Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Great Time for Canadians

These days it's great to be a Canadian. At least if you can ignore what's going on in Canada.

Economically things are great, unless you're unemployed, or looking to extend your career because your retirement nest-egg was imploded. Our economy, according to our pundits -  guys who make money without actually doing, or making anything - is the North American equivalent of the 'Wirtshaftwissenwunder' the Germans had going a while back. But our economy is predicated on two fundamentals - the resource extraction industry and big banks, everything else we do on a large scale is middling to poor. The great number of small specialist manufactories that we have, are being poked in the eye by too close a relationship with the same sort of thing in America. Consumer goods are now, for the most part, Chinese imports.

The Canadian Banks of which there are now 6 or 7 big players have managed to insulate themselves from the American horror by racking up fees, decreasing interest returns, investment in China and getting stimulated by the Canadian government. Yeah, they were overextended in Fanny Mae and Winnie Bago - like everybody else 'on track' for big bucks - but you won't hear them pulin' about losing their shirts for - thrifty nippers that  they are - they managed to actually make money. No doubt by fobbing-off their plunging investments on their unwitting mutual fund customers - who saw their accounts head south faster than a Canadien with a lotto win. That worked during the dotcom crash, so why wouldn't it work again? Right now they're handling the 'credit crisis' they've developed by jacking service charges, and the rates they charge on loans well beyond the prime rate - it's all that increased risk you know, all them sudden unemployments and iffy new car sales. At the same time, all that loan money can be used to play the market, which when 'yo-yo ing' provides some great opportunities for the wise, and a  fleecing of more suckers.

The resource industries are hot to trot, too. A threatened reduction in demand for a lot of Canadian minerals never really happened - other than as an exercise in cost-cutting. The prices haven't tanked - some are at all-time highs - which is providing a decent return on investment. At the same time Canadian operations abroad are doing even better. But there's an unknown price being paid by someone and it's not the extraction companies, the investors or the Canadian banks. It's anybody who gets to live near these wealth-making activities.

Right now in Canada there is a UN-inspired investigation into Canada's mining industry underway. Canadians should have remembered some of the unique messes blighting Canada at the hands of big mining interests. There was a time when Sudbury was a dusty, dirty heap of mine tailings and smelter slag. But now that crap is covered by a layer of topsoil and is restored to a 'pristine natural state' - but be really careful with the water eh. And rejoice that you don't have to drive south for cancer treatments that you can get at the regional cancer centre. Just a few million bucks can buy tons of good will, especially if you can get the government to pay for most of it. Add to this a few other wonders of the industry like Asbestos, Quebec, Maple Ridge in BC and Sydney on Cape Breton Island and you get an idea of the part of 'moiling in the mire' that big business has managed to walk away from.

But Canada has developed a set of 'rules and regs' that stop the more obvious travesties from happening - at least in the short run. No such rules apply in other countries and Johnny Canuck has gone prospecting all over the world.

Darfur, the festering sore in central Africa,  started when the locals were 'bothering' a Canadian oil exploration company (now defunct Talisman Energy). The Canadians importuned the government to 'resettle' the locals - largely nomadic or pastoral negroid tribes. This was just what the Muslim government needed, and the subsequent revolt in the western provinces of Sudan was squashed with heavy handed and long term military action. This of course destabilized the oil exploration process and the instigators decamped for safer, if not oilier, pastures. The Canadians never did get their due for that.

Another more meaningful incident was the great BreX hoax. Canadian gold prospectors had dug a large hole in in East Borneo and conned a good number of the world's sharpies into believing they'd hit the golden calf. It was more like the gilded lily and billions were lost by the greedy to stock market sellers, resellers and managers. But Borneo still figures largely in Canadian mining operations.

In South America, Africa and some parts of Asia, Canadian mining interests are at work. In virtually all of them with some concommittent trouble from the locals. This is what's under investigation now. To-day's testimony was about the incidence of gang rapes by 'site security people' at an operation in Borneo. Yesterday it was about shootings at another mine in Colombia. The industry reaction - shocked disbelief and incredulity has been evident before - as at Darfur, for instance, which went on for the better part of a decade before Canadians pulled out. Given their track record of 'good citizenship and customer satisfaction' in Canada, it's difficult to fathom how some corporate executives and company lawyers in Toronto and Montreal could be so far out of touch, or maybe they're not - well, let's just leave it at that.

Canadian interests have been present at some of the world nastiest business and never once have I read of anyone blowing a whistle and calling for government attention. Being, as they all claim to be, such humanitarians as well as businessmen, it can only be adjudged that either they were monastacized, or that they were too involved to want any attention. My loonie goes on the latter - they rarely admit to a screw-up unless they have no other choice. The world, or at least human rights bodies, want more government scrutiny of what Canadian companies do overseas. I think that's the least that should happen. The sanctions (now at removal of public support ie taxpayer funding) should be extended to provision for suits in Canadian courts and sequestration of corporate property in Canada.

I ran into an old chap out for a walk one day while fishing recently. As we stood on the banks of a river at very low level, he told me his life story, or at least the career part of it. He had spent most of his life from the mid-forties engaged as a geologist/prospector for Canadian mining interests all around the world. He'd written a book about his work, and experiences and had donated same to the local library where I later had a chance to check it out. His quest had been for short-staple asbestos. He was quite successful in his work and through him the mining industry had made millions. That low-level river we stood beside, the result of some private enterprise's need for water.

As I stood there observing the detritus of a formerly-vibrant community lumber mill now festooning the bottom of that river - the remains of 5 or six drains extending into the water including one made of square lumber which still dribbled an oil sheen on the water and a number of 50 gallon barrels (left in place to avoid disturbing some worse horror?) - it was interesting to hear him describe his work as some sort of human 'achievement'. I wonder if he ever heard that his 'discovery' was no longer a visible part of domestic sales and a downright toxic menace to most people? I remember reading some 'propaganda' years ago at the CNE about the wonderful future Canada's mines were producing for us all, one page of which touted asbestos as the wonder product that 'kept firemen safe'. I wonder if that's why so many of the statistically were prone to lung diseases? Asbestos, Quebec has a new claim to fame: the largest incidence of mesotheliomic cancer. But that has only slowed the production of Canadian asbestos for the third world market.

Canadian industry (by and large) has been allowed for too long to take its profits, pay its taxes and then walk away from a problem(s) left for the future. If anything a portion of those taxes, or a surcharge on them, should be set aside by the government to cover such eventualities. Whether it's missing pensions, or toxic soil, it seems apparent that industry is not what they've told us they are. They should be treated as any other 'ripoff artist' with little respect, and a minimum of trust.

Canada's other big black eye is a revisitation of the Afghan experience. The involvement of Canadian troops with the mistreatment of prisoners in Afghan prisons is getting another look. The protestations of ignorance, and denials of actuality are being shredded by testimony in front of an inquiry in Ottawa. So far there is little to be proud about. Canada has certainly lost any moral pulpit we ever had on telling others what human rights should be like. The Prime Minister might be able to commiserate with China, but any appeal for rights for Tibetans or Uighurs went out the back of an army truck in Kandahar.

Meanwhile the debate has become politicized - additional blow-back from our 'American' relationship is increased rancor about political belief  - Liberals (in every derogatory sense) and Conservatives (who should be calling themselves republicans). It is a great time for Canadians, we have an Olympics to think about!

No comments: