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Canada's tough-guy cop to 'aid' world's poor

Canada "provides legal safe-haven" to the world's worst corporate offenders of human rights violations.

Last Modified: 01 Apr 2013 09:31
Toby Leon Moorsom

Toby Leon Moorsom teaches at Carleton University and is an Editor of Nokoko Journal of African Studies.
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Julian Fantino's career before politics took him to the top of three police forces that played essential roles in the imposition of neoliberal economic policies in Canada [Reuters]

In recent years Canadian corporations have benefited from the myth of Canada being a kind and benevolent country. The Canadian government has supported this myth by propagating heroic immigrant narratives that overshadow genocidal policies toward native populations and ill-treatment of immigrants and refugees. Since the World Wars, our soldiers in foreign military adventures have been branded "peacekeepers", despite their atrocious activities in Somalia and Afghanistan

Recent actions by the current Canadian government and Canadian corporations are, however, seriously undermining the country's international reputation. Canada's withdrawal from Kyoto should itself be enough evidence of the utter disdain the country's leadership has for the plight of the world's poor. 

Just in case that was not indication enough, Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to put a tough-guy cop, Julian Fantino, at the helm of the Ministry of International Cooperation, which in turn, places him at the head of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). 

Fantino was brought in to replace Bev Oda, a minister who falsified a report and then lied about it in parliament. She came under further scrutiny when she was caught spending public money on her personal luxury - most famously, while attending a London conference on child poverty. 

Oda eventually resigned, yet the Prime Minister's choice of Fantino as a replacement seemed totally inappropriate to political insiders. Many thought it was simply one more slap in the face for the left. In fact, it was very consistent with this government's approach to world affairs and reveals important aspects of their new doctrine of international development that places primacy on the profits of mining companies. 

Fantino's political base 

Fantino's career before politics took him to the top of three police forces that played essential roles in the imposition of neoliberal economic policies in Canada.

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To understand his position in Ontario politics, it is worth considering the riding of Vaughan that he now serves. Between 1996 and 2006 it was the fastest-growing municipality in Canada. This was achieved as development companies built sprawling suburbs over ecologically sensitive land - land that happens to be crucial for maintaining Toronto's water supplies. 

One of the companies based in Vaughan is Greenpark, which is also deeply involved in building settlements in the Palestinian occupied territories. The housing developments surrounding Toronto are built, in part, with timber and minerals extracted from the province's North, in territories with disputed native land claims and parkland - marginally protecting the last remaining ancient boreal forest

The suburban developers were the largest backers of the conservative provincial government under Mike Harris - a government ideologically intertwined with those now in federal government. The new residents of these suburbs were also the largest voting block bringing Harris to power, provoking interesting questions about the relationship between ideology and material life: what Pierre Bourdieu defined as "Habitus". 

Ontario Premier Mike Harris was famous for his "Common Sense Revolution", which involved harsh austerity plans, gutting environmental regulations, stripping laws protecting tenants and workers, while cutting services to protect people being evicted and needing social assistance. Union leadership aided in the right-wing offensive by demobilising members and helping negotiate terms of retrenchment. 

Near the end of Harris' first term, Fantino was promoted from the chief of a city of 400,000 to an urban centre of 4 million. Numerous cuts had been sowing the seeds of an urban disaster. At the same time, city shelters were being cut by a goon of a mayor - who lived only blocks away from Fantino's current riding (Toronto has since reached new heights of mayoral buffoonery with the comically inept Rob Ford). 

The downloading of responsibilities from higher levels of government was crushing city budgets, ultimately manufacturing a fiscal crisis that would justify increased privatisation. Added to this was a disenfranchised native population whose former livelihood on the land was being sacrificed to homebuilders and mineral companies eager for their resources. 

In this context Fantino was brought in to implement the "Safe Streets Act", which made it illegal for people to ask for money on the street. In practice, it gave police licence to harass, intimidate, ticket and imprison a rising poor and homeless population. Cops then made a habit of stealing the identification of homeless people. Without ID someone is incapable of accessing many of the services available to them - such as homeless shelters. 

The politically bold and impolite Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) began fighting these tickets and worked to inform poor people of their rights when dealing with police. They also launched campaigns to raise welfare rates and stop evictions. Most importantly, OCAP took on "direct-action case-work", in instances where bureaucratic discretion blocked justice in welfare dispersal, tenant disputes, immigration, police harassment and many other matters of immediate concern for the poor, who are often embroiled in broader processes of gentrification and social cleansing. OCAP's strategies often led to the occupation of offices, vacant buildings and boisterous street demonstrations.

Who polices the police? 

In this context, Fantino oversaw a war against the poor and then severely obstructed civilian oversight of the Toronto Police Force - harassing and attempting to criminalise elected representatives who spoke out against the government and police handling of the situation. 

Right-wing media spewed vitriolic support. 9/11 then gave cops ever-greater powers in Canada's Anti-Terrorism Act that coincided with continually growing police budgets and increasingly militarised approaches to public safety despite the fact violent crime was actually declining. 

After Fantino's years as Toronto's chief, police arrogance would escalate to the point where even police-led oversight bodies were critical of the brutality and violation of civil rights in the protests against the 2010 G20 summit. The latter included numerous instances of "kettling" and mass-arrests, followed by the systematic inhumane treatment of the detained. 

