Image: children in Gaza, via Motaz Azaiza.

The Inroads listserv began in 1997 as a means to link Inroads readers and others interested in policy discussion. With more than 100 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth. To subscribe, write to Inroads at and we will add your name to the list.

Contributors to the Inroads listserv have engaged many topics since last October: Ukraine, immigration, housing prices, Donald Trump, the deaths of Henry Kissinger and Brian Mulroney, identity politics and others. But sooner or later they have kept coming back to the war in the Middle East.

We have already featured highlights from two exchanges on the war: one on self-defence and proportionality in late October and another on the International Court of Justice ruling on the plausibility of Israeli genocide in January. Here we present excerpts from three of the many other listserv exchanges that have explored aspects of the war.


November 27


Speaking a few weeks ago, prior to the temporary hostage-exchange truce in Gaza, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “the price of justice cannot be the continued suffering of all Palestinian civilians. Even wars have rules. All innocent life is equal in worth, Israeli and Palestinian. I urge the government of Israel to exercise maximum restraint. The world is witnessing this, the killing of women and children, of babies. This has to stop.”

These were relatively critical words from an ally of Israel. Not surprisingly there was reaction to his statement, from all sides. Little reaction could be described as civil or restrained.

First, from the street: protesters chanting “ceasefire now” stormed into a Vancouver restaurant where Trudeau was dining later the same day, accusing him of “killing kids” since he had stopped short of asking for a ceasefire.

Second, in what amounts to an official Israeli response, on X-Twitter Benjamin Netanyahu angrily rejected Trudeau’s advice: “It is not Israel that is deliberately targeting civilians but Hamas that beheaded, burned and massacred civilians in the worst horrors perpetrated on Jews since the Holocaust.”

So street protesters are accusing the Canadian prime minister of complicity in the slaughter of innocent children in Gaza while the Israeli prime minister is in effect accusing him of complicity in a new Holocaust.

The conflict in Gaza is ghastly: the New York Times points out that more women and children have been killed in Gaza in two weeks than have perished in two years of the Russia-Ukraine war. But the so-called “debate” about Gaza is almost as ghastly, with antisemitic and Islamophobic hate speech and physical attacks matched by baseless accusations of antisemitism and Islamophobia designed to discredit pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian arguments with racist smears.

Obviously emotions run perilously high on both sides when what amounts to an anti-Jewish pogrom by Hamas on October 7 is followed by a lethal assault on the Palestinian civilian population by Israel. But does this explain the extremist rhetoric of so many not directly tied to either Israel or Palestine?

Looking at the roots of this frenzy of rhetorical extremism, one fundamental confusion can be discerned. Israel is a state which, though reasonably claiming to be the Jewish homeland, can be entirely identified neither with Judaism as a religion nor with the Jewish people as a whole. States may claim a close connection with particular nations or peoples (we speak of “nation-states”) but the two are never one in reality, as opposed to self-serving nationalist state rhetoric. Not all Jews are citizens of Israel and indeed many Jews are critics of Israeli state policies, especially of the Israeli state’s treatment of Palestinians. This does not make Jewish critics of Israel antisemites, nor does it make non-Jewish critics of Israeli state policies antisemites. Unfortunately, the Israeli government and Israeli lobbyists abroad have all too often adopted precisely that canard to stifle legitimate criticism, whipping out the antisemitism card every time a critical voice is raised.

Some critics of Israel are indeed antisemites, just as some supporters of Israel are Islamophobic. But hatemongers attaching themselves to a legitimate movement do nothing to discredit the larger body. It is not antisemitic to be critical of Israeli policy, but it is antisemitic to blame Jews, rather than the Israeli state, for the unrestrained assault on Gaza. On the other side of the barricades, Hamas, like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, is not representative of all Muslims.

Blood feuds have no logical end, save the total eradication of one side by the other. Hamas and some reckless pro-Palestinian protesters flaunt the slogan “from the river to the sea,” taken by many to indicate a (totally unrealistic) war aim of eradicating Israel. “From the river to the sea” has also been flaunted by Netanyahu and indeed appears in the founding constitution of his Likud party, indicating the ultimate aim of a Greater Israel that would deny any statehood or other form of national self-determination for the Palestinian people.

It is the unwillingness or incapacity of too many participants in the wider debate over the Gaza catastrophe to make the necessary, if difficult, distinctions between Jews and the Israeli state and between Hamas and the Palestinian people that has helped poison the debate so virulently. It must be said that in the Western world there is no genuine equivalency in the position of the two sides. Because of the memory of the Holocaust, Israel assumes a position of privilege that in effect preempts much official sympathy for the plight of the stateless Palestinians and too readily credits Israeli state’s self-serving claims that not only criticism of Israel but even recognition of Palestinian rights or mention of their subordination under Israeli occupation is evidence of antisemitism.

Germany, which has accomplished a remarkable coming to terms with its dreadful historical role in the Holocaust, has taken hypersensitivity to signs of renascent antisemitism to an unconscionable extreme, criminalizing public display of Palestinian symbols and public advocacy of Palestinian rights as unacceptable manifestations of antisemitism – simply because they challenge the Israeli state. But surely the Holocaust is not a perpetual Get Out of Jail Free card for a state which, after all, postdates the Holocaust and has engaged in some questionable activities of its own, including conquest, occupation and settlement of Palestinian land.

Official Canada, like the United States, is not exempt from this instinctive pro–Israeli state bias. But in both countries it is apparent that a younger generation, including many younger Jews, are not so readily convinced that the fight for Palestinian rights is just another chapter in recurrent antisemitism. Unfortunately too many of these protesters have been as careless in making fundamental distinctions as their pro-Israeli opponents, and sometimes actions have been taken that demonstrate a lack of sensitivity to legitimate Jewish concerns.

When I heard that pro-Palestinian protesters had infiltrated and then disrupted the Giller Prize for Fiction event (allegedly in protest over investment by the prize’s sponsor, Scotiabank, in Israel), I was dismayed by targeting of a cultural event with no direct connection to Gaza. Dismay deepened with the news that the Giller 2023 winner being honoured was a young writer named Sarah Bernstein: the optics were appalling. Interestingly, however, Ms. Bernstein later appeared as a signatory to a letter from a number of writers asking that criminal charges be dropped against the protesters, in the name of free expression. Nothing is simple in this most complicated matter.

Just how messy this can become is illustrated by the hate speech charges being brought by Toronto police against a group of protesters who defaced an Indigo bookstore with red paint and posters targeting Indigo CEO Heather Reisman for her support of the Gaza invasion. To the police it is simple: Reisman is Jewish; hence this was an antisemitic hate crime. To protesters, Reisman is the most prominent face of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the leading force in the Canadian Israeli lobby. CIJA, as its name implies, makes no distinctions between the Israeli state and the Jewish community: to CIJA they are one and the same. I am not privy to the minds of the protesters and cannot be sure that Ms. Reisman was being targeted solely because of her Israeli advocacy, but surely there must be a space where a public personality can be legitimately criticized for her advocacy on behalf of a foreign state without her religious/ethnic identity being deployed to block criticism.

Gaza embodies Hegel’s thought that the essence of tragedy is the war of right against right. It would be sad indeed if the debate over Gaza turned out to be the war of farce against farce.



I agree with everything you say, with the exception of the last bit. First, you misstate the facts. Toronto police have not accused the 11 people who vandalized the Indigo bookstore at Bloor and Bay of hate speech. They have been charged with “mischief and conspiracy to commit an indictable offence,” the indictable offence being the aforementioned mischief. I looked up the criminal offence of mischief. It is defined by the Criminal Code as “the wilful destruction of property,” which pretty much describes the act of vandalism.

But the police also commented on the motive of the perpetrators. They said that the offence was “hate-motivated.” Toronto police define a hate crime as “a criminal offence committed against a person or property that is based solely upon the victim’s race, religion, nationality, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender or disability.” In short, the police believe the vandalism at Indigo was motivated by Jew hatred. I think that this will be difficult to prove. But I also won’t be surprised to hear the defendants and their supporters claim that the charges are an attempt to stifle freedom of expression. This “defence” is risible. No one can plausibly argue that the defendants had no means of expressing their opposition to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza other than to vandalize the Indigo bookstore in downtown Toronto. One of the accused is a well-known professor of sociology at York and surely enjoys access to numerous public forums.

I also want to quibble with you on the subject of antisemitism. I agree entirely that politicians like Netanyahu cynically use accusations of antisemitism in an attempt to discredit their critics. That said, antisemitism is all too real. In my lifetime antisemitic talk has pretty much disappeared from polite society. When I was growing up this was not at all the case. As a public high school student it was not uncommon for me to hear antisemitic comments expressed in a very casual way by my non-Jewish classmates. After all, antisemitism has been built into Western culture for over two thousand years. It was preached from the pulpit. It made its way into classic literature (e.g. Shakespeare) and popular culture (Agatha Christie). People I met in rural Wisconsin, where I held my first teaching position in the 1980s, still used the phrase “Jew you down” to describe bargaining over the price of items for sale.

I tell you these anecdotes to convey a sense of why Jews are very sensitive on the subject. Overt antisemitic comments might no longer be acceptable in polite society, but we Jews cannot help suspecting that they are still there, just beneath the surface. And when push comes to shove, it doesn’t take much to bring out submerged antisemitic attitudes.

Which brings me back to the vandalism at Indigo. You don’t see it as being in the least way antisemitic. I have my doubts. As I said, the perpetrators included a distinguished professor of sociology. As it happens, her specialty is protest movements. I would expect someone like that to be sensitive to the symbolic meaning of action. I certainly wouldn’t expect her to be surprised that many in the Jewish community saw in her targeting of Heather Reisman an echo of past antisemitic acts targeting Jewish store owners in Germany and other European states in the last century. A sociologist ought to know the role historical memory plays in shaping a community’s identity.

In short, I think she knew very well how her act of protest would be understood by Ms. Reisman and by the Jewish community. She knew, or ought to have known, that it would be interpreted as a threat. If her genuine purpose was to protest the death and destruction in Gaza, she could have chosen a different way to communicate her opposition to Israel’s war against Hamas. Of course I do not know for certain what she or the others who were with her that night were thinking; still, I cannot help suspecting that reenacting a frightening scenario etched into the communal memory was deliberate. And to me, that carries the odor of antisemitism, even if the perpetrators were not consciously motivated by antisemitism.

November 28


I agree with Stephen Newman about a lot: I, too, liked Reg’s article, but the end raised a flag. It seemed to me that the vandalism at Indigo went beyond legitimate protest – though I wouldn’t call it antisemitic.

I would ask, “Do non-Jews have an obligation to be sensitive to many Jews’ sensitivities?” They should be, of course, as a matter of common courtesy and also tactically, but is it an obligation?

Recently, someone named Josh Gilman wrote an article (posted to Facebook) titled “Why you might have lost all your Jewish friends this week and didn’t even know it.” He wrote, ”When you are Jewish, you are always aware that there is a large population in the world that wants to kill you,” and “(There is) a category of friend that every Jewish person has in their mind. Who would I run to? Who would hide me (from the Nazis)?”

Let me say, briefly, that this is the opposite of my experience. Since the age of 18 I have lived almost entirely outside a Jewish community and I have not once experienced antisemitism.

So what do we do about (perfectly understandable) Jewish hypersensitivity?

I don’t know. I would say, in Jews and in Palestinians, we have two populations suffering from PTSD. The causes (the Nazis for the former and Zionists/Israelis for the latter) are real.

It doesn’t augur well for a “negotiated settlement.”


December 22


Strange as it seems to us, Hamas (and ISIS, and Hezbollah, and the Houthis) are fixated on the next world – not this one. Their struggle is existential – as they understand it – not about this world, but about eternity. And God is on their side – of that they have no doubt.

The same is true of the extreme right in Israel. They have long memories of their treatment in Europe and Russia – and they have nowhere else to go (like the Palestinians who are despised by the rest of the Arab world).

There is no resolution absent a fundamental reordering of their base reality.


The Palestinians are despised by the rest of the Arab world, is that right? Is that why there have been massive worldwide protests in support of the Palestinians?

December 24


My deepest fear is that the Israelis will give the Palestinians the war that Hamas wants – and that appears to be what is happening.

But from the standpoint of Israeli survival, the destruction of Hamas is imperative or October 7 will be repeated until hell freezes over. And from the standpoint of Hamas (ISIS, Hezbollah, and the Houthis) the destruction of Israel – and every living Jew on Planet Earth – is nonnegotiable.

I wish there were more outrage over Hamas’s diversion of billions of dollars of humanitarian aid into tunnels for the conduct of war. What has Hamas – the governing entity of Gaza – done to protect the Palestinian people from the IDF? Nothing.

The hardest thing for us Enlightenment products to get our collective heads around is that Hamas and the extreme Orthodox Israeli right are acting out a script that dates – at least – to the Babylonian captivity (c. 600 BCE), and perhaps earlier. It is an extremely complex history, but it casts a long and very dark shadow.

We should suffer no illusions: if Hamas gets its way, it will mean the ultimate extermination of Israel and every living Jew. And the Israelis know this.

Lana asks “why there have been massive worldwide protests in support of the Palestinians.”

Because judgement is easy while deep understanding of history is hard: most people are clueless about the long and extremely complex history of this region and its multiple ancient and overlapping conflicts. That’s why.

The Palestinians are victims, to be sure, of ancient and recent history, of venal leadership, of toxic religious orthodoxy, of Arab tribalism, of Israeli occupation, of European colonists, of – you name it.


As regards the following: “We should suffer no illusions: if Hamas gets its way, it will mean the ultimate extermination of Israel and every living Jew. And the Israelis know this.”

Yet Netanyahu persuaded the Likud to boost Hamas and feed it resources! (On a smaller scale, he also cultivated ties with false friends like Orban and Putin.) How could this not be suicidal? How could the Israeli public not hold him directly responsible for this devastating recklessness and lack of basic prudence?


Craig, you’re the one who said the Palestinians are despised by the rest of the Arab world. I asked why then are there worldwide protests in support. Your conclusion seems to be that the only reason someone would protest mass slaughter is that they’re too quick to judgement and on the whole naive/clueless about this overly complex issue.

To throw up one’s hands and judge this issue too complex in the face of 8,000 dead children is a coward’s argument.



You ask “why there have been massive worldwide protests in support of the Palestinians.”

Sadly, tragically, the answer is antisemitism.

Understand: I do not condone the actions of any side. There are no clean hands in this part of the world.

The origins of this conflict – the wellsprings of this animosity – originate outside our understanding of history, rationality, logic. If you want a villain, blame religion. That’s the one thing that all sides have in common: all believe that God is on their side and that God will ensure their victory.

December 25


You can attribute mass worldwide support of the Palestinians to antisemitism if you like. I’m more inclined to believe it’s the live-streamed ethnic cleansing.

The underlying issues of this war are not all otherworldly and religious. In fact, I don’t even find it overly helpful to frame this conflict in terms of religion. My in-laws are Christian Palestinians – it hasn’t protected them over there. You don’t have to be Muslim to take issue with the use of military explosives on an enclosed area full of children. And certainly not every Jewish person agrees with Israel’s actions – in fact many of them are right there at the protests, side by side with the Palestinians and everyone else who cares about this issue.

Israel wants the Palestinians’ land. And they’re using every opportunity they have to ethnically cleanse those regions that remain to them – whether by outright murder or by destroying every last bit of the infrastructure that makes life livable, to the point that the Palestinians will have no choice but to leave. That’s why they’re targeting hospitals, schools, homes, churches, refugee camps, food sources and water supplies. They have not exactly been quiet about their intentions.

Likewise, I am tired of reading discourse on the Palestinian people that seeks to paint them as extremists by nature; a barbaric bunch motivated only by their raging antisemitism, despised even by the rest of the Arab world. (I happen to have lived with one for ten years, and our occasional spats have yet to result in a single rocket attack or human shield.)


