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BY: Joan Baxter

Former Senate Page, Brigette DePape in 2011

Former Senate Page, Brigette DePape in 2011

Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper is spending immense amounts of taxpayers’ money to promote himself, his government, the oil and gas industry, his neoconservative ideology and his neoliberal big-dog-devour-little-dog economic dogma – and this kind of propaganda machine does not bode well for Canada’s or any country’s democracy…

One of the very first things I noticed when, in the 1980s, I lived and travelled in some decidedly non-democratic countries in West and Central Africa, was the over-the-top narcissism of some of the dictators and their obsession with absolute control of their political messages, which were almost exclusively about themselves and what great leaders they were.

It was relentless. Their portraits and political propaganda were ubiquitous, filling billboards, plastered all over the front pages of newspapers, and even their most insignificant comings and goings monopolized radio and television newscasts (and caused massive traffic jams). There were no such things as genuine press conferences; rather there were staged events with fawning reporters recording the great leader’s every word while political partisans applauded.

As a young, impressionable Canadian woman who had come of age during the “just society” years in Canada, never experienced first-hand conflict or the political turmoil, excesses and human rights abuses that abound in the absence of democracy, I remember how terrifying it all seemed.

Fast forward to 2015.

Most of those African countries I lived in are now democracies, not perfect ones, but far more democratic than they were two or three decades ago. And while there is still a long way to go in many of these young democracies, at least most of the signs are pointing in the right direction.

Full speed backwards in Canada

Not so Canada, where we’ve been moving in the wrong direction, full speed backwards. Continue reading Canadians pay the high costs of Stephen Harper’s Conservative propaganda machine

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BY: Joan Baxter

Stephen Harper with his friend & fellow hardline conservative, former Australian PM, John Howard

Stephen Harper with his friend & fellow hardline conservative, former Australian PM, John Howard

(I’ve decided to republish this Op-ed now because I believe it traces the early warnings and the beginning of the end of Canada as we knew it. It was first published in The Chronicle Herald in May 2006, a few months after Stephen Harper became prime minister.)

For the last few years, the spring peepers have been my cue to climb halfway out the window of my second-storey office, humming Oh Canada while I put up the Canadian flag. After a long winter, it warms my heart to see the maple leaf out there on the end of that pole, waving strong and free in the warm breezes. Last year, when I noticed the flag was showing its age and fading, I happily went to Canadian Tire for a new one. I wanted all my visitors, no matter what nationality, to know how glad I was to be part of a country that at least tried to sound like a force for good on this troubled planet.

For twenty-five years when I lived abroad, first in Central America and then in Africa, I had been proud to tell people – often before they asked – that I was Canadian. And people would often reply – without any prompting – that Canada was “different” and “good”. When I asked why, they would say Canada encouraged genuine democratic reform. Canada had no covert agents disguised as aid workers or deniable operatives toppling regimes, arming rebels and starting wars. Some Africans did complain about our restrictive immigration policies and the impossibility of obtaining even a visitor’s visa for Canada if you were not wealthy or highly educated. And a few noted that Canadian companies were involved in the new scramble for Africa’s oil and natural resources.

But generally, I found people in Africa thought highly of Canada and welcomed Canadians with open arms. Continue reading With friends like these, Canada is sure to make enemies

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The beautiful worn stones of a Nova Scotia beach, this one in Guysborough County

BY: Joan Baxter

P8194822-300x225On a balmy, overcast August day, I stood at Port Joli Head in the Kejimkujik Seaside park on Canada’s Atlantic coast, nibbling on delectable little beach peas, staring out over the windswept beaches of white sand and rounded weathered grey stones, and at blue waves exploding white against magnificent rocks of granite as the ocean waters nudged relentlessly at the southern shore of Nova Scotia.

Just offshore, fat seals lounged on rocky islands, ensconced there like complacent and over-indulged Roman emperors. I envied them their thick layers of blubber that allowed them to slip happily in and out of the frigid crystalline waters, for their ability to live without a single thing but their own thick coats and their seal brains. And being in the national park, they didn’t need to worry about human predators as they lazed about on the rocks. They completely – almost insolently – ignored the human beings gaping at them through binoculars.

The park’s interpretive signs informed hikers that 18,000 years ago this area was covered by a sheet of ice three kilometres thick, and the land mass we now call Nova Scotia extended fifty kilometres out to sea. As the ice slowly retreated about 13,000 years ago, the sea level rose and the waters crept ashore, swallowing up land, even as the land itself was rising, heaving a sigh of relief as the weight of the ice diminished. That was naturally-induced climate change, caused by minute alterations in the earth’s tilt in its orbit that have brought about cycles of ice ages and periods of warming. Such change is gradual, happening over thousands of years. Life forms can adapt to the changes by evolving or finding new niches in which to live.

