A post I had forgotten about has started turning up in my daily blog “hits” column, a 3-year old post entitled Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men: wouldn’t that be nice! Three full years ago. Long before the January 6 riots in the U.S. Long before we had even heard of COVID, or wearing masks, social distancing, anti-vaxxers, and “circuit breakers”. Long before Mother Nature made it abundantly clear, over and over again, that climate change was real and was going to wreak havoc across the planet. I was primed to write a post this week about how important the gift of kindness is in these stressful times; I had forgotten about how unravelled our world had become prior to the arrival of COVID.
Before I let that post speak for itself – because the message hasn’t really changed – let me remind you of just how powerful a…
But it also works the other way round. Humanitarian catastrophes or, to be more precise, governments’ cruel and irrational responses to them, are triggering ecological disaster. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the construction of border walls.
The wall is described as a “security” measure, but it’s securing Europe not from a threat but against the desperate needs of some of the most vulnerable people on Earth: particularly refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan escaping persecution, torture and mass killing. They have been cruelly exploited by the government of Belarus, which has used them as political weapons. Now, in the depths of winter, they are trapped at the border, freezing and starving, with nowhere to go.
When the Berlin Wall fell, we were promised that this marked the beginning of a new era of freedom. Instead, far more walls have risen than fallen. Since 1990, Europe has built border walls six times longer than the barrier in Berlin. Worldwide, the number of fenced borders has risen from 15 to 70 since the end of the cold war: there are now 47,000 kilometres of hard frontier.
For those trapped at these borders, the cruelties of capitalism are scarcely distinguishable from the cruelties of communism.
The humanitarian effects of these walls are well documented. But their ecological impacts are also devastating. Roads and farmland isolate wildlife, but nothing cuts off some species as effectively as border walls. Just as we understand better than ever before the importance of ecological connectivity, we are carving up and separating habitats at unprecedented speed.
We now know that, even in large reserves, wildlife species can decline towards extinction if they cannot disperse and mix with populations from elsewhere. Their genetic diversity narrows, reducing their breeding success and making them more susceptible to disease. Barriers prevent them from moving as conditions change. Conditions are now changing very quickly, as a result of climate breakdown. A trapped population, in many cases, is a doomed one.
The new wall between Poland and Belarus will, among other grim impacts, slice the Białowieża Forest, the largest ancient woodland in lowland Europe, in two. Already, a temporary barrier of coiled razor wire has been strung through the middle of the forest, blocking the movement of its celebrated populations of bison, wolves, boar, lynx, deer, moose and other wildlife, and preventing bears, which have just started to return, from recolonising the woods.
Yet, despite the best efforts of scientists like Dr Katarzyna Nowak of the Białowieża Geobotanical Station, the massive ecological consequences are widely ignored. There has been no environmental impact assessment of Poland’s wall, in breach of both the EU Habitats Directive and international treaties.
Similar disasters are happening around the world. The border fence erected between Slovenia and Croatia in 2015 could cause the gradual extinction of the lynx in the Dinaric Mountains. The carcasses of deer that died horribly after becoming snagged on its cruel barbs have been found along its length.
The barrier between India and Pakistan has caused a collapse in the population of Kashmir markhor (a rare and remarkable corkscrew-horned wild goat). The longest border fences in the world divide China, Mongolia and Russia from each other. They have isolated remnant populations of wild asses, Mongolian gazelles and other endangered species of the steppes. Trump’s wall, dividing the United States from Mexico, is a threat to several rare mammal species, as well as the pygmy owl, which flies too low to cross the barrier. In the boom-and-bust ecology of the desert, populations survive by recolonising areas after they have been driven out by drought. The wall, in many cases, will make this impossible.
There is a strain of rightwing environmentalism, going back at least 100 years, that equates immigration with pollution. Madison Grant was one of the founders of the US conservation movement, who helped establish its network of national parks. He was also the author of a book called The Passing of the Great Race, published in 1916, which Adolf Hitler described as “my bible”.
Grant believed that in conserving the ecosystems of North America, he was protecting the domain of the Nordic “master race”, that was being “overtaken” in the US by “worthless race types”. As secretary of the Zoological Society, he helped ensure that a kidnapped Congolese man, Ota Benga, was caged with the apes on display at the Bronx Zoo.
Not only do these attitudes conflict with all that is best about environmentalism – its empathy and consideration towards all people and all non-human life – but the policies of separation and containment they promote are ecologically disastrous. Though border walls cause a great deal of death and suffering, and are only partially effective at their stated purpose of excluding people, they are wholly effective in excluding many other species.
It’s not as if anyone who cares about people needs more arguments against the vicious policies that separate us from each other. But there are more arguments, and they are powerful. Border walls are accelerating the extinction crisis and making ecosystems inviable. Just as humanity knows no boundaries, nor does wildlife. There is no conflict between caring about the planet and caring about its people. In fact, you can’t have one without the other.
I was going to write a post about the importance of kindness this COVID Christmas 2.0 – perhaps the most valuable gift we can give, especially during such trying times – but that will have to wait a few days. Instead, I’m going to share a letter to the editor in our local paper today; […]
Remy, the Harvard Humanities cat, has an orange coat, a focused agenda, and a strong scholarly mission. He spends his mornings in the library, his afternoons at the physics lab, and he pulls all-nighters at the law school.