Dear Lana,

I certainly don’t believe that everyone participating in pro-Palestinian protests is an antisemite. And I certainly don’t believe that every Palestinian is an extremist. I do believe that Palestinians are right to have felt horribly mistreated by the Israelis even before this awful war started (a war provoked by Hamas). And I would be thrilled to see the Palestinians obtain their long-overdue state, reuniting the West Bank and Gaza under genuine Palestinian sovereignty when (if) it proves possible to remove Hamas from power in Gaza.

Still, there is a puzzle about the global anti-Israeli protests being debated by you and Craig that is deserving of reflection. It is widely reported that there have been up to 400,000 deaths in Yemen’s civil war since 2015, due both to direct military action and to the resulting humanitarian crisis. Obviously, many of these are civilians, including perhaps 11,000 children. If every human life is equally valuable (which I believe is true), shouldn’t there be protests of equal scale, or in fact on a much larger scale, protesting all these tragic deaths in Yemen? Have there been any such protests? I struggle to find an answer to this puzzle other than the following: that the two conflicts are viewed on the basis of an ideological narrative according to which the Israeli killing of Gazans is morally outrageous in a way that the killing of Yemenis by Saudis isn’t. If you can supply an alternative interpretation, I’d be happy to hear it.


I cannot speak to the intentions of every protester. As to myself, I care deeply about this conflict because it impacts people who are close to me. I think one thing that makes this unique is the live-streamed nature of it. For so long we in the West have had the comfort of seeing casualty numbers only in the abstract, with just the occasional image of devastation making it through to the news. Not so here. On Twitter and Instagram and TikTok anyone with a passing interest in the subject is sure to come across images daily that will shake them to their core. (Just yesterday I saw a young child bleed out in his parents’ arms after being hit in the neck by shrapnel.) Add to that this basic fact: in the West our leadership is not only failing to take a stand against Israeli war crimes but is actively providing the money, weapons and political cover to facilitate them.


Of course the war in Yemen and the war in Gaza are both conflicts in which large numbers of civilians have been victimized. But counterposing Yemen to Gaza for purposes of argument about Gaza is a dodgy business, redolent of the “whataboutism” that deflects arguments that are specific to one situation by referencing something else somewhere in the world for the purpose of undermining one’s opponents’ argument. Critics of the BDS campaign against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank ask, “What about Chinese treatment of the Uighurs or Tibetans? Why aren’t you protesting these occupations?” Which makes as much sense as if the campaigners to “free Soviet Jewry” back in the 1980s were countered by “What about the Blacks under the apartheid regime in South Africa?”

In any event, there is a simple reason why Gaza stands out for Canadians in a way that Yemen does not: the longstanding Jewish community in Canada has lobbied successfully to make support for Israel a keystone of Canadian foreign policy. There is nothing inherently wrong in this, of course, but today there is a growing number of people of Muslim, Palestinian and Arab background who see the conflict in Israel in a different light and are making their views known. Moreover, since the Israel/Palestine issue has been made so central to Canada’s role in the world, many, many Canadians who are not directly connected to either community have formed strong views about what Canadian policy on Israel/Palestine should be and what it should not be. It’s just a reality that Yemen, however terrible its condition, does not have these close ties touching deep chords here.

December 26



The point was not about why Canada in particular cares about Israel/Gaza. Rather, the point was that the whole world is up in arms about Israel and makes not a peep about equally bad stuff going on elsewhere.

None of this is to apologize for the brutality of Israel’s response (which Hamas anticipated and in fact hoped for). But it is indeed a case of selective outrage – which seems pretty obvious.


March 24



As I understand it, your position is that there is one strong bad guy and one weak good guy. The only resolution that could help the good guy would be from a stronger (international) intervenor forcing it. In the meantime there is nothing to be done, since the bad guy cannot be expected to accept that all fault lies with him.

On the other hand, if you start from the position that there is fault on both sides, however unequal, then you have a chance at getting the stronger guy to negotiate.


Bad? Good?

There is fault on both sides, everywhere, always. All armies at war rape and torture, no? What do you expect from young men, armed to the teeth and hired to kill?

But what we know about Israel is that it will never give up the occupied territories unless forced. It might agree to, as it did, more or less, in Oslo, but it will never follow through. That time they assassinated the Prime Minister to put an end to the foolishness.

As for the Palestinians, the central government is too weak to adequately enforce control, so one faction or another will always disrupt any attempt to negotiate a settlement.

Given all that, both sides must be forced to accept a settlement that will have to look much like the Arab Peace Initiative. And given the mutual hostility, foreign troops will be required. That is a long shot, but anything else is a waste of time.

What possible reason does Henry have to believe that Israel will agree and follow through this time, under any circumstances?

But Israel is endangering the world; it must be forced. And we now have an opportunity.

March 25


A major international intervention, as compelling as the argument for it may sound, would be fraught with all manner of difficulties and the usual unintended consequences, including some truly horrendous ones. Such an operation would be bound to result in direct military conflict with Israel, not to mention Hamas and some Arab states and Iran, with terrible losses of lives on all sides.

United Nations enforcement operations have been rare and produced ambivalent results. The most important of these was the Korean War, and despite years of peace and prosperity for South Korea, North Korea poses one of the greatest threats to international security today. We might make reference to the first Persian Gulf War, the NATO intervention in the Balkan states leading to the Dayton Accords, and the war in Kosovo which did not quite win UN approval. The outcomes of these have been less than optimal. (The first Persian Gulf War might have been an exception but for the terrible decision of the United States and United Kingdom to double down 13 years later to unseat Sadam Hussein.)

But were there an unlikely decision by leading powers to enforce militarily a settlement in Israel and Palestine, which would likely not receive the support of Russia and China, how would they summon the vast resources to make this work, especially in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine which is already stretching national budgets? We must bear in mind also the U.K.’s incapacity around the time of the founding of Israel to foster a peaceful transition in accordance with the international consensus at the time. The U.K. withdrew to allow the matter to be settled militarily between the Zionists and the Arabs. (The case of Afghanistan casts a grim shadow.)

All countries will have their own interests to consider in joining an international military effort to enforce a two-state solution. Would Canada be part of such an effort when our armed forces are already understaffed and our matériel wanting? Would Canadian men and women wish to attach themselves to such an operation so distant from our shores? The politics of our Jewish and Muslim communities would make such commitment particularly difficult.

In the face of these challenges, I extend my best wishes to President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken who are trying to defuse the crisis. I hope that, in the coming years, diplomacy will be able to bring some semblance of peace – even to revert to the status quo ante of unsatisfying and unresolved conflict. That situation would at least be a better starting point than where we are now.


In my eyes it’s not about good and bad. It’s about what human beings are capable of when they have absolute power over another group and no consequences for their actions. When you have soldiers brazenly filming their own war crimes and posting them to TikTok, what conclusion can one take away but that they fully expect their abuses will continue to be treated with impunity?

I find myself with little patience for reading justifications that prop up this idea that Israel is powerlessly playing into the hands of Hamas, who’ve sadly left them no choice but to commit genocide. It’s the cliché of the abusive husband – look what you made us do.

If people continue to kid themselves about Israel’s intentions, their actions will continue to baffle.

March 26


Thank you, Geoff. It’s hard to disagree with anything you say. A major international intervention would be both highly unlikely and fraught. Large-scale boycotts, divestments and sanctions – not the formal BDS, but limited to ending the occupation – could work, but are unlikely.

But it’s worth noting I’m not the only dreamer. This is from Jim Zogby of the Arab American Institute:

(The early Zionists) believed that the colony they would build would be a “rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.”

This deeply racist mindset found its best expression in the 1960 film Exodus that transposed the American “cowboys and Indians” storyline onto the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – with Israelis as pioneers seeking freedom for themselves and their families, facing hordes of savages who sought only to kill them. The conflict was thus reduced to “Israeli humanity versus the Palestinian problem.” And what was needed was a way to defeat, subdue, or solve the “problem” so that Israeli humanity could realize their dreams …

If (the White House) saw Palestinians as equal human beings, they would tell the Israelis to stop bombing. They would remove the block on UNRWA. They would support a UN resolution that would send international forces into Gaza and the West Bank, ending the illegal Israeli occupation of both. And they would set up an international relief and reconstruction effort not only to rebuild Gaza, but also to send in teams of doctors to address the physical and psychological wounds of this war.

March 27


Thank you, Arthur. I noted in the link you copied the reference to the 1960 film Exodus, starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint and a lineup of American and British stars of the day, and based on the novel of the same name by Leon Uris. I can think of no clearer examples of the exercise of “soft power” than these “blockbuster” works. I believe Jim Zogby is right to have identified these as having set the attitudes of so many involved in setting policy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – even up to today. I can attest to how reading that robustly written novel influenced my own initial views of the conflict in the 1960s, and – truth be told – I still savour, in remembrance of things past (and I deliberately use the Proustian phrase), the feelings it inspired in me at the time.

For someone working in the cultural sector as you do, it may as inspiring as it is appalling in this case that a work of art can have such a profound impact on the state of public and official opinion – even over decades. The more so when the work is of independent, rather than state-sponsored, origin. No deliberate Israeli government campaign of cultural diplomacy could have done a better job. Exodus, the novel and the film, would make a great subject of historical and cultural investigation and analysis.


The Ten Commandments is being shown on television this week. Another example of religious soft power by Hollywood which had a bearing on Western public perception of Israel as land rightfully belonging to Zionists. What a Hollywood film will never show is the call to genocide that follows the Moses-led return to the Holy Land in the Bible. The foundational book of Judeo-Christian civilization is full of blood and slaughter. The Middle East right now is following a script that was written a long time ago. Wide-scale horror is its deep-seated psychological and cultural DNA. It always has been an epicentre of hate with dreadful consequences for humanity.

Via Motaz_Azaiza on instagram.

The Inroads listserv began in 1997 as a means to link Inroads readers and others interested in policy discussion. With more than 100 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth. To subscribe, write to Inroads at and we will add your name to the list.

 The war between Israel and Hamas has been a frequent topic of discussion on the Inroads listserv. The most recent issue of Inroads (Winter/Spring 2024) carried highlights of an exchange on Israel’s right of self-defence and the meaning of proportionality in war. Another intense discussion followed the International Court of Justice’s January 26 interim ruling in South Africa’s proceedings against Israel alleging violations of the Genocide Convention. An edited version of this discussion is presented in this special.

January 27

I have not read ICJ decisions other than the recent provisional decision on South Africa’s prosecution of Israel. I invite those among us with more legal knowledge than I to discuss.

The provisional decision is lengthy. It contains 86 carefully drafted sections. To give a feel for the qualified prose, I quote section 54, which refers to “plausible” claims by South Africa, and section 64, in which the court refers to the Israeli denial of an “imminent risk of irreparable prejudice.”

Section 54:

In the Court’s view, the facts and circumstances … claimed by South Africa and for which it is seeking protection are plausible. This is the case with respect to the right of the Palestinians in Gaza to be protected from acts of genocide and related prohibited acts identified in Article III, and the right of South Africa to seek Israel’s compliance with the latter’s obligations under the Convention.

Section 64:

Israel denies that there exists a real and imminent risk of irreparable prejudice in the present case. It contends that it has taken – and continues to take – concrete measures aimed specifically at recognizing and ensuring the right of the Palestinian civilians in Gaza to exist and has facilitated th provision of humanitarian assistance throughout the Gaza Strip. In this regard, the Respondent observes that, with the assistance of the World Food Programme, a dozen bakeries have recently reopened with the capacity to produce more than 2 million breads a day …


I can’t claim more legal knowledge than John has. Nevertheless, I would like to comment briefly.

To me the big question was whether the Court would call for an immediate ceasefire. It didn’t. In other words, it indicated implicitly that Israel’s military action could continue.

Of the six “provisional measures” indicated by the court, two (preventing public incitement to genocide and enabling the provision of humanitarian aid) passed by a vote of 16-1 and the other four passed by a vote of 15-2. One maverick judge, Julia Sebutinde of Uganda, voted against all six, while the Israeli ad hoc judge, Aharon Barak, voted against four. The other 15 judges – from the United States, Germany, Russia, China, Somalia, Lebanon and other countries – agreed on all six measures – as well as on a decision that did not include a call for a ceasefire. Achieving such a consensus would have necessitated the highly nuanced and balanced language exemplified by the sections John quotes.


I cannot claim to be an expert in international law but I have some passing knowledge of the jurisprudence of the ICJ, enough to make a few observations.

The ICJ was created under the League of Nations after World War I. It is older than the United Nations but became part of its institutional system in 1945. It can only judge states for violations of international law. It cannot judge Hamas or Palestine since they are not states.

The international crime of genocide was created after the Holocaust and World War II.

More recently, in 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was created. The ICC is a permanent tribunal for the prosecution of individuals for war crimes and genocide. Before that, there were only ad hoc tribunals for the prosecution of individuals under international criminal law, the first being the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals after World War II. There were also ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia created in the 1990s where the issue of genocide could be raised.

The ICC has been somewhat effective in condemning former African dictators, but has also been criticized. Mexico and Chile have taken Israel to the ICC for war crimes in Gaza. This may in the long run prove more effective than the South African case before the ICJ.

There are normally 15 judges at the ICJ, elected by the General Assembly of the UN for renewable terms. There is one judge per country and there must be equitable geographic distribution. Ad hoc judges can be added when a state involved in a case is not already represented on the court. The Israeli dissenting judge is an ad hoc judge only for this case.

The current president of the Court is an American female jurist; a Russian judge is vice-president. The Russian and Chinese judges both supported the majority position. The Chinese judge, also female, explained her position separately.

As William Schabas and other experts have stated, the law of genocide is uncertain. Proof of state intent is usually difficult. State intent, where it exists, would normally not be public. The Holocaust was a secret official policy of Nazi Germany that could be proven from written records recovered after World War II. In this case, there exist public statements by Israeli government officials, including the President of Israel, which have been quoted by the Court to support its preliminary finding that the issue of genocide is plausible and can be rationally argued.

This preliminary finding is significant and a little surprising. A more conservative view of the law of genocide could have dismissed the case outright. This preliminary opinion may announce a strengthening of the interpretation of genocide or the ICJ may back off from a definitive finding of genocide one or two years down the road. My view is that such a retreat remains more likely, and that this provisional decision, which is balanced and satisfactory from a legal standpoint, is as far as the ICJ will go.

On the matter of a ceasefire, I am not aware of any ceasefire ever being ordered by the ICJ. Even though it probably has the power to do so, the Court would be acutely aware of the limits of respect for its decisions. States sometimes ignore the ICJ when it suits their interests, a recent example being China’s refusal to accept a ruling on maritime borders in the South China Sea. Also, the implicit judicial policy of the ICJ may be to defer political or military matters such as ceasefires to the UN Security Council.

It is an important civilizational achievement for the world in its present state to even have the ICJ and the ICC; it will take decades for them to be more effective. Those who regret that the ICJ will not have an impact on the ground in Gaza should remember that the pace of international law has been glacial in history, although it accelerated considerably in the 20th century in response to unprecedented human suffering.


I agree with André – it is perhaps significant that, with the Court’s recognition of the “plausibility” of the allegation, a step has been taken away from the narrow definition of genocide and exacting standard of proof we saw in its earlier decisions. I wonder if there are lesser included offences, for surely Israel is guilty of some sort of war crime.


I believe there are allegations by South Africa of lesser offences of war crimes. The ICJ may go in that direction but detailed investigation and proof are required, which may be suppressed or nonexistent.

January 28


The International Court’s order delivered on Friday provides confirmation that the South African application based upon a claim that Israel has violated the Genocide Convention is “plausible.” Several Western governments, including Canada’s, had been dismissive of the South African application, suggesting it was frivolous. Israeli politicians even called it a “blood libel” and claimed it was driven by antisemitism. On Friday morning, just before the Court delivered its order, an Israeli government spokesman said they expected the case to be thrown out.

