The Electric Pencil

Archive for May 2008

Protecting the Right to Abortion: Out against Bill C-484

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If I have more time, I’ll post more on this later, but this Sunday there will be a very important march in Montreal on an issue I think all Canadians should be concerned about. The fight for legal abortions in Canada was a hard fought, decades-long battle. And while there is definitely no unanimity on the issue, it has been 20 years that women have not had to fear legal repercussions for seeking out an abortion.

Bill C-484, though, has raised serious concerns among many that the right to an abortion could be facing its most serious challenge in at least the last 10 years, if not longer. Officially the Unborn Victims of Crime Act, and introduced by Conservative MP Tom Epps, the bill seeks to increase the penalty for those who harm a woman who is pregnant, essentially on the basis that greater harm is done because a second potential life is taken. While on the surface this may appear harmless, there are fears that such a law would reopen the debate on the rights of a foetus. Proponents of the bill claim that there are provisions built in so that women are not held liable for injury to a foetus, and that this law does not go any further than any pre-existing laws, but critics still fear the repercussions and precedent set by the law.

There will be a demonstration this Sunday, June 1st, against the bill in Montreal. People will be assembling at 2pm at the corner of St-Jospeh and St-Laurent, and the march will begin at 2pm sharp.

I wish I had more time to post links to back up all this, but here are some sites with lots more information:


Written by Tim McSorley

May 30, 2008 at 9:00 pm

Biofuel bill off to the Senate

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The House of Commons passed the controversial biofuel law, Bill C-33, yesterday afternoon when the Liberal Party backed the Conservatives to carry the vote 173 to 64. The result is only slightly surprising, since the Liberals clearly need to avoid coming off either anti-farmer to keep votes, or anti-agribusiness to keep campaign donations. But there was hope until the last minute that they would switch camps, especially since this wasn’t a confidence measure. The law will most likely sail through the senate, since the Liberals dominate there.

Unsuprisingly, a biofuel industry rep hailed the vote and placed blame for the food crisis on droughts, oil prices and price speculation. That last one is a little surprising though, given that much of the specualtion has arisen because the food is now being used as fuel. Although I guess the agribusiness can’t be directly blamed for what commodity traders do.

Reuters also reports the legislation will create demand for an estimated 2 billion litres of ethanol and 600 million litres of biodiesel.

In any case, it seems like Canada will continue to be part of the biofuel problem and not part of the solution for at least a few more years to come, until we figure out hydrogen or something.

Written by Tim McSorley

May 29, 2008 at 6:39 pm

Rethinking Biofuels: The case against Bill C-33

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Pressure is growing for the federal government to drop Bill C-33. The proposed law would mandate minimum amounts of renewable fuels in gasoline (five percent ethanol for regular gas and two percent biodiesel for diesel gasoline). The bill would earmark up to $2.2 billion for the ethanol industry. While the C-33 originally had all-party support in the House of Commons, its future is now uncertain because the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois have renounced their support, and for good reason.

As the Coalition QuébecKyoto pointed out in a press release over the weekend, and the Toronto Star in an editorial yesterday, while biofuels once appeared to be a panacea for reducing greenhouse gas emissions — and therefore a solution for global climate change — the rise of the ongoing food crisis has put this theory in serious doubt.

Last fall, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, decried using food for fuel as a “crime against humanity.” His words went pretty much unnoticed until January, when food shortages and subsequent protests (some violent) began breaking out throughout the Global South. Indeed, 2007 was a record year for the production of grains. The current crisis has nothing to do with a shortage of food, but rather a significant shift in how we use foodstuffs. As George Monbiot points out:

There is plenty of food. It is just not reaching human stomachs. Of the 2.13bn tonnes likely to be consumed this year, only 1.01bn, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, will feed people.

I am sorely tempted to write another column about biofuels. From this morning all sellers of transport fuel in the United Kingdom will be obliged to mix it with ethanol or biodiesel made from crops. The World Bank points out that “the grain required to fill the tank of a sports utility vehicle with ethanol … could feed one person for a year”. This year global stockpiles of cereals will decline by around 53m tonnes; this gives you a rough idea of the size of the hunger gap. The production of biofuels will consume almost 100m tonnes, which suggests that they are directly responsible for the current crisis.