No, Remy doesn’t investigate particle physics, or worry about free will and legal responsibility. Remy was born a cat, and this biological fact predestines him to see the world through the inborn prism of his feline cognition. Certain notions come to him naturally. Remy can reckon the trajectory of his chipmunk victims with exquisite precision. But it is doubtful he will ever show remorse for their misfortunes.
Not only do certain concepts fall beyond his grasp, but Remy is unaware of his blindness. He will live his entire life utterly oblivious to these cognitive confinements. These epistemic shackles arise for an obvious reason: the biological fact that Remy is a cat innately limits what he can grasp, including his awareness of his condition.
But if biology can innately limit the mind of a cat, could we humans, also creatures of nature, be subject to a similar destiny? Could nature predispose us to innately hold certain notions and ignore others? Worse yet, could biology conceal from us who we are?
This possibility seems, at first, farfetched. This is not because we believe our cognition is infallible – the eternal search for our misplaced car keys is testament enough that our memory and attention are limited. We also readily accept that these cognitive limitations arise from our biology: to forget, we say, is human. But such biological imperfections, it seems, are superficial and transitory. They merely limit the momentary capacity of the vessel that holds our information.
Much like we lose track of the glasses that are right on our nose, these basic concepts are so deeply ingrained in our psyche that it is difficult for us to recognise they exist
What’s in the vessel, by contrast, seems boundless. People tend to believe that their ideas – the notions they know and believe – have no innate biological limits. Ideas arise from one’s mind, not nature. And it is this that sets humans apart from our feline friend. Remy is seen as the blind slave of biological instincts, whereas we, the enlightened, inhabit the epistemic land of the free.
These common intuitions about what our ideas are and how they arise – from nature or nurture – constitute a psychological theory. For the most part, this theory is tacit: few of us ever stop to ponder these questions. But this tacit psychological theory encompasses our self-image. It depicts human nature as we see it. This is who we think we are.
Like all theories, however, this intuitive psychological theory must be spelled out and evaluated by evidence. How accurate is our self-image? Does it indeed surpass that of the cat?
To find out, we need a psychological vision test of sorts. Vision tests comprise of two parts: we first evaluate our subject, and then compare it against some normative benchmarks. This same logic applies to tests of self-vision. We first need to gauge our self-image, that is, our psychological intuitions about how our ideas arise. Next, we can compare these intuitions against the findings emerging from psychological science.
We will start with some of our most basic notions, such as number (1+1=2), morality (helping others is good) or language (why do we blog, not lbog?). How do we know all this? Do young infants tacitly maintain the same?
When laypeople are asked this question, they believe the answer is obvious: I have learned it somewhere, much like I have learned to read and drive, and have memorised the facts of history. Likewise, when shown how one could probe into the tacit knowledge of young infants (via carefully designed behavioural experiments) and asked to predict the outcomes (would infants show command of these notions?), people categorically respond: ‘No way!’
But this confidence is unfounded. Research has documented each of these notions in very young infants, some of them evident in newborns. These results are hard to believe, and for good reason. Much like we lose track of the glasses that are right on our nose, these basic concepts are so deeply ingrained in our psyche that it is difficult for us to recognise they exist. Yet we would certainly notice if these notions were violated. For example, if you were to see a flying object disintegrate in midair (as in the tragic space shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986), you’d immediately recognise that something went awfully awry. You’d be surprised precisely because you know that objects are cohesive.
We assume that abstract ideas must be learned, but we are all too happy to presume innate emotions
Remarkably, so do newborn infants. This becomes evident when researchers compare infants’ responses with possible and impossible trajectories of moving objects. Newborns are likewise equipped with a basic understanding of number (they treat four things alike, and distinguish them from 12 things, no matter if they are sounds or lights) and of language – their brains process ‘good’ syllables, such as blog, more readily than ‘bad’ ones, such as lbog. Slightly older infants prefer characters that help others to the ‘bad guys’. Most laypeople, however, believe that they don’t. It’s clear, then, that people often presume that ideas – notions such as object, number, morality and the rudimentary structure of language – cannot possibly be innate.
To be sure, people do not uniformly deny all forms of innateness. When asked to intuit about the origins of emotions, people assert that infants are born preferring happy faces to angry ones, and they believe that the physical expressions of emotions are universal. For example, they expect remote hunter-gatherers to recognise emotions from facial expressions, just as ‘Westerners’ do. Whether infants recognise expressions, and whether people from hunter-gatherer societies share the same repertoire of emotions with ‘Westerners’, is actually disputed. For laypeople, however, the answers here seem obvious. People assume that emotions are inborn, as are our sensory and motor capacities. Yet, as noted, they do not presume the same for abstract ideas.
These results suggest that, much like our friend Remy, we, humans, are in a double bind. Not only do we fail to grasp our psychological reality, but we are often oblivious to our nearsightedness. We assume that abstract ideas must be learned, but we are all too happy to presume innate emotions, for instance. How do these attitudes arise? And why does the notion of ‘innate ideas’ have the ring of an oxymoron?
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One possibility is that the blame lies solely with our many learning experiences. Another is that we worry that innate differences between individuals could engender discrimination. These suggestions do explain some of our troubles with innateness, but they fail to explain why we are specifically resistant to innate ideas. Indeed, it’s hard to see how an innate understanding of ‘object’ could lead to social injustice, nor is it evident why the notion of ‘object’ is considered more amenable to learning than ‘happiness’.
