During the Second World War, Canada shifted to full employment, remaking its economy, retooling factories, and transforming the workforce to mobilize against an existential threat. What would it look like to mobilize against today’s existential threat: climate catastrophe?
Seth Klein joins Team Advantage to discuss his new book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, calling out today’s Neville Chamberlains of the climate emergency, and outlining how a rapid transition could create jobs, reduce inequality, and tackle our climate obligations.
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Kate: Hello, and welcome to the Alberta Advantage. I am your host, Kate Jacobson, and with me today is Joel –
Joel: Hello, hello.
Kate: – as well as our guest, Seth Klein, author of A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency. Seth served for 22 years as the founding British Columbia director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Seth, thank you for joining us here on Team Advantage.
Seth: Nice to be with you.
Kate: So the core of the argument in your book is that Canada needs to mobilize for the climate emergency in the same way that Canada mobilized against the Axis powers in World War II.
To begin, I think it would be good, maybe, to start with a bit of history about the beginning of World War II – you know, Britain declared war against Nazi Germany in early September; Canada makes its own declaration of war a week later. What happened in Canada after that declaration? You know, Canada had been in the throes of the Great Depression for almost a decade. How did the war declaration change things?
Seth: Well, initially, let’s just describe it as a slow takeoff. And this is one of the areas where I found solace in this World War II story, because in the face of the climate emergency, we are all living in this awkward period where it feels like the public doesn’t always get it, our governments clearly don’t always get it. We keep waiting for this battle to begin in earnest.
And we look in the rearview mirror of history, and a lot of us just assume that it was totally different back then – you know, that Mackenzie King would’ve declared war and everyone was ready to rally and gung ho and ready to go. And that wasn’t true: It wasn’t true before the declaration of the war, and it also wasn’t true for a while after the declaration of war. This was a country – as you just referenced, it was still dealing with the throes of the Great Depression. The First World War was still a very near memory. This was not a country that was keen to go back into a world war. This was not a government that was at all keen to go into another world war. And so right up to the 11th hour, you have the same kind of threat denial I think we’re living with today.
And even once they declared war – you know, historians refer to the first nine months of World War II as the “Phony War,” because not a lot happened initially, and the public opinion in Canada was certainly not unified in terms of the merits of being engaged in this. Even when Canada declared war, it remained an open question initially as to whether or not we would be sending troops overseas as opposed to just defending our own territory. That, of course, eventually changes, in particular with the fall of France in June of 1940. But it is worth recalling that it takes a combination of events and leadership to ultimately get the society where you need it to be.
Joel: You write about the new climate denialism that exists quite extensively in Canada, basically acknowledging the science of climate change and the urgency it requires on one hand, and then proceeding to basically take no meaningful action that corresponds to the scale of the threat. So if we were to extend this kind of analogy from World War II to our present moment, if the enemy is the fossil fuel industry, would it be fair to say that many of our current political leaders are the Neville Chamberlains of the climate emergency?
Seth: Yeah, I actually do think that’s a good way of putting it. And certainly, just to extend your analogy further, we still have – allegedly – progressive governments federally and provincially who spend an awful lot of time trying to appease the fossil fuel industry and trying to alleviate their anxiety. And part of what I’m arguing in the book is, at this late hour, if a climate plan, provincially or federally, isn’t making the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and its members deeply anxious, then it’s probably not a climate plan worth having.
So just to elaborate a little bit more on what I mean by the new climate denialism, traditional climate denialism is the one we’re more familiar with, you know, as manifested by Donald Trump or Maxime Bernier. That’s just the straight-up refusal to acknowledge the reality of climate change and human-induced climate change. But for what it’s worth, I actually think that kind of climate denialism is of diminishing significance. When you look at the opinion polling, it really is a shrinking rump of Canadian public opinion that adheres to that view.
A much more widespread – and, I would say, nefarious – barrier that we face is this dynamic I call the new climate denialism, by which I mean political leaders and an industry that says they get and accept the science but continues to practice a politics and a policy agenda that does not align with what that science says we have to do. That is what the federal Liberal government does; that is what the BC NDP does in my province here in British Columbia, where I am; and it was true of the Alberta NDP government as well. So you have them tabling ambitious climate plans even while doubling down on new fossil fuel infrastructure – in my province, it’s LNG and fracking – and you cannot make the math work. That is the new climate denialism.
