avatar
War Profiteering and us


[A talk given in Ottawa on January 21 to an anti-imperialist group at the beginning of a national campaign against SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian engineering firm with a huge number of contracts including a large bullet contract with the US Military].

First, I want to thank the Ottawa organizers for setting this up and of course for the invitation. As much as we get accused of it, I haven’t actually had much of a chance to preach to the choir. A choirboy myself, I find myself doing my little song and dance most often for groups of students. I’ve talked to groups of journalists. I’ve even talked to the NDP youth group (1). But if we are the choir, let’s really take advantage of it and say things that we need to hear.

To the NDP youth group I made a point of discussing how party politics has a seductive way of inducing people to undermine their decent intentions and betray their vulnerable constituencies with power, or usually just the illusion of power. I made a point of mentioning how, as important as it is to try to bring about sane government policies, government is only one of the centers of power and that private power, capital and corporations, through their media influence and control of the economy, have the ability to undermine even the rare government that tries to do something decent. I also made a point of how activists cannot afford to ignore the empire, but have to find ways to fight against it.

I don’t think we need to say any of that here.

So instead I am going to assume that folks here are not looking to putting people into public office as a central focus of their activism. I am going to assume that the people who are launching this campaign against corporate war profiteers understand that capitalism and imperialism are important problems. It’s very good to be able to start on that assumption.

I am going to assume even more.

I am going to assume that people here are against racism, sexism, and oppression, and are for a society based on equality and solidarity. That also will enable us to get much farther.

This room is full of people I have known and worked with over many years. Among the people that I’ve worked with I see even more that is shared.

There is a real visceral, emotional rejection of hypocrisy, injustice, and arrogance. People really feel these things and I believe that our actions are motivated from a moral impulse. The idea that a company like SNC-Lavalin is making billions of dollars selling weapons that are going to tear the bodies of people apart in Iraq is one that ought to enrage people. For various reasons which I will get to later, it doesn’t seem to enrage many people as much as it enrages us. That’s one thing we have in common. There is a sensitivity to hypocrisy that goes beyond things out there in the world, a sense that we should not be racist, sexist, or oppressive in our relations with each other.

There is a sense that it’s just not enough. It’s not enough to just oppose the Iraq war while tacitly condoning the Afghan war and ignoring altogether the Haiti coup. It’s not enough for Canadians to denounce Israel’s occupation and ethnic cleansing in Palestine while ignoring the continuous theft of indigenous lands. It’s not enough to denounce the US global gulag archipelago and torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and ignore the wholesale incarceration of indigenous youth (who, in SK and MB for example, are some 15% of the youth population and 75% of youth prisoners) and adults (aboriginal people are about 3% of the population and about 12% of the prison population) in Canada. And for that matter, it’s not enough to just denounce.

There is a sense that in the face of such horrors, in the face of paramilitary massacres in Haiti underwritten by UN troops and started off with Canadian help; in the face of at least 100,000 killed in Iraq since the invasion; in the face of thousands of Palestinians killed, starved, humilitated, bulldozed, while Canada changes its voting to ‘support Israel’ at the UN in order to be ‘even-handed’; in the face of the theatrics with which Afghanistan was bombed for revenge and then handed over from one group of warlords to another; that candelit vigils or writing letters to MPs or marching around for a while and then disbanding just is not enough. There is a frustration with the lack of proportion that most people – even those who opposed the invasion of Iraq – seem to apply when they are acting against it.

It seems to me that these are the things that differentiate this group from others. I share all these feelings. But we are not here tonight to share feelings. Nor are we here tonight to admire our uncompromising principle or our militancy or our consistency. We are here – I think – to figure out how we can contribute to ending a number of vicious military occupations, to changing economic and social policies that are making for millions of pointless deaths and poisoning the basis for life itself, and to changing our own society, either at the same time or as a prerequisite.