I believe the real reason lies deeper. We are the victims of an epistemic conspiracy that obscures from us the workings of our own minds. The instigators are not a foreign political power, some alien invaders or a vicious AI that has colonised our brains. Rather, the conspiracy arises entirely from within, and its agitators are two fundamental principles of human cognition.
One cognitive principle – essentialism – is the belief that every living thing is what it is because it is born with some special ‘essence’ that defines it as such. Remy the cat is what he is because he has a catly essence that he inherited from his feline parents. Critically, that essence is embodied – a tiny portion in the cat’s ‘insides’.
But a second principle – dualism – suggests to us that our minds (including the ideas that they hold) are ethereal, distinct from our material bodies. It is precisely because we think of minds as ethereal that many believe that minds persist in the afterlife, after the demise of the material body. So per dualism, minds aren’t made of bodily matter.
This intuitive psychology leads us to accept the innateness of emotions, sensations and actions, but reject the innateness of ideas
Now, dualism and essentialism aren’t just a Western invention. Both principles have been documented in children and adults across cultures. Both have good evolutionary reasons for existing, as they guide our initial understandings of objects, the minds of others, and living things. But when we instinctively apply these principles to our thinking about our own psyches, they collide to distort our reasoning.
If we believe that the mind is ethereal, distinct from the body, then ideas (notions such as ‘helping others is good’ or ‘objects are cohesive’) must be disembodied as well. Per essentialism, however, we know that innate traits such as eye colour must be embodied. So, if ideas are disembodied, and innate traits must be embodied, it therefore follows that (in our minds, anyway), ideas cannot be innate.
This theory also explains why it is that people are far more amenable to accepting the innateness of emotions, sensations and motor plans. Each of these psychological states can be linked to a bodily organ – that happiness and anger manifest in the face, that we sense with our eyes, ears and mouth, and that we act by moving our bodies. And since essentialism is satisfied, innateness, here, does not seem implausible.
This intuitive psychology (specifically, intuitive dualism and essentialism), then, leads us to accept the innateness of emotions, sensations and actions, but reject the innateness of ideas. And if intuitive dualism and essentialism are innately constrained (inasmuch as they arise from innate core knowledge – an uncertain, but not implausible possibility), then it is our innate ideas themselves that make us believe that ideas cannot be innate.
Research suggests that the conspiracy is real, and the implications are far-reaching. Not only do people presume that ideas cannot be innate, but this presumption is demonstrably linked to their conviction that ideas are ethereal. These results suggest that the ‘nature-nurture wars’ that have consumed our intellectual life for millennia could be tainted by biases that arise from within.
The conflict between dualism and essentialism also leads to a whole host of misconceptions about personal and social matters, from why we worry about an AI takeover to our irrational fascination with the brain; from why we wrongly view affective psychiatric disorders as destiny, whereas cognitive disorders such as dyslexia seem only ‘in the mind’; even the notion of ‘the true me’ falls victim. All these views are stories that we tell about our human nature. And in the best tradition of Greek tragedy, it now appears that we, the storytellers, are innately blind.
While blindness is in our cards, our destiny is not sealed. Cognition, after all, is comprised of multiple ‘instruments’ – think a jazz band, not a solo sax. We can dampen some of the false tunes of core cognition by attending to the instruments of reason. And we certainly should, lest that sax solo lead us to the garden path of irrationality, wreak havoc on our science and technology, and promote social prejudice. But a more accurate understanding of our human nature requires that we take a hard look within.
The crisis over Bill 21, it is increasingly well understood, stands at the centre of a larger crisis: the crisis of the notwithstanding clause.
Bill 21 would not be the crisis it is, after all, had François Legault’s government in Quebec not invoked the clause within its text. Without this “loophole,” as the Prime Minister has called it, Quebec’s religious minorities could have called upon the protection of the Charter of Rights, and of the courts as its interpreter. As it is, they are on their own.
Nor is this the only recent example of the notwithstanding clause being used not as the emergency safety-valve its proponents intended, but as a crude prophylactic against the Charter. The Legault government has also used it to pre-emptive effect with respect to Bill 96, the language law, while Doug Ford’s government in Ontario has lately deployed it to rescue its campaign finance law, having earlier publicly contemplated its use in another matter.
It is clear the two governments, with the support of conservative radicals in other provinces – it would not be surprising to see the Kenney or Moe governments join them – are bent on normalizing the clause, not merely to preserve this or that bill from judicial scrutiny, but for the purpose of a more general evisceration of the Charter, which they have always disdained as an unacceptable constraint on the sovereignty of their respective legislatures.
No mere controversy of the moment, then, this is a threat to the stability of the constitutional order, as Bill 21 is belatedly compelling us to recognize. Writing in the online magazine The Line, Andrew Potter, the former Ottawa Citizen editor and professor at McGill University, argues that the increasing recourse to the clause amounts to a unilateral amendment of the terms of the 1982 Constitution, and the careful balance it struck – between provincial rights and individual rights, and between the provinces and the federal government.
Mr. Potter makes the familiar argument that 1982 was a compromise between “the original concept of a federal Canada,” where citizens’ political identities are primarily local, mediated through and by their provincial governments, and “a newer understanding of Canadians as individual rights bearers with political and social identities prior to the state,” embodied in the Charter – a consciousness of common liberties that tends, inevitably, to a broader pan-Canadian identity.