Joel: Yeah. And just to follow up on that point, in a past episode we criticized NDP MLA Shannon Phillips, a former Alberta environment minister, for her dismissal of the idea of a Green New Deal. Her perspective is that Albertans just aren’t there yet when it comes to just transition, but in the same breath she also seems to gush when talking about working with major oilsands energy companies to implement a carbon tax.
And so, you know, you write about how the leaders of the Second World War didn’t seek to meet the public where they were. They didn’t just, like, mirror the public’s opinion back to them, but they actually led the public. Could you talk a bit about what went on there?
Seth: Well, as I say, at the outset of World War II, the Canadian public was not keen on this, and for understandable reasons. And so it took a kind of consistency and coherence of message to get the public on board, and that was important to the early rallying of the public opinion, but even that wasn’t sufficient. And this, actually – I mean, you referenced the Green New Deal, but there’s an interesting precursor, I think, in the World War II story, which is that, midway in the war, basically around once we get to ’42, 1942, the government realized that if they were truly going to get hundreds of thousands of people to voluntarily enlist, the kind of classic propaganda of, like, “Go get Hitler,” right, it wasn’t enough, and that what was actually going to be needed was to engage the public in a conversation about what kind of society they would return to. And you start to see the introduction of the first major social programs in Canada. Unemployment insurance comes in in 1940. The family allowance comes in 1944. The Marsh report, which is this historic commission that really lays the architecture for what would become the whole modern Canadian welfare state, is written during World War II and is offered up to the public as this promise of what they will come back to. So I think we need that again, and that is really the appeal of the Green New Deal, to link these issues.
But to your point, too, about, you know, talking about how great it is to partner with the industry on the carbon tax, this is the problem that we’re up against: For me, all of the lost political capital on carbon pricing is also the new climate denialism. It’s one tool; it’s a tool I support; but it will not achieve what we need to achieve.
One of the things I do at the start of the book is I look at the record of Canada’s GHG emissions going back for 20 years now, and what you see is basically a flat line. You know, we have run out the clock with these distracting debates about incremental changes, and we have failed to bend the curve when it comes to our own emissions. Incidentally, that’s mostly because of oilsands expansion in Alberta. Like in various jurisdictions, our emissions have, in fact, gone down, but it’s all been undone by the expansion of the oilsands. When I look at that record and think, well, why has there been so little progress? It’s because we have approached the climate fight through a neoliberal lens, which is to say, we try to incentivize change; we encourage change; we want to have the right price signals. That’s not going to work, and it wouldn’t have worked in the Second World War. When you understand something to be an emergency, you don’t employ voluntary measures – you mandate what has to actually happen. And that’s what we have decidedly not done when it comes to climate policy.
Kate: So you write about Canada’s, what you call, “prevailing culture of impossibility,” which I read as a kind of continuation of this Thatcher-era, “there is no alternative” mentality. Could you tell us what “Loose lips sink ships” meant in the context of the Second World War and what you suggest as an equivalent attitude today when talking about climate change and the war on climate change?
Seth: Well, I was having a little bit of fun with that World War II reference, and the point in the war was, you know, be careful what you say because it may, in fact, give – unbeknownst to you, it may give aid to the enemy. And in that case it could potentially give secrets away about the location of ships.
But the play I was making in the book was we should be careful how we talk ourselves into our own – you know, a defeatism. And that is – you know, with that “culture of impossibility” that you referred to – to me, the legacy of 40 years of neoliberalism. The most harmful element of that legacy isn’t the spending cuts or the tax cuts or the deregulation or the privatization – it is the sapping of our imagination and our sense of what is possible.
Again, I come back to the point I’m making around how neoliberalism has served as this straitjacket around our ability to do what needs to be done. Why haven’t we spent and invested the way we need to to fight climate change? Why have we not created new Crown corporations? Why are we not using the regulatory power of the state to actually drive change? And it’s because we accept a whole host of neoliberal assumptions that are wrong about what is and isn’t allowed.