Now, 15 of the world’s greatest international legal experts, judges of its highest court who are elected by both the Security Council and the General Assembly, have confirmed that South Africa has a serious case.

Israel has often rejected criticism at the international level claiming that it is directed from organs that are biased against it, like the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. On the other hand, critics of Israel point out that if Israel gets a rough ride in those bodies, it gets a soft one in the Security Council, where it is protected by powerful allies. But it is harder to reject the International Court of Justice, which is broadly representative and has judges from all parts of the world, several of them nationals of states that are very friendly to Israel.

The merits of the charge are to be determined much later, perhaps in three or four years. But what government in the world would want to live with the stigma that there is a plausible case for its having committed genocide? In a podcast on Friday, Jeffrey Sachs described the order as “devastating” for Israel and I agree with him.

The order has some real teeth, including the demand that Israel “shall take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.” The words immediate and effective underscore the importance of concrete steps to address what the Court called a “catastrophic humanitarian situation” that is “at serious risk of deteriorating further.”

Usually, a provisional measures order is negative in focus, aimed at halting or preventing certain acts. This one stands out in imposing a positive duty. Israel must report on what it has done to comply with this order in one month.

It is unfortunate that the Court did not explain why it declined to order a halt to Israel’s military activity in the Gaza Strip. Some supporters of Israel have pointed to this to put a brave face on what was a stinging rebuke.

The rationale for the failure to order a ceasefire may be that only one of the parties to the armed conflict was before the Court. Getting to a near-unanimous decision no doubt required some compromise. Maybe the ceasefire order was the deal-breaker. Imagine getting 15 of your friends, colleagues and acquaintances in one room and trying to agree on anything to do with the Middle East.

In the end, the Court’s order stays clearly within the frame of the Genocide Convention. Should Israel implement the order in good faith, dramatic changes to its military activity will be necessary. It has become increasingly clear that Israel’s attacks are not actually directed at either destroying Hamas or freeing the hostages, the two proclaimed objectives. At both, they have evidently failed. Rather, its weapons are aimed at the Palestinian people who, once again, find themselves displaced, their homes and livelihoods destroyed.

Do you remember Prime Minister Trudeau saying it was “absolutely right” to use the term genocide to describe Russian conduct in Ukraine? At the time, in early April 2002, there had been perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 civilian deaths in a country with a population that is 20 times that of Gaza. Of course, we expect double standards in the political realm. Sometimes, though, they succumb to legal principles.

In November 2023, Canada and several western European states, all of them great friends of Israel, intervened in the Gambia v. Myanmar case which is also before the International Court of Justice. They urged the Court to adopt a more liberal and broad approach to the definition of genocide than it has done in the past. With an eye to the atrocities directed at the Rohingya, they specifically urged the Court to consider “forced displacement” in assessing genocidal conduct. No doubt some of the clever government lawyers who drafted the intervention now regret their words. Should the Court follow the approach to genocide that Canada et al. now advocate, it will not go well for either Myanmar or Israel.


Dear Bill,

As always, I appreciate your insightful analysis. I wonder, however, if you are being atypically vague in this statement: “Israeli attacks are not actually directed at either destroying Hamas or freeing the hostages, the two proclaimed objectives. At both, they have failed evidently. Rather, its weapons are aimed at the Palestinian people.”

Perhaps you could elaborate on this either/or.


Dear Henry,

On January 1, 2024, the Times of Israel reported that 170 IDF soldiers had been killed since the ground campaign began in October. That’s fewer than the average of Palestinian deaths on every single day of the conflict. There are other estimates of IDF deaths but they seem to be in the low hundreds.

I believe this shows that the IDF soldiers remain inside their tanks and armored vehicles, protected by armor while they unleash hellfire on easy targets like homes, hospitals and other buildings in the Gaza Strip. If they were seriously engaging with Hamas fighters, there would be much higher casualties. They would have to go down into the tunnels, where the battles would be more symmetrical, and fight one on one. As for the hostages, I think the IDF have rescued one person so far. Notoriously, three other hostages were murdered because the soldiers thought they were Palestinians trying to surrender. The rest of the hostages who have been freed were the subject of negotiations and exchanges.

It recalls the logic of the Americans in August 1945. They explained the use of the atomic bomb as a measure to shorten the war and avoid the inevitable military casualties that would result from a land invasion. A poor justification. Under international humanitarian law, you cannot kill civilians to save lives of your soldiers.

But it is different here. In 1945, the Americans were not trying to drive the Japanese from their islands – merely to provoke their hasty surrender.

In Gaza, if they are not making any progress in actually finding and liberating hostages, and if they are failing to engage in the sort of hand-to-hand combat that is necessary to take on an irregular force like Hamas, then what is their real purpose?

This morning I heard a relative of one of the hostages being interviewed on the BBC. She insisted that because the IDF were not able to free hostages or defeat Hamas they should stop the war and try something else. I suspect a lot of Israelis feel the same way.

But the longer those who are currently running things in Israel persist in this hugely destructive lethal activity that is neither freeing hostages nor defeating Hamas, the more plausible becomes the hypothesis that they can only have another purpose.


Dear Bill,

I think you are expecting of the IDF what no army would ever expect its soldiers to do (short of Japanese kamikaze). Hamas fighters are waiting, highly armed, hidden in tunnels that are booby trapped with explosives and the entrances to which are concealed under highly populated encampments, hospitals and other civilian structures.


Dear Henry,

It seems then that we agree. They are not really fighting Hamas. On the pretext of fighting Hamas, they are attacking the civilian population. That’s my point.


Bill doesn’t need my help, but …

It’s not about expectations of the IDF. It’s that “if they are not making any progress in actually finding and liberating hostages, and if they are failing to engage in the sort of hand-to-hand combat that is necessary to take on an irregular force like Hamas … should stop the war and try something else.”

Killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure is not a legal alternative.


They have been gathering information on the basis of which they are assessing how long it will take them to slowly and painstakingly do the job. We are in no position to second-guess them.


There are several other plausible explanations for the failure of the IDF’s offensive to attain its stated goals. Here are two: (1) There is the old journalistic adage “Never ascribe to conspiracy what can reasonably be explained by incompetence.” (2) Netanyahu’s main goal is to prolong the war so that he can stay in office and avoid getting sent to jail on corruption charges. A drawn-out, inconclusive campaign suits his purpose perfectly.

January 29


With regard to the ICJ not directly calling for a ceasefire, I’d like to share the following tweet from Abdallah Fayyad: “Yes, the court did not demand a ceasefire, but there is no way Israel can guarantee that it meets these obligations without one. Any act taken by other nations that enables Israel to continue killing civilians will be aiding a potential genocide. International pressure will grow.”

The obligations the Court imposes on Israel include taking “all measures within its power to prevent the commission” of such acts as “(a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” In addition, the Court notes, “Israel must ensure with immediate effect that its military forces do not commit any of the above described acts.”


Israel has undoubtedly committed war crimes in Gaza in my view, as has Russia in Ukraine. The problem is that war crimes are rarely prosecuted and difficult to prove. After World War II, there were serious allegations of war crimes on both sides, including the execution of prisoners, the firebombing of major cities and the dropping of atomic bombs.

An interesting and little-known current process is the prosecution of war crimes committed by Kosovo. This is done by an international court under the odd name of Kosovo specialist chambers. According to Wikipedia,

The court is currently set up for (conducting) the trials of the crimes committed by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), an ethnic-Albanian paramilitary organisation which sought the separation of Kosovo from Yugoslavia during the 1990s and the eventual creation of a Greater Albania. The alleged crimes concern the period 1998–2000, during and at the end of the Kosovo war and directed afterwards against “ethnic minorities and political opponents”. The court was formally established in 2016.

Among the people charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity are Kosovo former president Hashim Thaçi and senior Kosovar politician Kadri Veseli. On 15 September 2021 the court’s first trial opened, the case against Salih Mustafa.

Kosovo has cooperated in this process. Wikipedia adds,

Unlike many other non-Dutch judicial institutions in The Hague, the Kosovo Relocated Specialist Judicial Institution isn’t an international court, but a court constituted through Kosovan legislation. To provide a proper legal basis for the court, Kosovo’s constitution was amended (amendment 24) and Law No.05/L-053 on specialist chambers and specialist prosecutor’s office was approved.

The court will be staffed by EU personnel and will have international judges only. The costs of the court will be borne by the EU as part of its Common Foreign and Security Policy. 

All three specialist prosecutors have been American, notably Jack Smith, who was there from 2018 to November 2022, when he was appointed by President Biden to serve as special prosecutor against Donald Trump.

It would be good to see Israel cooperate in a similar process. I won’t bet on it.

Still, this Kosovo court is part of a new and encouraging trend in international criminal law. The United States has an ambiguous position. On the one hand, it cooperates with such judicial institutions. On the other, it refuses to subject its own armed forces to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

Whether war crimes against Israel are prosecuted or not, what is at stake here is its moral authority derived from the Holocaust, Western guilt, the major contribution of Judaism to Western civilization and the fact that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. Without this moral authority, which has been undermined by decades of oppression of the Palestinian people, Israel’s right to exist is the same as, and no more than, Russia’s, Syria’s or Iran’s.

Israel’s forfeit of the moral and spiritual dimension of its right to exist is a major tragedy for the world. To this non-Jewish observer, this is not “tikkun olam” intended to repair the world. Once a beacon of hope for many, Israel has become a major problem for humanity and has sunk to a moral low point reminiscent of dark episodes of the Bible.

I have just read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. I was fascinated to find in it at this time a prediction by the character of a Hasidic Tzaddik that disaster would come from a state founded by Jewish nonbelievers. Potok, who died in 2002, did not live to see the lethal combination of Jewish messianism and Israeli nationalism. I wonder what he would have made of it. In my humble view, it is highly pathological.


Tell us more about “Jewish messianism.” I’m of the view that both sides are enacting a script from prehistory. The upshot is that there is no resolution in “this world” because both sides are playing for eternity.


Jewish messianism seems to me to be the mirror image of both Islamic fanaticism and extreme Christian eschatology that informs evangelical support for Trump. They are three-pronged manifestations of collective psychosis that threaten the stability of the world. Narendra Modi’s gigantic new temple in India built on the ruins of a mosque is another form of disastrous religious nationalism.


It’s too easy to say “both sides are enacting a script from prehistory,” and therefore “there is no resolution in ‘this world’ because both sides are playing for eternity.” The question is, what part of the population are religious fanatics and what influence do they have?

My conclusion is (and has been since 2004) that the fanatics on both sides are such that the parties can never negotiate a viable agreement. Minorities can prevent or wreck an agreement by, for example, executing a prime minister. But that doesn’t mean a viable agreement cannot be imposed on the parties. There can be a resolution in “this world.”


We live in a time where religious fanatics have outsize influence. It happens periodically when humanity gets a fever as the history of Jewish persecution in Europe will attest. The execution of an Israeli prime minister by a Jewish extremist parallels the assassination of Gandhi by a nationalist Hindu or the assassination of Martin Luther King.

I do believe in a solution in this world but it is many years away.


A Beacon unto the Nations
(for André Binette)

In the electronic salon
which Inroads at its better moments
aspires to become
le thème du jour for months
has become the confrontation
between Israel and Hamas. 

The ICJ judgment,
in Solomonic fashion,
gave comfort to each side,
though saddling Israel with the obligation
to not take out on Palestinian civilians
retribution for what Hamas had inflicted. 

In the court of world opinion,
Israel, once seen as a beacon unto the nations,
now stands in judgment,
and even diasporic Judaism
finds itself generationally shattered
when it comes to perceptions of the Jewish state. 

Israel, through the irony of history,
has become what some had wished
and others dreaded,
a normal state,
no different from the others,
able to hold its own
when it comes to self-defence
and to inflict untold hardship on its opponents. 

Welcome to the club,
some would boast,
where national interest rules the day
and religion serves as a handmaiden
to secular power. 

The prophets had their say millennia ago,
they would add,
and as for the messianic promise
it can await a future age,
perhaps before the climate
finally does our species in.

For the moment,
they would conclude,
the race remains to the swift and bold,
where realpolitik continues to impose
an imprint that has stood the test of time
on an imperfect world.

Image: a young girl stuck under the rubble of a house at Al Nusairat Refugee Camp in Gaza, where as of date of publication (Jan 2024) Israeli forces have killed over 20,000 people, including over 8,000 children, 6,200 women, 310 medical personnel, and 97 journalists. Via Motaz_Azaiza on instagram.

The Inroads listserv began in 1997 as a means to link Inroads readers and others interested in policy discussion. With more than 100 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth. To subscribe, write to Inroads at and we will add your name to the list.

At the time of writing (mid-November), the war between Israel and Hamas rages on. It will no doubt continue to be discussed on the Inroads listserv. In the meantime, an exchange in the last days of October on Israel’s right of self-defence and the meaning of proportionality in war was self-contained (although not without a few tangents). Highlights are presented here.

October 27

As the horrors of the Gaza conflict unfold, as the bodies pile up higher, one reliable mantra keeps being chanted by all Western leaders and politicians like a magic incantation: “Israel has the right to defend itself.” In the course of declaring that Hamas must be “eliminated,” just as the ancient Roman senator Cato the Elder closed every speech on every subject with “Carthago delenda est” or “Carthage must be destroyed” (it was – totally), Canadian Defence Minister Bill Blair reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself to explain his divergence from the Liberal government’s slightly more complex position, which condemned Hamas while worrying about Palestinian civilian lives.

We have heard about this “right” from Trudeau, Biden, Sunak, an entire chorus of EU leaders and more. But hang on: what exactly are we talking about with this rights language in this context?

On the face of it, that a state will defend itself is a kind of truism, largely devoid of specific meaning in any particular situation. Of course states will defend themselves. The essential definition of a state, as enunciated by Max Weber, is the organization that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Any state that is unwilling or unable to respond with force to a violent challenge to its monopoly, whether from within or from without, is a state that is about to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

This is a description of fact. But it is commonly enunciated as a “right.” I am not sure there is any good reason to do so, but for argument’s sake, let’s go along with the rights language to see where it leads.

What rights talk enthusiasts tend too often to ignore or downplay is that the assertion of any right must be matched by the acknowledgment of a corresponding obligation. Nor can one person’s right trump another person’s right.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms enunciates the right of French or English minorities to an education in their own language. But for that right to be effective, there is an obligation to pay the taxes that support the schools, in both languages.

My exercise of my freedom can extend only to the point where it harms others. I am free to refuse vaccination against a contagious virus, but I am rightly restricted in my right to endanger the health and lives of others. The Freedom Convoy people asserted their own freedom while ignoring its negative effects on the freedom of the inhabitants of occupied Ottawa. In consequence, their freedom was rightly curtailed, in the interest of those they were harming.

The idea that states have rights like individuals is contentious. Collective rights claims by powerful entities like states are inherently suspicious. Often, they have been employed as self-serving justifications for the denial and repression of minorities within. Under international law and multilateral treaties, states can claim certain rights, such as the defence of territorial sovereignty. But to reiterate, the rights of one state cannot trump the rights of other states or parties. Nor can rights be separated from their corresponding obligations. The invocation of a state’s right to defend itself must be matched by its responsibility to follow international law and acceptable practices of conduct in warfare.

For a state to claim a right to self-defence, it has to acknowledge limits set upon its response by the same international standards that grant the right. First is proportionality of response. Hamas took the lives of some 1,300 Israelis and took 200 or so as hostage. By this Thursday (October 26) the civilian body count in Gaza was 7,000 – and counting. In past Israeli responses to rocket attacks from Gaza and other terrorist provocations, the ratio of Palestinian deaths to Israeli deaths has been at least ten to one. By the time this war is concluded the ratio may well be much worse.

