The story of neoliberalism is not a saga that Canadians have merely watched unfold in other countries. Corporate control of industry—especially here in Alberta—traps many in the lure of making profit at any cost.
Consider how Alberta now has only one body—the Alberta Energy Regulator—regulating the oil and gas industry and all energy use in the province, which replaced the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, and the Energy Resources Conservation Board. The AER determines who is allowed to be present at public hearings regarding the oilsands and other energy developments. This usually excludes anyone who disagrees with these developments, allowing the industry to move its processes along faster and without opposition.
Essentially, the Alberta government gave up control of investigating and enforcing environmental laws in its own energy sector to the AER, which is entirely funded by the oil and gas industry. Ironically, those destroying the environment are simultaneously enforcing environmental laws. This is not democracy. It is a system led by corportate-driven greed and it’s called neoliberalism.
The term is often associated with Chile in the ’80s when dictator General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the socialist government and began a process of economic reform proposed by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. It included privatizing formerly state-owned industries, getting rid of unions and opening the country to global free trade. Many people were killed, tortured and incarcerated for opposing the new regime.
“Essentially we’re talking about communities that are trying to defend themselves from these economic systems and the oppression that those economic systems have created,” says Rod Loyola, who knows the realities of the Chilean experience as he came to Canada as a refugee from that country. He is president of Memoria Viva—an organization dedicated to remembering those who lost their lives during this time in Chile—and president of the Non-Academic Staff Association at the University of Alberta. He is also chair of the Post-Secondary Education Task Force with Public Interest Alberta.
“This was happening all over Latin America,” Loyola says, “continues to happen all over Latin America and now we can say is happening all over the world, especially affecting most drastically indigenous peoples, but all populations and especially women within those cultural groups.”
Pinochet was voted out of power in 1990, and Chile has had the most stable economy in South America since then, but massive socioeconomic inequality still exists in a country that now paints itself as democratic. In March, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development named Chile as having the widest income gap between rich and poor out of its 34 member countries. Although Pinochet has been gone for many years, the effects of a free market and privatization reforms have had a lasting effect.
Yazmin Juarez came to Canada as a refugee in 1992. Her family had fled Guatemala and spent time in a refugee camp in Mexico due to the political violence that engulfed her home country as she was growing up—much of it directed at indigenous people. Forty percent of the country is indigenous and Juarez is Mayan.
“The genocide that happened in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996 is one of systemic racism, repression, land inequality and neoliberalism,” Juarez says, noting that more than 200 000 people were killed or disappeared and 83 percent of those people were indigenous. In 1997, one year after the peace accords were signed, coal mining was advertised to foreign investors. Royalty payables dropped from six to one percent and these companies were allowed unlimited use of the water supply and duty-free imports. According to the World Bank, 75 percent of Guatemalans now live below the poverty line and despite having the highest GDP in Central America, Guatemala has the second highest rate of income inequality.
Canadian and US companies remain big players in mining in this country and are known for leaving a mess behind since they are not subject to any environmental regulations. Protests against this abuse of the land have resulted in the deaths of many Guatemalan people.
“The struggle against large mining corporations is not merely a struggle over mining, it extends to a more general struggle for participation and representation in defence of the indigenous identity,” Juarez says. “This has been an issue in Guatemala and in many other countries, even Canada, where the indigenous people are not being heard. Decisions are being made without their approval. You might be asking yourself why I’m talking about these events. It is because the cycle continues and it’s happening in our backyard. It’s happening because of the oil companies here.”
First Nations communities around Alberta and Canada, and other voices who question the practices of the oil and gas industry, are frequently sidelined by these corporations. Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Richard Marceau even ruled last October that the provincial government was in the wrong for trying to silence the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition from speaking up against oilsands development. Despite that ruling, the Alberta government has again barred the group from hearings on a development by Southern Pacific Resource Corp.
Fort Chipewyan leaders have been threatened by oil companies when they speak up against the oil and gas industry making a profit at the expense of the people’s health, water and land rights, and the environment. Loyola says the capitalism we see at work on the lands of indigenous people—both in Latin America and North America—is really colonization that’s continuing to happen.
“Even before Stephen Harper, the Liberals were doing their best to legislate the changes necessary so that neoliberalism could essentially take effect here in Canada,” he says. “This is the privatization process. So whether it’s our schools, post-secondary institutions or health-care system, slowly all of that is being eroded. They’re legislating those changes.”
Canada is not a country that could easily be taken over by a military regime, but that does not mean the principles of neoliberalism that saw formerly government-owned industries privatized, unions gutted and environmental regulations become unenforced or non-existent in Latin American countries cannot, and are not, happening here. Already income inequality is growing faster in Alberta than anywhere else in the country.
“So when you start talking about corporate rule and neoliberalism here in Canada,” Loyola says, “it’s happening by stealth.”