. Environmental Minister Joe Oliver’s rant statement effectively labeling anyone opposed or concerned as a radical did more damage than any environmentalist campaign could have imagined. Those concerned about, but open to discussing the pipeline, felt attacked and grew suspicious that they would have no voice. As the polls reveal – they have turned sharply against the project.

The National Energy Program of 1980 – when a Liberal federal government forced Alberta to sell oil to central Canada at below market prices – is political lore in Alberta. It turned the province forever against the Liberals and become a major source of “western” grievance. Of course, British Columbians feel like they now are about to become the victims of a new National Energy policy, one that sees the export of Alberta’s oil subsidized by British Columbia, which will have to assume billions of dollars in environmental and economic risk while seeing relatively little economic benefit.

Given BC is about to acquire six new seats in the House of Commons, holding on to, and acquiring more of those seats is critical to Conservative’s efforts to maintain a majority. The concerns of British Columbians will not be taken lightly – one can imagine the discomfort of the BC caucus in the party. Indeed this August 2012 Abacus poll showed that “In BC… 41% of 2011 Conservative Party voters oppose the pipeline with 21% strongly opposed.”

Terrible Choices

This leaves the Federal Government in an exceedingly sticky position on multiple fronts. The government has, of course, been pushing Canadian oil across the Pacific, which has helped spur significant Asian investment in the oil sands; witness the  $15.1-billion acquisition of Calgary-based Nexen Inc. by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and $5.2-billion acquisition of Calgary-based Progress Energy Resources by Malaysia’s Petronas.

If the pipeline were now not to be built, the promises of access to Alberta oil across the Pacific would be greatly damaged; so too, I suspect, would be the access to foreign capital needed to develop the capital-intensive oil sands.

On the other hand, if the pipeline were to be built, the Conservatives would be significantly exposed to suffering major, and possible majority-ending losses, in British Columbia.

This means that all the current scenarios are not great for the government.

The first scenario assumes that the National Energy Board (NEB) – which is conducting a review of the pipeline (including an environmental review) – approves the project and that it gets built. This is a disaster. The risks of a new “National Energy Program” this time directed against British Columbia by Conservatives could wipe the party off the political map in BC much as it did the Liberals in Alberta after the 80s.

The second assumes the NEB approves it – however, the pipeline is bogged down for at least 10 years in litigation from First Nations and environmental groups (if not much, much longer). What makes this so friendly is that it may allow the government to appear to support the pipeline while nothing actually happens. It may thus be able to preserve its political base in BC since the facts on the ground don’t change much and can continue to cast its favourite enemies – environmentalists and, less publicly spoken, First Nations – as the enemies of progress. Ranting against the former could serve as a useful rallying cry for fundraising – much like the gun registry – for many years.

That said, foreign investment would probably suffer – how much I don’t know – but it is hard to imagine much Asian money flowing into the oil sands at this point.

Of course, if the NEB doesn’t approve the project, things get worse. Much worse. Now the only way for things to move forward is for the cabinet to overrule or find a workaround of the NEB’s decision (assuming this is possible).

If the Government doesn’t overrule the NEB, it is essentially telling Asia that its promises and commitments to exporting oil are empty. Do not expect a “Team Canada” trade mission to be welcome in the capitals of Malaysia or Beijing any time soon. Worse, expect Alberta – particularly Conservatives in Alberta – to be livid. The implications for the party’s internal dynamics could be significant.

However, if the government does find a way to overrule the NEB, this would constitute a direct attack on the interests of British Columbia. Conservatives would become even less electable than in scenario one. It would be a disaster. It is no wonder that even Joe Oliver – the aforementioned minister with the rant that killed the project – is softly using language that backs away from such an outcome.

The Escape Hatch

This leaves a final – and what I believe to be most probable – scenario. I expect that under intense pressure from the Conservative government, Enbridge will withdraw its proposal before the NEB rules on it.

Why?

Because this would save the government from having to make any of the damning political choices above – choices that would either damage the Conservative base in BC, damage the government’s credibility with foreign investors, or both. Yes, this would be a crushing blow to Enbridge, and significantly embarrassing for the government, but the alternatives are likely much worse, especially if the NEB does not approve the project. Of course, I’ve no idea if Enbridge would go along with such a plan, but I suspect that opposing a sitting government – one stacked with allies – is probably not appealing either.

I’m open to the possibility of being wrong about this; it is, of course, impossible to know the future, but my sense is that the interests and pressures facing the various parties involved leave this as a highly appealing option.