It would be foolish to insist upon a strict equation of casualties. And yes, targeting a terrorist group entrenched in a densely packed urban area like Gaza poses extremely difficult tactical issues if protection of civilian lives is an important criterion. But where do you draw the line between inevitable collateral damage and inexcusable excess? If 7,000 dead is acceptable, is 17,000, or 70,000? The Hamas atrocities, however appalling, never seriously challenged the fundamental security of Israeli society as a whole. The Israeli response threatens the destruction of Gaza itself.

When Israeli leaders directing the response demonstrate again and again utter indifference to the suffering they are inflicting on the civilians of Gaza, when a substantial proportion of the Israeli population supports retribution without limit for October 7, we can gauge that proportionality of response is not a determining factor, perhaps not a factor at all. Even old-fashioned retributive justice is distorted here. It’s no longer an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – it’s ten Palestinian eyes for one Jewish eye.

This leads to a second flaw in the claim of the right to self-defence. The right to strike back at a state or a nonstate actor like Hamas that has carried out a terrorist attack cannot extend to the collective punishment of the entire population that the offending state or nonstate actor claims to represent. Even though the Israelis deny they are engaged in inflicting collective punishment, everything they have done is indistinguishable in practice from a deliberate policy of collective punishment. They would, they indicated, provide advance notice before striking a particular structure so that civilians could flee. But flee to where? Indeed the entire civilian population of northern Gaza was told to flee southward, yet they could not leave Gaza since its borders were sealed. Gas, electricity, fuel and food supplies have been shut off. Hospitals will shortly lose all power and patients will die as life-saving equipment fails. How can this not be labelled as collective punishment?

Without in any way minimizing the horrific nature of the Hamas attack or the practical difficulties of finding an appropriate response, let us at least acknowledge that we are no longer in the territory of the lawful exercise of legitimate national rights. The next time you hear a Western politician or leader trot out Israel’s right to defend itself as a carte blanche for whatever Israel does in retaliation, treat it for what it is: not a principle but a diversion. Israel-Palestine is a problem not of international law but of the Hobbesian state of nature.


So, what would be “an appropriate response” on Israel’s part? Bury the innocents massacred by Hamas and improve border security so that future incursions by Hamas might kill fewer victims? Because Hamas will try again. Although hailed as offering “resistance” to colonialist Israel by all too many so-called progressives on Canadian and American campuses, Hamas is a religiously inspired terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel and the murder of Jews. Say what you will about the injustice of the occupation and the settlements, Israel has a right to exist – yes, a right – and the wanton murder of Jews simply because they are Jews is a moral abomination. When Israel claims a right to defend itself it is talking about defending its very existence against an enemy that seeks to destroy it.

I honestly don’t understand Reg’s rant against the very idea of a national right to self-defence, unless of course he simply wants to disarm Israel of that justification for striking back at Hamas. Since he admits the possibility of an “appropriate response,” even if he does not know what form that response should take, he cannot object to Israel’s need to do something. Were Israel to do nothing, it would only encourage Hamas to attack again, believing that Israel has no recourse unless it is willing to inflict death and destruction on the population of Gaza. That’s why Hamas “soldiers” hide among civilians and store weapons in and around hospitals, places of worship and civilian residences. The idea is to present Israel with an impossible choice: (A) retaliate knowing that innocent Palestinians will die alongside Hamas terrorists, or (B) do nothing and allow Hamas to murder Israeli civilians with impunity. A nation of pacifists somewhere might choose option B; Israel is not that nation.

Is Israel exercising due care to minimize casualties among noncombatants? Reg looks at the death toll and concludes: obviously not. Frankly, I’m inclined to agree. But neither Reg nor I is in a position to know what orders were given to Israeli forces or what measures those forces have taken to reduce civilian casualties. Unless your position is that no nation is ever justified in causing civilian casualties, you can’t condemn Israel for responding militarily to armed aggression in circumstances where civilian casualties are unavoidable.

Must we tolerate any number of civilian casualties, no matter how high? No. Assuming that we accept the inevitability of some civilian casualties as an irreducible consequence of war, we are still right to balk as the numbers soar. The proportionality principle holds. Sadly, its application is not precise. Israel’s war planners presumably do not see things the same way as their critics in other countries. Outside observers may differ among themselves. Still, as the fighting drags on and the death toll continues to mount, I suspect there will at some point be agreement among observers that proportionality has been breached. If Reg’s post is any indication, we might be fast approaching that point, if we are not there already.

It might be that there was another, more appropriate response to the massacre perpetrated by Hamas on October 7, one that did not entail bombing or invading Gaza, one that did not put Palestinian civilians at risk. But I don’t know. None of us do.

October 28

I am sorry that Steve has taken my argument as a one-sided dismissal of Israel and of the grief and anger of Israelis at the Hamas slaughter of innocents. In fact, I said nothing that offered any justification or rationale for Hamas, nor any reason to doubt that an Israeli response was both inevitable and morally justifiable. I must object, however, to my argument being described as a “rant against the very idea of a national right to self-defence, unless of course he simply wants to disarm Israel of that justification for striking back at Hamas.” That’s just unfair, but it is sadly typical of the way all attempts to debate rationally about this ghastly conflict seem to break down quickly into accusations of bias or worse.

My point was not to deny the right to national self-defence, which I explicitly accept, both as a truism (all viable states will defend themselves) and as a right recognized under international law. What I object to is the assertion, contrary to international law, of the right as a trump, that in this case Israel’s rights claim can be taken as a blank cheque, where the price exacted on Hamas, and on Gaza, is without limit. Here I simply invoked the proportionality limitation on the right to self-defence. Steve actually accepts this but he appears to take the blurred line between proportionate and disproportionate response as reason to condemn my concern as anti-Israeli. I didn’t invent or fabricate the 10-to-1 ratio of Palestinian to Israeli casualties in past confrontations, or the present body counts. I take these facts as grounds for legitimate concern that the Israeli response will be disproportionate.

In trying to parse what possible rational objectives Hamas may have had in launching its October 7 assault (aside from sheer ideological zealotry and bloody-mindedness), two possibilities stand out. The first, already achieved, is to put the Palestinian question back on the Arab agenda and stop the slide of the Saudis, Emiratis and other Sunni Muslim countries into normalizing relations with Israel at the cost of putting the Palestinians out of sight, out of mind. The second may have been the utterly cynical and callous calculation that Israel would respond with such disproportionate fury against the Palestinian population as to turn the Islamic and Arab world, and indeed wider global opinion even in the West, against Israel. In other words, this is a trap, which Israel and its Western state backers may be drawn into.

The choice was never between doing nothing and doing everything. It was between balance and imbalance. That finding balance in Israel-Palestine relations, or indeed in the Middle East generally, is devilishly difficult (see the fable of the frog and the scorpion) doesn’t mean that searching for it isn’t the responsible way to go.


Reg writes, “I didn’t invent or fabricate … the present body counts.” Honest question: Is there a source for these present body counts apart from claims from the Gaza Ministry of Health (i.e., Hamas)?


It is possible I didn’t grasp the full subtlety of Reg’s argument concerning the right to national self-defence. I would dispute his claim that Israel is using the right as a trump or blank cheque “where the price exacted on Hamas, and on Gaza, is without limit.” I say this while acknowledging that the rising number of civilian casualties is reason enough for me to hope that Israel’s leaders will rethink their approach to eradicating Hamas. That Hamas needs to be eradicated is something I don’t question. Degrading its capacity to carry out operations like the October 7 massacre is a second-best solution, but one that Israel might be wise to settle for, to spare Gaza any further misery.

A technical point: A friend wrote me after my first post appeared on this listserv to question my understanding of proportionality. He said that it was a misapplication of the principle to look at gross casualty figures or to compare casualty rates, as I do and as Reg does in his postings. Rather, he insisted, the principle of proportionality applies to individual military operations and requires parties to the conflict to ascertain, as best they can, whether the military significance of the chosen target outweighs the likely damage to civilian lives and property incidental to the attack.

I take him to mean that when Israel bombs a structure in Gaza it has an obligation to be reasonably certain that the structure houses a valid military target of sufficient consequence to justify the attack. Further, it must take into account the likelihood of civilian casualties and take steps to mitigate these (e.g., warning civilians to vacate the target area and/or employing “precision bombing techniques” or specialized munitions). This calculus must be performed for each sortie.

I did a little reading about the subject online. Anaïs Maroonian, who wrote about proportionality in international law in an online journal published by the U.S. Military Academy, states that proportionality “governs the protection of civilians and civilian objects in the conduct of hostilities. It has a limiting role that impacts targeting, including in the choice of weapons used, the precautionary measures required to be taken, and the anticipated incidental civilian harm, which must not be disproportionate to the expected military advantage.”¹ So it seems my friend was right to question my application of the principle.

Do gross figures matter? Does Israel stand condemned by its own actions if it inflicts ten times more casualties on Palestinians than it suffers at the hands of Hamas terrorists? If my new understanding of proportionality is correct, both Reg and I are wrong to conclude that the numbers alone, however disturbing, demonstrate a violation of the law of war. But I don’t think the real issue here is whether or not Israel can be found guilty of violating the proportionality principle. What will upset any compassionate person is the infliction of so much death and suffering on innocent civilians caught up in the war.

I agree with Reg’s surmise as to what Hamas’s leadership was thinking when it undertook its murderous rampage on October 7. I don’t agree that a normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours would necessarily push the Palestinians out of sight and out of mind. The price exacted by the Saudis for normalizing relations with Israel might be progress toward a two-state solution. On the other hand, the notion that Hamas counted on an over-the-top Israeli response to its raid hoping that this would turn the Arab street and world opinion against Israel strikes me as entirely plausible.


New York Times columnist David French, a lawyer who served as a judge advocate general with the U.S. Army in Iraq, wrote about the concept of proportionality in his October 12 column. Here is what he had to say:

As the war continues and as the destruction mounts, you will hear a number of voices condemn Israel for a disproportionate response, but many of these critics fundamentally misunderstand what proportionality means in the law of war. The U.S. Army’s “Law of Land Warfare” field manual – which is deeply grounded in the international law of armed conflict and governed our urban operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – defines the legal obligation of proportionality as requiring “commanders to refrain from attacks in which the expected loss or injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects incidental to such attacks would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage expected to be gained.” It also requires that commanders “take feasible precautions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians, other protected persons and civilian objects.”

Proportionality does not require the Israel Defense Forces to respond with the same degree of force or take the same proportion of casualties as Hamas. In addition, as the manual states, “the proportionality standard does not require that no incidental harm results from attacks.” If you’re a soldier on patrol and someone fires at you with a rifle, you don’t have to respond with a rifle. You can use a tank round or a missile in response, unless you have reason to believe the tank round or missile will cause extraordinary collateral damage. But if you’re taking fire from a single house, proportionality prohibits you from destroying the entire block. Throughout the war on terrorism, American forces used powerful, longer-range weapons to attack individual targets. That does not violate the laws of war.

In reality, inflicting disproportionate casualties can be one of the goals of a fighting force. Ukraine appears to have inflicted substantially greater casualties on Russia than the Russian Army has inflicted on Ukraine. That doesn’t mean Ukraine’s response was disproportionate under the law of armed conflict. In every fight, the goal is to inflict as many losses as possible on your opponent while taking as few losses as possible.²


Thanks to Steve and Bob for the interesting material on proportionality in the international law on warfare. Points taken. I would still maintain, however, that when a state invokes the right of national self-defence to justify armed response, it surely cannot be open-ended, or – to use my earlier metaphor – a blank cheque. Some broad idea of proportionality of the response to the threat must be considered.

Whether this conforms to the strict terms of proportionality in the law of warfare or not, it will certainly affect public approval. Comparative casualty figures do matter perceptually. Granted that, as I have said before, it is devilishly difficult to combat terrorists embedded in the world’s most densely packed urban agglomeration without inflicting severe civilian damage; one can even sympathize with the IDF’s conundrums when faced with such complexity. But there comes a point where the body count, not of Hamas fighters but of women, children and the elderly, mounts to the point where Israel loses the sympathies of those who initially were in full support – where the blank cheques issued by Israel’s allies are withdrawn.

Urging Israel to undertake a proportionate response to Hamas is not anti-Israeli; it might even be pro-Israeli. Pessimism about the likelihood of Israel heeding such advice is unfortunately realism born out of experience. That’s sad, perhaps even tragic, for everybody concerned, especially Israelis and the Palestinians of Gaza. As the scorpion said to the frog halfway across the Jordan River after the frog asked why the scorpion had stung him so that both would die: “What do you expect? This is the Middle East.”

October 29

May I try to shine a bit of light on this discussion about self-defence and the use of force?

There is much talk of Israel’s inherent right to self-defence. It is enshrined in article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations. Like self-defence in domestic law, a right all of us can invoke if we use force to repel an attacker, it must be exercised “proportionately.” You don’t normally reply to a slap on the face with a baseball bat. So it is in international law. A state cannot use a nuclear weapon to defend itself against a minor border incursion. Ruling against the United States in 1986, the International Court of Justice referred to a “specific rule whereby self-defence would warrant only measures which are proportional to the armed attack and necessary to respond to it, a rule well established in customary international law.”

For many years, Israel has endured Hamas rockets. Its Iron Dome defence system appears to have been fairly effective. Casualties have been very slight, a combination of Iron Dome and the ineffective targeting of the rockets. It seems likely that the rockets were not the main cause of deaths in Israel resulting from the October 7 attacks. As for the infiltration of Palestinian fighters into Israel, the significant casualties will be stopped in the future by better border defences and better military intelligence. In other words, the best “self-defence” for Israel calls for changes and improvements within Israel. The destruction of Gaza appears to go well beyond self-defence.

The final paragraph in Bob Chodos’s post, a quote from an American military lawyer, says that “inflicting disproportionate casualties can be one of the goals of a fighting force.” This is a confusing statement because it is not about proportionality in the exercise of self-defence. But in the context of the post, it seems to be suggesting that a state acting in self-defence can respond in a disproportionate manner. That is wrong.

Proportionality in the exercise of self-defence is not the same as proportionality in the conduct of hostilities. Proportionality in the conduct of hostilities is a different issue altogether. It applies to both sides, the side acting in self-defence and the aggressor. But the confusion in the final paragraph of Bob’s post is aggravated by the fact that in discussing the objective of inflicting disproportionate casualties on the opponent another fundamental principle, that of distinction, gets lost.

The principle of distinction means that noncombatants and civilian objects should not be targeted. Some civilian objects, like hospitals and schools, are singled out in this respect for special protection. But they are actually nothing more than examples of a general rule. Any disproportionality in the amount of force used can never be invoked to justify attacking civilian objects. The reference to “inflicting disproportionate casualties” in Bob’s post refers to killing and wounding of combatants and has nothing to do with civilians or civilian objects.

Proportionality in the conduct of hostilities refers mainly to the killing and wounding of noncombatants and the destruction of civilian objects to the extent that this is a consequence of a lawful attack on military objectives. Disproportionate attacks on lawful targets, that is military objectives, aimed at causing disproportionate damage to an enemy must still endeavour to minimize the collateral damage to noncombatants and civilian objects.

Caution should be exercised in taking guidance from the United States military on the lawful conduct of hostilities. It has a bad track record, going back at least to August 6, 1945 – not to mention the war in Vietnam, where there were about 60,000 American deaths and about three million Vietnamese deaths, the majority of them of noncombatants.


I’m sorry, Bill, but I want to be sure I understand you correctly. Are you saying that, because the rockets Hamas has fired at Israel have succeeded in killing relatively few people, Israel has a (legal? moral?) obligation to ignore them? To me that’s like saying I should ignore the man firing an assault rifle in my direction because his aim is bad. You observe that Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system has proven very effective and suggest that this, too, is reason for Israel not to make a forceful response to Hamas’s rocket attacks. To me this is like saying I should ignore the man firing at me with an assault rifle because I’m wearing a bulletproof vest.

