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Canada’s pathological political system

By Stuart Hertzog
February 4th, 2013

Doctor describes symptomology to Enbridge pipeline panel

I am a family physician, in clinical practice for just over 36 years in rural B.C. As a professional reflex, I have a sensitivity towards the behaviour of others, and towards the impact of my own conduct.

While still in medical school, I learned that many of the most important influences on a person’s health derive not just from what doctors do, or even from the choices made by patients themselves, but from broad trends in the community—from the immediate neighbourhood right up to the planetary environment.

When I began my practice, however, the term “ecosystem” was unknown, and the term “environment” referred almost exclusively to a person’s immediate social or physical situation.

Today, thanks to global telecommunications and transportation, and especially the Internet and social media, our worldview has expanded greatly. As we humans have multiplied exponentially, we have learned that we can degrade the functional capacity of our planetary home, which in turn affects our survival.

In 1995, I helped to found the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment or CAPE. Our purpose was to scientifically examine the intimate inter-relationship between human and ecosystem health, and improve the former by addressing the latter. With 5,500 members, CAPE has become the environmental voice of the medical profession.

Today, however, I am here not as representative of CAPE or any other organization. I am speaking as just one person, and as a physician.

‘Structural pathology’

I want to address what one might call “structural pathology” in the governance system in Canada, which has led to the contention surrounding the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project—which I have followed closely since its inception.

Your work as members of the Joint Review Panel is taking place in a social context. As a medical professional—with, I might add, extra training in psychotherapy—I would like to examine four diseased elements in this social context, and suggest remedies for them.

The first pathological element is historical.

Up until about 400 years ago, the land base subsumed within Canada was home to various peoples, originally from Asian roots, broadly connected by culture and race. They lived, like all our forebears once did, seeking survival in an unforgiving but also bountiful natural world.

Through a combination of force of arms, disease, mass immigration and various legalistic arrangements—including a genocidal strategy called the residential school system—the land base occupied by the original inhabitants of this country was progressively reduced, and their role in society was relentlessly marginalized. The small land base and the few prerogatives left to them thus have become critically important to their well-being.

In Salmon Arm, I have patients, neighbours and friends who are aboriginal, who embody the experiences I’ve just referred to, both in their physiology and in their psyches. Many First Nations communities, with similar individual and collective experiences, are in the path of the proposed pipeline.

Democracy distorted

The second element in this structural pathology is the electoral system. Elections to the House of Commons are based on the “first-past-the-post” system. The elected candidate just has to get one vote more than any other candidate—even if only a minority of citizens actually vote in the first place.

This kind of selection procedure, in a community with many disparate parts, is psychologically grossly inefficient. Especially in complex or conflictual situations, it generates a mixture of cynicism, despair and anger.

The third element in this structural pathology is the nature of the Prime Minister’s Office, or PMO.

In Britain, the PMO is surrounded by powerful committees and advisory bodies whose comments and decisions have a major influence on government decision-making and cannot be readily ignored.

In Canada, the PMO has vastly more political power. It has, in fact, absolute veto power over several hundred different government bodies.

More concentrated in Canada

Political power in the Canadian system is profoundly more centralized than it is in Britain, and far more than it is in the United States, with its system of “checks and balances.”

Frankly, if Stephen Harper doesn’t like your report, he can, and by every indication he will, shelve it.

This concentration of power in one element of Canada’s political structure, for whatever murky historical reason, is an invitation to social disaster. The illusion of “efficiency” in political decision-making is subverted by the opportunity for hardline autocracy.

In the 21st century, when my patients are being encouraged to take increasing responsibility for their lives, such a concentration of power is anachronistic and backward.

Corporate power

The final element in Canada’s structural pathology is the expansion of the influence of the “corporation,” a business model that uncouples personal responsibility from profit, and places dollar gains above all others.

It is significant that as I sit talking to you here the Enbridge consortium is applying to expand its Kitimat terminal from 11 to 16 oil tanks. What clearer demonstration of absolute confidence in an eventual approval could there possibly be?

Taken together, these elements create the pathological state that has directly lead to us being here today:

  • The relentless marginalization of First Nations, with their intimate connection to the ecosystem;
  • The electoral system, which readily generates non-representative governments;
  • The huge concentration of political power in the Prime Minister’s Office; and
  • The rise of corporate influence.

What is the cure?

The planet is overcrowded, heating up, and steadily depleted of its natural capital. But now we have a Prime Minister who is forcefully using the overwhelming dominance afforded his office, to try and reshape this country to his dated views.

Stephen Harper, according to recorded evidence, has longed to be able to exercise such intense power, and identifies with doing so now (several years ago he formally changed the phrase “federal government” to “the government of Stephen Harper”).

His own religious background suggests reasons for his overall orientation, but his willingness to mask his own renowned intensity behind a rigidly bland “persona” is a truer indication of his deep commitment to power.

This approach to governance, exercised by a Prime Minister and government elected by a minority of Canadians, has deepened the already strong alliance between the corporate sector and the government. The former, fixated on immediate and short-term financial profitability, is drawn to the latter, intent on maintaining its ascendancy, and vice versa.

The result, in a situation like the one we are addressing today, is growing social pathology. Frustration, anger, cynicism, depression and distrust of leadership are on the ascendancy, as noted in the Edelman Trust Barometer, released just before the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Four-way medicine needed

A patient of mine in his mid-twenties came to my office recently to say that he was deeply depressed and anxious, not about his love life, or his financial situation, but about the overheated, depleted future he was heading towards. He felt that the government in this country was acting now to make it worse for him and his young children later.

The cure for this disease is four-fold, in my opinion.

First, we must, as a nation, work out a respectful, mutually satisfactory relationship with Canada’s First Peoples—not destroy their culture by stealth.

Second, we must reform the electoral system to make it radically more representative.

Third, we must alter the power balance in the federal governance system so that one person cannot pre-empt democratic processes as Stephen Harper is now doing.

And fourth, we must rein in the overwhelming power and influence of the corporate sector.

Until we do these four things, our country is vulnerable to political, social and ecological upheaval that will retard our development as a nation, and likely offer ruin to the lives of future generations.

And it’s going to make my personal and professional life more difficult, as I minister to the anxiety and physical suffering of particularly the young people in my community.

I therefore personally pledge my energies and experience—here, today—to bringing about these changes, by whatever means possible.

I hope you will too.

And I also hope you will reject this flawed and destructive project, the inevitable result of such a flawed and destructive and pathological process.


Dr. R. Warren Bell MD is a doctor in Salmon Arm, BC. He gave this testimony on January 28, 2013 to the Joint Review Panel hearings on the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline in Kelowna. Dr. Bell is rural preceptor, Faculty of Medicine at UBC Salmon Arm; past founding president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment; and president of WA:TER: Wetland Alliance: The Ecological Response.

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