The last few weeks have not been stellar for the great religious project of North America --- Capitalism.
First there has been the unconscionable decision to close the General Motors plant in Oakville, Ontario, with a flick of a wrist giving the old heave-ho to thousands of people who had invested their lives in the factory. It isn’t news that companies don’t care tuppence for the people who work for them. In the 1970s I did some research for a series of films about occupational health, and it took me only a week or two to discover that companies had known they were killing their workers ever since the early 1300s, and had never given a fig for them until forced to by activist unions in the 1960s or thereabouts. A quote springs to mind, from Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, in which a Mr.Thomas Gradgrind, a stony-hearted school superintendent dedicated to teaching his pupils hard facts, and to hell with emotions and feelings, says : “You see that smoke, sir….that is meat and drink to us.”
That was written in 1854, when the Industrial Revolution, which started in Britain (and Germany, which seldom gets credit for being in the advance guard of industrialization), was well under way, but it has been the watchword of factory owners and their supporters ever since. In modern times businessmen have been drawn kicking and screaming to limit the number of their workers they are killing through neglect of safety measures. And as I discovered while making those films, that neglect can take many forms. I visited Elliot Lake in the middle-north of Ontario, the centre of Canada’s first uranium mining enterprises, where, long after the mines were closed, a vast lake of radio-active detritus was left to do its dirty work. Similarly, while working on another project, I went to Jamaica where at one point North American aluminium companies, including Canada’s Alcan, owned some 14 per cent of the whole island, and where, in just the same way as in Elliot Lake, the companies left behind them vast lakes of polluting detritus from their mining operations as they dug out the bauxite to be shipped to the Lac St Jean district of Quebec, where it was turned into, first, alumina, and then into aluminium.
As part of the same series of films I went to Sudbury, Ontario, home of Inco, the nickel mining giant, a town that had a committee of more than 200 widows of miners who had died horrible deaths from being poisoned by industrial gases that they were forced to work in, in a plant that had mercifully been closed years before, leaving only the widows behind to grieve. One middle-aged woman, a German-born widow, said to me: “I know in murder someone has to be sentenced….But who do I sentence now?” a quote I used as the title to one of the films. She had shown us a picture of her husband on his deathbed: a wisened shell of a man, gasping for his last breaths, whom no one would have recognized as the strong young man he had once been. I also managed to persuade Stelco, the steel company in Hamilton, Ontario, to permit us to film men working atop the coke ovens, unprotected in any way from the poison gases emanating all around them.
There are similar horror stories all around the country. In St Lawrence, Newfoundland, mining for fluorspar, a substance used in the manufacture of aluminium, glass and other materials, began in the 1930s, but it was not until the 1960s that anything was done about the terrible conditions in which they had to work underground. Dry dust from the mining operations infected their lungs, and in addition, natural radon gasses, capable of causing radiation, had a devastating effect on the workers. Eventually, before the mines were closed in the 1970s, some 200 miners died of these various diseases. St. Lawrence had become a village with a cemetery full of victims.
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One might argue that these were all in the past, although the flash decision to close the Oakville plant, after billions of public dollars had been granted to the company to develop and keep the factory open, indicates that the feeling of companies about their workers has not changed.
Another similar event has been in the news lately: that is the revelation that western Canada is riddled with tens of thousands of abandoned, uncapped, or inactive oil and gas wells that have, in thousands of cases, simply been abandoned uncapped by their former owners to continue to do their dirty polluting work all around them. The cost of remedial work, which should rightly have been charged to the mining companies, is now estimated to be measured in billions of dollars.
This is a cost that has always been left out of calculations of the real costs of mining, drilling or extracting minerals from the ground. In some places, the contracts signed have required that this work be done, but these provisions have never been enforced. The numbers of wells mentioned in recent news items are truly staggering. Here are two recent news items, the first from the Western Producer weekly:
“The news ha(s) just broken that Calgary-based Sequoia Resources Corp. had ceased operations. Its demise, if it occurs, would add at least another 2,300 oil and gas wells and possibly as many as 4,000 to the list of energy infrastructure sites on Alberta farm and ranch land that will require reclamation.
“The trouble is that Sequoia, like many other energy companies that have entered receivership or gone bankrupt in recent years, cannot cover the cost of that reclamation. It’s estimated that more than 155,000 Alberta energy wells have no economic potential and will eventually require reclamation.”
The second from CBC:
“Alberta's recent economic downturn has pushed several oil companies into bankruptcy. In the past five years, the number of such wells without a financially accountable owner has grown from fewer than 100 to 3,200.
“In all, the province has about 155,000 oil wells that aren't producing but have yet to be fully remediated, the study found — and cleaning those up could cost an estimated $8 billion.
“In Alberta, industry is responsible for funding the cleanup of wells left behind by bankrupt energy companies. However, public money has also been used. Alberta offered a $235-million loan to the energy industry to clean up old wells, with the interest being paid by $30 million from the federal budget.”
This describes a template for a government that is not fulfilling its responsibility to its taxpayers, and now this same government of Alberta is bleating about being abandoned by the federal government because they are not able to ship their Tar Sands bitumen to tide water so that it can be transformed into oil, and go on destroying the Earth. It is a well-known thing that modern governments are held safely in the pockets of major industrialists, but our populations have been so worked upon by highly financed publicity and advertising industries that people have come to take such irresponsibility more or less for granted.
Years ago I used to make it a habit of remarking on my blog from time to time that at least two prominent members of the Liberal government, John Manley and Anne McLellan, were unfit to hold public office. Manley was minister for Industry and Consumer and Corporate Affairs, and it was well-known that when the Competitions Act was being reworked, he handed over responsibility for that to the corporate sector, thus abdicating the responsibility he owed to his voters. Ms. McLellan was minister for natural resources, and by every evidence I could find, she was comfortably ensconsed in the pockets of the major corporations.
Was I the only person to be outraged by this? Manley has gone on to his just reward as CEO of the Business Council of Canada, and is also a member of David Rockefeller’s infamous Trilateral Commission, the resting place for Capitalism’s movers and shakers. And Anne McLellan has also retired into university chancellorship in her post-election life.
While I am about it, although this example is from a different country, there was an item illustrating the monstrously skewed priorities of the Capitalist system when a little machine that had been sent off to visit Mars seven months ago finally landed. It was described as a billion dollar enterprise and since it was the eighth such mission since the probes to Mars began in 1971, one can believe that several billions of dollars have been spent on what must seem to many people to be an entirely peripheral enterprise. When an estimated 40 million people in the United States are suffering from severe poverty, this certainly seems a strange way to spend scarce resources --- to penetrate seven feet beneath the surface of Mars. Whoopee!