Voices from a ravaged continent

Asad Ismi has gone so far as to suggest that the Munk Centre for International Studies should instead be called the Munk Centre for Global Plunder and Pillage, “because that’s what they do!”

Canada’s involvement in the mining industry, and that industry’s destructive practices, were recurring themes at the launch ceremony on Nov. 1 for The Ravaging of Africa a radio-documentary by Asad Ismi and Kristin Schwartz. Ismi pointed out that Peter Munk, whose $6.2- million donation helped establish the Munk Centre in 2000, is also the founder and chairman of Barrick Gold, one of the world’s largest gold-mining companies in Canada, and holder of a dubious environmental and human rights record.

Barrick’s Dirty Secrets, a May 2007 Corpwatch report, investigated water depletion, heavy metal pollution, and cyanide spills caused by the company’s mining operations in Tanzania, Peru, Australia, the Philippines, Canada, and several other countries.

In their most recent documentary, Ismi and Schwartz caught up with activists and politicians at the World Socialist Forum in Nairobi, Kenya to shed light on what they argue is the West’s imperialist strategy to siphon as much of Africa’s natural resources as possible.

MUNK CENTER FOR PLUNDER AND PILLAGE

The Varsity: You referred at the launch to the U.S. imperial strategy. What does that mean?

Asad Ismi: The imperial strategy of the U.S. has been to launch a two-front war in Africa: the military war and the economic war.

Beginning in the 1980s, U.S.’s agents, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have carried out the economic war through structural adjustment programs that they have imposed on 36 countries in Africa. And these structural adjustment programs destroy the economies of African countries. They destroy industry, therefore employment, they destroy the medical and educational systems, so they break down all forms of social progress in those societies. They make it impossible for people to function, to be employed, to be productive. If you don’t have medical care, you can’t do anything. If you have to pay too much for treatment, you will just die. Education has been taken away so there is no possibility of getting employment in the formal sector. There is no possibility of social mobility: improving your lot, or improving your family’s lot. Improving the next generation or this one. So there is no future at all for people. That’s the economic war that the US has launched on African countries, that has broken down the economies of most of the African countries.

They destroy the countries through military invasion and war, then they send in the WB and the IMF to destroy the economies. All this facilitates the corporate plunder of the economies.

V: What motive drives this “imperialism?”

AI: To loot the natural resources of Africa.

A very good example of the 14 wars is the biggest one, which is in the Congo. The U.S. encouraged the invasion of Congo, in 1998, by Rwanda and Uganda. They are the main arms supplier to both countries, who are the U.S.’s staunchest allies in the region according to Human Rights Watch.

The Congo has the world’s biggest deposit of copper, cadmium and cobalt. It has manganese, uranium, oil, gold. It has everything. A stable government would demand royalties in return for its resources, the setting up of some way to process the minerals so that they can benefit the country. Now, if you invade a country and occupy its land, then you can loot it as much as you want. And bring the resources to the West for free.

That is what they’ve done with Rwanda and Uganda in the Congo, where planes fly out filled with copper and cobalt and another very valuable resource called coltan. You cannot have a cell-phone or computers without coltan. This society will grind to a halt without that mineral, which the Congo is the main source of.

Suddenly we’re seeing the proliferation of cell-phones. How did that happen? How come it’s so cheap? How is it that everybody can have a cell-phone anywhere in the world? Because since the invasion, the price of coltan went down the tubes. Coltan is actually a very expensive mineral. And we should pay for it. We should pay the people of Congo a fair price. But we’re not paying royalties or taxes for it. Rwanda and Uganda are just looting it.

This war in the Congo has killed more than four million people since 1998. It is a Holocaust. And yet, it is not talked about in the Western media at all.

V: What they do often talk about in the media, however, is this outcry for “more aid, better aid.”

AI: I don’t see any aid from the West going to Africa. All I see is looting and plundering for the last 500 years. That these plunderers and looters and killers of Africa can talk about aid is totally obscene.

$148 billion are taken out of Africa every year by multinational corporations of the west paying hardly any taxes. The last time I heard about any aid being talked about, it was something like $6 billion.

Even that aid is not even aid. Seventy per cent of that aid is tied aid, meaning comes with the stipulations that all of it must be spent on goods or services provided by companies of the countries providing the aid. They are effectively export subsidies.

V: There was a big deal about the G8 canceling Africa’s debt.

AI: Africa has already paid more than four times the amount of the debt it owed in 1980. Between ‘80 and ‘84, they were paying compounded interest rates of 20 per cent. Yet, the debts just seem to keep piling on.

“Structural adjustment programs” are meant to expedite payment of debts. But they tell all of the countries to increase the export of raw materials and cash crops. The prices collapse, because all the countries end up exporting more. So they actually end up making less money. So these crippling debts just never go away.

MAKING THE DOC

V: Is it possible to fit a 500-year-old issue on a vast continent into two hours?

AI: Editing is traumatic. For example, Kristin and I had agreed that the first episode would have three wars: Congo, Somalia and the war in Western Sahara. When Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara, Morocco invaded and occupied it. Western Sahara has lots of oil. Morocco wants it. If it were an independent country, it would be rich. The U.S., they’re behind Morocco, because Morocco’s monarch is a U.S. puppet.

We thought it was an important story to tell, because hardly anyone knows that there has been a war going on there for more than 20 years.

KS: But when I put the entire episode together, it was eight minutes over. So we had to take the Western Sahara section out.

V: You must have been ambitious to go overseas to work in Africa.

KS: We were initially just planning on interviewing people from the [African] diaspora in Toronto, or Africans who came touring around, to bring their issues forward. There are quite a lot of people in Toronto, so it’s not completely unreasonable. But it wouldn’t have been the same kind of documentary as we were able to make. That plan came about last year when we learned that the World Social Forum was to be held in Nairobi.

AI: We realized we could do this because we have different from many African countries coming to one place, so all we needed then was the airfare to Nairobi and back. Then we started applying for funding in September.

We had already been funded by the left-wing unions for the first two docs, so we just applied to the same ones, and they all gave us money. We raised twice the money we raised for the fair trade documentary.

GOOD OL’ DAYS

V: Tell us a little about your times at U of T.

AI: I did my MA in international relations in ’82-’83. At that time the university and the student body were politically very apathetic. But I had some really good teachers. Robert Accinelli’s course on the history of U.S. policy from 1890-1975 actually got me interested in U.S. policy towards the Global South.

That course and another on the third world had a lot to do with radicalizing me. It’s ironic, because the U of T was not a radical university. And since then, it’s gone completely downhill. It’s gone completely to the right.

MEDIASPEAK

V: What was your encounter with Kenyan media like?

AI: KOCH FM is the first radio station in a slum in Nairobi. Sixty per cent of Nairobi’s population lives in slums. The station is actually located inside two shipping containers.

The Kenyan media have to be very careful about what they say. Just a couple of weeks before we got there, [internal security] invaded the offices of the Nation, which is critical of the government, they pulled all their files out, they threw all the papers on the floor, they took their computers, and said next time, we’ll kill you.

The internal security minister in Kenya, John Njoroge Michuki, was a torturer under the colonial administration. We were told he was known as the “crusher” for crushing the testicles of resistance fighters. He has given orders to the Kenyan police, to shoot first anyone they don’t like or anyone they think is making trouble, and ask questions later.

V: What do you suppose would happen if you have your documentary to the commercial media?

AI: I hate them. I despise the CBC. They backed the invasion of Iraq. They justified it and called the U.S. liberators, and they are complicit in the genocide of almost a million Iraqis. [A 2006 Lancet study estimated between 393,000 and 943,000 Iraqis were direct casualties] I refuse to collaborate with them in any way whatsoever.

Through community radio stations in the UK, the Americas, and South Africa, and various websites it’s available on, we are reaching out to more than 50 million people worldwide. I’d say that makes us bigger than the CBC.

That’s why I say, you can be as radical as you want, and you should be. So you don’t need commercial media.