But at a deeper level, we have lost this sense of our own ability to do great things together. And that’s really what I’m trying to do in this telling of the Second World War story in the book. It’s an excavation of our memory – of what we are actually capable of accomplishing together.
Joel: You mentioned that public opinion in Canada wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the Second World War initially – you know, there had been a decade of the Great Depression, and memories of the First World War weren’t too far back; contentious conscription debate that had gone on there. How did the government of the time end up getting the public onside?
Seth: So one piece of it was that consistent message. And so there were the ubiquitous posters and the advertising and those kinds of things, and it wasn’t just how present it was. I want to emphasize the consistency. So in contrast, when I look at today, you know, when Justin Trudeau’s government passes a climate emergency motion in the House of Commons one day, as they did last summer, and then the very next day re-approves the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, that’s confusing. That’s an inconsistent message.
Similarly, I argue in the book, why do we allow fossil fuel cars to advertise? We don’t allow that for tobacco products. Because if you’re a member of the public or a young person and you’re told, “Hey, this is serious. It’s an emergency,” on the one hand, and yet you still see all of these things being advertised at you, that’s confusing. That’s an inconsistent message.
So that was a piece of it. But there was a much more substantive thing going on as well. Appreciate, for a moment, that Mackenzie King’s principal political objective during World War II was to avoid mandatory military conscription for overseas service. Now, he had been a member of Laurier’s government in the First World War. He had lived through how divisive the conscription crisis had been to his own party and to the country, and so he desperately wants to avoid that. But then you’re faced with a formidable challenge: How do you get what would ultimately be over a million Canadians, out of a population of only 11 million at the time, to voluntarily enlist? And to my previous point, you can’t just have good propaganda telling people to join up. You actually have to make a different kind of promise. And in particular, you have to appreciate how inequality is toxic to the kind of social solidarity you need to mobilize at that level. And King actually understood that, partly because, again, he had lived through World War I and he recalled how toxic the wartime profiteering had been during the First World War and how that had eroded social solidarity and eroded recruitment efforts, right? What does it mean for some people to offer up their lives while other people are making a killing? And so right out of the gate, not only did they significantly increase taxes on the wealthy and on corporations so the corporate tax rate in Canada in World War II went from 18 to 40 percent, but then they also brought in an excess profits tax.
I’m going to get distracted for a minute here, guys, but think about the pandemic experience we’ve had and all these corporations that have profiteered in this pandemic that have made a killing. Just last week, the CCPA, my former colleagues, published a paper showing that the richest 20 Canadians combined had seen an increase in their collective wealth of $37 billion since the start of the pandemic. In the Second World War, that was illegal. They brought in an excess profits tax that was – it was incredible to me when I realized what they had done. They went back to the four years before the war – so, still Depression years – ’36 to ’39 – and for every industry, they averaged out what the profits had been, and they went to every business, large and small, in the land and said, “That’s your annual limit until the war is over.” Like, looking back 80 years later, it’s extraordinary that the business sector abided this, but they did, because that’s what it means to be in an emergency.
So these are the kinds of things that the King government is doing in World War II in order to maintain that social solidarity – both the tax increases at the high end, and these new social programs on the other side of the equation that I was telling you about before, and the Marsh report. So, combined, that’s how they are making a commitment that we’re all in this together.
Kate: Seth, you commissioned a really fascinating poll in the summer of 2019 that found that much of the public is way, way ahead of the political establishment when it comes to climate action. Could you tell us about some of the more important discoveries this polling found, particularly in Alberta?
Seth: Yeah. So back in the summer of 2019 – so a year and a bit ago – I commissioned this original poll with Abacus as part of my book research, and I did it for a few reasons. One, I needed to know – because so few climate communicators recommend the kind of framing that I employ in the book: a kind of an emergency wartime frame. Almost all climate communicators, until very recently, say, “Don’t use that language. Be positive. That’s too negative. It’s too scary. Don’t do it.” And I was curious: I wanted to know, well, what does the public actually think of that framing?
I also was feeling frustrated that so many of the solutions are individual, right? What are you individually willing to do to tackle climate change, or are you individually willing to pay a carbon tax, or something like that, when, in fact, tackling climate change, like the war, are an inherently collective enterprise which I believe has to be state led.