In the same release, Coalition QuébecKyoto point out to what degree Canada’s farming landscape would need to shift to accommodate a five percent ethanol quota: According to the Agriculture Canada, farming for ethanol would take up 50 percent of our corn fields, 12 percent of wheat fields and 8 percent of canola fields.

While the move to ethanol may be a boon for farmers who would be able to reap the benefits, one has to wonder whether the proceeds will really end up going to small farmers who are hurting the most, or to large agri-business who are able to pump out acres and acres of genetically modified corn.

The vote on Bill C-33 is expected to happen this week. The Conservatives will surely hold their ground, meaning that if the bill is to be defeated, the Liberals will need to vote against it. In an attempt at an upset, RightOn Canada has spearheaded a campaign to pressure elected officials to vote against the bill

And while it is no surprise that the Conservatives will hold onto a bill they sponsored (just as other parties tend to do) you have to wonder what the point was in increasing food aide money by $50 million last month if they’re not actually willing to take the steps needed to stem the rise of the crisis itself?

(Map stolen from Spiegel Online. Make sure to read their excellent piece The Fury of the Poor)

Written by Tim McSorley

May 28, 2008 at 1:01 am

Saving seeds for our future

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Very good article out of yesterday’s Montreal Gazette, Sowing seeds of discontent, by Marian Scott. The article presents a fairly in-depth and critical look at the challenge small, Candian farmers are facing with the rise of large agri-business and genetically-modified seeds, with a particular focus on Monsanto. It gives an overview of the devlopment of the GM seed industry in Canada, looks at the Monsanto vs Percy Schmeiser case, and links the GM agri-business to the ongoing world-wide food crisis. Most importantly, it looks at the importance of saving seeds – and biodiversity – to protect our future food-supply.

Heather Meek leafs through the seed catalogue she wrote on the family computer, on winter nights after the kids went to bed.

Selling seeds is more than just an extra source of income on this organic farm an hour northwest of Montreal.

For Meek and partner Frederic Sauriol, propagating local varieties is part of a David and Goliath struggle by small farmers against big seed companies.

At stake, they believe, is no less than control of the world’s food supply.

Some interesting (and worrisome) statistics from the piece:

  • Some 70,000 Canadian farmers will grow food from GM seeds this year; 12 million worldwide
  • GM crops have grown 67-fold in 12 years, now covering 690.9 million hectares in 23 countries
  • Canada is the fourth-largest grower of GM crops, which cover 7 million hectares.
  • About three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops have been lost over the last century and hundreds of the 7,000 known animal breeds are in danger of extinction

More on seeds, GM food and the food crisis:

Image from the Beehive Collective

Bye Bye Bernier

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While Stephen Harper defended his defense minister’s honour earlier today, this evening he accepted Maxime Bernier’s resignation. Bernier stepping reportedly has nothing to do with Jos Louis, Julie Couillard, the Hells Angels, or $1 million dollar Antonov rentals. Rather, the embattled Bernier admitted he left classified government documents in a public an un-secured place. Quoth Harper (via

Mr. Bernier has learned and informed me that he left classified government documents in a non-secure location. This is a serious error and the minister has accepted his responsibility.

Let me be very clear: this is not to do with the minister’s life or the life of a private citizen, 99 per cent of which I think is completely off bounds.

Canadian Press is now reporting the following though:

A source tells The Canadian Press that Bernier left an extremely sensitive classified document at Couillard’s apartment, and her lawyer notified the Foreign Affairs department about the document on the weekend.

Written by Tim McSorley

May 26, 2008 at 7:50 pm

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Écosociété ramps up its solidarity campaign

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Les Éditions Écosociété, the small book publisher facing a $6 million SLAPP lawsuit from Barrick Gold (the world’s largest gold-mining company) over their book Noir Canada, is increasing its public appeal for support. Today they launched a new website, calling on people to:

Background information here, here, here.

Written by Tim McSorley

May 22, 2008 at 10:01 pm

Bouchard & Taylor let it all out

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Their report, that is. You can download all 300+ pages of the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences (CCPARDC) (French only) or the summary (in English and French) of the final report, as well as the research documents commissioned, via:

Written by Tim McSorley

May 22, 2008 at 2:59 pm