A campaign against war profiteers is just a means to that end, just like SNC-Lavalin is just a part of the machinery of the Canadian government and its corporations. Its overseas operations are underwritten by the government’s Export Development Corporation.

SNC-Lavalin

Hoover’s Company Profiles describes the corporation as follows: “One of Canada’s largest engineering and construction companies, SNC-Lavalin Group is also one of the world’s top 10 engineering design firms. Its bread-and-butter has been infrastructure for chemical and petroleum plants and power generation and transmission systems, as well as bridges, highways, transit systems, and water-treatment plants. It also provides facilities and operations management. Projects include the world’s first all-electronic toll highway (Ontario’s Highway 407), which it will help operate for 99 years. The group builds in several developing countries, where it provides project management and arranges financing. The company, formed in 1911 by Arthur Surveyer, acquired rival Lavalin in 1991.”

Sales in 2003 were $2.5B. Profits $99M. There are 10,000 employees. The COB is John E. Cleghorn. The CEO is Jacques Lamarre. This little Canadian-engine that could signed an $80M contract with Kuwait to augment its daily production at one of its major facilities. The Crown Commercial Corporation recently guaranteed an Export Development Corporation loan to the Dominican Republic of $90M to do work on power lines and a hydro plant (megaprojects). The work will be overseen by – guess who? – SNC-Lavalin, who it’s safe to assume will also get most of that money. Paul Martin’s Libya trip in December? Netted SNC-Lavalin a $1B contract for a megaproject, a 4,000 km ‘man-made river’. The annual report mentions a power plant in Algeria, an aluminum smelter in Mozambique, oil facilities in Venezuela, a gas plant in Oman, ammonia in Vietnam, sulphuric acid in Turkey, distribution in Thailand, hotels in Monaco, Highways in India, cooling plants in the UAE, Monorail in Malaysia, transmission lines in the Congo, zinc-lead in Inuit lands in the Canadian arctic, mining in Guyana, zinc in Namibia, gold in Chile and Peru, aluminum in Russia, gold in Saudi Arabia, camps for the Canadian army in Kabul and support for the Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, bases in Canada, Canada Post contracts, agrifood in Europe, biotech, two nuclear power plants in China. Its keystone project? The Highway 407, according to various statements in the business press. Strange, because I thought the 407 was built by the Canadian Highways Infrastructure Corporation. The CHIC is involved in a project worth some $1B for building a major highway in Israel that will feed many Jewish-settler only roads. I haven’t dug deeply enough to know, but I suspect that careful research would unearth the fact that these are essentially the same. In fact the level at which SNC-Lavalin operates, getting Paul Martin to meet foreign heads of state to do deals, it’s all a multifaceted interconnected mess. Of course SNC is here too. They are designing a Niobium mine in Mohawk territory near Kanehsatake. You saw the article by Steve Bonspiel in ‘The Nation’ that was circulated on the lists: Waswanipi, Cree territory, where SNC wants to test artillery shells? Military experiments on indigenous people’s traplines?

Of course I could go on. But I think you get the idea.

SNC vs. who?

The point is that SNC-Lavalin is seamlessly integrated with the Canadian government itself. It is a major chunk of Canadian capital, with market capitalization over $1B. It is a major player in the Canadian economy. It is a major player in a lot of poor countries’ economies. And, as much as I’ve said it before, it can only be understood as part of the Canadian state and that state will defend it. The establishment will defend it. I believe I am talking to a crowd that understands that power institutions act in their own interests. If SNC thinks it will make profits selling to the US military it will do so.

There is more. These massive companies are not nearly as vulnerable to pressure. Their workforces are dispersed all over the world, making worker action against them very difficult. Their dealings – their sales – are almost exclusively to governments, and the more secretive the better, which means consumer boycotts won’t do it. Their shareholders? The number one shareholder is a holding company – Jarislowsky Fraser Ltd., with 9.8 million shares, about 20% of the total. The holding company holds SNC stock as part of a mutual fund. The portfolio of shares in mutual funds are chosen by analysts who use computer algorithms to search the market for the desired ratios. There are just layers and layers of insulation. Go down the list of shareholders – CDP Capital, CPP Investment Board, GWL Investment Management, BCI, Fidelity, Acuity, TD Asset Management, RBC, IG, Burgundy. Jacques Lamarre himself is a major shareholder – the only one with a name on the list of majors.