But the other thing I wanted to get at was – you know, I interviewed many politicians and political insiders for my book. And I wasn’t interested in talking to climate deniers, right? I only wanted to interview politicians who claimed to get it but still their governments didn’t act like they got it. And when you press those folks – mostly good folks, by the way; I want to emphasize this – one way or another, they kind of fall back on some variation of the claim, “Oh, well, you’ve got to meet the public where they’re at, and they’re not there.” Now, to Joel’s earlier point, I am trying to say in the book, well, that’s not what the – the leaders we remember from the Second World War didn’t do that. They took the public where they needed to go. But still, I wanted to test the presumption.
And the overall takeaway in the poll is that those politicians were wrong. They were not giving the public the credit they were due, and that, in fact, the public was ahead of our politics when it came to both understanding the climate crisis to be an emergency and to their willingness to embrace bold actions. And the support for those bold climate actions went from a high Québec to a low in your province – probably not surprising to you – and yet, even in your province, the support for bold action was very hearteningly strong.
And so part of what I’m trying to share in the book is to say to the rest of the country: Don’t let Jason Kenney define the political culture of Alberta. And don’t paint them all with one broad brush, because there’s something more interesting going on there.
So just to give you an example, 58 percent of Albertans report that they either think about climate change often or are getting really anxious about it or increasingly worried. Forty-seven percent of Albertans believe climate change is now an emergency or likely will be one in the next few years. Sixty-seven percent of Albertans agree climate change represents a major threat to our children and grandchildren. Amazingly, 50 percent of Albertans said they either support or can accept phasing out the extraction and export of fossil fuels over the next 20 to 30 years.
And to Shannon Phillip’s point, when I offered, in the poll, the definition of the Green New Deal, 72 percent of Canadians thought it sounded great, and 56 percent of Albertans said they liked the sound of it too, and only 21 percent of them opposed it.
So those are pretty heartening results. Now, I want to acknowledge, though, that the public opinion picture is confusing. Part of what angers me about the messaging of Rachel Notley or Justin Trudeau is they’re effectively saying to the public, “You don’t have to choose. We can take climate action and double down on the oilsands.” And that’s a very attractive message – not just to Albertans, but to all Canadians. And so you end up with these very contradictory results where people say, yes, they want bold action, and they also like supporting the oilsands.
Similarly, you find – across the country, not just in Alberta – the level of basic climate literacy is very, very low, and this speaks to how poorly the government has led in terms of public education and outreach. Only half of Canadians understand that the main source of climate change is the combustion and burning of fossil fuels. So we’ve got a lot of work to do in terms of some basic climate literacy.
Joel: You write that the Second World War fundamentally changed people’s expectations of what they were due and what could be accomplished, and this is in sharp contrast to our own time, where the focus for many politicians seems to be reducing or diminishing people’s expectations from the state and society. I was wondering if you could get into a little more detail about what were people’s expectations like as the work concluded, and what role did the CCF play in raising these expectations?
Seth: I feel like I’ve given you a taste of this already in terms of the Marsh report being written and the early social programs that start to get promised and that that was, in fact, very important to the mobilization and recruitment and enlistment efforts that were underway.
They also had to make a promise specifically to returning soldiers. And I actually want to emphasize this for a moment because I think it’s very relevant to a society like Alberta’s, where so many people feel their economic security and employment to be tied to the fossil fuel sector. Almost as soon as the war had begun, senior politicians and civil servants in Ottawa started planning for their return and reentry into a peacetime economy. And they start to develop new programs: They start to develop income support programs; they start to develop housing support programs; they start to develop postsecondary education and training programs. Ultimately, these all combine into what was called the Veterans Charter. To put it really simply, the Veterans Charter transformed Canadian society. It completely transformed the postsecondary sector in Canada. It almost doubled the number of people attending postsecondary education institutions in Canada for a generation and changed the lives of thousands of people who never would’ve imagined going to university, in terms of those returning soldiers. And the scope and ambition of what they did was remarkable, right?
So let me just give you these numbers again. The population of Canada at the time was a little over 11 million. Over a million Canadians enlisted, and over a million were engaged in military production. All those people had to be trained up. They had to be reintegrated into peacetime after the war. That is far, far more people than are currently employed in the fossil fuel industry in Canada today, even though we’re a population more than three times larger.