But that has not always been the case in our planet’s history. Between about 440 and 65 million years ago, there were five Great Extinctions, each of which wiped out the majority of the species on earth at the time. Scientists believe these were triggered by cataclysmic events — giant asteroid impacts and the eruption of flood basalts when molten rock bursts through the earth’s surface — that involved the release of enormous amounts of dust and sulphur dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere. But it was the dramatic climate change the cataclysms invoked that caused the great extinctions.

Today, we’re in the middle of what is called the Sixth Great Extinction. The cataclysmic event causing it? We, the people. Human beings. Homo sapiens sapiens, literally “wise or knowing humans”. Continue reading Climate change and “wise” human beings — will our species rise to the challenge?

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Page Brigette DePape stands in the middle of the floor of the Senate as Governor General David Johnston delivers the Speech from the Throne in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday June 3, 2011. Moore has posted a giant photo on his website of 21-year-old Brigette DePape holding up a “Stop Harper” sign in the Senate chamber during Friday's throne speech. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

BY: Joan Baxter

Dear Mr. Harper,

I am worried about you, I mean truly, deeply worried about you. It’s not that you haven’t worried me before. You and your political agenda cooked up to serve the wealthy made me leery long before you slipped, serpent-like, right through the schools of squabbling Liberals and NDP in 2006 to form a minority Conservative government.

But since you got your majority – even if only with a minority of the popular vote – it looks as if the power is doing very dangerous things to your head, as absolute power does. And like many of my fellow Canadians, I am sick with worry about what that means for the country.

Many democracies around the world limit the number of terms or length of time that elected leaders can stay in power. The idea is that no one person should taste power for too long; it is too addictive and it clouds judgement, brings on delusions of infallibility. Alas, Canada doesn’t have such a limit. And it doesn’t seem as if you have any in-built mechanism to tell you that enough is not just enough, it’s too much, that it’s time for you to quit. Retire gracefully. Watch lots of hockey and write another book about it, bang about on the piano, hang about at Tim Hortons, take up Tiddlywinks, whatever it is that turns you on – besides humiliating and destroying everyone that doesn’t agree with you, that is.

But it seems you’ve imbibed too much of the elixir of power and want to stick around, seek another mandate. At least that’s what you said in your recent interview with Peter Mansbridge on CBC, the public broadcaster that I fear will no longer be recognizable if you stay on as Prime Minister, just like Canada itself. Continue reading Dear Stephen Harper – please accept this invitation to resign (and repent)

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The magnificent ocean vista on Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore

BY: Joan Baxter

My dearly beloved, but bruised and much-abused Canada,

09.02.2005-parliament-from-gatineau-300x225I wish I were writing to you under better circumstances, and not when you are at such a low point in your history, so badly abused by the Harper Government. I can’t even say by the “Government of Canada”; that name has been stolen from you, replaced with that of the man who has taken you hostage.

Some would argue that because he was elected as prime minister, Stephen Harper can do what he wants with you. And if his regime wants to rewrite history, suppress science, reject reason, present lies as truth and war as peace, drag you back into the Dark Ages – to change you so much and in so many ways that you are no longer recognizable (as he threatened to do back in 2006) – that reflects the will of the Canadian people that elected the Conservatives.

But, I would argue, dear Canada, that this isn’t so. Continue reading Oh, woe, Canada – a tough-love letter to my country

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BY: Joan Baxter

About 10 million people — opg-34-king-leopold-_403867s-267x300r more — perished in Belgian King Leopold’s Congo during the late 1800s and early 1900s.[i] In addition to the horrific human toll, another shocking thing about Leopold’s plundering of his huge African colony is that he managed to convince so many in Europe and the United States that his apparatus of exploitation and wealth collection was humanitarian and philanthropic, that his intention was to benefit the “natives”, help end the slave trade and bring “civilization”, and to further scientific endeavour.

Back then, there weren’t legions of communications and public relations specialists for hire to transform bad into good, to spin sin into virtue, and tailors who convinced naked emperors they were clad in robes of gold existed only in fairy tales. So the campaign of deception about Leopold’s actual intent in Africa probably started with the good king himself. He may genuinely have believed himself a noble fellow, and his right to conquer and pillage a chunk of Africa about 77 times the size of his own nation something that God granted his royal self.

Thankfully, times have changed.

Or have they? Continue reading King Leopold’s Ghost and the 21st century scramble for Africa’s farms and foods

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Mali

By: Joan Baxter

Despite all the problems there are with Band Aid 30’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas, few would take issue with the noble sentiment of the stirring chorus line near the end of the song that exhorts us to “feed the world”.

Just as I’m left wondering where, exactly, the funds raised by Bob Geldof’s charitable efforts will go “to fight the Ebola crisis” in West Africa, I am also curious about what, exactly, they are thinking the world should be fed with.

I’m not just being ornery; this is an important question.

We live on a planet that is plagued by hunger and periodic famine, caused increasingly by climate change, conflict, politics, perverse policies and poverty. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), close to a tenth of the world’s population does not have enough food to lead a healthy active life.