Leafs need to change

Mats Sundin is one of the greatest players to ever suit up in the blue and white Leafs gear. With all of the toughness and technique the big Swede showcases each season, one can only wonder why he wants to stay with a team that has proved time and time again its inability to put a contending team on the ice.

Granted, the team had its share of success before the 2004-05 lockout. Those successes, however, came along with Leafs rosters that lacked a natural scorer to play next to Sundin on the first line. Sundin’s linemates played off him for much of the time, with the roles reversed only on the odd occasion.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been unable to make the playoffs since the introduction of a new collective bargaining agreement. Yet Sundin remains loyal, recently signing a one-year contract for the 2007- 08 season. Sundin ensures his future options by signing on a short-term basis while also giving himself the opportunity to become the all-time leading scorer for the Maple Leafs. He has something to talk about for his time in Toronto, other than how Leafs brass denied him a superior supporting cast to play with.

With that said, Maple Leafs management gave in to signing Sundin this past summer without any regard to fixing the inept qualities of this team, destined for perpetual mediocrity. They did not trade Sundin at last year’s deadline in order to proceed with the inevitable rebuilding process, and are now facing a similar situation this year. Luckily, all the stars are aligned for a second opportunity at blowing the team up.

The fact that the Maple Leafs have begun a more youthful line-up suggests that they are on the right track, but if they traded their most valuable and only asset, new talent could contribute to a professional-level game. Furthermore, Sundin has a high value that the team should cash in on before unforeseeable injuries or slumps take over his game.

There is an understandable sense of loyalty owed towards Sundin, but when the team has continuously played catch-up with the likes of the Ottawa Senators, the GM needs to make major changes. Without any significant players within the system, the Maple Leafs must demonstrate a paradigm shift in the organization by using any current value to obtain youthful talent. Unfortunately, management has yet to rid itself of players that do not coincide with the new landscape of the league, even more regrettable considering there are no fiscal problems on the balance sheet.

Mats Sundin has earned the right to take care of his immediate future by signing on for this season. Regrettably, this means that Leaf Nation will continue to watch Sundin play with a group of ordinary forwards in a corporate system filled with ordinary decision-makers.

Montreal students tasered at tuition riot

The Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante has angrily accused Montreal riot police of “police brutality” and “savage intervention” after learning that police used taser guns and pepper spray to control crowds of student demonstrators.

Over 40,000 students across Quebec launched a three-day strike on Tuesday in protest of the provincial government’s decision to increase tuition fees by $500 per semester for the next five years. Thousands of students staged an anti-government rally yesterday at Dorchester Square in downtown Montreal, led by ASSÉ.

After failing to get the support it needed to launch a full-scale strike ASSÉ, known for advocating free tuition in Québec, eventually opted for a three-day walkout. Small groups of students illegally stationed themselves outside Université du Québec à Montréal and the CEGEP Vieux-Montréal.

On tuesday morning, 105 people were arrested for barricading a street with plywood, vending machines, and a toilet. The protesters, who used fire hoses and extinguishers on riot police, face charges of assault, assault and battery, and public mischief.

“Police brutality is no way to treat those who dare to fight for social change,” said ASSÉ official Hubert Gendron- Blais to the Montreal Gazette.

Ferguson on thin ice

For the sake of all that you hold dear, stop buying Maple Leafs tickets!

It’s the only way Leafs brass will get the message. Ponder this: why should people pay ridiculous amounts of money for a woefully sub par product? The only way to send a message is to hit them where it hurts—the wallets.

With only seven wins in 18 games, the Leafs are dropping faster than the American dollar. Yet, people continue to fill the Air Canada Centre to capacity. This year loyal fans have repeated the time-honored tradition of welcoming their beloved Maple Leafs, in anticipation of a successful season.

But like every year previous years the euphoria fades two months into the season, by which time the playoffs have already become an unrealistic goal. Scapegoats are made of inept defensemen and clumsy goaltenders, but for some reason fans refuse to abandon their team—or their season tickets. It is a process the continues into the summer, typified by endless rounds of golf and the introduction of the latest geriatric free-agents to don the blue and white; all overpriced and underachieving.