So the point I’m trying to make is, you know, we can quibble over exactly what form all of these just transition programs need to take, but let’s just appreciate, for the moment, the level of ambition of what we did then and just start from the premise that, if we could do that then, by what logic can’t we offer that kind of transition support again today?
But you also asked about the CCF, and that is an important piece of it. The CCF also started the war with their own kind of threat denial, right? They were split about entry into the war. But in due course, they were all on board. And then the CCF starts to make some huge political gains during the war. They win almost all the by-elections that happen during the war. Of course, they form government – you know, they made gains in Ontario; they made gains in British Columbia; and then, of course, they form government for the first time in Canadian history during the war in Saskatchewan.
And then, perhaps most interestingly, near the end of the war, we had a federal election in 1945. So the war’s coming to an end; it’s not over yet. The election results of those who were serving abroad, those ballots went more for the CCF than any other political party. So that’s the changing political landscape, and so if you’re the Mackenzie King government, a big piece of why you’re bringing in the Veterans Charter and why you’re presenting the Marsh report up to the public as a promise is because these guys are breathing down your neck.
Kate: So here in Alberta, it’s kind of a fun political sport to blame all of our problems on Ottawa. It functions really well to distract people from the disastrous policymaking and political decisions that happen on the provincial level. And moreover, you know, Alberta’s political landscape has been made more strange because the oil boom covered up a phenomenon that was being felt very deeply and very keenly everywhere else. The failure of neoliberal policy, particularly after the 2008 crash, didn’t really hit Alberta and wasn’t really felt in a pronounced way here, unlike much of the rest of the world.
So my question for you is, what can be done about Alberta, and what is to be done about Alberta? Should we just cancel it and split it in three so that British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories can each have a piece?
Seth: Mm-hmm. Well, first of all, I think your observation is quite right. And actually, when I interviewed Gil McGowan for the book, and I quote him in the book – the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour – he says almost exactly what you just said in terms of the fact that Albertans were sort of spared the reality of the neoliberal experiment because of the oil boom and are now coming to all of that economic anxiety late to the game.
But here’s what I’m trying to argue in the book. So first of all, confederation is a challenge in terms of climate action. We are a very decentralized federation – arguably the most decentralized federation in the industrialized world – and that does complicate matters. And it complicates matters because, while the overall Canadian economy is not heavily dependent on oil and gas, pockets of the country are – in particular your pocket and Saskatchewan and Newfoundland. And that complicates matters. There’s a couple things I want to say about this.
One is, it’s true that sometimes people say, “Oh, poor Justin Trudeau. He’s got to contend with Jason Kenney and Scott Moe,” and, you know, poor him. And the reality check, and the historic reality check that I offer in the book, is, you know, Mackenzie King had it pretty rough too. He had to deal with Maurice Duplessis; “Bible Bill” Aberhart, in your province; Mitch Hepburn in Ontario; Duff Pattullo in my province. These were notoriously big personalities, and at least half of them really hated his guts. And yet, something remarkable happened, and this is to my overall point in the book that, when we accept emergencies and recognize them to be the emergencies that they are, remarkable things happen. And in World War II, once all those premiers appreciated and recognized the emergency that we faced, what they actually ended up doing is forfeiting all authority over individual and corporate taxation to the federal government for the duration of the war. And that just makes for such a remarkable contrast to the kind of man-baby temper tantrums we see now about something as modest as carbon pricing, because these guys don’t get the emergency.
But we do have to recognize that Alberta faces a challenge and that Canada needs to figure this out with Alberta. Thirty-eight percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are from Alberta – way more than the share of your population. Thirty-eight percent. And that means there’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done in terms of economic transition in Alberta.
So I actually propose something in the book – forgive me, it’s a bit wonky – but I actually think there should be a new federal transfer that I would call the “Climate Emergency Just Transition Transfer.” But unlike most transfers, which are divvied up based on population, we would allocate this transfer based on greenhouse gas emissions. So if Alberta is responsible for 38 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions, we would freeze that in time, and for the next number of years, Alberta would get 38 percent of the money. And I’m talking a lot of money. I think this transfer should be something in the order of $20-$40 billion a year. So this would be a lot of money – 38 percent of that.