At the same time, there is also a good deal of excessive consumption of calories that has led to another kind of global health crisis. Continue reading Yes, let’s feed the world – but with healthy food from healthy farms

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bob-geldof

By:  Joan Baxter

 

resize-300x225Bob Geldof and Band Aid have done it again. They’ve re-recorded the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, first performed by UK and Irish musicians 30 years ago to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. The Band Aid 30 version has been tweaked to raise funds to fight Ebola.

Thankfully, the tweaking has excised the awful line that Bono sang back in 1984, “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”. Also gone is the ludicrous one bemoaning the lack of snow in Africa, which Sir Bob (he received a knighthood for his charitable work) and his co-writer Midge Ure curiously decided was a continent where “no rain nor rivers flow” and “nothing ever grows”. The inane question “Do they know it’s Christmas?” – asked about a continent full of very devout Christians who most certainly do, and many Muslims and non-Christians who may not care so much if it is, but also celebrate the holiday – has also been removed from the chorus.

But no matter how much tweaking they’ve done, there’s still an awful lot wrong with the Band Aid 30 song (just as there was with its previous versions). The new lyrics lump together hundreds of millions of people in more than a dozen West African countries into one basket of “doom” and “death” and “fear”, informing everyone in the region that they will have “no peace or joy this year”. Has no one told Geldof that Nigeria effectively controlled and eradicated Ebola? And that Ghana, like most countries in West Africa, has had no documented cases? Continue reading Bob Geldof, Band Aid and Do They Know Their Song May Be Harmful?

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  By: Joan Baxter

(adapted from Chapter 5: Dust from our eyes: an unblinkered look at Africa, Wolsak & Wynn 2010, Fahamu Books 2011)

Author’s note: Thomas Sankara was one of those rare individuals who come along every few decades or so, who seemed to have the energy, ingenuity and creativity to turn a small country — or maybe the universe — on its head. For four years he ruled Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest and least-known countries. Its capital, Ouagadougou, is fodder in the West for quizzes and other trivial pursuits. Even when it makes headlines in global media, as it did in the dying days of October 2014 when the people of Burkina Faso brought down a president, many news readers cannot get their tongues around the unfamiliar name. To add some context for the recent events in Burkina Faso, I’ve decided to post this extract from a chapter of my book, Dust from our eyes – an unblinkered look at Africa, which provides some detail (collected when I was reporting from Burkina Faso for the BBC from 1986 until 1988) about the late and great Thomas Sankara, about the country he loved and died for and about the ousted president, Blaise Compaoré, the man that stole it all.

 

The land of upright men and women is born

"There was something new under the African sun — Thomas Sankara, a guitar-playing, humorous, passionate, athletic, articulate, driven and honest young president with a puritanical bent and a seemingly endless supply of novel and innovative ideas."

“There was something new under the African sun — Thomas Sankara, a guitar-playing, humorous, passionate, athletic, articulate, driven and honest young president with a puritanical bent and a seemingly endless supply of novel and innovative ideas.”

From the start, Thomas Sankara made it clear that he was not going to be another corrupt, luxury-loving African president dancing to the tune of foreign masters. On the anniversary of his first year in power, on 4 August 1984, Sankara changed the name of his country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso. This combined two indigenous languages to describe his small, landlocked country as the “land of upright men” or “land of people with integrity.” Continue reading Burying Africa’s hopes: remembering Thomas Sankara, the revolution and how Blaise Compaoré stole it all

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By: Joan Baxter

11 October 2014. Nairobi, Kenya. As the fatality statistics pile up and the gruesome awfulness of the Ebola catastrophe in West Africa unfolds, I’ve been seeking escape and solace from the grim present by spending time in the past, in the company of thousands and thousands of photos collected in the past eight years in Sierra Leone. They’re a tangible part of the immense wealth of the bank of memories that the people of “Swit Salone” – as it’s known affectionately in the country’s lingua franca, Krio – bequeathed me.

Many of thP1019115-300x225e memories that the photographs evoke involve Sierra Leonean friends and colleagues sharing their food, fun and laughter with me, the stranger in their land. The more I read about the ravages of Ebola in Sierra Leone, the more those wonderful memories come back to me, riding violent waves of nostalgia so powerful and deep that it aches like a migraine of the heart.

What is striking in the photos is the preponderance of high wattage smiles on peoples’ faces. People sharing, playing, working, partying and living – together. Loneliness is not a social ill people endemic to this part of the world. The shots capture village chiefs in consultations with their elders, groups of young men at work in their oil palm stands, family members ecstatically greeting each other – falling into each others’ arms – after long absences, groups of women weeding rice fields or parboiling rice or chopping green leaves for the wonderful sauces known as plassas, entire communities processing rich, red palm oil, groups of teenage girls selling hot peppers or peanuts, lean and exuberant footballers chasing after balls in the waves breaking on Freetown’s magnificent Lumley Beach. Continue reading Ebola: How an awful disease is shredding the social fabric in West Africa

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