Since a absolute boycott by Leaf Nation is about as likely as Bryan McCabe winning the Norris Trophy, the only alternative left is to shake up the administration. This team will not deviate from this foolish course until a some ground shaking changes are made.

The person responsible for this mess cannot be expected or trusted to clean it up. John Ferguson Junior, the Maple Leafs’ general manager insisted that he had built a winning team by signing Pavel Kubina, Mike Peca and Hal Gill for a combined $ 9 million. So, what was the return on this investment?

A grand total of 17 goals and 56 points.

A cursory observation shows that 17 goals for $9 million is not exactly getting your bang for your buck. It’s possible that John Ferguson Junior never learned about cost efficiency in his previous roles as a player agent, and an amateur scout. Perhaps there is some method to his madness. It’s possible, if not likely, that players that score two goals in 18 games really are worth $5 million per year, despite being thirty-four years old and having a small track record of high-performance.

To make matters worse. Over the summer, Ferguson attempted to solve the team’s goaltending crisis by trading for Vesa Toskala. The goaltender was promptly awarded with an $8 million dollar contract without having played a single game for Toronto. Results thus far have been far from encouraging, as the Leafs currently posses the worst Goals-Against rating in the league, having allowed 65 goals.

On the bright the signing of imposing Kazakh winger Nik Antropov has given Mats Sundin a legitimate winger to play alongside with. His creative play and relentless drive are a definite asset to a team with a lot of liabilities. Yet his inability to stay off the injured list draws comparisons to former Toronto forward Dave Andreychuk.

The question still looms: does Ferguson have sufficient hockey acumen to build a solid supporting caste around blue-chip up-and-comers like Antropov and Wellwood? The jury is still out on that question.

Facebook for hypochondriacs

Is spending that much time on the internet good for your health? The millions of people who frantically track their social lives on Facebook and other such networking sites now have a reason to stay online even longer, with the release of a new social networking tool to help Canadians self-manage their illnesses at the click of a mouse.

Two years ago, frustrated with traditional health care establishments and research funding agencies who, he said, only invested in curing diseases rather than supporting those living with them, University of Toronto professor Alex Jadad contacted Dennis Bennie, a managing partner of equity investment firm XDL Capital Group, with a proposal for the novel health care system.

Known as Wellocities, the site claims to provide the first online, community- based health directory of services and resources for Canadians.

“The idea [of the website] became more and more of a reality, and was molded into something that would really be a very practical solid idea,” said Bennie, who began investing in the proposed project.

Designed by a community of patients and health care professionals, Wellocities caters to those who want to dabble in managing their own health-care. The site offers alternatives and information about illnesses and provides resources such as medication and medical devices that, according to Jadad, could help people increase their life expectancy.

“We are facing a real tsunami of chronic disease, but the public is not aware of that,” said Jadad, who is also the chairman of Wellocities.

He claimed that 30 to 40 per cent of people in Canada have at least one chronic disease, and that one in three born after 2000 will have diabetes. “The number of people in our society living with a chronic disease is increasing dramatically,” said Jadad.

The site offers a directory of health care professionals and services across Canada, and tools that can help people manage their health, such as a blood-sugar tracker.

The rogue element is the site’s social networking factor, which lets users create or join groups, rate various health-care services, and share first-hand accounts of their health problems. Wellocities can be accessed through Facebook.

“We have a lot of Facebook users at university, and we have perhaps the first generation of university students that we could call digital natives,” said Jadad.

Misery loves company, but what would Wellocities say about eye strain, posture problems and inactivity— symptoms of digital addiction?

The great grocery store dilemma

It’s no wonder we’ve been kept in the dark about our food for so long. After all, if all the pro-organic food propaganda is true, those of us still consuming conventionally-grown crops are walking repositories of pesticides and other toxins. Oh, and we’ve been cheated of nutrients and hearty flavours. Given all the evidence, surely, any day now Canadians will begin to wage a culinary crusade against those toxic delicacies that are still lurking in our kitchens.

Yeah, right. Most of us, including myself, will switch to an organic lifestyle as wholeheartedly as we follow our inevitably-neglected New Year’s Eve resolutions. And really, what’s wrong with that?