But here’s the catch: We wouldn’t send the money to Jason Kenney, because, no offense, he shouldn’t be trusted when it comes to this. I would envision instead that there would be just transition agencies established in every province and they would be jointly governed by representatives of the feds, the province, municipalities, Indigenous nations, other civil society people and climate experts. But it would allow each province to decide together, collaboratively, what makes the most sense here: What kind of climate investment infrastructure do we need? What kind of retraining do we need? And it’s going to look a little different in every province, based on their GHD profiles, really.
But for all of the people who are anxious about this transition and whose jobs are tied to fossil fuels and who, over the years, have heard a lot of promises of just transition – which, in fairness, are often hollow – this would be real big money on the table, audacious programs that could give people comfort that we’re serious about this transition.
Joel: You write a fair amount about the Crown corporations that were used particularly in the Second World War. Crown corporations generally are an economic and policy tool that seems to be woefully neglected these days. Not only can they force competition where companies would otherwise engage in cartel-like price-fixing, but they also discipline companies into behaving due to the potential threat of getting nationalized if for some reason their sector is not particularly efficient. Could you tell us a bit about why Crown corporations were so useful in the mobilization for the Second World War?
Seth: Yes. Yeah. This is actually one of my favourite parts of the story in my book. First of all, let’s appreciate for a moment the speed and scale of the military production that occurred in the Second World War in Canada. Prior to the war, there was virtually nothing in the way of military production in Canada, and in the space of six years, we produced 750 ships, thereabouts. We go from having basically a nonexistent air force to producing 16,000 military aircraft and ultimately producing the fourth-largest air force in the world. We produced 800,000 military vehicles – more than Germany, Italy, and Japan combined. All from a population of 11 million people. Like, it’s jaw-dropping what we did as a country on the production side in the Second World War. And the guy who oversaw all of this, widely viewed as the most powerful minister in the Mackenzie King government, is this guy C. D. Howe.
Now, there’s a delicious irony here, because I used to be with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and most of us who know the guy’s name know it now because there’s a right-wing think tank in Toronto named for the guy, and often the CCPA would find – we’d find ourselves in debates with them. And to be clear, C. D. Howe is no leftie. He’s on the right wing of the Liberal Party. He came from the private sector. He made lots of money in the private sector before going into politics. But he becomes seized with the task of military production, and I describe him as an engineer in a hurry. He was an engineer by training. He actually built and designed many of the wheat elevators that dot your province, and that’s where he’d made his money before the war. And he’s not super ideological, so he just wants to get the job done. He’s happy to give contracts to the private sector, but any time the private sector couldn’t quickly do what he needed them to do, he created another Crown corporation. And in the course of the war, he creates 28 new Crown corporations to expedite that military production, which is remarkable. And as you say, the logic – there was different logic to when he went the Crown corporation route.
But to your earlier point, one of it was that he liked to have a Crown corporation in each major sector – so, in shipbuilding, in aircraft, in armaments – as a way of having a public-sector comparator. Appreciate that, because there had been no military production before the war and he’s now letting these huge contracts to the private sector, but nobody knows what things actually cost, and so you’re vulnerable to getting bilked by these guys. And so the benefit of having a Crown corporation is you can get some inside intel on what things actually cost.
So I have some fun in the book applying the same logic to the present, to the climate emergency, and say, well, by the same logic that drove C. D. Howe, what would a new generation of Crown corporations look like today that would help us expedite what we have to do? And I have about a three-page list of them.
Another contrast, for a moment, compared to those 28 Crown corporations, Justin Trudeau, in his time in office, has created two Crown corporations: the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which is basically a privatization vehicle for infrastructure; and the second of which I am sure you can probably figure out, but it’s the one that makes us all proud owners of a six-year-old leaky pipeline. It’s the Trans Mountain pipeline corporation.
Seth: So, you know, what a study in contrast in terms of, one guy gets emergencies, and another one who’s not there yet.
Kate: So the Second World War basically ended the Great Depression in Canada by fairly suddenly incurring full employment. What effects did full employment have domestically in Canada?
