Corporations Control Canada’s Infrastructure — But the Major Parties Won’t Confront Them

Despite their election rhetoric, Canadian politicians have been acting in the interests of corporations for decades. We need to confront corporate interests — and in order to do so, we have to recognize how intertwined they are with the Canadian state.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau makes campaign speech in Vancouver, Canada, September 13, 2021. (Jeff Vinnick / Getty Images)

Confident that he will be able to secure a third term in office, Justin Trudeau has called a federal election. His gambit is a bold one and may backfire — the election, scheduled for this Monday, is taking place against a backdrop of a series of long-standing crises.

First and foremost is the damage inflicted on Canadian society by the global pandemic, which the country has failed to curb. The climate crisis, made salient by a summer of extreme and deadly weather, also looms large. In June, members of the Cowessess First Nation discovered 751 unmarked graves containing the bones of thousands of indigenous children who perished in residential schools. This discovery has drawn public attention to the North American nation’s gruesome history of settler colonialism. Amid these crises, the price of housing has increased by almost 40 percent in just one year, ending many middle-class dreams and further exacerbating the misery of the poor.

Rhetorically, the Liberal Party has promised a great deal; in practice, they have done very little. Climate change is one of the clearest examples of Trudeau’s party’s lack of boldness. In last week’s English-language debate, all opposition party leaders highlighted Trudeau’s lamentable record of having presided over rising carbon emissions year after year. Canada is, according to Human Rights Watch, “the only G7 country whose emissions are substantially higher than 1990 levels.” Per capita, the country is the second-largest financier of fossil fuels in the world. China currently occupies first place.

Both the Liberals and the Conservatives, the two parties with realistic hopes of governing, support maintaining the status quo in Canada’s energy sector. Despite the campaign trail sniping and platform promises of the two major parties, they are both in agreement about maintaining the most pathological elements of the Canadian state.

Among the issues on which there is a bipartisan consensus are the unassailable power of Canada’s big banks, the monopolistic practices of its telecommunications companies, and unchecked profiteering in housing markets. To understand why the Canadian state has found itself in this position, we need to examine how the country’s defunct social infrastructure has made it dependent on the most regressive sections of the capitalist class.

The Infrastructural Base

Several weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Joe Biden hailed Trudeau, along with Angela Merkel, as one of the world’s last beacons of liberalism. “The world’s going to spend a lot of time looking to you, prime minister,” the future president asserted. In reality, it seems quite unlikely that anyone has, or even should, look to Canada for leadership on climate change. This is ironic given that climate change was one of the issues on which Trudeau sought to most distinguish himself from his Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper.

In 2015, the Liberal prime minister repeatedly promised to take a game-changing approach to environmental problems by addressing climate change head-on. Since then, Trudeau has used $4.5 billion of taxpayer money to buy the Trans Mountain oil pipeline. The country’s carbon emissions have risen from 708 megatons of carbon dioxide in 2016 to 730 in 2019, the last year for which we have complete data. The government’s own projections anticipate that Canadian oil production will increase by 20 percent between now and 2040.

The contrast between the radicalism of Trudeau’s rhetoric and the conservatism of his practice is striking. We cannot treat the prime minister’s inability to follow his election promises as an instance of politician’s customary practice of reneging on campaign trail promises. What can be made of such a jarring disjunct between promise and action?

In 2015, the Invisible Committee, a group of anonymous authors writing in French, made some headway in identifying an explanation. In To Our Friends, they suggested that inaction on pressing social issues was a result of a structural feature of contemporary capitalist states:

Power now resides in the infrastructures of this world. . . . Anyone who means to undertake anything whatsoever against the existing world must start from there: the real power structure is the material, technological, physical organization of the world. Government is no longer in the government.

In the Western tradition we are biased toward thinking of politics as governed by speech rather than social structures. This is what Darin Barney, a professor of communications and media studies at McGill University, has argued. In recent years, he has turned his attention to applying network and infrastructure thinking to contemporary Canadian political problems.

Of course, there is a discursive element involved in the maintaining and construction of infrastructure (meetings, media reports, business plans, political debates). But this should not draw our attention away from the fact that the power exerted by Canadian infrastructure weakens speech as a democratic act. This is because the structures of our social world constrain the kind of politics we can enact. As Barney argues:

The institutions of liberal democratic politics are failing to rise to domestic and global challenges including growing economic inequality and wealth concentration, systemic racism, and environmental collapse.

Canada is now shaped just as much by the hardwiring of its infrastructure and constitutional arrangements as it is by the political machinations of electoral politics. In the case of infrastructure specifically, capitalists have developed networks of communication, distribution, extraction, and transportation to further their interests and to limit what is possible through the democratic process. Any political movement aiming at increased democratic participation and redistribution of wealth and power must find a way to “rewire” Canada.

Oil’s Deep State

The anti-pipeline protests that took place in early 2020, before the start of the pandemic, were an attempt by activists to rewire Canada. Inevitably, they caused a national crisis. As Barney has observed, our politics were at that time “transfixed” by the widespread occupation and disruption of “railway lines, roads, intersections, buildings, bridges, and ports.” These protests were mounted by indigenous groups, and sympathetic activists across the country, in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in northern British Columbia. Their resistance to the extension of the Coastal GasLink pipeline into their unceded territories was met with police force.