Out of the Frying Pan…

Of course, all of this has even more interesting implications south of the border.

There, President Obama still has to decide whether or not he wishes to approve the Keystone Pipeline, which would connect the oil sands with refineries in the United States. Approval for this pipeline was denied prior to the US election – in part, I believe, so as to not to alienate environmentalists. However, many – including myself – assumed that it would be approved after the election. I assumed in part this was to make the already controversial Gateway project less necessary (I suspect people in BC will be even less interested in Gateway if Keystone is approved) and thereby hurt China’s access to oil while securing more for the US.

However, because of the mismanagement of the Gateway project, the risks of it getting built have vastly diminished. Add on the prediction that the US will likely become self-sufficient in oil within two decades, and the calculus has changed. Now the president could further boost his environmental credentials, not worry about energy and not worry about enhancing China’s involvement in the North America energy market. Whereas I previously thought Keystone was a slam dunk decision, now… I’m not so sure.

If Keystone is not approved, this would be an unmitigated disaster for the government. The Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipelines – along with the political quagmire surrounding them – would become even more significant. Needless to say, if all three failed to materialize it would be hard to imagine much more development in the oil sands, if only because there would be no capacity to get the oil to any market.

You Do It To Yourself

Again, I’m sure there are flaws in the above assessment. What is most unclear to me is if cabinet can “overrule” the NEB or not. Having read some on this, it remains a mystery to me. I’ve assumed it can, but if it cannot, that would change the scenarios or, at least, eliminate some.

What I think is most interesting about all of this is that these wounds were virtually all self-inflicted. By alienating anyone with concerns about the pipeline, the government made enemies out of much of the BC public it needed for support. Of course, Enbridge has been the entity that has had to bear the majority of this negative public opinion. This has been a master stroke, since while Enbridge has been largely incompetent in its communications, it has not been malicious. It is the government, not Enbridge, that has employed an aggressive stance with environmental groups and others.

Either way, supporters of the pipeline will have a hard time blaming others for its likely failure to materialize. The project was always going to be a tough sell in a province that – while big on developing natural resources – has been home to some of the world’s largest environmental protests. But I really couldn’t imagine a worse bungled communications strategy – one that might end up having big implications for Canada’s domestic political scene, but also for its relations in Asia, and south of the border.

Launching the Canadian OGP Civil Society Discussion Group

Dear colleagues,

We are Canadians who have been actively involved with the Open Government Partnership (OGP) process, including by participating in the OGP meeting in Brasilia in April 2012. The OGP is a joint government – civil society initiative to promote greater openness, participation and accountability in countries which have already attained a minimum standard of openness. Canada joined the OGP in September 2011.

Participation by interested stakeholders is a key feature of the design of the OGP. There is equal representation of civil society and government representatives on the lead body of the OGP, the Steering Committee. More importantly, a key mechanism of the OGP is for countries to develop and then implement Action Plans setting out their commitments for moving forward in terms of openness, participation and accountability. Governments are formally required to consult extensively with civil society and other interested stakeholders in developing and delivering on their Action Plans. Civil society will also play a key role in reporting on progress in implementing Action Plans, including through its participation in a parallel Independent Reporting Mechanism, which will present its findings on progress alongside those of the government.

In several countries, civil society groups and other stakeholders have formed networks or coalitions to work together to help ensure effective external input into the development, implementation and evaluation of Action Plans. We are proposing to set up such a network in Canada and we are proposing, as a first step, to establish a discussion list involving external (i.e. non-government) groups and individuals who have a demonstrated commitment to open government and who are interested in getting engaged in this important work. We envisage this as a loose and open network, through which anyone could propose discussions, ideas or action points relating to OGP. The network would have no voice or right of action of its own, and so participation in the network or the discussion list would not involve any obligations or engagements.

As an example of how the network might work, we note that, to date, Canada has not complied with its OGP obligations in the area of consultations. There was very limited civil society or other stakeholder participation in the development of the Action Plan, which Canada presented in Brasilia in April, and there has been little consultation since then on implementation of the Plan. The network might through the e-list discuss this issue and come up with actions which interested groups and/or individuals could participate in (always on a voluntary basis).

Please let us know if you are interested in joining such an initiative. To join, visit: http://lists.opengovcanada.ca/mailman/listinfo/ogp_lists.opengovcanada.ca and follow the subscription instructions. If you have any questions, please send these to admin@ogp.opengovcanaca.ca.