Seth: Well, it transformed the balance of power and the labour movement in Canada. And this is a – you know, this is a point – there’s a part of my book that’s really an appeal to working people in the labour movement, and basically what I’m trying to say is: Yeah, there’s a lot of unknowns before us, and yeah, it’s a little scary. But recognize that transformations like this are transformative, and often for the better. So many of the early – you know, some of the key early wins around union shops and certification and health and safety stuff, they all happened in the Second World War. In my province, the Shipbuilders Local in Vancouver went from being a very small outfit before the war, to becoming the single largest union local in the country. The longshoremen in Vancouver kicked out their fake company union in the Second World War, and they become the ILWU. The IWA, the woodworkers’ union, becomes the third largest in the country. Like, across the board, the labour movement is transformed by its Second World War experience, and we see real gains in the Second World War.
Joel: We’ve seen recently some opinions in the business press suggest that Canada’s debt levels, due to some of the measures taken to deal with COVID-19, basically risk making the country’s finances unsustainable. Could you tell us a bit about how our current financial situation compares to, perhaps, the country’s books in the Second World War? What was our debt-to-GDP ratio then versus now, and is there a point at which we should be afraid or very afraid?
Seth: We should not be afraid. Let’s talk about debt-to-GDP. So there’s lots that we should be deeply worried about right now in terms of the health emergency and in terms of the impact on the overall economy and unemployment, but debt levels is one thing that we should not be worried about. So it is true that the federal government has undertaken a huge amount of spending to confront COVID – to their credit, actually. Unlike climate, they are treating COVID as an emergency, and good on them. And we are going to see, this year, Canada’s debt-to-GDP level increase from about 35 percent to about 50 percent, which is a big jump in a single year. It still doesn’t hold a candle to what we did in the Second World War. And at the end of the Second World War, the debt-GDP ratio was more than double that. It was 108 percent. And it did not spell economic ruin; in fact, it marked the beginning of a three-decade period of [unclear 00:37:17] economic performance we’ve known as a country. So I don’t think we should be worried.
The other interesting thing about it, though, is, in some very fortunate timing, the Bank of Canada had been created only a couple of years before World War II, and it assumed a key role. And so while the government was selling victory bonds during the war to the Canadian public and Canadian corporations in the private sector, an awful lot of it was also being bought up by the Bank of Canada, and that is exactly what we’ve seen in the last few months. The role of the Bank of Canada during COVID has been unlike any that it has been since the Second World War. I think that’s one of the great underreported stories, actually, of the COVID response. The Bank of Canada has been buying up about $5 billion in government securities a week since the start of the pandemic, and almost all of that increase in the government’s debt-to-GDP ratio is held right now by the Bank of Canada. The Bank of Canada holding of government debt has increased from about 15 percent to over 30 percent. It’s remarkable. What that means in practice is that not only are we selling bonds today at extremely low interest rates – less than one percent – but even that, we are effectively paying to ourselves, the Bank of Canada being a Crown corporation. And so anything that the Bank of Canada earns at the end of the year returns to the federal treasury, to all of us.
And so to me, what we have seen in these few months of the economic response – the government and Bank of Canada fiscal and monetary response – really, the cat’s out of the bag now. After all of these years of living with this austerity mindset and being told, you know, the money’s not there to tackle homelessness and to tackle climate change, what they’ve just shown us is what was possible all along, if the political will had been there to see these emergencies for what they are.
Kate: In your book, you write that Indigenous land defenders who are asserting their rights and blocking new fossil fuel development are essentially buying everyone important time by basically giving our society as a whole more time for our politics to come to grips with reality. How do you imagine the continued role of Indigenous people and First Nations in a climate mobilization?
Seth: Yeah, thanks for asking. The chapter on Indigenous leadership in the climate mobilization is actually one of my favourites, and there are these fascinating historical references to – in terms of the Indigenous role in the Second World War. You mentioned early on about how it was important to the Mackenzie King government that they independently declare war, right? And so in the Second World War, they declared war a week later. The Iroquois Confederacy also independently declared war, during World War II, on Germany and the Axis powers.