The notwithstanding clause was to be the bridge between the two: if the Charter was unacceptable to its critics without it, the clause was acceptable to Charter advocates only on the understanding that it would rarely be used. That understanding having been broken, so, in effect, is the constitutional order created in 1982.
If the Constitution is to be restored to balance, then, the notwithstanding clause will have to be returned to its cage. But how? Abolishing it would require a constitutional amendment, and is therefore – thanks to the provinces’ capture of the amending formula – impossible. But so is any substantial restriction on its use or scope, such as the Quebec Liberal MP Anthony Housefather has proposed.
Mr. Potter suggests that Ottawa “declare its flat, unequivocal, and all-encompassing opposition” to the clause’s use, not only at the federal level, but also by the provinces: “always and everywhere, no matter the province, no matter the government, no matter the reason.” Yet he admits that this, too, would have little effect, beyond the symbolic.
I think we can go further. We can start by reminding ourselves that the tension at the heart of the 1982 constitutional debates was nothing new. It was no less present at the country’s founding. Representative though they may have been of the provinces that sent them, the Fathers of Confederation were also Victorian liberals, as much the disciples of John Locke as the American founders, and as conscious as they of the need to protect individual and minority rights – not only for their own sake, but as the basis of the new “political nationality,” transcending local identities, many of them spoke of creating.
Responsibility for the protection of minority rights from local majorities, they were equally clear, was to be vested in the federal government. And the instrument of this was to be the federal power of disallowance, as described in Sections 56 and 90 of the 1867 Constitution. “Under the Confederation scheme,” Sir John A. Macdonald advised delegates to the Quebec conference in 1864, “we shall … be able to protect the minority by having a powerful central government.” George Brown likewise defended disallowance as a kind of appeal court for the victims of local injustice.
In the first decades after confederation, disallowance was used dozens of times. Since then, it is true, it has fallen into disuse, in the face of growing opposition from the provinces, and, latterly, the “legal liberalism” movement of the late 19th century, which held that rights were more properly adjudicated by the courts. Over time, and especially after 1982, the original guarantors of rights, the federal government and disallowance, gave way to the courts and the Charter; a new constitutional balance was struck, in place of the old.
But if the Charter, thanks to the increasing use of the notwithstanding clause, has become something of a dead letter – a Charter that cannot protect people from being denied employment on the basis of their religion is not much use at all – then neither the original constitutional balance nor that of the 1982 constitution remain. Perhaps the instrument by which the first was achieved can be the means of restoring the second.
The federal government could declare, ideally in the form of legislation, not only that it would never use the notwithstanding clause itself, but that it would use the power of disallowance to veto any law, passed by any provincial legislature, that invoked the notwithstanding clause. It’s too late to apply that remedy to Bill 21 – the Constitution requires that it be invoked within a year of a bill’s passage. But it could be used to prevent future Bill 21s.
Disallowance has not, as some have claimed, become void from disuse. The last time it was used, it is true, was in 1943 (in defence of another religious minority, Alberta’s Hutterites, whom a provincial law would have forbidden from buying land). But constitutional texts do not simply expire with the passage of time, particularly those, like disallowance, that were an essential part of the original Confederation bargain. Is there, nevertheless, a convention against its use? A convention applies, according to the accepted definition, only if all of the players, on all sides, agree to be bound by it. But the federal government has never acknowledged that disallowance is obsolete.
Invoking disallowance in defence of the Charter would be controversial, no doubt, but so what? So is, or should be, notwithstanding. There is, indeed, a pleasing symmetry between the two. Federalism 101 dictates that disallowance should not be used except in the most exceptional circumstances. Neither should notwithstanding. The point, ideally, is that neither would be: disallowance would be limited to bills invoking the notwithstanding clause. If provinces wish to avoid the former, they need only refrain from the latter.
In time we can discuss removing both from the Constitution. Until then, we might consider the merits of disallowance as an instrument of domestic statecraft: recalling the old constitutional order into existence to redress the balance of the new.
Innu First Nations have cherished the Magpie, also known as Mutuhekau Shipu, as a highway, pharmacy and place of healing for thousands of yearsJOEL BALSAMPHOTOS AND VIDEOS BY STEPHANIE FODENCONTRIBUTED TO THE GLOBE AND MAILPUBLISHED DECEMBER 19, 2021156 COMMENTSSHAREBOOKMARK
Rita Mestokosho, an Innu writer and poet, looks over the rapids on the Magpie River.
You can hear the Magpie River long before you see it.
The boom of thrashing current slicing through pristine boreal forest roughly 1,000 kilometres from Montreal is familiar to Rita Mestokosho. The Innu writer and poet has fond memories of swimming in calmer sections of the stretching waters. To her and others in her community, it’s more than just a river, it’s a relative – one she knows as her “sister.”
“When I am close with her, I feel like I am with my ancestors,” Ms. Mestokosho said. “She’s alive and I am alive.”
The Magpie, which snakes 200 kilometres into the Saint Lawrence River on Quebec’s Côte Nord, is starkly powerful – a wild body of water in an increasingly-developed North America. Innu First Nations have cherished the Magpie, also known as Mutuhekau Shipu, as a highway, pharmacy, and place of healing for thousands of years.
Traditional territory of the Innu
Gulf of Saint
Saint Lawrence River
MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS;
OPEN GOVERNMENT; GOVERNMENT OF QUEBEC; NATIVE LAND DIGITAL
The Magpie’s power has also attracted speculation for future hydroelectric dams. But Innu, environmental activists, and regional politicians are fighting back with a new strategy that’s inspiring protection efforts across the world: the Magpie is now legally considered a person.
