Wednesday, December 4, 2013

National Farmers' Union Conference, Part 1

I didn't tell many friends that we were going to the National Farmers' Union conference in Ottawa, November 2 to 30, 2013, because I didn't want to deal with their astonishment. They know we live in an Ottawa townhouse with a back yard the size of a living room, where our last tomato plant was devoured by slugs. We are hardly farmers.

So why attend the NFU conference? Because farm concerns are our concerns. Assuring the country of a safe reliable food supply should be a concern of all Canadians. Although I have not lived on a farm for years, I grew up on a mixed farm in Northern Ontario and a member of the extended family farms the property that my grandparents pioneered on. Attending the conference was a way of honouring the past and keeping current with important issues.

The conference was held in the Travelodge Ottawa. When we registered we received as part of our convention package a copy of the NFU 2012 policy statement, a booklet available from the national office of the NFU at 2717 Wentz Avenue, Saskatoon, SK, S7K 4B6, 306-653-9465,

"We must address ourselves to the solving of human problems created in a technical age," the statement beings. "Our capacity for food production is functioning at less than maximum while malnutrition and poverty continue to prevail in large sectors of the Canadian population and much of the world...It is in the best interests of our nation to maintain a sound rural community on the strength of an efficient and economic farming industry and broadly based ownership and control by farm families of the basic resources for food production."
"Growing Resistance" was the conference theme. Panel presentations followed by discussion were presented on the subjects of: "Resistance and Dissent in a Healthy Society"; "Rooted in Resistance: Food Sovereignty"; :Our Seeds, Ourselves"; "Seed Sovereignty"; "Feeding the World: Countering the Corporate Spin" and "Big Oil Versus Food Sovereignty: Threats to Food, Land and Water."

My favourite panel presentation was the one on "Resistance and Dissent in a Healthy Society". I was interested in seeing in person the panellist Dave Oswald Mitchell, former editor of Briarpatch, who used to publish my book reviews. More recently he co-authored Beautiful Trouble. I was also eager to hear from Sheelah McLean of Idle No More, and Anne McGrath, former chief of staff to Jack Layton, the late leader of the New Democratic Party.

I took notes during their presentations, and below is my distillation of what they had to say.

Mitchell, who spoke first, talked about Beautiful Trouble, a book and website he created with co-author Andrew Boyd. The information on the site is free to share, and is an ongoing project. Anyone with ideas about effective techniques for political organizing  may contribute. The book and website are about "what works and why it works." The site has four sections: Principles, Tactics, Theories and Case Studies. Among the  Principles are: "Choose your target wisely"; "Choose leadership from among those most impacted" and "Shift the spectrum of allies."

Mitchell spoke about "points of intervention"; that is, the wisdom of intervening where you have the greatest impact, like holding a strike at the point of production, an environmental demonstration at the site of destruction, or a boycott at the point of consumption.

Regarding tactics, Mitchell emphasized the value of "reframing the issue." He explained that if you give people information that doesn't fit their world frame, they will discard the information unless you present an alternative world view to them. Rather than just protest the status quo, it's good to "prefigure" your vision of a different, better future.

I wished that Mitchell had more time for his presentation and hope that people at the conference went home and looked up Beautiful Trouble on the Internet.

Sheelah McLean, of the Idle No More movement, spoke next. From some Internet research I learned that she describes herself as a "third generation white settler"; she is not an indigenous person. She is an educator and Ph.D. candidate focusing her studies on colonization, racism and the effect of these forces on communities. When she taught native studies in high school her aboriginal students kept talking about the racism they experienced in the school and community," and she developed an organization called "Students against Racism." She is one of four women colleagues who co-founded Idle No More by setting up  a website and tweeting about the idea. The other three co-founders, Nina Wildon, Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon are aboriginal women.

Sheelah McLean began her talk by speaking of her paternal grandfather, Gus Olson, a farmer who ran as a CCF candidate in Saskatchewan, and who organized a system of community health care prior to Tommy Douglas's Medicare. Members of McLean's extended family still farm near Wadena, SK. Her family's success has been due not only to their hard work, but also because they had access to a number of government policies, programs and institutions that helped them, such as health care and public education. Success or failure in our society is not entirely dependent on people's work ethic.

