Rasha is based in Toronto, Canada. 

Toronto: walking in a corporate wonderland

North American consumerism has been rampant for decades. However, when it reaches the point of infiltrating even the most simple and innocent aspects of our lives – those that are still relatively untouched by crass materialism – then we have serious problems.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, along with a group of other rightwing city councillors, has proposed a sponsorship bill that would sell out the names of Toronto’s public, city-operated areas, including its parks, subway stations and libraries, to big business. The Bill is still at the proposal stage, but the Mayor, who seems determined to cut down on public-sector services and initiate a corporate monopolization of the city, could very well turn this absurd prospect into reality.

In a small but concerted effort to prevent this madness, a rally organized by the Toronto Public Space Initiative (TPSI) was held last Tuesday outside Toronto City Hall. Jayme Turney, executive director of TPSI and leader of the rally, believes that if the city were to become too reliant on corporate funding, it would ‘only insignificantly benefit the city financially, but could lead to significant, and even unwanted, control of our city’s policy decisions. It could reach a point where these corporations dictate the terms of how our city’s public services should be run.’

Protesters rallying outside City Hall against the proposed corporate infiltration of Toronto’s public services. Photo by Rasha Mansoor

Other than the obvious ludicrousness of having a McDonald’s Subway Station or a Burger King Park, there are more insidious implications should the deal go ahead: consumer advertising could eventually reach such a level that it becomes inescapable – both physically and psychologically. Then the stereotypical image of the overweight, coke-drinking, burger-eating North American might become justified, with the material-driven superficiality of our society exacerbated, and a media which largely dictates how we see ourselves and others. Charlie Harvey’s recent blog in which he argues that ‘consumerist dogma’ was a driving force behind August’s England riots explores similar ideas. Social dissatisfaction runs high in Canada (even if its expression has not reached the extremes it did in Britain) but if material growth is to become the modus operandi of everyday survival, then what we’re looking at is a sordid race to the bottom.

As neoliberal agendas continue to dominate the dossiers of our political leaders, the realization that more money does not equal more progress may come too late, if at all. Toronto’s socially disadvantaged communities have borne the brunt of the government’s economic revitalization policies for decades, and with a new corporatization agenda underway, their future seems bleaker than ever.

You know that things have really hit rock-bottom when, taking your children to the local park on a Sunday afternoon, you are hounded on all sides by advertising logos reminding you of the ‘must-haves’ missing from your life. Even contentment will become one of the few luxuries in life we will no longer be able to afford.

Seeking stability

It seems that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper really decided to take advantage of the current climate of global uncertainty during his meeting with US President Barack Obama a couple of weeks ago in Washington, DC. As talks between the two leaders imminently fell to the looming crisis in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, Harper appropriately maneuvered the discussion to the controversial new bilateral trade and energy security agreement to be forged between the two countries.

It is not surprising that details of Harper’s brief meeting with the US President were extremely hushed-up, considering that the PM’s minority government faces an election call any day. What is certain, however, is that the meeting signals an imminent new phase in Canadian-American trade and security relations. The proposed agreement would include easing border regulations and more vigorous sharing of intelligence and security information.

Underlying this ‘security perimeter’ arrangement is an inevitable compromise on Canadian sovereignty, including an integration of Canadian and American immigration and refugee policy. Knowing the US’s pre-disposition for frequent security-related hurdles at border controls, as well as their overly-rigorous monitoring of migration flows, how much of a role Canada will actually have in these issues is predictable.

Amid this already controversial bid, Harper also revived talks about the TransCanada Corp Keystone XL pipeline project. The $7-billion pipeline proposal had been shelved away by the US State Department since last year in response to the staunch protests raised by environmentalist groups, including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace.

Indeed, the impact of the proposed extension of the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast along Texas could have serious environmental ramifications, parallel to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year. And as attractive as this deal may seem to the US in light of the current economic instability facing the Middle East, and as much as it may come, as Harper reassures, from ‘he most secure, most stable and friendliest’ region of the world, there is nothing environmentally reassuring about Alberta’s tar sands. They contribute to about 38.4 megatonnes of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, making about five per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions, as reported by Environment Canada. The tar sands are also extremely water-dependent, with crude bitumen requiring large volumes of water during tar sands mining operations, having an adverse impact on natural water resources and animal habitat.

Seeking stability during a time of so much chaos and uncertainty is perfectly justified, but needless to say, it shouldn’t come at the cost of compromising fundamental freedoms and environmental sustainability. Whether this is inevitable for the case of Canada and the US can only be determined as order seeks to be restored on the other side of the world.

Keep out!

Of the top Canadian news stories of 2010, could it be coincidental that more than a few pertained to issues surrounding the Canadian immigration system? Take, for example, the cargo ship, carrying nearly 500 Tamil asylum seekers, that landed off the coast of British Columbia last August, which prompted the government to issue the controversial Bill C-49, criticized for seriously undermining Canada’s international human rights obligations. Then there was the case of seriously mistaken identity, where a young Asian man posed as an elderly Caucasian on his flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver to claim refugee status, sparking intense attack on Canada’s airport and border control security.

In Toronto’s last municipal election in October, newly-elected Mayor Rob Ford caused a heated debate for stating that the city couldn’t handle more immigrants until it could deal with its 2.5 million residents. Ford was criticized for adopting an anti-immigration stance, although some people did relate to the idea that greater incoming population flows could place a serious strain on the city’s infrastructure, which has yet to cope with its residents’ employment, housing and transportation demands.

But how far is too far when it comes to immigration controls? To what extent should domestic infrastructure and security concerns hinder international humanitarian obligations? Amnesty International Canada reports that Bill C-49 was allegedly drawn up to target human smuggling events, but it did more to punish legitimate refugees, justifying expansive powers for arbitrary arrest and indeterminate detention, while making mobility and family unification extremely difficult.

The ‘no borders’ debate mentioned in New Internationalist’s December issue was intriguing, since both sides of the argument seem convincing. On the one hand, border controls for the purposes of national security and state sovereignty seem essential, but then so are humanitarian obligations to individuals who are victims of war, poverty and persecution. Canada’s failure to win a seat on the UN Security Council last year affirmed the allegation that as a nation, we have much to achieve on the international stage. This seems to indicate a necessary reflection on our most exigent priorities.

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