Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Tax havens, sovereignty and coalition government," December 15, 2008.

  But here we see the so-called separatists persistently advancing a position for the benefit of Canada as a whole.

For a lot of Canadians, the sticking point in the Liberal-NDP coalition is that it is in league with the Bloc Quebecois.

I don't know much about the BQ, but I do know one thing I can share. A couple of years ago, I was researching a story on tax havens. Canadian companies use deliberately weak tax laws like Barbados, Cyprus or Malta to avoid paying taxes in Canada.

It's a big story that is almost completely unreported--like so many others: electoral reform, genocide in Darfur, sexual violence in Eastern Congo, blood diamonds or Uganda's multi-million dollar gold trade, to name just a few.

Ralph Nader writes about tax havens. In an article for CounterPunch, he cites Lucy Komisar of the Tax Justice Network in the US. She says “The tax haven racket is the biggest scam in the world" (Jun 12 07). It's one of those inherently international problems that will never be discussed by municipal councils or even provincial legislatures.

The OECD has taken up the problem of harmful tax practices and lists 36 countries as tax havens. In 1992, the Auditor General estimated that the existence of tax havens, including but not limited to Barbados, has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in reduced Canadian tax revenues. More recent estimates by Statistics Canada run to tens of billions of dollars.

Nader's colleague, Lucy Komisar says that "...corporations and the rich have opted out of the tax system." and estimates that “half of world trade is between various parts of the same corporations.”

But this morning isn't a story about tax havens per se. You can find out more by reading the Nader article in CounterPunch or, for Canadian information, Hansard for the House of Commons. In 2005, Bev Oda was the Conservative Party's Canadian Heritage critic. During the 1st session of the 38th Parliament, she introduced what is the most comprehensive and detailed public information I have seen about tax havens in any jurisdiction.

The point for now is simply that this is not an inherently left- or right-wing, liberal or conservative issue. But since the Conservatives have come to form the government in 2006, they haven't said much about it.

However, one party has consistently raised the issue and introduced motions in the House to restrict or eliminate the use of tax havens. In 2001, Mr. Yvan Loubier, who was at that time the finance critic for the BQ raised this matter (Hansard Mar 2 01).

Again in 2003, Pierre Paquette (Joliette, BQ) moved: that in order to ensure tax equity, the government should terminate Canada's tax convention with Barbados, a tax haven, which enables wealthy Canadian taxpayers and companies to avoid their tax obligations, and that Canada should play a leadership role at the international level in activities to eliminate tax havens. (Hansard Sep 18 03)Again, in 2005, BQ Member of Parliament Mr. Guy Côté presented a similar motion. (Oct 6 05)

Like so many groups the mainstream media characterizes as "extremist," the defining characteristic--in this case "tearing Canada apart" or some vividly overstated version of the same idea--is really a conclusion reached after years of facing defeat, marginalization, misrepresentation, stonewalling and indifference on numerous other issues of importance.

Often there is a debate with in the "extremist" group about the value of democracy and even nonviolence as opposed to armed resistance.

But here we see the so-called separatists persistently advancing a position for the benefit of Canada as a whole. Whether the Liberal-NDP coalition with BQ support survives or not, it may be time to start choosing the less inflammatory terminology for framing the issue of Quebec sovereignty.

If we look at sovereigntist/separatist movements around the world in Chechnya, in Tibet or Xinjiang province, the Iwo in Nigeria, the Basques, or Irish republicans--to name just the best known--Canada has fared especially well in finding a political accommodation within Parliamentary democratic traditions.

In the last week or so, Stephen Harper has used the word "separatist" to stoke fear in the western provinces that the only item on the Bloc's agenda is to separate from Canada and that the Bloc would use their position in the coalition to gain concessions, especially in the form of a disproportionate amount of taxpayer's money for Quebec. But when speaking in French he uses the word "soveraintiste" or sovereigntist.

[clip how they choose to be described]

For Terry Noble at the Globe and Mail, "sovereigntist" is "politically correct" and deceptive; "separatist" is "the truth" and "the real word."

Norman Spector takes sovereigntist, separatist, secessionist and splittist to mean the same thing but with different connotations. Sovereigntist is "a positive word that emphasizes the country they hope to construct," while separatist is "a negative word that emphasizes the country they would de-construct."

"Secessionist," he seems to suggest, is neutral. But secession is the word used to describe an especially destructive American form of separation that resulted in the most lethal, fratricidal war ever to occur in the Western hemisphere.

Blogger Impudent strumpet looks at the terms from a linguistic perspective and agrees that "'separatist' is negative and 'sovereigntist,' positive.
"Separatists want to break away from something to which they belong, to destroy an existing union, The connotations are usually a bit extremist and a bit irrational (think Basque separatists, white separatists, black separatists, Tamil separatists, etc. etc.)

"'Sovereignty,' on the other hand, is a good thing. One's sovereignty over one's own body. Canada's sovereignty over its northern waters. Sovereigntists want to preserve their existing rights and freedoms.

"They are two separate concepts. They are separate concepts in most parts of the English-speaking world, and they are separate concepts in cognate languages, including French."

She attributes no motive to Harper for using the negative connotation in English and the postive in French. But Harper is clearly trying to frighten anglophones with the dual sociialist and separatist bogey men. And he is trying to woo Quebec voters.

Whenever Albertans don't get their way, threats of separation pop out of the woodwork. Fully believing that they ARE the West, Albertans have forged a theory of

"Western alienation" from this feeling. Newfie separatists come forward from time to time, regretting, as they say, that they ever allowed Joey Smallwood to convince them of Confederation. There are also separatists in BC who hunger for a chance to test their self-sufficiency.

More serious in the Canadan context are the sovereigntists--both those in Quebec and those among First Nations whose call is for territorial self-determination. Sovereignty differs from separation.

We all claim some form of sovereignty--over our bodies, our minds, our personhood. Canadians assert their sovereignty in the Arctic and worry that their sovereignty is threatened by the NAFTA, the Security and Prosperity Partnership and negotiations for a North American Union.

As Chantal Hebert suggests, this may not be the final form of the coalition.

[clip the discussion of these arrangements will become less foreign]

At least some Liberals are not ready to shut down tax havens. Martin's shipping companies made extensive use of them. Some Conservatives probably are--Bev Oda at the least. The NDP doesn't appear ever to have addressed the issue and cannot really be said to have much of a serious philosophy of taxation. But we all understand sovereignty and we understand the breakdown of democracy.

[clips the people are engaged]

Just recall, for instance, these excerpts from the APTN townhall meeting about the Duty to Consult, played several weeks ago.

[clips conducting band business from jail 2:25]

With the time that remains, let's give an ear to their discussion, with special attention to how the multi-dimensional issues of sovereignty and self-determination arise from a range of other considerations.

Jean Teillet is a Metis lawyer who explains her own credentials toward the end of her presentation. Joan Jack is Anishnabe and a lawyer. She worked on negotiations at Taku Lake.

[clip duty to consult part 2, 17 min]

A podcast of this piece--with the clips--is available here.

Audio sources of the quoted clips are available from the

At Issue Panel, December 3
At Issue Panel, December 5
APTN townhall on Duty to Consult, October 1

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