Thanks for your attention and interest in these key issues.

David Eaves,
Open Government Advocate and OpenNorth Board Member
Vancouver, BC

Michael Gurstein Ph.D.
Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training
Vancouver, BC

Toby Mendel
Executive Director, Centre for Law and Democracy
Halifax, NS

Til Debt Do Us Part: Reality Television and Poverty

I’m traveling for business and that means several things. Most predictably it means come the evening, I’m getting on a tread mill to exercise.

I’m in Edmonton. It’s cold. Like -24C (-11F) cold.

For whatever reason, while running the TV in front of me brings up Til Death Do Us Part a sort of reality TV show about a pleasant but tough financial advisor Gail Vaz-Oxlade who descends upon impoverished couples and families and puts them on a tough regime to get them out of debt. The show is essentially a modern day morality play in which the excesses of the guest couple of paraded before the public as a cautionary tale. It is also the kind of show that I’m sure is mandatory viewing for any loan approval officer at a bank – since the guests are always friendly, exceedingly middle class looking people, plucked, it feels right out of the 905.

And this is what kind of grated on me after watching the show for a while. On the one hand, it is great. These people really are in way over their head. Often carrying burdens they can definitely not afford (one couple with several 100,000s of debt had a time share unit). They need help. And if the show prompts other couples to get serious about their finances, that’s great too.

But this is also the problem with this – and other shows like this. Debt is always described in middle class terms, and one of personal responsibility. The the world of Til Debt Do Us Part debt is always a case of middle class spending gone wild! Cut up the credit cards!

And the implicit message, of course, is that people who get into debt are responsible for their situation. I’m a big believer in personal responsibility and recognize that this is often true. But it is certainly not always true. People can be poor because they were unlucky, because they failed at something, they have an addiction problem or because they were born into an environment of weak financial and social capital. But on Til Debt Do Us Part none of this is talked about. The comfortable narrative the audience is fed is… if you’re poor, you’re probably doing it to yourself.

You know what I’d love to see Gail Vaz-Oxlade do? I’d love her to find 5 couples, or even just individuals, of various ages, who are truly poor. Five people who really do have to little to nothing to live on. People with real barriers to not just to clawing themselves out of debt, by of crawling out of poverty. The sad fact is, that is a reality show you will never see – unless of course, you want to count the various clones of “Cops” or the occasionally story on the evening news.

I’d love to see this so that we, the audience, through Gail, can see all the barriers that exist between that person and even the most basic elements of success that most of us take for granted. Gail seems like a smart person – who also is unwilling to take much crap. I’d love to see her reactions to these struggles, the advice she’d offer, and the ways she try to motivate people.

This isn’t to harsh on Gail – I think she is doing a genuine public service, teaching the guests – and the audience – communication skills and some basic fiscal responsibility. But every once in a while it might be nice is she was given a case so hard she was virtually guaranteed to fail, mostly because it might expose us all to what real chronic poverty and debt looks like, not the kind that emerges from what apparently looks like a credit card spending spree at a sub-urban auto-mall.

At best, she might occasionally succeed and really pull someone up and into a better, more hopeful and stable place. At worst, such episodes could help her shatter the uncomfortable subtext of her show that implies poverty is always the fault of the poor.

Added Jan 11 10:08am PST: Gail Vaz-Oxlade has a blog post where she talks about the difference between being poor and broke.

The Journal News Gun Map: Open vs. Personal Data

As many readers are likely aware two weeks ago The Journal News, a newspaper just outside of New York city, published a map showing the addresses and names of handgun owners in Westchester and Rockland counties. The map, which was part of a story responding to the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was constructed with data the paper acquired through Freedom of Information requests. Since their publication the story has generated enormous public interest, including a tremendous amount of anger from gun owners and supporters. The newspaper and its staff have received death threats, had their home addresses published and details of where their kids attend school published. Today the newspapers headquarters are guarded by… armed guards.

While there is a temptation to talk about this even in terms of open data, I don’t think this is a debate about open data. This is a debate about privacy and policy.

Let me clarify.

There is lots of information governments collect about people – the vast majority of which is not, and should not be available. As both an open data advocate and a gov 2.0 advocate I’m strongly interested in ensuring that – around any given data set – peoples sense of privacy is preserved. There are of course interests that benefit from information being made inaccessible, just as there are interests that benefit from it being made accessible, but when it comes to individually identifying pieces of information, I prefer to be cautious.