Again, I want to make sure I understand you. You say that the appropriate response to the infiltration of Hamas fighters into Israel is a better border defence. You do not mention that the “fighters” who infiltrated into Israel butchered some 1,200 civilians. Is building a better defence the only appropriate response in your view? To me that would be like saying the only appropriate response to a home invasion that took the lives of several members of my family is to replace the shattered front door with a stronger one. Here in Canada I would call the police in the expectation that the coercive power of the law enforcement establishment would be brought to bear on the perpetrators. But that option is not available to states, which must deal with external aggression on their own.

You begin your post by saying that a person slapped on the face is not entitled to respond by slugging his attacker with a baseball bat. By analogy, a state “cannot use a nuclear weapon to defend itself against a minor border incursion.” Again, I’m inclined to call you out for describing the brutal murder of more than a thousand people and the kidnapping of another two hundred or so as a “minor border incursion” and likening the atrocities committed by Hamas to a slap in the face. If I am violently assaulted by a man who has attacked me in the past and who has made known to one and all his intention to kill me, I would think I am entitled to use whatever degree of force I deem necessary to preserve my life.

Perhaps a better analogy than the one you use is this: a man comes at me with a baseball bat and I am armed with gun. Am I forbidden by proportionality from shooting him? I would think not. A baseball bat is a deadly weapon. I am not required by any principle of morality or law to throw away my pistol and look for a baseball bat with which to defend myself so that my assailant and I are equally matched.

I think you misunderstand David French, the New York Times columnist and military lawyer Bob quoted in his post. When French says that armies seek to impose disproportionate casualties on the enemy he is stating a truth about war fighting. There are no rules of war that limit how many enemy combatants you may kill. There are no rules of law that say if a combatant fires at you with an assault rifle you may not return fire with a rocket launcher.

There are rules about killing noncombatants, as French points out. Basically, a soldier is never justified in deliberately targeting a noncombatant. Things get complicated when a combatant fires at you from a position where you cannot return fire without putting noncombatants in jeopardy. Here, according to French, is where proportionality comes into play. A soldier is allowed to return fire in the situation just described when on balance the military objective outweighs the risk to civilian life and property. In short, far from being in disagreement with French, you agree with him on the meaning and implementation of the principles of proportionality and distinction in combat situations.

Finally, you appear to put great emphasis on the numbers of casualties suffered by each side in a conflict. It is not entirely clear whether you have in mind all casualties or only civilian casualties. You point to American and Vietnamese losses in the Vietnam War and note that the majority of Vietnamese dead were civilians; however, the figures you give are for total casualties (combatant and noncombatant combined).

You also make reference to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by the United States. It is the deliberate killing of civilians rather than the staggering number of civilians killed that makes the bombing of Hiroshima problematic (to say the least). That a single bomb killed so many and in such gruesome ways commands our attention. It horrifies us. But strictly speaking, proportionality is beside the point in this instance. The wrong is the deliberate targeting of civilians. I would say the same thing about Vietnam. The wrong done is not the killing of three million people; the wrong done is the deliberate killing of noncombatants in violation of the principle of distinction. The killings would not have been any less wrong if fewer Vietnamese noncombatants had been killed.

If Israel is eventually judged to have done wrong in bombing Gaza in its effort to eradicate Hamas, it will not be because Israel ought to have regarded Hamas as a minor nuisance or because x thousand Gazans died or were injured in the bombing. It judged to have done wrong if noncombatants were deliberately targeted. The deliberate targeting of noncombatants has been alleged by Israel’s critics, but is not yet proven. The lack of proof, I suspect, is why Israel’s critics have thus far focused on the number of casualties, as if the number of dead and wounded offers proof of guilty intent. It doesn’t. We await future inquires to learn the truth.


I’m not sure this discussion of the legality of appropriate response is useful. Israel’s allies don’t care about legalities and will see that Israel appears before no court and that no Israeli ministers’ bank accounts are frozen. But “appropriate response” also has a common-sense meaning. Israel is losing badly in the court of public opinion. Eventually Western governments may respond to their publics – and to decades of instability that Israel has caused. And that day is, one hopes, coming closer as we speak.

No strong military response would be “appropriate” to those who distrust Israel, which includes me. It is widely accepted that Israel intentionally promoted Hamas to undermine the Palestinian Authority and the demand for a Palestinian state.⁴ Now, because of Israel’s stupid and dangerous tactics and its obsession with an Israel from the river to the sea, 1,200 Israelis are dead. How many Palestinian civilians is it appropriate to kill in response?

This is what I would consider an appropriate response: Israel should renounce its claim to the territories (Gaza and West Bank, including East Jerusalem), announce the Green Line as Israel’s international border, beg the U.S., the UN, the EU, and everyone else to send in peacekeepers to force its settlers and soldiers out of the territories, and beg the peacekeepers to stand on the Green Line to protect Israel from Palestinians and Palestinians from Israel. Beg them. Do it today.


All sounds good to me, Arthur! The amount of land needed to build a corridor to Gaza could be transferred to Palestine so that the Palestinians could have room for their airport expansion.Presumably this would also include some land from the post-1967 settlements, which should make such an agreement a bit more acceptable. A Palestinian state comprising half of the former Palestine should be big enough to resettle Palestinian refugees in the remaining areas, which is what some Mapai (Labour) politicians were thinking prior to 1967, I believe. Yes, the UN, U.K. and U.S. should act to prevent further bloodshed. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is already underway.


For what it’s worth, I am with Arthur. I see no reasonable option in the short run. I want rid of Netanyahu; I want rid of Hamas. I want to minimize deaths among Gaza civilians. I want an independent Palestine in Gaza and the West Bank with territory at least as large as at the 1967 war. None of this is in view. The one consolation of this awful month is that the idea of two states has been resurrected.


Arthur, these are all good suggestions, but having done all that, Israel will still be faced with a religiously inspired terror group on its borders that will be building its capacity for the next attack. And what you’re talking about are not peacekeepers but combat troops. “Peacekeepers” are useless when there’s no peace to keep.


I don’t pretend to know what the IDF can do in Gaza that is humane and effective. Here’s a guideline. What would the IDF do were Hamas’s terrorists and their hostages hidden in tunnels deep under Tel Aviv?

October 30

Proportionality is a principle. It is the same principle regardless of the status of those involved. It is assessed on a case-by-case basis, bearing in mind the reality of the threat posed by the attacker. The Charter of the United Nations does not suggest that the right of self-defence is in some way dependent upon the status of the perpetrator of the attack. As for the principles of proportionality and distinction in the conduct of hostilities, these are above all focused on the protection of noncombatants. But even Hamas and ISIS fighters are entitled to humane treatment if they are captured, and to protection against summary execution or gratuitous attacks on their lives that are not required by military necessity.

Continue reading “Self-Defence, Proportionality and the Israel-Hamas War”

Image: A 2023 forest fire burns into a residential area in Okanagan Valley, B.C.

An Introduction by John Richards

The Globe and Mail published our oped, reproduced below. Our proposal is to dispense with a revenue-neutral tax that redistributes the B.C. carbon tax revenue through a variety of tax credits and instead devote the revenue to offsetting costs arising from necessary adaptation to regional climate-related events.

The acute political problem in imposing a national carbon tax is the “prisoner’s dilemma” – the incentive not to tax ourselves and hope that other countries bear the cost of defossilizing the world economy. It they do defossilize, we share in the benefits of reduced carbon emissions. Of course, political leaders in all countries understand the prisoner’s dilemma as well as we do. Eight years after the Paris Agreement in 2015, modest national policies may have stabilized annual world CO2 emissions, but they have achieved no significant decline.

The logic underlying the national carbon tax is to start with an initially low tax, with the rate escalating by $15 per tonne each year over this decade to $170 per tonne of CO2 equivalent by 2030. Canada’s carbon tax appears to be more fragile than we thought, as can be seen in Ottawa’s recent exemption of oil heating in Atlantic Canada from the carbon tax and Prairie politicians’ vocal opposition to the very principle of the tax.

In 2023, climate-related events are far more evident than they were in 2015. Adaptation costs are now significant and bound to be worse in future years. We have no choice when it comes to adaptation: we have to address the events. Curt Eaton chose two examples:

  • Maintaining the hundreds of dikes in B.C. that have been ignored for the past 40 years – badly maintained dikes in both Princeton and Merritt failed in the atmospheric river event.
  • Doing what is necessary in the forests that surround many Canadian cities to protect them from a Fort McMurray event. We have done very little on this front, despite huge fires in Kelowna (2003 and 2023), Lytton (2021) and elsewhere.

Perhaps, if we dedicate carbon tax revenue to remediation of costs incurred in B.C., B.C. taxpayers will be more supportive of the tax and will be willing to raise the rate above the federal schedule as necessary. Somehow we must improve dikes, radically revise forest management and take other adaptation measures. As opposed to financing adaptation via provincial general revenue, a dedicated carbon tax invokes the “polluter pay” principle. The more one emits CO2, the more one pays. Indirectly, setting the carbon tax rate at a level enabling payment of climate-related costs may increase the currently modest carbon tax rates in the federal schedule.

— John Richards

Revenues from the carbon tax should be funding adaptation measures.

by Marvin Shaffer, John Richards and Curtis Eaton

Marvin Shaffer is a retired consulting economist and adjunct professor in the Public Policy School at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. John Richards is professor emeritus in the SFU Public Policy School and co-publisher of Inroads. Curtis Eaton is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Calgary.

In its 2023–24 budget, the B.C. government recognized that “British Columbia has seen an increase in extreme, weather-related disasters including wildfires, the 2021 summer heat dome and the November 2021 atmospheric river and subsequent flooding.” In the spring of 2023, it allocated only $200 million for managing wildfires. By the time of its September first-quarter report, the finance ministry acknowledged that the total cost of managing B.C. summer fires was nearly $1 billion – nearly five times the spring estimate!

To pay for wildfire management, the province increased its projected deficit by $760 million. The B.C. government has not even begun adequate budgeting for other severe climate events and has not begun to fund systematically the investments that past commissions of inquiry, government agencies, municipalities, Indigenous communities and others have recommended to minimize damages from future events.

We face two carbon-related problems. We need to reduce future carbon emissions to slow the potentially catastrophic warming of the planet. We also need to adapt to the climate change events upon us, which will almost certainly increase in frequency and severity in the years ahead.

To date, the argument for Canada’s carbon tax has been to increase the cost of using fossil fuels, thereby providing an incentive to find nonfossil alternatives. It is a legitimate rationale. However, in many cases, substituting alternatives is costly and, increasingly, both Ottawa and provinces are making exemptions – for example, eliminating the carbon tax on heating residences reliant on oil or natural gas. The implicit rationale behind carbon tax exemptions is that reducing world emissions requires a concerted international effort. Canada’s exemptions provide a tangible benefit by reducing consumers’ costs, and its imposition of the tax has only a negligible impact on world emissions.

In 2008, British Columbia introduced the first significant carbon tax in North America. To improve public acceptance, the tax was designed as “revenue-neutral.” The revenue raised by the tax has to date been distributed through targeted credits for low-income families and a variety of tax credits for all. Ottawa and other provinces have all designed their carbon taxes as revenue-neutral.

In the 2000s, adverse climate effects were minor. In the 2020s, governments need additional revenue because of climate effects. In the 2023–24 fiscal year, the province projects that carbon tax revenue will be $2.8 billion. At present, B.C. relies on general government revenue to pay for managing forest fires and repairing dikes and other infrastructure destroyed by “atmospheric rivers.” Why not dedicate the $2.8 billion to meeting present climate change costs that B.C. citizens must, one way or another, pay?

If we dedicate the carbon tax revenue to financing adaptation, we continue making a small contribution to future emission reductions. We also address financing of immediate B.C. problems – without increasing government deficits or reducing valuable public services. We can continue to assist lower-income families, in the same way that GST credits offset the effect consumption taxes have on these families.

The need to budget for climate change costs is increasingly apparent. There is a good case for breaking with the original political strategy of revenue neutrality and, instead, dedicating carbon tax revenue to cover at least some of the needed expenditures occasioned by climate change. Committing carbon tax revenues to adaptation expenditures explicitly introduces the principle of “polluter pay.”

Some people have trouble accepting the need for Canada to introduce price signals to reduce future world emissions. Almost everyone understands that investments are necessary to minimize climate-induced damages here and now.

Continue reading “Who Should Pay for Climate Change Events?”

The stories appear almost daily. In September, Metroland Media, a division of the media empire whose flagship paper is the Toronto Star, ended the print editions of its community newspapers and cut 600 jobs.¹ An international survey summarized in the Reuters Institute’s 2023 Digital News Report found that more people now turn to social media for news than to the websites of traditional news outlets.² The media landscape has been changing rapidly for some time, and this transformation is not slowing down. To assess these changes, we invited two experienced and knowledgeable journalists to participate in an email exchange moderated by Inroads managing editor Bob Chodos. Mark Starowicz was the producer of several landmark CBC radio and television programs, including As It Happens and The Journal, and is now an independent documentary filmmaker. Harvey Schachter was editor of the Kingston Whig Standard and is now a columnist for the Globe and Mail.

Bob Chodos

I prepared for this exercise by reading two issues of the Montreal Star, the newspaper that my parents subscribed to during my childhood, from May 1958. Abundant advertising – constituting more than half of a 60- or 72-page broadsheet – was the basis of an economic model that sustained a local daily newspaper. This economic model no longer exists. What are the economic models now, and are they viable? The amount of information available now is orders of magnitude greater than it was in 1958, but are people better informed? What has been lost and what has been gained in the intervening years?

Mark Starowicz

Dear Harvey,

It’s an honour to exchange thoughts with you and take up Bob Chodos’s challenge. I can’t promise coherence; this is a confusing time.

So the Chodos family read the Montreal Star. It leaned Liberal. But the Starowicz family subscribed to the Montreal Gazette because it was more Conservative. Now the Star is dead and the Gazette is on life support.

Some backstory, to illustrate shifting times:

In May 1776, Benjamin Franklin came to Montreal, which had just been occupied by the invading American Continental army. His mission was to persuade the French inhabitants to join the revolution. That didn’t work out. But he also introduced a secret weapon: Quebec’s first printing press and a French patriot printer from Philadelphia to spread his revolutionary message. That didn’t work out either. The paper became the Montreal Gazette, which quickly evolved into a mouthpiece for the British elite. In today’s parlance Franklin’s printer would probably explain the hasty rearrangement of his loyalties with something like “Well, the business model had changed.”

In May 1965, 189 years after Franklin and his press, I joined the Montreal Gazette as a copy clerk. I loved it. However, the smoky composing room, with ancient Linotype machines that literally smelted lead ingots as they formed a line of type, did not seem to have evolved much since Franklin’s day.

Even to a callow 17-year-old copy clerk like me, it was evident that a technological shift was overdue. What I never expected, however, was that the whole print industry would virtually disappear before I reached retirement age. Well, the business model had changed.

We can debate when. Whether it’s sometime in 1989 with CERN,³ or with CompuServe or AOL or a dozen variants and websites, is just detail. I think the full revolution hit on June 29, 2007, with the release of the iPhone. If the World Wide Web was the Manhattan Project, the smartphone was Hiroshima.

There was a precedent, after all: Gutenberg’s “invention” of the printing press in 1450 (he wasn’t really the first, but moving on) enabled the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment by destroying the Church’s monopoly of the means of publication. Like many others, I think we are at an equivalent intersection of technology and history. The Web and the smartphone made a publisher out of every visionary and every poet – and, unfortunately, every crackpot and megalomaniac and crook. We stand on a historical and technological fault line of such tectonic magnitude that it’s not at all clear our democratic systems can survive it.

The state of journalism, and information in general, is full of paradoxes.

We are living in the golden age of the long-form article, even as print magazines are dying. Despite predictions that journalism would fragment into glorified tweets, I can’t remember a time when newspapers offered so many “long read” options. Even the surviving legacy magazines are expanding long-form journalism: the Atlantic, the New Yorker and even the New Scientist all have daily editions.

