Canada Goes Rogue

I am frequently asked how I maintain a positive attitude when confronted by Stephen Harper’s destructive agenda—dismembering our environmental laws and policies. Honestly, I can respond that most days I am encouraged by the ability of one MP to make a difference. That was not the case last week as, sitting late in the House for votes, news came over my Blackberry that the Cabinet had decided to withdraw from the United Nations Convention to Combat Drought and Desertification (UNCCD). It had the effect of a swift kick in the gut. I had to fight back tears for a day or so … just like when I read Bill C-38. I felt devastated.

I remember the struggle to develop a treaty to combat drought and encroaching deserts. Canada was one of the few countries in the lead to negotiate the treaty. I was not intimately involved, but I knew people who were. When it was signed in 1994, I was elated. Along with the conventions on climate and biodiversity, the treaty to combat drought addressed a global and pressing concern. It was clearly related to climate change, but was more regionally specific. And, although desertification is not a current threat to Canada, certainly drought is.

There had been no inkling or rumour that Stephen Harper wanted to exit another global environmental law. Given that the only treaty from which Canada has ever withdrawn, since 1867, was Kyoto, the cavalier way in which this news leaked out—posted on a Foreign Affairs website and noticed by Canadian Press— added to the shock. That we gave no notice to the secretariat for the Convention was further evidence of our contempt for both the United Nations and the threat posed by climate induced drought and desertification.

In Question Period the next day, Ralph Goodale (former Liberal finance minister and now only the MP for Wascana) posed an excellent question in which he linked other recent Harper administration decisions reducing the Prairies’ preparedness for drought. He charged ‘Maniacal front-line cuts have killed PFRA (the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration), which had world-class Canadian brainpower on soil and water conservation. Conservatives vandalized community pastures, the prairie tree farm and Experimental Lakes Area. Now Canada is the only country in the world sneaking out the back door on the UN Convention Against Drought.’

I was grateful Goodale noted cuts to programmes put in place after the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, as I have been trying to draw attention to them. What Harper has against hedgerows and water conservation in the Prairies is certainly a mystery that has angered Prairie farmers. The Prime Minister’s response was spun to create the impression that the convention on drought and desertification was akin to a poorly run charity, in which aid dollars were poorly spent: ‘This organization spends less than 20% of the funds that we send are actually spent on programming. (sic) The rest goes to various bureaucratic measures. That is not an effective way to spend taxpayer money.’

‘This organization?’ The Prime Minister is speaking of a treaty, within which every other country on earth is making some level of contribution, financial and otherwise. How much were we spending? An astonishingly low pittance… $290,000/year. Admittedly that is a nice amount of money if you are collecting for a new school gymnasium, but it is chump change in the federal budget. We approve more than that routinely by unanimous consent for Parliamentary committee travel. Equated with those things the Prime Minister thinks are a good use of taxpayer funds, things like renting Pandas at $1 million/year, the drought treaty was a bargain.

Canada’s diplomatic corps is shocked. Former Ambassador to the United Nations, former Deputy Minister of National Defence and victim of a terrorist kidnapping in Mali, Robert Fowler, sent an email to the media. Calling our withdrawal from the treaty ‘a departure from global citizenship,’ here’s what he said:

‘It (the Harper administration) has taken climate-change denial, the abandonment of collective efforts to manage global crises and disregard the pain and suffering of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa (among many others) to quite a different level.’

Responding to Foreign Minister John Baird’s defence that Canada won’t ‘go along to get along,’ Fowler continued:

‘No, by jingo, we’re not going to go along to get along! Such vainglorious nose-thumbing at the international community’s efforts to tame a very present threat to hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest and most desperate is nothing short of incomprehensible.’

Another former Ambassador to the United Nations, Paul Heinbecker, agreed that the move was both inexplicable and bound to confirm to the international community that Canada cared nothing for climate action, nor for the fate of Africa.

The UN itself was shocked. Noting that Canada will now be the only nation on earth not part of the convention, it, in typically understated diplomat-speak, called Canada’s decision ‘regrettable.’

It turns out our notice of intent was sent on January 14. The treaty requires only a 90-day period for full withdrawal so we exit the treaty on April 14, right in the middle of an important scientific review of the threat of desertification and drought, running April 9-19. ‘The next gathering of the scientific conference … is expected to deliver a major breakthrough by presenting the first ever cost-benefit analysis of desertification and sustainable land management,’ an UNCCD statement had commented, of the review and of Canada’s withdrawal.

‘Canada played crucial roles in both processes. Crucially, these processes have also moved the actions taken by parties to a result-based management approach where performance and impact are not only measured using indicators, but also assessed and monitored every two years.’

The rumours in Ottawa is that all our multilateral commitments are under review. I have heard well-connected folks express fear that we may withdraw from the United Nations Environment Programme and UNESCO. To block further erosion of our role in the world, we need to ensure that the reaction to this cutting and running from the problems of the world will not disappear as a one-day headline.