Many, including Trudeau, considered the Wet’suwet’en protests to be a threat to national security and prosperity. Canada’s freight business — worth $200 billion annually — was in jeopardy. Although the Wet’suwet’en signed a Memorandum of Understanding in May 2020, it is beyond any question that such conflicts will occur again. In the logging industry, we are already witnessing another violent conflict at Fairy Creek.

The relative lack of pan-Canadian unity over infrastructure questions is not simply a result of disputes between the state and indigenous communities over jurisdiction and legal orders; it’s also a result of the country’s decentralized structure, which often pits province against province in zero-sum games. Alberta, for example, still pins its hopes of ongoing prosperity on the expansion of pipeline capacity. This puts Alberta at odds with its follow provinces, most notably British Columbia and Quebec, whose governments have concerns about the potential for environmental catastrophe.

The causes of this lack of agreement lie in the different histories of Canada’s provinces and their relationships to Canada’s fossil-fuel-related infrastructure. In Quebec, the 2013 tragedy of Lac Mégantic, in which a freight carrying oil crashed and incinerated half the town center, haunts politics to this day. Arguments that pipelines are safer than trains are not sufficiently reassuring.

Alberta, in contrast, is the epicenter of Canada’s fossil fuel economy. Even within the Liberal Party, critics such as Kevin Taft, leader of the Alberta Liberal Party from 2004 to 2008, has criticized the provinces’ oil industry. In his 2018 book, Oil’s Deep State, he writes:

For decades the industry has spent millions of dollars targeting political parties on both sides of the legislature; civil servants; universities; think tanks; regulators; non-profit groups; the media; and more. The industry has formed a state within the state that I call “oil’s deep state.”

Thanks to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the lobbying power of the companies themselves, the interests of the fossil fuel corporations have always come before the country’s climate commitments. As proof of this, in 2020 alone, Canada’s subsidies to the industry were $18 billion.

The oil-and-gas industry also exercises a significant influence over the media. In 2012, Peter Mansbridge, the erstwhile news anchor for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), was found to have secretly received $28,000 from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers for a single speech.

Historically, disputes between the Canadian state and indigenous communities asserting legal jurisdiction over land has most effectively challenged the fossil fuel industry. These disputes have shown that direct action, targeted at the fossil fuel industry’s infrastructure, is capable of disrupting politics as usual. Labor stoppages, blockading pipelines, noncompliance with state orders, peaceful resistance, and other organized means through which infrastructure is challenged, should be considered legitimate tactics in the arsenal of the Left.

Canada’s Telecoms Cartel

It is not just fossil fuel infrastructure that controls the parameters of political debate in the country. Canada is one of the most expensive countries in the world for broadband and wireless. To load an hour of Netflix costs $12.55 in Canada — in the United States that figure is $8.00 and in the United Kingdom it’s $1.39. Canada’s telecommunications industry is in dire need of change. A more innovative Canada would be better able to diversify its economy away from fossil fuels. Yet progress in this regard remains hampered by a communications infrastructure that imposes unacceptably high costs on participation.

The national telecommunications regulator, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications, recently scrapped plans to lower wholesale internet rates, a big victory for the telecoms cartel. Telecom companies have long argued, as the CBC reports, that “maintaining and expanding their network infrastructure is a significant cost . . . and that the lowered rates could limit their ability to invest in wireless or internet services in rural areas.”

That Canada’s 5.7 million students have endured school closures during COVID without universal access to high-quality, free internet access is unacceptable. It is, however, a result of the country’s dependency of private providers for telecommunications, a dependency which reproduces preexisting inequities. Internet access is also critically important for northern communities. Many of these communities are heavily dependent on the internet for basic necessities, including ordering food and receiving health care.

There is no reason why broadband service in Canada cannot be cheap or, better still, free. This consideration would be paramount for a federal government with an innovation agenda worth supporting. The benefits that would accrue to startups, students, researchers, media companies, and others if the telecommunications companies were operated like a public utility, offering low-cost or no-cost services, would be enormous. After all, the internet is just as vital for commerce as roads. With a few exceptions, the roads that crisscross the vast territory of Canada do not charge their users a penny.

There is a precedent for a major project of national scale to better connect the vast territory north of the forty-ninth parallel. Seventy years ago, when it became clear that Canada’s railways were insufficient to meet the rapidly growing demands of ordinary drivers as well as freight, the provinces and federal government agreed to share the cost of building and upgrading paved routes in order to make the Trans-Canada Highway. The federal government passed the Trans-Canada Highway Act through Parliament in 1949. For most of its 7,821 kilometers, the Trans-Canada is completely free to use.

An economy that depends in large part on the extraction and export of resources requires high-level coordination among corporate and political elites. “What characterizes the 1% is that they are organized,” the Invisible Committee reminds us. To make the sweeping changes that will improve the quality of life for ordinary people and protect the environment, the 99 percent need to become just as organized about “rewiring” Canada.

To win against Canada’s elites, socialists must use all the tools they have at their disposal. This will require left-wing political parties to commit to extra-parliamentary actions and forms of organizing. The New Democratic Party’s left flank must become more fearless and far more forceful. It is only through this kind of radical political action that we can hope to undermine the political and economic interests at the heart of the Canadian state.