For at least 2,000 years, Innu hunters traversed rivers in Quebec’s Côte-Nord region to harvest caribou inland. But since the 1960s, their nomadic lifestyle shifted with the creation of reserves sprinkled along the shoreline, including Ekuanitshit, where Ms. Mestokosho lives.
Ekuanitshit sits on the shoreline of the Magpie.❮❯
Meanwhile, many of the region’s rivers were utilized for their hydroelectric energy potential, including the Magpie River, where a small dam was first built in 1961 and reinvigorated in 2007.
The dam near the mouth of the Magpie River in late fall.
In its 2009-2013 strategic plan, Hydro-Quebec targeted the river as a site of future dams, but protest arose from Ekuanitshit, environmental activists, and those worried that the river’s epic rapids – named some of the world’s best for whitewater rafting by National Geographic – would be destroyed.
Shanice Mollen-Picard and Uapukun Mesokosho canoe on the Mingan River in Ekuanitshit.
In 2017, Hydro-Quebec announced the Magpie was no longer in its strategic plans, but it wouldn’t rule out dams forever.
So environmental activists from SNAP Quebec, a chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, presented an innovative plan to ensure the Magpie’s prolonged protection, by acquiring legal personhood status.
First theorized by legal philosophy professor Christopher Stone in the 1972 paper “Should Trees Have Standing,” legal personhood gives natural features rights akin to those of corporations and municipalities though not of people. It has been used for a handful – yet growing – number of natural features from New Zealand’s Whanganui River to Ecuador’s Alpayacu River, and now the Magpie.
In February, joint rulings from the Ekuanitshit band council and MRC Minganie regional authority declared the Magpie a legal person with nine rights including the rights to be free from pollution, to sue, and to have legal guardians – a first in Canada.
“This mechanism we are using for the legal personhood for the river is because the river has a spirit. For us it’s alive,” said Shanice Mollen-Picard, a member of the Ekuanitshit committee that advocated for the personhood definition. “It’s a chance to say to the government that you’re not the only one who’s going to make decisions. We are here and we’re going to stand up and we’re going to protect the river no matter what.”
Ms. Mollen-Picard doesn’t have to look far to see the impact dams can have. The Romaine River, just 20 kilometres from Ekuanitshit along Hwy 138, now has three dams and will soon see a fourth.
“It’s not the river anymore. It’s just four dams,” said Ms. Mollen-Picard, adding that she doesn’t feel comfortable fishing, drinking the water, or eating fruit alongside the Romaine like her ancestors did. “No, that’s not what we want for the Magpie River.”
A aerial view of Romaine-1 Dam on the Romaine River.
The head of MRC Minganie, Luc Noël, said the Romaine dams were necessary for bringing development to Côte-Nord, which he says has historically been underserved by Quebec City. But the next step is to develop the region’s tourism infrastructure and that includes protecting the Magpie River and Anticosti Island, a provincial park registered to apply for UNESCO Heritage status.
“To give legal personhood to a river is a new way to say we want to protect nature and our Indigenous friends were on the same wavelength as us,” Mr. Noël said.
Zelya Mestokosho, Rita Mestokosho’s granddaughter, hikes a trail along the Magpie.
Jean-Charles Piétacho has been Ekuanitshit chief for three decades and disagrees about the necessity of the Romaine. Still, he said working with the regional government to pass environmental protection was significant.
“Thirty years ago, I would never have thought that a mayor or a prefect would be next to me to announce a project of this magnitude.”
Chief Piétacho has been on the front line of pipeline protests in North Dakota and British Columbia and sees legal personhood as a clever alternative to defend his beloved Mutuhekau Shipu. He also wouldn’t rule out using the strategy to protect other rivers if they come under threat.
Chief Jean-Charles Piétacho says he knows his community will stand up to defend the river.
But will the legal personhood distinction work?
Hydro Quebec is still keeping its options open for the future and it’s unclear if suing for building a dam or polluting a river will hold up in court. One potential issue is that Canadian waterways tend to be under federal or provincial jurisdiction.
In other countries, the personhood strategy has had mixed results. A bill of rights for Lake Erie was struck down after farmers concerned they’d be sued if fertilizer leaked into the watershed challenged it in court. Meanwhile in Colombia, the Amazon rainforest has been granted personhood rights, as have Pablo Escobar’s so-called “cocaine” hippos, and there’s a growing list of active campaigns from the Great Barrier Reef to the Saint Lawrence River.
Chief Piétacho said he doesn’t know if the personhood strategy will hold up, but if it doesn’t, he knows his community – especially its young people – will stand up to defend the river.
“If the Crown Corporation ever wants to submit a project for an 800-megawatt hydroelectric dam on the Magpie — listen, we will be there and we won’t be alone.”
Uapukun Mesokosho hugs her niece Zelya Mesokosho as they overlook the Magpie River.
The Magpie River, flowing through pristine forest about 1,000 kilometres from Montreal, has been cherished by Innu First Nations for thousands of years. To prevent future development on the waterway, Innu, environmental activists, and regional politicians have worked to have the Magpie legally considered a person.
If maple syrup stops flowing like it did in the springs of my youth, what will Canada become?