If we think we are going to ‘shut them down’ with pickets outside their offices at the scale we are currently capable of mounting, we are wrong. And anyway ‘shutting SNC down’ would not end the occupation of Iraq.

That is, unfortunately, only the beginning of the bad news.

We have come very far.

I believe that these networks that we are trying to solidify and strengthen represent something very important: a group of people who are uncompromising in their principles and committed to doing what it takes to make changes. I am convinced that our approach, trying to be holistic, trying to be consistent, trying to get to the root of the problems and take on a company like SNC, is exactly what is needed. I believe that in a society where there is really racist baiting of Arabs, Palestinians, Iraqis, of anyone who is trying to resist colonization and occupation as ‘terrorists’, a principled and uncompromising stand against colonization and occupation is what is needed, and so few have been willing to take such a stand. We have. And in fact, doing so was a good way to find each other. Now that we have found each other, this campaign is a very good next step. It is a chance to strengthen this thing we are trying to form, to reach more people with a deep and uncompromising message, and to build the power we are going to need for future struggles.

I really believe that we are right about the political system, about the economic system, about race, imperialism, sexism, ecology, the need to change these things fundamentally. But if we are right (and I believe we are) we ought to be very convincing. People ought to be drawn in and stay involved. We cannot at the same time be satisfied with what we are accomplishing and dissatisfied with what is happening in the world. I want us to do better. Every weakness we can fix will strengthen us in the fights ahead. For that we have to be honest about our weaknesses as well as our strengths. They are related: I believe we have made every single one of our strengths into a weakness, and we are still far from being able to do something that is going to help the people of Iraq, Palestine, Haiti, Afghanistan, Latin America, or anywhere else. We need to do some rethinking.

We are enraged at the brutality, indignity, and murder. We act out of a moral impulse. But in our rage we lose patience and we let our moral impulses run to moralism. We are part of this society, with all the flaws of its founding and its ongoing injustices. We were brought up in its class structures, we work or are unemployed in it, we overconsume or underconsume in it. But we have been enraged and indignant for so long that we cannot relate even to someone who is curious, who feels some of what we feel but may not be reading or hearing everything we are. What do I mean? I have heard complaints from friends about how other demonstrators in Ottawa were waving Canadian flags or John Kerry signs. How awful, to wave a flag that has been imposed over indigenous territories and celebrate it. How awful, to celebrate a war-monger like John Kerry. But that’s the wrong response. These people may well have taken a big step coming out at all. They cannot be expected to emerge with all the right answers. The question isn’t how barbaric is the crowd for waving the Canadian flag, the question is what are we offering to move them in what direction and how? Of course we can’t assume everyone who comes to a demonstration is with us. They are people who are potentially receptive to what we have to say – have we figured out how to reach people like that? If they ask a naïve question, we treat them indignantly and send them packing, have we done anything for beleaguered and occupied people who are trying to resist? We have – we’ve done them a terrible disservice.

We are sensitive to hypocrisy, to pervasive racism and sexism, and try to avoid it in our own ‘spaces’. But then we wield these things as very sharp weapons against the only people we can reach – first newcomers, then each other. Rather than assuming solidarity and taking inevitable interpersonal mistakes in context and with a sense of proportion, we jump to assume the absolute worst about each other. We rationalize personal squabbles in political terms, cheapening the meaning of systemic oppression in the process. We talk about ‘safe spaces’ in a way that makes no one feel safe to say or think what they really think and where the smartest thing to do is attack someone else before the spotlight hits you.