While by eating non-organic food we may miss out on dubious promises of “feeling great” and “looking fabulous,” we do not necessarily compromise our health. Let’s take the case of fruits and veggies. Organic food produce do not use additives or pesticides in growing their crops. Advocates also emphasize higher nutritional content—recent studies prove this claim—of some products, as well as a generally better taste.

But this is not the whole picture. What proponents of organic food don’t tell you is that natural toxins and bacteria such as botulism and E. coli, can appear in organic foods. How about the fact that natural veggies are susceptible to higher rates of pest damage, thereby creating pathways for aflatoxins, dangerous to our health? All of a sudden, I’m reminded of why we began spraying crops with chemicals in the first place.

A campaign recently launched in Toronto has been portraying locally-grown food as a healthy and delicious alternative. After all, it seems sensible to consume what a season’s harvest brings. But while there are many reasons for switching to a “local” diet, we shouldn’t completely discount the factor of taste. Bok choy’s seasonal availability doesn’t make it any more delicious. And let’s admit it, most of us do enjoy having a vast assortment of fruit and vegetables all year round, regardless of where they are from or how they are produced. Would I buy tasteless strawberries in the middle of winter? Sure, I’ll just dip them in some chocolate and they’re as good as strawberries can get.

So what should we remember on our next trip to the grocery store? While we should take a closer look at what we consume, it’s important to appreciate the variety of food options (organic or not) that we are fortunate to have in Toronto. Whatever our personal choice, it’s comforting to know that all products, regardless of their methods of growth, must meet the same government safety standards. As long as they are washed and prepared properly, they are not a hazard to our health. And as far as flavour goes, well, it’s just a matter of taste.

Canada: the international weapons dealer

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s meeting with the Dalai Lama last month was received warmly by most Canadians, despite stringent objections from the Chinese government. It seemed a subject of national pride that the federal government took a principled stand against the Communist regime noted for its persistent human rights violations, and welcomed a man whose name is virtually synonymous with non-violence.

It should then come as unwelcome surprise to many of us that the Canadian company. a Pratt & Whitney subsidiary, is currently being investigated by the U.S. State Department for possible arms control violations for its Chinese attackhelicopters. Astonishingly, the Canadian government has no plans to conduct an investigation of its own. Even as we applaud our government’s token diplomatic gestures, millions of dollars’ worth of hi-tech military equipment is quietly being made in this country and exported to China and other unsavory regimes.

This most recent demonstration of hypocrisy merely illuminates the secretive nature of Canada’s military industry, which is not being appropriately disclosed to the public. This is a significant liability to a government, whose foreign policy includes support for a new United Nationsled international arms-trade treaty. If Canada secretly exports arms to global hot spots, we lose the moral high ground of condemning other nations for the same activities.

A recent investigation by CBC’s Margo Kelly recently revealed not only the sharp growth in Canadian military exports as of late, but, more troublingly, the federal government’s complete lack of transparency. Embarrassingly, Canada’s current level of divulgence, as measured by the Small Arms Survey, is just slightly ahead of Iran. A lethal combination of corporate greed and bureaucratic red tape raises the troubling possibility that Canadian military technology might be contributing to a number of deadly conflicts around the world.

Over the past seven years, Canadian military exports have increased three-fold, making us the sixth largest arms dealer in the world, just slightly behind China. This growth has nothing to do with the latest Conservative government, as the trend can be observed as far back as 2002. Our self-endearing image as a peacekeeping nation surely requires re-evaluation, for there is a troubling contradiction in preaching global peace while making profits off the instruments of violence.

Canadians should not delude ourselves into thinking we ship military exports only to the most respectable of governments. A quick run through the list of buyers quickly does away with such notions: $527 million in military exports went to Saudi Arabia, a Wahhabist absolute monarchy which imposes severe limitations on the rights of women. Canada has also sold over $17 million in military arms to the Shi’ite-controlled Iraqi government, which is undeniably culpable in that country’s ethnic violence.