In 2006, Fantino graduated to the top job of the provincial police force, which brought him to the fore in ongoing native disputes. These of course result from the continual breaching of treaties by all levels of government while native populations remain in a colonial system of representation and administration. More recently, the accelerated process of dispossession as a result of neoliberal economic policies has seen native people organise in self-defence under the "Idle no More" banner. 

On Fantino's first day with the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), he was called in to end a blockade in Caledonia. Yet his true colours really emerged a year later when he effectively threatened to put a bullet through the head of Mohawk activist Shawn Brant as a means of ending a blockade of the country's busiest rail line. 

For many years Brant had been a prominent and militant force behind anti-poverty protest in Toronto. Many OCAP demonstrations resulted in him heading to jail, including one where he helped "evict" the provincial finance minister who has since served 7 years as finance minister in the federal government. 

By 2007, Brant had moved back to his Native territory of Tyendinaga and had been deeply involved in efforts to defend their land, hunting rights and oppose corruption among chiefs and band councils. In 2007, he and fellow activists formed a blockade in conjunction with a national day of action called by the Assembly of First Nations. Locally they had made a decision to use the occasion to fight for clean drinking water. 

Particular concern involved toxic waste dumped in land sold by the federal government, despite the fact it rested in Mohawk territory. Tyendinega members suspected the pollutants could account for odd symptoms emerging among many children. In the worst instances, some presented with a rare form of leukemia associated with exposure to toxic chemicals. Brant's daughter is among them

At the same time, the government was also allowing a residential development in disputed territory. Fantino showed no concern for the possible validity of the claims made by the Mohawks. The federal government revealed only contempt, as the same year they voted against a non-binding declaration that set out global human rights standards for indigenous populations. Canada campaigned against it and was one of four opposing it. 

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Thus, it is not surprising Fantino himself paid little attention to the law and planted an illegal wiretap, which inadvertently caught him threatening Brant with lethal force. As his lawyer Peter Rosenthal reveals, the actual level of risk to Brant was in fact quite significant. Only a few years earlier a blockade resulted in the shooting death of a prominent activist at the behest of then Premier Harris, who was urging decisive police action. 

Rather than helping the poor, Fantino's job has so far been to enforce poverty and he has, at least once, broken the law in the process. In his new position in the Federal Cabinet Fantino has not changed sides, but simply taken the job to a global stage while the guise of "development assistance" cloaks various forms of corporate subsidisation. 

Who polices the politicians? 

Fantino's short time in office has already been marred with bizarre scandals. Some of his enemies are clearly reactionaries advancing pretty weak assertions. Evidence of an unreported account in the Cayman Islands was judged to be fraudulent. However, it is difficult to throw off concerns about election finances raised by three former executives in his riding association. These are people who have previously been respected by their peers and have reputations they wish to uphold.  

From my own discussions with some involved, it is clear that Fantino was brought in with support from higher up in the party. Moreover, the process involved under-handed actions that contradicted some of the ideological principles held by others that had been active for much longer in the riding association. It seems Fantino's supporters resorted to similar kinds of dirty tricks that implicated the party in an election fraud scandal elsewhere in the province.  

It would hardly be controversial for one to accuse the Conservatives of being bullies. 

If Fantino is actually guilty of breaking laws, however, can we really trust that he will be fairly investigated, given the close relationship he has built with law enforcement at all levels of government? 

Over the past decade CIDA has faced criticism of its close involvement in the war in Afghanistan - which is currently the largest recipient of CIDA aid. More recently, it has come under fire for tying funding to Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives, lacking transparency in management, and straying from commitments

With Fantino at the helm it would seem the government intends to continue to align the organisation with military operations in the aid of mining interests. Fantino's first job under Harper was military procurement that led to a debacle of a jet fighter deal, was shown to be numerous times the initially reported sum. Their imperialist enthusiasm took on extreme idealist proportions. The Prime Minister even referred to the purchase as part of a "crusade". As Afghanistan makes clear, this was not the first time ideological pretentions have outstripped Canadian material capacities

Yet the puppets have their masters and it is clear that Harper's inner circle is being pressed by the defence industry itself. One government-appointed advisory panel, led by Tom Jenkins, chairman of a major software firm, declared

"Military spending has the potential to have more impact on the Canadian economy than the oil sands, which are estimated to generate $364bn over 25 years." 

They envision selling "Arctic and maritime security, protective equipment for soldiers; command and support capabilities; cyber-security; training systems; and maintenance and support." 

Jenkins' recommendations have been taken seriously, supporting recent actions to fold CIDA into Foreign Affairs

Fantino's job is to ensure that much of these projected military sales will indirectly go toward protecting Canadian mining interests abroad. Canada of course already provides legal safe-haven to the world's worst corporate offenders of human rights violations. Whether it is in the Central African Republic, Congo DRC, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nicaragua, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, or a host of other possible examples, Canadian mining companies are facing resistance and militaries are increasingly used to protect them. 

Rather than having these funds drawing on Canada's military budget, the real goal would be to make host countries pay for it, or at least to wrap it up in "aid" financing, as they did in Mali and then have them buy the necessary defence industry products from us. In Fantino's words, CIDA is working with companies in developing countries so it does not have to "continually bail them out". 

"International development" has always been a reflexive action intended to address the negative consequences of a prior form of "development". In Julian Fantino's image of aid, this reflex gets built right into the prior moment of development. The mining executives get to decide what is needed. Aid ceases to mean something apart from the realisation of profit.

Toby Leon Moorsom teaches at Carleton University and is an Editor of Nokoko Journal of African Studies. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tobymoorsom

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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