In the consumer society we’re stuck in, we get very little practice having substantial discussions or conversations. But we end up creating a political culture that doesn’t remedy this, where people cannot talk about things openly but instead substitute gossip, lies, and rumors for open debate and discussion. I wonder how many of you can relate to this. There are people who were friends of mine who will literally pretend they don’t see me when they pass me on the street today – and email me later to ask me to write an article for their magazine. Even now when I continue to hear second-hand the various things I’m accused of, there’s nothing to refute because it’s just broad insults. I have done the same thing on occasion, rolling my eyes when someone makes a comment I don’t like rather than showing that person the respect of confronting the ideas openly. I’ve taken political criticisms personally. I’ve let rumors I knew to be false or just unsubstantiated pass without confronting them. But in my experience these petty things have been far more corrosive to the work we’re trying to do than repression has been. But even if your concern is repression, consider this: what could be easier to infiltrate and destroy than a group whose members give credence to unsubstantiated rumors about one another?

We act out of a moral impulse but we take that to extremes of strategic bankruptcy. We think: “There are people being slaughtered in Iraq, the least we can do is get into a fight with police, get arrested, beaten, etc.” On a moral level that is easy to understand and an admirable sentiment. It would of course be true and a good deal more would be justified if there was some connection between mitigating the slaughter in Iraq and fighting the police. There is not, and though most of us know that, the fact is we haven’t thought seriously enough about what it really will take to end the slaughter in Iraq or what our contribution to that is supposed to be, here.

We are smart enough to understand that sedate protests with no trajectory represent no threat and are therefore ineffective. But we seem to think that small, militant protests with no trajectory are somehow better. We seem to think that police repression at militant demonstrations is good for the politicizing effect it has on the demonstrators who get repressed and lose confidence in the state. The scenario for social change seems to be an escalating cycle of protest and repression leading ultimately to state collapse. Again I have to say that I think that if that were to happen the result would be tragedy, and not only for ourselves. Given the state of our organization, the state of the forces of repression, the political consciousness of the population, the control of the media by the other side – the result would be a nightmare. I realize you could argue that the present is a nightmare – but that doesn’t give us license to act in ways that would make things worse, and things can get better or worse from here.

We, correctly, have finally understood that we have to bring the battle home, that we are not going to go off and liberate Palestine or Iraq or Haiti or even indigenous people here, but that if we are going to do something for them it is going to be by doing something here. So we want to ‘target war profiteers’. But if we’re actually trying to organize, if we have a political strategy, the war profiteers are not the target at all – we can’t even touch them with our little groups. The ‘target’ is the Canadian population itself, and the unfortunate reality is that we don’t understand that population very well at all, because we have distanced ourselves from it on purpose. We might have had good reasons to do so: there are appalling social dynamics at work in mainstream society: violence against women, exploitation of people, celebrations of militarism and colonialism that range from subtle to overt. But I fear that we might have lost the balance between protecting ourselves and being able to relate to the society we are, for better or worse, in.

When Latin American movements make gains after years of patient work, we celebrate, and we should. And yet if the things they do or did or say were proposed in our meetings, we would balk. The Bolivarians in Venezuela entered electoral politics (taboo!). The MST works very closely with the PT, which has sold out most of its program and is occupying Haiti, but which the MST exploits in very sophisticated ways to fight very specific legislative battles (legislative battles? The MST?) I’m not saying we should do any specific thing. I am saying that what we should really admire about movements in other places is that they understand their own context and act accordingly. We can’t say the same. Even our slogans betray us. “Become the Resistance inside Fortress North America” – this being a reference to the Iraqi resistance. “Globalize the Intifada” – this being a reference to the Palestinians.  Again, on one level this is a statement of solidarity with people who are being demonized in mainstream culture and on that level it is very positive. But on another level it’s pompous. It’s embarrassing. What can we show them? Some small demonstrations with the same people showing up over and over. Some small groups where the members distrust and dislike each other. Some ‘coalitions’ of half a dozen people. Some ‘spaces’ booked on university campuses. Chavez in Venezuela had a strategy: create a party, win the elections, use referenda to pass constitutional changes, use the government to help movements solve problems in their communities, increase community control over the government. What is our equivalent?