McLean said that people in Canada have always had to fight for their rights and that the unions, now demonized by the right and in the media, have been crucial in this fight.Inequality and poverty are "legislated", she said. They happen because of policy. Canadians are socialized to believe that inequality and poverty are normal. She, and the Idle No More movement, see public education about inequality as central to change. In her view, teachers being trained today are not being given what they need to teach students how to push back.

Idle No More, said McLean, is a movement for everyone; both aboriginal and non-aboriginal people want to stop Canada from being turned into an "extractive state." She mentioned the warning signs of fascism - the dismantling of unions, the militarization of society, and the privatization of formerly public institutions. How many of these signs do we have in Canada? The trend toward an "extractive state" with cuts to the social safety net began prior to the Harper administration and will still be harmful if they continue when Harper is no longer prime minister.

The final panellist was Anne McGrath, who spoke of resistance and dissent from the electoral perspective. As former chief of staff to Jack Layton. McGrath is credited with  professionalizing caucus operations and contributing to the NDP's historic breakthrough to Official Opposition status in 2011. From 2006 to 2009 she was NDP party president. Previously she was an activist and a trade union employee.

McGrath outlined key things to keep in mind when planning any campaign, whether it be on an issue, in an election, or in Parliament.
The first is "message clarity." There is no room in a campaign for a complicated "layered and nuanced" message. The message must be clear, compelling, with strong visuals, and the campaign must stick to it.
"Focus" is next: "Don't get distracted, and don't listen when people say, "It's time to let that go."
"Be broad-based in enlisting support," she added. "Don't focus on what divides us progressives, but on what we have in common."
Finally, strong values are necessary. "We must not become what we want to defeat."

I wrinkled my brow at this last point because earlier, she recommended Brad Lavigne's Building the Orange Wave, a book about the strategy and tactics that brought the NDP to official opposition status. While reading Lavigne's book I winced a couple of times where it appeared that tactics came ahead of principles.

McGrath ended by quoting Jack Layton's deathbed letter to Canadians, which ended, "Don't let them tell you it can't be done."  In the question and answer period that followed the presentation, most of the questions were directed at McGrath.  Many of the questions were critical, even hostile, and I admired her for her calmness and even temper.

Two audience members suggested that the (official opposition) New Democrats and the (third party) Liberals should work together to defeat the Conservative government. (Presumably they imagine a 2015 election resulting in the NDP and Liberals together, but not separately, having enough members to form a government. Or perhaps they picture some sort of NDP Liberal cooperation during the election. Apparently they don't imagine the NDP will win a majority government.)

McGrath replied that, in 2008, when Jack Layton succeeded in getting all the Liberal and NDP members of Parliament to agree to the terms of a coalition, to form a government to replace the Harper Cons., Michael Ignatieff, then Liberal leader, walked away from it.  If all the coalition members had stayed strong and stuck with what had been agreed upon, the coalition wouldn't have collapsed, but that the Liberals thought "they could do it alone" - that is, defeat Harper.

One questioner said he didn't care about 2008 but only about 2015. Calmly and courteously, McGrath explained again that there is currently no interest on the part of the Liberals to work with the NDP, as shown by Justin Trudeau's remarks following the Toronto Centre by-election. Trudeau quoted from Layton's famous deathbed letter to Canadians and turned his words about love, hope and optimism against the NDP.

The woman at the microphone, who called for "cooperation between our two progressive parties", and the other three convention participants who questioned McGrath along these lines may have been Liberals. One questioner accused the NDP of overreacting to, (or was it "obsessing" over) Justin Trudeau's appropriation of Layton's message. McGrath said, calmly and politely, that the NDP wasn't, and pointed that Olivia Chow's reaction was very low key; she said she was "disappointed."

One elderly man at the mike lectured McGrath about debating techniques, telling her that she should concede a few points to her opponent, and then objected to "partisan politics" at a NFU convention. Someone should have reminded him that McGrath did not show up uninvited, that NFU conference organizers asked her to appear on the panel.

One audience member asked why the NDP was not taking a stronger stand against CETA, the "Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement" between Europe and Canada, which, he believed, will be harmful to farmers. McGrath said that the NDP wanted to see what was in the trade agreement before coming out against it. At that point, Dave Mitchell interjected a thought that provided a good conclusion to the discussion. He said: "Our strength within the system is only as strong as our strength outside it."

More about the NFU conference in my next blog.

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