We are living in the golden age of the documentary, even as broadcast television is fading. Once again, there had been predictions that the internet would reduce everything to five-minute lengths. Yet excellent long-form documentary choices abound on the streaming services.

We are living in the golden age of intelligent radio as well, with thousands of podcasts – from a medium that arguably died years ago.

Never have more people subscribed to leading newspapers. You can’t find a newsstand, but the New York Times has 9.3 million paid subscribers, 8.6 million of them digital. The Wall Street Journal’s paid circulation is nearly 3.8 million print and digital. The Guardian, with no paywall, claims a monthly reach of 23 million. Of course, all their print editions are waning, but their readership is growing. And despite our generation’s lament that hardly anyone reads anything longer than a tweet, we may be in a period of relatively high public literacy. For a paper like the Times to reach more than nine million paid subscribers, somebody under 30 has to be reading it.

But the tragedy of the commons is that local journalism is virtually on its deathbed. No one is covering school boards, zoning committees, even local council meetings. I can only imagine the abuse of authority that now goes unreported. Local television news is on its last legs too, and we can already see the private Canadian networks asking to be released from their licence obligations. In a few years, they will be turning their licences in. There’s no money to be made in local – print or TV.

But in fact, the advertising business model, in the sense of big display ads like Eaton’s, was largely a 20th-century phenomenon. All my adult life I’ve collected antiquarian newspapers and magazines going back to 1685. Before the 1890s advertising existed, but it was modest, often limited to one page or the inside front covers of a magazine (Pears Soap). Newspaper barons like Pulitzer and Hearst depended more on impulsive newsstand sales (“The Maine Blown Up”) for their revenue – hence the hysterical tone.

I wonder if we’re not returning to the same dual business model: the Times is now largely digital subscription, Netflix is subscription. Magazines remain subscription-based even in their expanded daily versions, and much of the podcast world is subscription-based. The internet and broadcast media will remain advertising-based models, trying to outshout each other and lure passersby with clickbait – a social and political Wild West – while the rest of us have moved to the quiet neighbourhoods. And nobody will cover the zoning committee.

Something scares me about that.

Harvey Schachter

Dear Mark,

Your thoughts, for all the paradoxes, captured and explained much of my own confusion. There is so much that is exhilarating at the same time as I see newspapers, where I essentially spent my career, crumbling. I have to explain what happened, for myself if not others, before offering ideas for the future.

On January 1, 1984, journalist Peter Benjaminson published Death in the Afternoon, cataloguing the closure of many American large city afternoon newspapers or their desperate gamble to stay alive by entering joint operating agreements with their morning competitors. The Montreal Star – the largest of that city’s English dailies – had succumbed five years earlier. Though its demise was precipitated by a pressmen’s strike, it was a victim of changing reading and information intake habits that have accelerated until today.

I was given a photocopy of his book in 1993, as if it were samizdat, by my boss, Jake Doherty, the publisher of the Kingston Whig Standard. Jake had been installed in that post when the longtime independent owner of the paper, Michael Davies, sensing where the trends were leading, sold his prized possession to the Southam chain. When I came to Kingston in 1978, Michael had told me how the delivery boys used to go door-to-door but now they were only going to about half the homes. And that was to decline.

Television was killing us. We were delivering yesterday’s news; TV had today’s news, served up by friendly anchors and reporters. We would close the final edition at 1:15 p.m. for late-afternoon delivery and evening reading, mostly filled with stories from the day before. At 6 p.m., eating dinner, people could get a fresher version of the main stories from the television in the kitchen or dining room.

And the chance to set a leisurely hour aside to read the previous day’s news was fast fading. Families were busier, often frantic. Increasingly women were working. Children were in endless activities, mom and dad as harried chauffeurs. Bill Thorsell, editor of the Globe and Mail, began to talk about how we weren’t selling newspapers but buying people’s time.

I was cautious about switching to morning, since it seemed people were even more rushed then and I was dubious they would keep the paper with them all day for further reading. We commissioned a survey, which inevitably found some people preferred morning and some evening, but it was decided for me when one of the pollsters, as we had a drink the night before his presentation, said, “You have to become morning so you can deliver the paper when news stops.”

Newspapers were dying well before the internet came along. Now, of course, news never stops. The smartphone, as you note, blew everything up. In yet another paradox, it gave newspapers the opportunity to be as fast as any competitor getting the news out, at least in their digital offerings. People can dip into the news at any point of the day. Facebook offers the equivalent of a new newspaper every time you open it: an unending deluge of opinion, ideas, jokes, family sharing, cartoons, sports memories, songs, whatever – customized in some fashion to your interests.

Those smartphones have frittered away our attention spans, with their promise of better dopamine hits if we just open another app. Ever since I entered journalism in the late 1960s, the main internal battle in newspapers has been over size: How long should stories be? Newspaper journalists gave up on longer stories by their colleagues (not their own brilliant and vital one of the moment, of course) well before readers did. But over the 1980s, perhaps as an outgrowth of busier family life, I sensed full-page stories were becoming too great a challenge for too many readers, at least during the week (our magazine, on the weekend, worked). USA Today’s success when it started in 1982 was interpreted as an argument against long-form newspaper journalism.

Newspapers then tended to get about one third of their revenue from circulation and two thirds from advertising. John Wanamaker, a legendary marketing wizard, had said in 1938 that “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Given that fog, it was always easy to cut as recession neared: Thomson, which the Kent Commission on newspaper ownership called a “lacklustre aggregation of cashboxes,” began selling off newspapers after the recession of the 1990s, preferring subscription services for lawyers, accountants and mechanics offering essential work information that would be needed in bad times as well as good. Now there is a chance for better targeted advertising digitally, along with free classifieds and MLS listings on realtor sites blowing up the old model.

So as you point out, there are many bright spots. But newspapers, a worthy curated compendium of information, are in many cases on their last legs, not even publishing daily any more, and I worry about Kingston and the many smaller cities and towns in this country.

Mark Starowicz

Dear Harvey,

Of course you’re right: the commercial newspaper model started shrinking well before the internet, the result of television and of takeovers by conglomerates and predatory hedge funds which then savaged the staffs down to the absolute minimum. Then the first internet wave came and began to erode the model even more. Free Press, a journalism advocacy group in the United States, calculated that “40% of the jobs lost in the newspaper industry since 1990 occurred prior to 2008 and the boom years for online advertising.”

Then the social media tsunami – Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), iPhone (2007) – swamped the weakened survivors, to the point, Free Press reports in the same article, that between 2008 and 2020 more than a thousand newspapers ceased printing and “the number of newspaper newsroom employees shrank by more than half.”

You and I agree that the ensuing evaporation of local journalism is an existential threat to our democracy. The question is what to do about it. Several European governments have legislated that the social media giants like Google and Meta have to reach financial compensation agreements with journalistic institutions in order to link to their articles. While this is a step forward, Australia discovered the underlying flaw in this approach. When Australian publishers lined up to get their compensation from the tech giants, the biggest beneficiaries were the large newspaper chains, not the little guys.

Joshua Benton of the Nieman Lab writes that while Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is getting millions of dollars a year from this arrangement, “the small fries in Australia are getting bupkis.”⁴ Meanwhile, in the United States, Senator Amy Klobuchar is advancing a bill that follows the Australian model and, sure enough, among its supporters are hedge funds like Alden Global Capital and giant broadcasters like Sinclair Broadcast Group. Canada recently passed Bill C-18, which takes a similar approach and which will generate over $300 million a year repayment from big tech, but will equally favour the big players and chains.

While it’s mildly satisfying that big tech will have to share its outrageous profits with the chains and big players it stole them from, that will not restore local journalism and independent voices.

The problem is not how to tinker with the failed 20th-century business model of ad-supported newspapers, which created these conglomerates in the first place and made journalism hostage to hedge funds. That model of a local paper with a cadre of local reporters supported by ads from the local grocery stores and auto dealers, buy-and-sell columns and movie theatre listings is dead. The grocery ads became Sobeys flyers, the used cars went to Auto-Trader, the Canadian Tire ads became junk mail and the buy-and-sell ads went to Kijiji and eBay or Facebook Marketplace. The next generation of reporters went into PR or event planning.

A democracy requires an informed electorate, supported by civic journalism that covers town councils and school board meetings; exercises scrutiny of police and administrative authority; monitors housing, transit, health services and infrastructure; and reflects the relevant social, religious and cultural debates and currents in a community.

Let me tell you a story that may seem, at first, to be unrelated.

John Hirsch was the brilliant – and flamboyant – artistic director of the Stratford Festival long ago, and he liked to have audience “feedback” talks after a major performance. I happened to be in the audience after a performance of Hamlet. One woman got up to say she enjoyed it but observed that the performances – and indeed her seat – were partly subsidized by taxpayers’ money: “Shouldn’t the theatre make a profit?”

Hirsch went ballistic:

Lady, your expensive ticket didn’t cover half the cost of the production, you’re right.

But do the schools make a profit? Do the libraries make a profit? Do the roads make a profit?

Hell, lady, do the sewers make a profit?

Why must the theatres make a profit?

I ask the same question about local and regional journalism.

Why should something as vital to a civic community as an independent newspaper or local radio and television news service be subject to a commercial market model that has died and is not coming back?

I’m not talking about government ownership, but I am talking about arm’s-length federal and provincial and municipal public subsidy, and local community ownership.

We’ve had the model in public broadcasting for over half a century: the BBC model, funded by viewers, is now almost universal is Europe. We have the CBC and TVOntario in Canada. The model can have variants that include mixed public and ad-supported institutions, subscription support, local collectives and foundations. These local/regional newspapers or radio/TV/internet channels should be nonprofit and community-owned and -governed.

An example I would encourage readers to explore is The Tyee, a British Columbia–focused and internet-based nonprofit daily newspaper that I follow. It has exemplary journalism and is funded by a spectrum of subscriptions, donations, foundations and government local news grants and tax credits. There are other models springing up in several U.S. cities.

We can also begin to rebuild local journalism on the airwaves, by reversing the massive cuts inflicted on national and local news departments over the past decade by the CBC and insisting that it expand local and regional coverage and extend its network of regional bureaus. We know regional news works because CBC Radio, despite the cuts it has suffered, is number one or two in most major local markets in Canada.

But most of all this is going to take an act of will and leadership on the federal level to establish the principle that our democracy depends on the vitality of our local journalism. Governments need to put their money where it will make that principle a reality. Just as Ottawa and the provinces finally understood that Canadian film and documentary required structural support and investment and helped bring about Telefilm, the Canada Media Fund and provincial tax credits, so we have to widen our focus to bring the same array of supports to local print and broadcast news, in defence of our democratic process.

Harvey Schachter

Dear Mark,

There is a phenomenon thriving today that intrigues me: smaller-scale – often one-person – journalism. Yes, there are crackpots and cranks, but there are also academics and other intellectually inclined folks who have found an audience and a subscription base to add to collective knowledge.

I start my day with Heather Cox Richardson, the Substacker with the highest revenue, a gobsmacking $5 million – a professor of history who is laying out the story of our times day by day in a restrained and somewhat boring way, liberal but without rhetorical flourishes or the journalistic need to contain or debunk every statement a leader makes. Joyce Vance comes in most days, with a highly knowledgeable take on U.S. legal matters in the Age of Trump. Electoral Vote on Saturday has two academics answering readers’ endless questions on political issues with incisive information; on Sunday, they turn their space over to smart commentary by those readers. In Canada, Paul Wells and Justin Ling are building a Substack following for their informed commentary and investigative probes.

And throughout the week, hour by hour, like the old wire services you monitored in your copy clerk days, Taegan Goddard supplies his Political Wire report, summarizing everything of note (and more) for political junkies in two or three paragraphs with a link.

“The great thing about the internet has always been that people gather according to interests and not geography,” he noted in the Web Masters podcast. That’s not a novel insight. We have all experienced it since CERN’s prodigy came into our lives, allowing us to connect so much more easily with people who shared our interests. But as Goddard points out, it has given us new communities beyond geography that entice us, taking our time and money. The tragedy of the commons, as you so aptly put it, is that our geographical communities are endangered with respect to local information.

Actually, information and identity. New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, in a discussion on his podcast with novelist Barbara Kingsolver about Appalachia’s angst and psychic distance from the media centres, mentioned in an aside that his paper has more subscribers in California than any other publication in that state. Although there are still some strong newspapers, he wondered about the impact on identity. It led me to think back to the CBC’s founding and its role in helping to sustain Canadian identity in a world where too much American information flooded us. Are we now, almost a century later, in need of similar government-funded operations in our communities?

You highlight paradoxes. With personal and organizational paradoxes, a helpful way forward is to catalogue the strengths of both poles and see if those can be merged in some way. As I think of the strengths of today’s successes that you and I have mentioned, exceptional quality comes to mind. There is a high return on the time invested by the reader, viewer or listener, to come back to Thorsell’s concern about reader time. There is a uniqueness in some fashion, often narrow specialization. Digital has allowed easy and cheap access to readers. Subscriptions drive revenue but often they are tiered in some ways, with different levels of payment, and usually an option that involves some ads for free riders.

Can those strengths be grasped by geographically based newspapers? Clearly they must be digital, but that’s hard for existing newspapers in smaller centres, which have readers still hung up on holding a newspaper in their hands. They must also be focused on local news – that’s their biggest strength. It will be hard for legacy newspapers which historically have believed they must supply national and international news; I had surveys telling me that in the 1980s, but now it just diverts staff resources to information available elsewhere.

Since the staff will be small, given economics, they will have to reach out and find the Heather Cox Richardsons and Joyce Vances of their community, as well as bringing together, in some way, groups in the community that share interests. A recurring battle in my time at The Whig was to get the duplicate bridge scores out of the paper since it seemed a waste of limited space, but each effort drew subscription cancellations that unnerved us. Today, with digital space unlimited, how can bridge lovers – and lawn bowlers, chess players, tennis aficionados and other groups – be brought into the newspaper? For many years, local correspondents used to provide reports on meetings or areas of the community the newspaper staff couldn’t cover, and ratepayers’ groups would also supply information. That may be needed again, with staff following up on major stuff.

I suspect this will only happen, as in the early days of journalism, with entrepreneurs – some ideologically motivated unfortunately – testing their alternatives. I think there is a role for foundations and cooperatives and other alternative funding. Perhaps the McConnell Foundation, built in part on Montreal Star profits in the good days, could lead the way. The National Trust for Local News in the United States, which already owned two dozen newspapers in Colorado, expanded in August by buying five daily newspapers and 17 weeklies in Maine.

In my column for Kingston Life magazine, an independent publication now owned by Postmedia, I have been writing for nearly 15 years on civic issues, institutions and leaders in the city, including before every municipal election providing citizens with a scorecard on how each councillor and the mayor voted on the key issues of the term. Even more of interest here, looking for new media models, I have been recently covering developments that affect a gentrified area of Kingston for a quarterly magpaper in that community (delivered door-to-door and shunning the internet) published by the Skeleton Park Arts Festival, using the funding it draws from various community and arts sources for its activities.

Dave Bidini, co-founder of the Rheostatics rock band, created and edits the seven-year-old West End Phoenix in Toronto, which counts Margaret Atwood as a writer and draws revenue from a variety of sources, including subscriptions. Author Simon Winchester, on a tour for his latest book on knowledge, boasted about his scoop on road closures in the Berkshires for the Sandisfield Times, the monthly newsletter-newspaper he founded with his wife and friends for the community of about 1,000 people where they live in Massachusetts. The 14-year-old publication is funded primarily through sponsorships from regional and local businesses and residents, with the help of donations from local homeowners.