A global maple syrup shortage has led to a massive withdrawal from Quebec’s reserves – showing that Canadians cannot take even our most reliable national icons for granted in an era that will be defined by climate changePETER KUITENBROUWERSPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAILPUBLISHED YESTERDAYUPDATED 20 HOURS AGO
Peter Kuitenbrouwer is a journalist and Registered Professional Forester who holds a Master of Forest Conservation from the University of Toronto.
On the farm in west Quebec where we settled in my childhood, the start of spring felt a lot like winter. My mother, from the Netherlands, and stepfather, from California, decided to make maple syrup, a task at which we had no skill. In March, my siblings and I would tuck our jeansinto our rubber boots and cross snow drifts taller than us to collect sap from buckets that hung from the sugar maple trees. We hauled the sap in white plastic pails to pour in a drum on the tractor. Icy sap sloshed into our boots, where it mixed with snow. My feet froze. I thought spring would never come.
Our recompense would come after dark in the sugar shack. We hung our socks to dry near the warmth of the wood fire that crackled in the evaporator. Steam enveloped us. Sometimes, before bed, we got a sweet sip of fresh hot golden maple syrup.
And so it was that our experiences as kids would mirror the best conditions for producing sap for maple syrup: deep cold, followed by a warm thaw.
Maples, and other trees, function a bit like pumps; they suck in moisture from the earth as they contract in the cold of the night, and expel moisture when warmth comes during the day. In The Maple Sugar Book, our family’s syrup bible written in 1950, Helen and Scott Nearing of Vermont note: “Maple sap, during the sugar-making season, exerts a pressure from a negative or suction pressure of two pounds per square inch to a positive or expulsive pressure of twenty pounds per square inch.” If a warm day follows a cold night and you make a hole in a maple, the sap will flow.
And that sap has flowed so prodigiously here that maple syrup has become intrinsic to Canada’s identity – even before Canada was ever created. In his Histoire de la Nouvelle France of 1609, Marc Lescarbot wrote, “If [Indigenous peoples] are pressed by thirst, they get juice from trees and distil a sweet and very agreeable liquid.” Settlers copied this technique: bore a hole in a maple tree in the spring, collect sap, and boil it for a long time. Forty litres of sap makes one litre of syrup. The maple leaf, the symbol of Canada that appears on our very flag, is vital in the process too: Leaves take water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the air, and through photosynthesis, powered by sunlight, make the glucose that trees need to grow. Once the leaves fall, the sugar in the tree works like anti-freeze to keep the tree from freezing.
But with the earth warming, that age-old cycle may stop being so reliable. And that threat could be coming sooner rather than later.
For proof, just look to Quebec, which supplies more than two-thirds of the world’s maple syrup. These are actually banner times: Between 2003 and 2020, Quebec’s annual syrup output has more than doubled, and Quebec producers last year earned more than a half-billion dollars. (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario contribute too, but they are bit players in the market.)
Quebec’s producers are linked through the Producteurs et Productrices Acéricoles du Québec, a cartel that controls syrup supply by limiting the number of taps permitted in the province’s maple trees, and sets the price paid to farmers. The organization stores surplus syrup in the grandly named International Strategic Reserve, in a warehouse the size of five football fields in Saint-Antoine-de-Tilly, near Quebec City, which is stacked with sealed white 205-litre drums of maple syrup and tides us over in lean syrup years. And that’s precisely what the industry just faced: an abrupt thaw last spring dulled the ideal cold-then-warm cycle, and led to a poor syrup harvest. And so, on Dec. 1, the cartel had to release into the marketplace half the reserve – 50 million pounds of maple syrup – to make up the shortfall.
That’s a staggering deficit, though the cartel insists that the release of the maple syrup is a good thing: “It’s not a problem. It’s not negative,” says Helene Normandin, a spokeswoman for Quebec’s syrup producers. “Thanks to the reserve, no one will be short of maple syrup.” Still, it’s enough to make Canadians wonder: What if global warming wipes out the freeze/thaw cycle that’s so critical to syrup success in the long-term? If climate change eventually makes Canada’s winters melt away, and we lose those centuries-old processes of maple syrup production, what remains of Canadian identity?
Christian Messier, a professor of forestry at the Université du Québec en Outaouais, comes by his expertise honestly. He has a small sugar bush himself near Lac des Plages, just north of where I grew up. Working with his wife and son, using buckets and a wood-fired evaporator as we did as kids, Dr. Messier makes 100 to 200 litres of syrup every year, depending on the season.
He fears what global warming, and other human-caused change, will do to the providential sugar bush.Drought harms maples more than oaks or pines, he says, which are better adapted to dry periods. The weakened maples, he says, will become more vulnerable to insects or disease.
Invading beetles, for example, hitched a ride on shipping pallets from China andattacked forests in upstate New York; those beetles could decimate our sugar bushes, he warns. He suggests we step up inspections of imported pallets, as Australia and New Zealand have done.
He also believes we should strengthen our maple forests. Maple syrup makers often cut all but the sugar maple trees from their property, since they’re the ones that yield revenue. But mixed forests with many tree species are more resilient, Dr. Messier’s research shows. As an example, tent caterpillars prefer to eat poplar rather than maple leaves; encourage poplar trees, and the caterpillars will leavemaples to grow.
“Instead of looking at our sugar bushes as a milk cow,” he told me, “we now need to reinvest.” And yet, when he recently told producers at a conference that it is “criminal to have pure maple sugar bushes,” he said, “they weren’t happy to hear that.”