Ven-pers-vs-open

So, from my perspective, it is critical that this debate not get sloppy. This is not about open data. It is about personable identifiable data – and what governments should and should not do with it. Obviously “open” and “personal identifiable” data can overlap, but they are not the same. A great deal of open data has nothing to do with individuals. However, if we allow the two to become synonymous… well… expect a backlash against open data. No one ever gave anyone a blank check to make any and everything open. I don’t expect my personal healthcare or student record to be downloadable by anyone – I suspect you don’t either.

This is why – when I advise governments – I try to focus on data that is the least contentious (e.g. not even at risk of being personally identifying) since this gives public servants, politicians and the public some time to build knowledge and capacity around understand the issues.

open-vs.-pers-details

This is not to say that no personalbly identifiable data should be made available – the question is, to what end? And the question matters. I suspect privacy played a big part if the outcry and reaction to the Journal’s gun map. But I suspect that for many – particularly strong pro-gun advocates – there was a recognition that this data was being used as a device (of VERY unclear efficacy) to accelerate public support for stricter gun laws. So they object not just to the issue of privacy, but to the usage.

In the case of guns, I don’t know what the right answer is. But here is an example I feel more confident about. Personally I (and many others) believe businesses license data should be open, including personal identifiable data. But again, these are issues that need to be hammered out, debated and the public given choices. This is not where the open data discussion needs to start, and this is certainly not how it should be defined in the public, as it is much, much more that that and includes touches many issues that are far, far less contentious. But we need to be building the capacity – in the public, among politicians and among public servants – to have these conversations, because disclosure, or the lack thereof, will increasingly be a political and policy choice.

And many of these questions will be tricky. I also believe data should be made available in aggregate. While I understand there are risks I believe  researchers should be allowed to use large data sets to try to find out how age or other factors might effective a terrible medical condition, or to gain insights into how graduation rates of at risk groups might be improved. These are big benefits that are – again, for me, worth the risk. But they will of course need to constantly be weighed and debated. What personal data should also be allowed to become open data, under what circumstances and to whose benefit… these are big questions.

So, if you are an open data advocates out there – please don’t let people confuse Open Data with Personal Data. The two can and almost certainly will overlap at times. But that does not make them the same thing. If these two terms become synonymous in the public’s mind in ANY way, it could take years to recover. So educate yourself on privacy issues, and be sure to educate the people you work with. But above all, help them get ready for these debates. More are coming.

Some additional Thoughts

Of course, when it comes to data, if you are really worried about personally identifiable stuff, there is a lot more to fear that isn’t maintained by governments. The world of free and purchasable data contains a lot of goodies (think maps, stock prices, etc…) but there is also plenty of overlap with personal data as well.

3way-ven

Indeed, much of the retaliatory data about the employees of The Journal News was data that was personally identifiable and readily available. A simple look at who I follow on twitter would likely reveal a fair bit about my social graph to anyone. And this isn’t even the juicy stuff. One wonders how many people realize just how much about them can be purchased. Indeed accessing some information has become so common place people don’t even think about it anymore: my understanding is that almost anyone can get a copy of your credit score, right?

3way-ven-detailed

That siad, I recognize the difference between data the state forces you to disclose (gun ownership) and that which you “voluntarily” submit and cede control over so as to take part in a service (facebook friends). I don’t always like the latter, but I recognize it is different from the government – it is one thing to have a monopoly on violence it is another to have a terrible EULA. That said, I suspect that many people would  be disturbed if they saw exactly how many people were tracking all of the things they do online. Mozilla’s Collusion project is a fun – if ultimately fruitless – tool for getting a sense of this. It is worth doing for a day just to see who is watching what you watch and do online.

I share all this not because I want to scare anyone – indeed I suspect these additional notes are old hat to anyone still reading, but recognize how complex the public’s relationship with data is. And as much as it will upset my privacy advocacy friends to hear me say this: my sense is that public is actually still quite comfortable with vast amounts of data about them being collected (Facebook seems to be able to do whatever it wants with almost no impact on usage). Where people get finicky is around how that data gets used. Apparently, be sold to more effectively doesn’t bother them all that much (although I wish some algorithm could figure out that I’ve already bought a fitbit so there ads need no longer follow me all over the web). However, try to use it to take away their guns… and some of them will get very angry. Somewhere in there a line has been drawn. It has all the makings of an epic public policy and corporate policy nightmare.