Ultimately, government will have to play a role. Municipalities must raise their game in supplying balanced and readable information – written with a journalistic instinct, ideally under the supervision of an editorial board that can resist political pressures. School boards and universities may have to do the same. And the provincial and federal governments will have to supply more funding, in a fair and sensible manner, not bailing out deep-pocketed financiers, to revive the local newspaper or even, if they have the courage, reinvent the CBC for today’s world.

Bob Chodos

It’s time for short concluding pieces – anything in each other’s contributions you would like to respond to or points that haven’t emerged or that you would like to reiterate.

Harvey Schachter

Dear Mark,

Last year, my wife suggested we buy digital subscriptions to the Toronto Star for three of our 30-something grandchildren, two living in Toronto and one at school in Peterborough. She had been distressed over young people getting their news from social media, and felt these subscriptions might at least signal that there is a better alternative. The Star has been struggling financially, and she wanted to support a progressive paper and help keep it coming to her door.

More of us should follow her lead. It used to be that young people got an exposure to the newspaper in their family home – I would have looked at comics and sports in those 1958 Montreal Stars. Then they were mostly adrift from the newspaper during university and the start of their working career, but as they formed a family and bought their first home, they became subscribers. Now they are seduced by TikTok, YouTube and the rest of social media at an early age, believing those are the fount of news and information.

Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and one of the leading writers on personal productivity in an age of distraction, has alerted us to the distinction between shallow work and deep work, and the importance of carving out sufficient time for the latter. Similarly there is shallow and deep news-information reading. Shallow can be fun and can have its uses; much of news is quick and shallow. Deep is vital.

We need to think about this distinction in our own lives. Children, armed these days with what you have labelled Hiroshima, have to be alerted to the dangers at the appropriate ages. It’s a new version of “The Talk.”

I have focused on reading, my preferred way to take in information, leaving radio and TV to you, Mark. The legacy of your career will be how much you contributed to deeper information intake, and consequent understanding, through As It Happens, Sunday Morning, The Journal and documentaries. Young people have to be alerted to those options as well – the deeper possibilities in audio and television. They won’t change immediately, obviously. The dopamine hits from social media are enticing. Those grandchildren aren’t avid Star readers, but they are aware of it as an option.

The local newspaper – or, perhaps more accurately, the local newspaper’s successors – will also need support. They will offer less than that Montreal Star in 1958 (newspapers in that era in smaller centres were far more meagre anyway). It is easy in an era when we can feast on so much excellent journalism to be apart from the local newspaper, even dismissive, enjoying the New York Times, Economist, The Tyee, and favourite Substack writers.

We – here I am addressing those reading these letters – shouldn’t sneer at the local offering but instead help it. How can we contribute positively? We don’t live online; we live in communities – geographical communities. Solid news and information are crucial to those communities, particularly in an age of misinformation, polarization and populism with narrow and often dangerous intentions.

Mark Starowicz

Dear Harvey,

I like your vision of a galaxy of newsletters, comprising those who share common interests, supplemented by those that share the same geography. It’s a good statement of what we should strive to attain.

We appear to generally agree on most points, which may be a disappointment to our readers, but I feel less lonely in my fears. Let me attempt a summary of where we stand:

  1. There is a crisis in the national news industry of a scale that erodes the foundations of our democracy.
  2. The crisis particularly threatens the survival of local and regional coverage, resulting in swaths of local government and administration going uncovered.
  3. The old business model of advertising-supported newspapers and local broadcasting is on its last legs.
  4. Trying to save that model by propping up chains and hedge funds should not be the first line of government defence of the Canadian news industry.
  5. It is time for all three levels of government to accept that a vibrant press is a public service that is essential to a democracy and must be financially supported by city councils, provincial governments and the federal government. We have a track record of supporting public radio and television, documentaries, theatre and music; why not news outlets?

I would add, as you have also suggested, that the responsibility extends to other institutions of civil society: foundations, perhaps universities, civic-minded corporations. Advertising-supported newspapers and magazines are a phenomenon that existed between 1890 and 1990. Most of the history of print has been subscription-based. So the responsibility also devolves onto us as individuals.

I close with a memory from my fledgeling CBC radio producer days, when I met the affable and talented regional director of CBC Newfoundland, Dave Gunn. “Welcome to the Rock,” he said, rising from his desk. Behind him was a large map of Newfoundland with about 400 push-pins. About two thirds were red, the rest white.

Of course, I had to ask.

“Oh that. The red ones are where we have correspondents, the white we’re still looking for one.”

Are they on staff? Do they get paid?

“No. But they take a course, they get a card, and the community knows they are CBC stringers.”

I listened to the morning show the next day, and it was the richest tapestry of voices I ever heard. The “correspondents” were local teachers, librarians, nurses and retired people phoning in washed-out bridges, fires, missing fishermen, town council debates. It was exciting. Newfoundland came alive in my imagination.

Now I don’t want to get carried away with a caramelized vision of citizen journalists. I remember Morley Safer saying “I have as much confidence in the citizen journalist as in the citizen surgeon.” That’s harsh since there are many examples of great citizen journalists. However, in a world where 30 per cent of the U.S. population thinks Biden lost the last election, some caution in recruiting people to report the facts is likely advised.

There is, in sum, a spectrum of community-based financing models – from civic-minded entrepreneurs to nonprofits, subscription cooperatives and even some blended models that contain some advertising. All require citizens and governments to migrate from a dying business model where news is a for-profit enterprise to one where news is the vital plank on the democratic stage. As the legendary journalist A.J. Liebling summarized it, “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.”

Continue reading “Journalism’s Tragedy of the Commons: The Near-Death of Local News”

Photo by Maximus Studio on Flickr.

Early in 2023, Statistics Canada’s new population statistic made a splash. Canada’s population was estimated at 39,566,248 on January 1 – for the first time in Canada’s history, an increase of more than a million over the year before.

By far the dominant factor in this increase was international migration, also over a million and accounting for 96 per cent of the year’s population growth. What was new was the increase in non–permanent residents: 607,782, or 58 per cent of the total international in-migration of 1,044,962, while new permanent residents, at 437,180, represented 42 per cent.

Looming behind these statistics is the Century Initiative, an influential lobby advocating a Canadian population of 100 million by the end of the century. Anne Michèle Meggs, a retired senior official in the Quebec immigration ministry and a member of the Inroads editorial board, and Pierre Fortin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the Université du Québec à Montréal and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, exchanged views on recent developments in immigration and their possible implications.

Anne Michèle Meggs

It is interesting that this is the first time non–permanent residents outnumber permanent residents in the population data. Anyone following administrative immigration figures knows that, for several years now, there have been two or three times more people in Canada or Quebec with temporary status than new permanent residents.

Where Statistics Canada leads us astray is in its affirmation that “both of these numbers (permanent residents and non–permanent residents) represent the highest levels on record, reflecting higher immigration targets and a record-breaking year for the processing of immigration applications at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada” (my emphasis).¹

Non–permanent residents do not figure in any official immigration targets, and nowhere is their connection with permanent residence made explicit. Canada’s immigration system is less and less planned. Immigration is rising, but at rates much higher than the federal government announces and with much less predictability as to when and where these people will be arriving, what skills they have and how best to help them integrate. The director of the Canadian Labour Economics Forum, Professor Mikal Skuterud of the University of Waterloo, shares my concern: “The temporary immigrant stream doesn’t have a target; it has no cap or limit.”²

In 2022, 437,180 people were accorded permanent resident status (number of landings or admissions). A large percentage of these new permanent residents had been in Canada for several years with temporary status. Only some are new arrivals.

On December 31, 2022, there were 1.6 million temporary permit holders residing in Canada. In addition, there were more than 70,000 asylum requests pending, many of them with work permits, many others waiting long months to obtain one.

This unplanned massive temporary immigration is consistent with the goal of the Century Initiative. The home page of the Century Initiative website has several dramatic affirmations. I’m very interested in your reaction to these statements as an economist.

On its home page, you can read the rationale: “We are shrinking in the world – by population and by economic power.”

Pierre Fortin

The patriotic intent of the Century Initiative statements is admirable. Unfortunately, they are a confusing hodgepodge of true, misleading and outright false assertions.

Canada’s population is not shrinking among peers. From 1989 to 2019 according to United Nations data, our share of the G7 population increased from 4.2 to 4.9 per cent, and our population share of the 25 larger advanced OECD countries – call them the OECD25 group³ – also increased, from 3.2 to 3.7 per cent. Admittedly, from 1989 to 2019, our share of world population has declined slightly, from 0.52 to 0.48 per cent. This is mostly due to the fast-growing populations of Africa and South Asia. Do we want to emulate these developing countries demographically? High population growth in these regions is projected to push the world’s stable population to three to four billion more than the present eight billion.

The other assertion is that “we are shrinking in the world by economic power.” Is this true? If you measure global economic power by total GDP, as most people do, the answer is no. From 1989 to 2019, according to International Monetary Fund data, our total GDP increased slightly, from 4.1 to 4.5 per cent of total G7 GDP, and from 3.4 to 3.5 per cent of total OECD25 GDP. Admittedly, our total GDP went down from 2.1 to 1.4 per cent of world GDP. But then, who could match the stratospheric catchup growth rates of Asian economies such as China’s? And why should becoming more economically powerful in international elite circles be a national goal, as opposed to enhancing the material and spiritual well-being of the average Canadian?

Anne Michèle Meggs

How about “Our population is aging; our workforce is shrinking”?

Pierre Fortin

Our population is aging. The large baby-boom generation is currently about 60 to 75 years old, and is retiring after having fewer children than previous generations. But economic research has consistently shown that faster population growth through immigration would not make a dent in the aging of the population resulting from the passing of the boomer wave through the “golden years” over the next couple of decades. One clear and definitive demonstration was presented recently by William Robson and Parisa Mahboubi of the C.D. Howe Institute.⁴

Anne Michèle Meggs

It’s also true that well over 75 per cent of immigrants are adults, and they often bring their parents to Canada through family reunification. Also, they make up a relatively small proportion of the general population, I recall the demographer Marc Termote pointing out that the mean age of labour force participants is higher for immigrants than for natives because they arrive in Canada and enter the workforce at a later age. Don Wright reminds us that immigrants age too, which has led at least one analyst to joke that the only way immigration could be a solution to the population pyramid problem is if Canada only accepted 15-year-old orphans as immigrants.⁵

Pierre Fortin

All true. It’s a mirage to see faster population growth as helpful in preventing population aging. Furthermore, the Century Initiative statement that “our workforce is shrinking” is false. In the 12-year period 2007–19 (from before the 2008 recession to before the 2020 pandemic), Canada’s labour force increased by 13.5 per cent. That was twice the increase in the United States (6.8 per cent). Do we want to accelerate population growth to prevent a shrinking of the labour force that is just not occurring?

Anne Michèle Meggs

The Century Initiative website also claims that “economic growth is tied to population growth.”

Pierre Fortin

This statement is either a tautology or a falsehood. By making more muscles and brains available, a growing population obviously allows a country to produce more goods and services. Total GDP increases. But this is an insipid tautology. If, instead, the statement means that a larger population is necessary and/or sufficient for GDP per capita to be large, then it is outright false. In fact, in 2019 the cross-country correlation between GDP per capita and population size in the OECD25 group was exactly zero. There were several smaller countries whose average standard of living was among the highest (e.g., Switzerland, Denmark, Austria and Sweden), and larger countries where per capita GDP was among the lowest (e.g., Italy and Spain). Furthermore, if we shift from a narrow GDP per capita to a measure of overall “happiness” as in the United Nations World Happiness Report, among the G7 and the OECD25 groups, in 2017–19, overall satisfaction with life was uncorrelated with national population.

The observation that immigration and GDP per capita are uncorrelated across nations was solidly backed up a few years ago by two in-depth reviews, one by Brahim Boudarbat of the Université de Montréal and Gilles Grenier of the University of Ottawa, and the other by Craig Riddell of the University of British Columbia, Christopher Worswick of Carleton University and David Green of UBC. Both research teams highlighted that increased immigration has little or no effect on GDP per capita.⁶

Anne Michèle Meggs

And here’s a lengthy Century Initiative affirmation that almost sounds progressive and adds a dire warning!: “Our population growth is tied to our quality of life. If we have more people, we have a larger workforce and we create more economic activity. This means more potential tax dollars we could use to maintain and improve social services, including healthcare and income security programs; and needed infrastructure. We can manage our growth or accept our decline.” The final assertion on the home page is “We need a bigger, stronger Canada.”

Pierre Fortin

The statement that more people in the workforce will generate more economic activity and tax revenues is correct – more people in the labour force means larger GDP and more tax revenue. But the assertion that this will allow social services and infrastructure to be improved is a non sequitur. It implies that the larger GDP and tax dollars will not only cover the larger population but also increase social services and infrastructure per capita. This is just a restatement of the false assertion that a larger total GDP will increase GDP per capita (whether in the form of more private or public goods and services) and overall satisfaction with life on average. There is no basis whatsoever for arguing that growing “a bigger Canada” is a requirement for growing a better Canada.

Would faster population growth solve the problem of labour shortages? No. Labour shortages arise when the economy runs full speed at or above potential, so that labour demand comes to exceed labour supply. The unemployment rate goes down to the floor and the job vacancy rate rises to the ceiling. However, contrary to popular opinion, it is not a sure thing that population growth, whatever its origin, can alleviate labour shortages.

True, a larger working-age population allows labour supply and economic activity to increase. But what is often forgotten is that the new workers and their employers will then spend the additional income to buy more food, housing, clothes, transportation, investment goods, etc. The greater demand for labour that this new spending generates can in fact be as large as, or even larger than, the initial increase in labour supply. If so, the shortage of labour – the gap between labour demand and supply – will not be reduced. The gap will be unchanged or even worse. More immigrants in the workforce may be needed (and useful) to attenuate labour scarcity in specific sectors or regions, but they are unlikely to solve the gap at the level of the whole economy. The popular belief that population growth will solve the problem of labour shortages macroeconomically is a fallacy of composition.

What is the evidence for the absence of a negative connection between labour shortages and population growth? Well, an immediate piece can be extracted from Canada’s recent experience with job vacancies and total net migration. In 2021–22, just before the economic slowdown began and asylum claims expanded, the total net migration of people aged 18–64 to Canada had accelerated to 499,000, up 150 per cent from 199,000 in 2015–16. But the lift this gave to the workforce was not followed by a decline in the job vacancy rate. Instead, the job vacancy rate more than doubled, rising to 5.5 per cent of total available jobs in 2021–22 from 2.4 per cent in 2015–16. Extending the evidence to the OECD25 group of countries, it is readily found that, between 2016 and the spring of 2022, there was no systematic tendency for the job vacancy rate to fall more in countries where the workforce increased more rapidly. Quite the opposite. As in Canada, countries that experienced faster increases in their workforce saw their job vacancy rate increase on average.

Anne Michèle Meggs

I suggest that the large number of temporary immigrants is poor policy. The vast majority of temporary immigrants are not directly linked to labour-market needs.

It’s ironic that, in 2018, Canada signed the United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, when our system is less and less “orderly and regular,” and an argument could be made that it’s becoming less safe.

In 2021 I described in Inroads how the Canadian immigration system has changed. For decades, we selected economically skilled workers from overseas based on a point system referring to characteristics known to facilitate socioeconomic integration – training in fields that are in demand, previous work experience, postsecondary education, knowledge of English or French, age under 44, preferably with families so they would be more likely to settle permanently in Canada. These people arrive as permanent residents, with a secure status that allows their planning for the future, taking out mortgages, getting car loans.

Among the 1.6 million temporary permit holders on December 31, 2022, 50.5 per cent (807,750) held study permits; 42 per cent (678,105) held open work permits accorded under the International Mobility Program (IMP) (e.g., Ukrainians arrive with a special permit issued under this program), and 7.5 per cent (119,995) held closed work permits issued through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

The only program linked directly to labour demand is the TFWP, the smallest of these. The permit issued under this program ties the new arrival to a specific job and employer (who has been given authorization to hire foreign workers). These workers are generally less educated and work in low-paid positions in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. The permits can be renewed, but the employee is dependent on the employer to renew the authorization. TFWP employment is precarious because the employer can pull the permit at any time. Almost all news reports about exploitation of temporary foreign workers relate to this program.