We don’t seem to want to come to grips with the composition of this country. The median income is around $18,000. The median family income is around $50,000. There are about 1 million aboriginal people and another 3 million people who the census calls ‘visible minorities’. There could be another million undocumented working people. That leaves 25 million white people. It also means that we have a huge chunk of the population that is getting by. It means that even after years of terrible cutbacks, there is still a significant social net. All this is to say we can’t expect desperation or grinding oppression of the majority to work in our favor. We have to work against poverty and racism in our society, of course, but doing so will not activate the majority on the basis of self-interest, though it could on the basis of solidarity, if we started with the assumption that such a thing were possible and worked to figure out how to make it happen. We have to believe that people who are not poor or suffer racism or imperialism are capable of acting against poverty and racism and imperialism.

That doesn’t mean we pander. It doesn’t mean we don’t challenge white supremacy or imperialism or capitalism itself. It doesn’t mean we gloss over the horrors inflicted on indigenous people. It just means that we don’t assume people automatically know or have experience on these things. But we do assume that people are capable of empathy even if they are privileged in some way – certainly all of us are. There are millions of poor people, millions of women who are beaten senseless every day by their partners, a million aboriginal people who – unlike a significant part of the immigrant population – are systematically shut out of any hope and shunted into prisons. 70% of the workforce of this country is unorganized. Do we have anything to offer any of these groups? The state does – some services that work, some that don’t, some repression, some prison. The religious right in the United States does – as it organizes to undermine the welfare state it uses the churches to draw white working people into its networks. Do we?

Do we know where we want to be in five years, or ten, or twenty? What kinds of organization we will need? There is an organized right-wing movement in this country to destroy what differences still exist between Canada and the US (like the incarceration rate, which is 1/6 of the US rate, the shrinking public health system, etc.). They want to destroy the decent welfare aspects of the government and strengthen the repressive parts of the state. The only thing they lack is the support of the population. Are we thinking about how to respond to this movement? Do we want to ‘smash the state’ in this context?

Do we have some achievable short-term goals that could increase our size, build morale, and help us build infrastructure for the future? There are plenty of things that we could do if there were more of us and we had more resources. We could pressure the media and government in more systematic ways on foreign policy issues and, as a tiny goal, change Canada’s UN voting pattern back to what it was on Israel/Palestine. We could get Canada to change positions on Haiti again and give Haitians some breathing room. I believe that is a winnable fight. We could change Canada’s foreign ‘aid’ and trade policies from being a tool of imperialism. We could change Canada’s immigration policy to open it to US military refusers and help undermine the US war on Iraq. We could change the political culture in this country and generate and strengthen alternative media institutions for future fights. We could use these campaigns to build – at first – a solid network of serious and principled people who are willing to think hard and act on their principles. That’s short term. I have my own ideas about the medium and long term but the facts are we don’t have the means to make such discussions anything but the most unreal debates.

This campaign is a good one. There is one shareholder I didn’t mention on the list of major shareholders above. It’s the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System. It’s true that capital insulates itself with layers and layers of protection, but it’s also the case that it implicates everyone. Pension funds are major players in these markets, and people can be moved to pressure funds to divest. That’s a point where pressure can be applied. Toronto Action for Social Change reports that a lot of SNC employees are against what their company is doing. That’s another good sign.

We have to be as serious as the situation demands. This is not military struggle. Most of us have no idea what military struggle means, and we should be grateful. What we have to do is not glamorous (neither is military struggle but that’s another story). It’s political action by privileged people in a privileged country with a large privileged population. It might be kind of embarrassing considering what other people are going through elsewhere. But I think it’s the only way to start paying back what we owe them.

Notes

1) The NDP is the New Democratic Party, Canada’s social democratic party. The talk is here: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=41&ItemID=4060

Leave a comment