I guess the segue point I would make is this: While I was writing one day, I remember hearing a news report come across from the CBC about the death of Louis Levi Oakes, the last of the Mohawk code talkers. So the code talkers were these Indigenous soldiers in the Second World War who, during the war, the Allied codes kept getting broken by the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese forces. And at a certain point, the Americans discovered that, when they had Navajo code talkers, the Axis powers couldn’t break the code. And they ended up recruiting Indigenous people from about three dozen language groups, including a number of Canadian Indigenous language speakers, into the signal corps, and their languages were ultimately called the “unbreakable” code. And it just – all of a sudden – you know, I heard that, I was like, oh, my goodness, look at this. These languages that both Canada and the US have spent generations trying to expunge from [unclear 00:41:29], like, literally beating them out of children in residential schools, end up being key to certain victories during the war, particularly in the Pacific.
And then you fast-forward, as you just referenced, to today, when our politics just dithers and dodges in terms of climate and having a coherent policy. And in the space of that, the assertion of Indigenous rights and title over and over and over again is buying us time, and stalling and blocking the expansion of fossil fuel projects until such time as our mainstream politics finally gets the emergency.
So that’s one piece of it, and it’s why defending and honouring rights and title is a key piece of the mobilization, why the kind of solidarity actions we saw on behalf of the Wet’suwet’en before the pandemic were so both inspiring and important.
The other piece of the equation is that a lot of the most inspiring renewable energy projects in Canada are happening under Indigenous leadership, and that needs to be supported too.
Joel: The Second World War saw some truly awful domestic racism and anti-Semitism and border policing occur, and a climate mobilization modeled on the kind of war metaphor entails a certain view of the nation state, which might carry with it some potential dangers, particularly given anti-immigration rhetoric that is circulating. How can we avoid and new border imperialism in a climate mobilization?
Seth: Yeah, really important question. I mean, the short answer is by going eyes wide open into the risks. There are always risks with the climate mobilization model that I’m proposing, and yet we have to do it, because time is of the essence. The point is not to let those cautions prevent us from doing what we have to do, but rather to remember them, acknowledge them, and commit not to repeat them. So this is what I try to do in the book.
Most of the book, of course, is lauding this amazing story of what we did in the Second World War and the institutions we created and the military production we ramped up and so on. But there are a couple of chapters of the book that then highlight the cautionary tales – the fact that a number of those Crown corporations that I am lauding left a toxic legacy on First Nations territory, and there was the incredible squashing of civil liberties. There were the internments, of course, particularly of – both of political internments and also Japanese Canadians. And perhaps most relevant to the climate emergency was the systematic slamming of the door to refugees, particularly Jewish refugees, before, during, and after the war.
And so I tell that story in the book as a way to flag, well, let’s remember this, because the issue of climate migration, given the climate breakdown that’s already baked in, is going to be one of the defining issues of the next 50 years. And we have to decide how we’re going to respond. When I make this point, I quote the remarkable Indigenous child advocate Cindy Blackstock. A number of years ago I heard her speak in Vancouver, and she offered up a definition of reconciliation which has always stuck with me – very simple definition – which was that reconciliation means not having to say you’re sorry twice. Which is to say: Learn from your mistakes, and make sure you don’t do it again. And that, to me, is the takeaway around the question of migration and refugees. We’ve got to recognize what we did, the shameful way we acted in the Second World War and make sure that we don’t have to say we’re sorry again.
Kate: Seth, thank you so much for joining us here on the Alberta Advantage for a discussion of your new book, A Good War. If people want to learn more about your work, buy a copy of your book, or even join a virtual book launch in their province, where can they go to do so or to get information?
Seth: Well, first of all, to get the book, of course, you should call up your local independent bookstore and order the book. You can also get it through my website. And, I should say, there’s the hard copy of the book; there’s also e-books, and there’s actually a 19-hour audiobook, read by an actor, that you can order as well if that’s your thing. But it’s all accessible through my website, which is just sethklein.ca.
And I have been engaged in this virtual book tour. I had hoped to go across the whole country, but of course that wasn’t possible given the pandemic. And my Alberta book launch is Monday, October 5th, in the evening, but you need to register, and you can do that by going to sethklein.ca and just scroll down to the bottom where you see the book events, and there’s a link there to register for that.
Kate: Amazing. Once again, thank you so much for joining us here on the Alberta Advantage.
Seth: Thank you.