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September 24, 2009

Selling Canada at the G20

Scott Stockdale

Scott Stockdale(Wilkinsburg, September 24, 2009) It was billed as the 1st Annual International Peace Justice and Empowerment Summit, in Wilkinsburg, a suburb of Pittsburgh.

After transferring buses in downtown Pittsburgh, the bus driver said she'd tell me when we got to my stop.

At my stop she assured me that Hossana House, a community center which was the venue for the summit, would be no problem to find. It was just two traffic lights (four blocks) up on the left-hand side. 

As I began walking, it took me a couple of minutes to realize that I was in a world I've never seen before. I've seen poor areas in Canada, but not like this.

It was 8:45 a.m., and not a soul on the streets for the first couple of blocks, as I passed row after row of ramshackle houses, some that still  had  "Obama - Biden" signs in the window. 

Even downtown Wilkinsburg, not much more than a block long, was deserted and none of the stores were open. A disheveled young man passed me on the sidewalk and I must admit I was scared: it turns out, apparently for no reason.

The words of a Somali friend, who came to Canada, via the U.S., rang in my ears.

"Once you get passed the glitter of the downtown areas, it's (America) a Third World country."

Indeed, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina gave television viewers around the world a glimpse of this; but it's not the same as being here in person.

On the bus, I met an elderly woman, a Pittsburgh native, who was an ordained minister. "What would you tell me about Canada," she said, "If you were going to sell it to me."

Not wanting to sound too boastful, and actually not feeling too boastful about Canada these days, I said, "Free healthcare. Need I say anything more? Healthcare is everything to the average person."

I got another shock upon my first trip to the grocery store.

I always thought prices were cheaper in the U.S., that's why so many Canadian bargain shoppers crossed the border to shop.

I still can't believe that the price of fruit and vegetables, in the grocery store in Robinson Township, a suburb of Pittsburgh, is double the price I pay in my hometown, in southwestern Ontario.

A tube of 4 oz. or 113 gram Colgate toothpaste costs $3.49. I bought a similar tube of Colgate, for my trip down here, for $1.69. And Canada's minimum wage is $9.50 an hour, while it's $7.00 in the U.S.

Having recently bought a used car back home, I got another shock when I looked at the price of used cars in the Pittsburgh newspaper: they were a good 25% higher than the same make and model of car I had seen in Ontario.

This brought to mind a column by National Post columnist Jonathan Kay, a few years ago, in which he wrote that he was glad the price of gas was going up because there were too many cars on the road when he was trying to get to work and he was tired of being stuck in traffic jams.

Perhaps there is some method to the madness. Globalization has helped some more than others.

Meanwhile, upon entering the auditorium, where the summit was being held at Hossana House, I got a taste of what it feels like to be a minority, as I was one of about four white people in a room of about 100 people.

I quickly got over my initial apprehension when I realized by their demeanor that the people in this room have no interest in persecuting anyone: they were only there to better the lives of the people in their own community.

On a panel of three black men - two of them former members of the Black Panthers - Dr. Ronald Walters, professor emeritus of government policy at the University of Maryland was the keynote speaker.

He retired in June of this year, but continues to act as the Director of the African American Leadership Institute, at the University of Maryland. 

One of the other panel members introduced Dr. Walters as an internationally known professor, who was the deputy campaign manager for Jesse Jackson's 1994 presidential campaign. Although he has written three more recent books, his 1989 book Black Presidential Politics remains Dr. Walters best known book.

He began his address by telling the audience that this G20 Summit is important, before quickly adding that globalization is not a new phenomenon. "It began in 1492.  The people in this room are here because of globalization. He then brought the audience back to the present with an explanation of the importance of the current G20 Summit when he said, "Perfecting the international financial system is the reason why they're (G20 leaders) are coming to Pittsburgh. They're trying to correct a system that crashed last year."

After explaining that modern technology has made it easy to move $100 million to the Cayman Islands, as a shelter from taxation, and that the world leader's are attempting to establish worldwide common accounting standards to make large international financial transactions more effectively, he brought home one of the effects of high technology's symbiotic relationship with globalization when he said, "This is what allows them to establish call centers in India that take jobs away from Americans."

Citing the increasing contrast between wealth and poverty on a global scale; for example the wealth gap between western countries and Asian and African countries, he said that what's needed is a revolution in values: economic policy alone is not enough.

The trickledown theory -  put more money in the hands of the wealthy and powerful and they will create jobs and improve the standard of living for the rest of the population -, which is the economic theory that globalization is premised on, is not working and is not going to work, according to Dr. Walters.

 "It (wealth) hasn't come down yet."It didn't work under Ronald Regan or the first of Bush or the second Bush and it won't work under Barack Obama."

However, he added that we have to remember that President Obama came into a bad situation, unprecedented in the world: a global financial meltdown and two wars.

A woman on the bus told me that people here are not nearly as focused on the current wars as they were on the Vietnam War. Could it be that the American administration has learned from the past and it's doing a "better" job of managing the media than it did in the 1960's and early 1970's?

Although it's no secret that Blacks have been the hardest hit by the economic crisis, Dr. Walters cited a variety of statistics to illustrate this. He said that although Blacks will benefit from Barack Obama's policies, the history of the U.S. shows that Blacks have never never benefitted equally.

"We haven't benefitted very much from government policies...The U.S. was and is a slave state because it benefitted from slavery. The public policy system is structured to protect its interests."

Although George Bush set out to, and initially did, close the housing gap (home ownership) between blacks of whites, financial institutions sold subprime mortgages in the black communities, which black people didn't have the money to maintain.

"The wealth gap was 10 to 1 (whites to blacks); now it's 14 to one. They've set aside $134 billion to reset mortgages over the next 2 years, so more people, not fewer, will lose their homes."

One may wonder why this is true.

Dr. Walters said the latest census lists the U.S. unemployment rate at 8.9%, but the employment rate for Blacks is 13.2% and Dr. Walters said it's expected to reach 20% by next year.

"Right now, 25% of blacks are living in poverty. If the unemployment rate goes as projected, the poverty rate (for blacks) will go to 31%. One in three blacks will live in poverty. The poverty rate for whites is 8%.

Dr. Walters proceeded to draw a relationship between these poverty rates and a criminal justice system which has locked up 2.3 million people, more than any other country in the world. And a disproportionate number - 40%- of these inmates are black.

"Unless we deal with the war on drugs, which has become a war on us, we'll never solve this problem. Drugs are the largest commerce in our community. We need to get a handle on the drug problem because it's killing our people."

Like many other researchers, academics and commentators, Dr. Walters sees education as a way out of poverty. Although it worked for him, the above statistics indicate he's an exception. He said the education system is set up as a socializing institution, which at the same time devalues black culture.

"When blacks go into an institution where their culture is devalued and they're told it's not worthwhile, they're likely to rebel. Unless there's a receptive atmosphere for the children and a fair criteria, there's likely to be a very bad outcome. But the administration is focused on the chartered schools, although there's 50 million in public schools and six million in private schools."

For many of the reasons mentioned above, Dr. Walters said it's very difficult for blacks to have a voice, even though the U.S. has its first black president.

"The talk shows are dominated by the people who lost the election. Fifty-five percent of whites voted for McCain. Although they lost the election they still have more corporate power. Jimmy Carter was right: Many people don't think a black person is a legitimate president. We have to ask ourselves: "How long oh lord? How long?" 

Scott Stockdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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