He also suggests Canadian producers gather maple tree seeds from New York to plant in Quebec and Ontario. He believes that these trees will have the genes to better withstand warmer weather. “People say, ‘Let nature be,’ ” Dr. Messier says. “But we have already changed our natural environment. We need to start adapting our forests.”Maple syrup demand and productionIn millions of pounds 2004 2020Canadian exportsCanadian productionWorld demand68.496.599.0134.9189.4224.0THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PRODUCTEURS ET PRODUCTRICES ACÉRICOLES DU QUÉBECDATASHARE×
But this does not appear to be a time for pausing and reflecting in the industry. Quebec’s producers have authorized seven million more taps in Quebec maples (to a new total of 57 million taps) and Americans are investing, too.
Last Christmas, my wife gifted me The Crown Maple Guide to Maple Syrup. Its author, Robb Turner, is an investment banker who branched out to found Crown Maple, an organic syrup producer in upstate New York. He bought several huge sugar bushes, including one 4,400-acre hilltop in Vermont.
The vacuum system that sucks sap from his trees runs from the drop line through the lateral line, the branch line, the conductor line and the main line; some pipes leading to the sugar house reach 12 centimetres in diameter. The sap then goes through something called “dissolved air flotation,” then germicidal ultraviolet light before it arrives at the reverse-osmosis machine, which removes about 90 per cent of the water from the sap on its way to the evaporator. Which is to say: We are a long way from kids in wet socks.
But simply adding more producers won’t necessarily resolve supply consequences in the long-term. A study in the journal Forest Ecology and Management, involving U.S. and Canadian researchers, noted that by 2100 the syrup season will take place a month earlier than is the case right now. Hotter summers also mean that trees will store fewer carbohydrates, so the sugar content of maple sap will diminish.
“Total syrup production is projected to decline over most of sugar maple’s range by the end of the century,” the authors conclude, “except for the far northern range in Ontario and Quebec which project to have moderate to large increases in average syrup produced per tap.”
And it’s not obvious that syrup producers are thinking so far ahead. When I asked Mike Cobb, Crown Maple’s chief executive officer, whether he fears climate change, he replied: “We think about it, but there are limited options as to what we can do about it. We are a young entrepreneurial company, highly short on resources. We don’t have time to talk about that.”
Never have my feet been as cold as in those ice-soaked sock days of childhood. And yet somehow the yearning to make maple syrup tugs so strongly at my heart that all I remember is the romance. In my childhood, when spring eventually arrived in the sugar bush, the fluffy snow became crystals, like sand. As we tromped through deep twisting trails we’d made through the snow to the buckets on the maple trees, we glimpsed, for the first time in many months, the earth, covered in dead leaves. Birds chirped and creeks gurgled. Days grew longer. With leaves yet to open, the forest is sunniest in April.
I’m not religious, but like many people I feel a spiritual connection to the forest. “Tree growth,” the author F. Schuyler Mathews gushed in 1896, “is a constant source of wonder to one who contemplates Nature. The rigid bole, the bracing and far-searching roots, the out-spreading top with its myriad members and its infinite variety of form and expression, all combine to make an organism in which strength, durability, gracefulness and tenderness are all at once the dominant characteristics.” Perhaps it is no coincidence that sugar shacks, built with a cupola in the roof to let out the vapour from boiling sap, resemble chapels.
And so, when my wife and I saw a listing for a farm in Hastings County, about halfway between Ottawa and Toronto, with “five acres of sugar bush,” we bought it. While I work on building us a sugar shack, our syrup-making methods are currently even more primitive than my parents’: We use an outdoor evaporator pan with a wood fire below. And so even as I write here about climate change’s potential consequences on maple-syrup production, I know the oldest techniques are not kind to the environment: burning wood all day and night to make maple syrup is a greenhouse gas nightmare. Reverse osmosis – the process by which most of the sugar is removed before boiling – solves some of this, and Quebec has also vowed to convert oil evaporators to electricity, to reduce their carbon footprint. I try to compensate by planting trees on my farm, but I grant: even the romance isn’t necessarily innocent.
Still, there’s something special about the celebration of the temps des sucres (sugaring off) – a party which is most boisterous in Quebec. After a long, long winter, we rejoice: spring is here! Near my childhood home we would go to La Cabane à Sucre Chez Ti-Mousse, and sit elbow to elbow on long tables with plastic tablecloths. We’d feast on crispy pork rinds, beans with pork, baked omelets, smoked ham, pickled onions and beets, sausages and pancakes, all slathered in maple syrup. But the pandemic has forced cabanes to close to the public for two seasons; Ms. Normandin, the spokesperson for Quebec’s syrup producers, said sugar shack celebrations and maple syrup season are so intertwined in the minds of Quebeckers that with pandemic closings, she fielded many panicked calls from people who thought that, if the sugar shack was shut, there would be no maple syrup to buy.