As troubling as these examples may appear, they are overshadowed by the nearly $2-billions’ worth of Canadian arms bought by the United States. Night vision goggles, ammunition, missile components, unmanned aerial vehicles, and light-armored vehicles are just some of the equipment Canada sells to the U.S. The very real harm inflicted by these arms—in Iraq and elsewhere— should be obvious to all but the willingly naïve. However, the industry represents about 70,000 technology-based jobs across Canada, and this presents a huge political obstacle in the way of more stringent regulations. Ultimately, we will have to decide whether our growing military exports are in line with our moral values, and whether we are willing to shed a long-held aspect of our national identity.

To market, to market, to buy designer jeans

A Kensington Market relic nearly half a century old, the Augusta Egg Market, closed its doors last month. Not only will shoppers have to satisfy their cravings for duck eggs elsewhere, but another business will fill in the old storefront—and, if recent area trends are any indication, it will be one that caters to an entirely different breed of consumers. As a casual stroll down Augusta will attest, there’s a change in the weather. Gentrification, that nefarious force of urban transformation, is in full swing, and ain’t nobody going to slow it down.

Take the new Blue Banana Market as a forecast of a Kensington to come. Located down the road from the former egg market’s shell, Blue Banana is a glorified, gargantuan, three-storey eyesore of cutesy consumption. Under garish fluorescent lighting, fatwalleted consumers have their pick of world music CDs, touristy “folk art” pieces with unfortunate price tags, and $5 blocks of fudge. The warehouse would fit nicely in Yorkville or the Distillery District, but Kensington? Who exactly do they think they are?

There’s also the fancy-schmancy vegan sandwich shop on the corner of Augusta and Oxford (where $10 will almost satiate your hunger), and a few doors down, the upscale French bistro owned by—surprise!—none other than Shamez Amlani, the populist King of Kensington himself. While these places aren’t among the newest crop of luxurious market stops, they have nevertheless established themselves as pioneering fixtures of a palpable movement.

Though Augusta Street is becoming a veritable smorgasbord of Yuppie attraction, the rest of the marketplace is barely half a step behind. Remember Planet Kensington, that crusty metalhead dive on Baldwin? Well, its former locale is now home to the Freshwood Grill, a “fresh, local, organic” eatery that’s almost so classy it’s insulting. COBS Breads, another recent franchise addition to Kensington’s Baldwin strip, greets passers-by with a similar dose of wholesome-meetsposh audacity. With places like these popping up left and right, how can people expect to preserve the roughedged appeal of the old market?

It’s hard to replicate the past. Yet much of Kensington’s charm has rested upon its uncanny ability to do just that, by sustaining yesteryear’s alternative to the pedestrian strip mall, maintaining cozy produce stalls and small, specialized businesses. The market’s unique atmosphere is a legacy of its history, the remnant of enterprising immigrant residents who set up shop in front of their homes as a way of making ends meet. The area sprung organically into the residential and commercial hodgepodge through the initiatives of its dwellers, not voracious city planners, architects, or entrepreneurs trying to anticipate the next “hip” thing.

Nevertheless, Kensington has become just that—a viable commercial hot spot in a convenient location, cherished by artists, students, and most importantly, moneyed folks who consider themselves cultured. The area’s many mid-century immigrant homeowners are beginning to vacate the premises and, naturally, developers have their eyes on the prize. Kensington Lofts, a box of upscale condos that a Toronto real estate website flaunts as “a chic alternative to the quaint houses in the area,” likely won’t be the market’s sole housing cash-cow for very much longer; similar projects are already tentatively in the works.

True, Kensington has always been a site of metamorphosis, having made the transformation from its “Jewish Market” roots in the early 1900s to its mid-century incarnation as a Portuguese immigrant neighbourhood to, eventually, the multicultural enclave we know today. What these various embodiments all have in common is the unpretentious working-class spirit that gentrification threatens to overrun. This, above all else, is the entity most seriously at stake.

Meanwhile, the front window of the former Augusta Egg Market is still heralding a “For Lease” sign, and though I’m hoping that a worthy contender will replace it, I’m not counting my chickens before they hatch.