This – the local producer who sells you syrup in bottles or cans, fresh from their forest – is the essence of maple syrup in Canada, and what we cannot lose, and what the cartel cannot store. This is what André Thévet, a monk traveling with Jacques Cartier, described in 1557 as a juice that tasted as delicious as the fine wines of Orleans or Beaune. By contrast, barrels of maple syrup that have sat for years in the International Strategic Reserve exemplify the industrial agriculture model that we increasingly rely on and yetthreatens our survival. It’s the same model that brings us produce trekked in from thousands of kilometres away; monocultures that exhaust farmland; pesticides and herbicides that punish flora and fauna and the natural cycle of things. The Producteurs et Productrices Acéricoles du Québec views maple syrup as a commodity, like crude oil or iron ore, and in doing so, it’s as if they are demanding vineyards to pool their varietals to sell bottles labelled “wine.” Quebeckers, at least, are sensible in this regard; most buy their syrup directly from their local sugar shack, fresh, from people that they know.
My whining about the wet socks of my childhood seems a bit infantile when I think of the farmers who taught us to make syrup, on the dirt road where I grew up: Lecot, Labelle, Poulin. They were the original “back to the landers,” as my stepfather Jay reminds me. Totally pure old Quebec: raising families of up to 10 children with no electricity. They made maple syrup because they had no other sugar. When we vote for leaders with plans to fight global warming, that’s the Canada we seek to protect. It is a rugged landscape where we overcome obstacles to thrive; where icy winters give way to the miracle of spring, and bring us the first harvest: maple syrup.
Inside Canada’s Fort Knox of syrup
In 2014, The Globe and Mail took a look inside the Quebec facility where producers stockpile tens of millions of dollars worth of syrup. Here’s what we saw.
The Prime Minister of Canada will be among the more than 100 world leaders in virtual attendance at U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy this week. It is reported he will treat the other leaders to a recitation of his government’s contributions to democracy, freedom and the rule of law in Canada: everything from “an enhanced emphasis on democracy in the digital space” to “reconciliation and anti-racism policies.”
The presumption is not only that Canada is a kind of democratic model for the world, but that the Prime Minister and the government he leads have been a force for its advancement. This requires, let us say, a certain degree of credulity.
This is the Prime Minister, after all, who won election in part on a promise of electoral reform, only to discard it when it proved inconvenient; who promised more free votes, yet whipped his caucus as strictly as any predecessor; who promised he would not bundle disparate pieces of legislation into mammoth omnibus bills or impose arbitrary time limits on debate, yet in government did both – sometimes limiting debate to pass omnibus bills.
This is the Prime Minister who has twice been found in violation of federal ethics laws; who improperly pressed the attorney-general of Canada to interfere in a criminal case on behalf of a firm with Liberal Party ties, SNC-Lavalin, then forced her and another minister out of the party for blowing the whistle on the affair; who prevented witnesses from testifying to what they knew of it, either to parliamentary committees or the RCMP.
This is the Prime Minister who ordered his MPs to stonewall two more parliamentary inquiries: one looking into the WE Charity scandal (where, again, his own conduct was central to the investigation), the other into the mysterious dismissal of two Chinese scientists from a top-security research laboratory in Winnipeg; who prorogued Parliament to cut short the first and dissolved it to put off the second, even going so far as to take the Speaker of the House to court rather than yield the documents Parliament had demanded.
This is the Prime Minister who tried, in his first government, to pass a package of changes to House rules (the infamous Motion 6) that would have effectively hamstrung Parliament; who attempted, in the pandemic’s panicky first weeks, to rush through a bill that would have allowed him to rule more or less by decree for two years; who, when this was rebuffed, failed to bring in a budget for more than two years; and who, even as he seeks authorization for billions more in public spending, has yet to table last year’s public accounts.
This is the Prime Minister on whose watch the Commons has sat for just 106 days a year on average – a fifth below the postwar average; who called a snap election, in defiance of the fixed-date provision of federal election law; who, after the election, waited a month to appoint a cabinet and two months to recall Parliament; whose ministers are on such a short leash that they are not even allowed to appoint their own chiefs of staff.
This is also the Prime Minister whose government has so failed to live up to its obligations under the federal Access to Information Act that it has been described by successive information commissioners as among the most secretive in our history.
In all, this is a Prime Minister who, in his attitude to Parliament and to parliamentary democracy, most closely resembles the prime minister he replaced, Stephen Harper. But Mr. Harper scowled and was mean to the press and was, let’s face it, a Conservative, where Justin Trudeau smiles and is kind to the press and is, let’s face it, a Liberal. Which may explain how he can lecture others on democracy, in the same way as he lectures others on sexual misconduct or racial insensitivity, without fear of ridicule.
Of course, the problems with Canadian democracy do not begin or end with this government, or this Prime Minister. In the powers our system reserves to the prime minister, particularly of appointment; in the relative weakness of Parliament versus the executive, and of MPs versus party leaders; and in the departures we allow from the fundamental principle of one person, one vote, whether because of the disparities in riding sizes or the distortions of first past the post – to say nothing of the continuing embarrassment, in the 21st century, of subjecting legislation to the approval of an appointed upper house – Canada has few lessons to teach the other democracies.
In the past few weeks I’ve heard some distressing comments from former colleagues, younger colleagues who have been working through the strains and constraints of COVID. The COVID work world, complete with rapidly switching to Zoom, teaching by Zoom, having meetings only by Zoom, and communicating with colleagues and/or students electronically night and day, non-stop. The observations I’ve heard include sadness at the loss of community and the feeling of no longer being appreciated. I can’t help but think that this rings true for many, many people working in a vast array of occupations, including healthcare and education at all levels, but so much more.
The reality is that finding ways to show appreciation for everyone going the extra mile – employees, students, supervisors, etc. – has never been more important than during COVID.