The other 1.5 million temporary permit holders are not selected by their profile, nor do they have a job on arrival. It is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain the data required to determine their specific needs on arrival, such as language training or skills, or educational upgrading.

Foreign students are a source of low-wage labour during their studies; Ottawa lifted all restrictions on off-campus work in November 2022. Previously, study permits allowed students to work only 20 hours a week during semesters and full-time during breaks. The International Mobility Program allows them access to an open work permit after graduation. Open work permits are also available for their spouses before and after graduation through the same program.

When it comes to the labour market and economic integration, there is little or no information available on their field of study, their Canadian work experience, or the educational levels, field of expertise or work experience of their spouses. Unlike rules for permanent residence, there are no specific language requirements for temporary immigration. It’s whatever the study program or the employer requires.

Are huge increases in this type of temporary immigration really the right way to go in the long run?

Pierre Fortin

This requires a nuanced answer. Immigration has always been a big plus for the Canadian economy. I firmly side with those who believe it is helpful in relieving specific labour shortages in particular markets, even if the skills requirements are modest. Immigration should increase over time. But doing it too fast and with ever lighter skills requirements is not beneficial for our economy.

There is a well-known connection between economic benefits and the overall rate of immigration. The more permanent immigrants you admit and the more temporary immigrants you allow to enter, the more likely the last candidates down the two lists will have weak schooling and training credentials and get low earnings. This applies with particular force to temporary workers and students, because they are subject to much less scrutiny than candidates for permanent residence. (Actually, some temporary immigrants will never be able to meet the minimum number of points required for permanent residence.) If immigration to Canada is tilted toward low-wage labour, average GDP per capita will decline. Canadian economic research has provided evidence that increasing the total inflow of immigration, whether permanent or temporary, generally lowers the average skills level and annual earnings of arriving immigrants.⁷

The trend is particularly worrisome at present, because the conditions on temporary workers are very light and often determined by the prospective employers (who prefer paying low wages, of course). The educational establishments have their eyes on the subsidies they can get from departments of education. The consequence is that, with no cap for temporary immigration, Ottawa issues as many study and work permits as the market can bear, with little consideration given to specific labour characteristics.

Professor David Green of UBC has reminded us of an additional pitfall, widely discussed in the research literature:

Immigration … keeps wages down in occupations in high demand, and that reduces incentives for firms and workers already here to invest in the skills needed to fill those positions, reducing opportunities, missing an opportunity to increase the skill level of the work force and getting in the way of training and education policies intended to help workers with those opportunities.⁸

In other words, using too much immigration to solve labour shortages has the potential to increase wage inequality among workers and weaken incentives for firms to increase productivity.

Anne, assuming that immigration to Canada should be a balanced inflow of high- and low-skill immigrants, what targets would you set for permanent admissions and temporary permit holders? What changes would you suggest the current system needs?

Anne Michèle Meggs

Whether it is for Quebec or Canada, I would gradually bring the system back to a primarily one-step process. People arriving in Canada or Quebec would be selected from overseas so that they arrive in the country with permanent resident status.

In parallel, it is essential to plan temporary immigration levels, to determine in advance under what conditions and at what pace temporary work and study visas will be issued. This planning must be done in collaboration with the provinces in line with the availability of public services. And the provinces must include the municipalities. It is absurd to see municipalities currently developing their long-term growth plans for infrastructure, density and mobility with no clear idea of population growth. As we indicated at the outset, the only source of population growth in Canada now is international migration. Immigration planning or population growth must be part of every other government plan.

Pierre Fortin

In the present system, the federal government is obliged to consult the provinces on its plans for the permanent immigration level, but not for temporary immigration. How could this be amended for the better?

Anne Michèle Meggs

Well, consider first the case of Quebec. Its specific concerns, when it comes to immigration, are recognized in the Canada–Quebec Accord Relating to Immigration and Temporary Admission of Aliens signed in 1991 after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord.⁹ Not only does this agreement allow Quebec to set its own levels and establish its own criteria for permanent immigration programs, but it also ensures that Quebec will give its consent for international students and temporary immigrant workers. Quebec therefore has broad powers to regulate and control its international intake. However, Quebec has not yet shown signs of wanting to plan or reduce temporary immigration, which is at odds with the CAQ government’s claim to want to keep immigration levels down.

As for the other provinces, their agreements with the federal government do not allow them to limit temporary immigrant workers. All provinces, however, have power over the number of international students they want to allow, since education is a provincial jurisdiction. Clearly, none of them is yet willing to start limiting the number. Do the provincial governments understand the actual number of new arrivals these international students represent, given that the federal government offers work permits to their spouses? It is doubtful that the provinces assess student requirements for housing – and public transit. Furthermore, they and their spouses often need language training and other services.

Ottawa ultimately has control over admissions whether they be permanent or temporary. The provinces have no control over the number of ad hoc visa programs put in place through ministerial decree within the framework of the International Mobility Program. One of the biggest of these is the program to take in Ukrainians. So far, close to 500,000 applications have been approved. Fewer than a third have actually arrived, and the processing of applications continues. Clearly, Canada has a moral obligation to open its doors to these people or others fleeing conflict, but greater consultation and collaboration with the provinces is essential to prepare the way for their arrival.

In fact, Ottawa needs to base targets on the total number of arrivals, whatever the immigration status, to be able to welcome newcomers properly. The increased arrival numbers should not be so large that the host communities feel overburdened by inclusion and integration. Accommodation of the newcomers means ensuring that they have a roof over their heads, that they can integrate rapidly into the labour force, that they have access to language training, that they can obtain financial services, and that government services such as public transit, child care, education and health care are available and affordable for them. Canada’s recent immigration policy proposes huge increases in permanent immigration targets while refusing to set targets for the even higher levels of temporary immigrants.

This cavalier policy is in great danger of transforming immigration to Canada from a successful operation to a painful breakdown. To answer your question, nobody really knows the right target because planning in line with welcoming and settlement capacity has never been properly undertaken. Canada needs to set guidelines and targets for both permanent and temporary immigration, looking at the number and pace of arrivals rather than the type of permit. Otherwise, the newcomers will not be able to participate adequately in their new communities, and Canadians will lose confidence in immigration policy.

Pierre Fortin

I agree that optimal immigration is not maximal immigration. First, the expansive immigration policy inspired by the Century Initiative is generating chaos at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. More than 1.7 million temporary and permanent applications are waiting in the pipeline, which doesn’t include asylum seekers and their applications for a work permit.

Second, as I said above, the increased inflow of immigrants is likely to have a zero or negative impact on the average living standard of Canadians; it will not attenuate the pace of population aging, and it will not reduce global labour shortages. It may make them worse.

Third, I add to your last observation, Anne, that overly expansive immigration targets risk not only producing some “loss of confidence” in immigration but fuelling an anti-immigration movement as has exploded in the United States and Europe. Canadians in general like to vaunt the good performance of their immigration system and their generosity toward immigrants. Unfortunately, this is a vision of the past. A recent online Environics survey (in which respondents are more likely to express their true feelings than in an interactive telephone survey) found that about half of Canadians think that there is too much immigration to Canada.¹⁰ It would not take much to metamorphose Canada’s proverbial generosity into generalized xenophobia. This has recently occurred in one of the world’s most progressive societies, Sweden. In the 2022 election, the Social Democrats there were defeated and the anti-immigration vote exploded. We must avoid slipping into this kind of political quagmire.

My bottom line is that immigration is an imperative work of civilization. It must increase over time, but going too fast is a dangerous course to follow. We should do it “allegro ma non troppo,” as in Italian classical music.

Anne Michèle Meggs

Your concern is certainly relevant, Pierre. I’ve recently been reading about immigration policy in Spain. Spaniards have had quite open attitudes toward immigration over the last 50 years.

However, in 2018 the emergence of the right-wing VOX party with anti-immigration positions coincided with a slight increase in negative immigration attitudes in the Spanish population. A recent study addressed the “chicken or egg” question: is VOX’s political platform playing on anti-immigration sentiment in Spain or the source of it?¹¹

The study concluded that “the strong showing of VOX in 2018 and 2019 cannot be attributed to a generalized increase in anti-immigration sentiment among the Spanish population as a whole, since public opinion towards immigration was evolving favourably during those years.” The authors could not determine whether recent hardening of attitudes toward immigration was due to VOX or contextual factors such as the economic situation, the pandemic and the Canary Island irregular arrivals. Nevertheless, Canada, another country with relatively high tolerance levels for immigration, should heed the warning at the end of the report:

What is clear, however, is the effect VOX is having on polarisation, causing a growing divergence of attitudes towards immigration based on ideological positions. This polarisation is “freezing” opinions by ascribing them to ideologies and tainting arguments with labels related to partisan sympathies. This polarisation is concerning because it becomes an obstacle to calm and rational debate on immigration and public policies devoted to manage it.

The present absence of a “calm and rational debate” on immigration is what worries me the most.

Continue reading “Are We Heading for 100 Million Canadians?”

In 2021, Frances Widdowson was summarily fired from her tenured position in the Faculty of Arts at Mount Royal University (MRU) in Calgary. The proximate cause was her criticism of Black Lives Matter and statements that residential schools had some positive value, inasmuch as many First Nation children received a formal education. The Canadian Association of University Teachers is supporting her grievance against the MRU administration and has criticized the University of Lethbridge for having cancelled an invitation to her to give a lecture. After philosophy professor Paul Viminitz invited her, vocal opposition from students and faculty members resulted in her invitation being cancelled. We invited Frances Widdowson and Mark Crawford, an Alberta colleague from Athabasca University, to participate in an email exchange with Inroads co-publisher John Richards.

John Richards

I recall an interview with you, Frances, in which you said that in the early 2010s faculty colleagues and students disagreed with many of your ideas, but they accepted you as a productive faculty member and teacher at Mount Royal University. You and your colleagues disagreed agreeably. In the middle of the decade, things changed. The culture at MRU – and most universities across North America – succumbed to wokism. As a summary, I define wokism as an ideology that identifies systemic White racism, past and present, as the main explanation for social problems arising among non-White communities and nations.

I am an economist, which leads me to search for a major economic disruption as catalyst for wokism in universities and other institutions. The financial crisis in 2008 bankrupted major financial institutions in New York and London. Pre-2008, the urban elites running governments and major financial institutions in Western Europe and North America assumed the future would be a continuation of the stable markets that had prevailed since the early 1990s. The crisis obliged governments to bail out irresponsible institutions to prevent “freezing” of all major financial transactions and a repetition of black October in 1929. Despite bailouts, the recession was the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The financial crisis disrupted political conventions, and enabled the rise of right-wing populism (e.g. the Tea Party and Trumpism in the United States) and left-wing populism (e.g. revival in universities of formerly marginal Marxist ideologies such as critical race theory). The fallout from the 2008 crisis should probably be part of any explanation. I admit it is not enough. What are your thoughts?

Frances Widdowson

You are correct, John. I have previously noted that the 2010s were a significant time of change in universities. More specifically, in 2013 I went on sabbatical from Mount Royal University. When I returned, I sensed the institution was no longer the same. Two things made this apparent: first, the Canadian Association of University Teachers was invited by my union to hold an “Equity Seminar and Workshop”; second, our new provost, Kathy Shailer, announced in Arts Faculty Council that we would be “Indigenizing” Mount Royal University. Neither of these initiatives came with any critical analysis of what this would mean for the academic character of the university. It was just assumed that this was the “right thing to do,” and asking questions encountered hostility.

Although 2014 was my first sense that something was amiss, this politically correct totalitarianism actually has its roots in the 1960s. This was when modernist assumptions were being challenged by what has come to be known as “postmodernism” – defined by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont as “an intellectual current characterized by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a ‘narration,’ a ‘myth’ or a social construction among many others.” This replacement of the search for truth with the promotion of subjectivity enabled identity politics activism to gain a foothold in the academy.

The foothold was solidified in newly created Black and women’s studies departments, which were soon followed by Indigenous, queer and disability programs. While initially marginal in their impact, they were increasingly being tied to wider “branding” exercises in universities that were rapidly becoming corporatized. This facilitated identity politics’ capacity to take over the machinery of postsecondary institutions in the 2010s. While Mount Royal University had a “diversity” office when I started in 2008, its prominence became more and more noticeable throughout the decade. With this takeover, objectivity became an aspect of “White supremacy culture.” Activists claimed that the views of the oppressed must be “reified (i.e. “made real” or professed to be true) because this aids their empowerment.

The legitimacy given to these initiatives by universities now means that they permeate society and are pushed by corporations (“woke capital), professional associations and the “NGO industrial complex.” Take, for example, the prominence of “2SLGBTQI+ imagery in all facets of life. While this was given oxygen by “queer studies” programs, “positive space campaigns and “pride centres” in universities, there is now widespread promotion of same-sex marriage, drag queen story hours and declaring one’s pronouns in every context imaginable. Toleration is no longer an option. In “wokism,” identities declared to be oppressed must be affirmed; if not, one will suffer ostracism and cancellation (the legal prohibition of criticism of “gender expression” is also possibly on the horizon).

Operating within a political economy framework, I am inclined to see this as rooted in a particular stage of capitalist development. At this stage, referred to as “late capitalism” by Ernest Mandel, we are seeing some political and economic features that are tied to the saturation of markets and deindustrialization in the core capitalist countries. This has coincided with disintegration of working-class organizations, privatization of public services and a promotion of tribal forms of affiliation (Indigenization and multiculturalism, for example). In identity politics, objective class conflict is not seen as a major historical force. It is boutique intersectional identities that matter.

All of this makes me ask the question of the relationship between “wokism” – that is, totalitarian identity politics or “reified postmodernism – and this stage of capitalist development. To this end, there appear to be three important aspects of wokism that feed into the logic of late capitalism. The first is capitalism’s imperative to create the conditions for profit maximization, and how the encouragement of subjective identities assists this endeavour. New identities, after all, increase consumption. To express your identity and pursue fantastical desires in late capitalism is to buy goods that enable a remaking of the self. Whether it is surgery in the hope of sexual transformation or celebrating “orange shirt day” to virtue signal, new products and services must be purchased.

Second, it is important to realize that capitalist imperatives are threatened by the development of class consciousness, and wokism’s obsession with an ever-expanding number of subjective identities weakens a focus on economic exploitation. Instead of working to unite the alienated and impoverished, we are being encouraged to politically support activists who argue that “women with penises should be housed in female prisons, that poor working-class Canadians should pay reparations to “racialized minorities” for the sins of their ancestors, and that oppressive religious identities require celebration, never criticism, under the guise of “diversity.”

Finally, the subjectivity encouraged by postmodernism acts to undermine any attempts to analyze objectively the problems that we are facing. This deprives society of a necessary brake on autocratic tendencies. One of the reasons why wokism is so popular in corporatized universities, and late capitalist enterprises more generally, is that the plight of oppressed groups can be used to justify totalitarian thought control. People who would not normally accept limitations on democracy agree to it as they are told that this will bring about “social justice” for those marginalized. Dismantling the protections for dissent – proposing, for example, to criminalize questioning the “genocidal” character of the residential schools – will also weaken the societal capacity to challenge oppressive economic conditions.

One of the major problems facing any analysis of wokism is the assumption that it is a “left-wing” position. Wokism is nothing of the sort. It is a reactionary impulse that attacks the values of the Enlightenment. Instead of being able to improve our understanding of the serious problems facing humanity today, we are being forced to accept the one “true” position spearheaded by the beneficiaries of late capitalism.

Mark Crawford

Economic crises can often trigger or condition ideological developments both inside and outside of academe, as John suggests. The classic example was when Marxism took root in the mid-19th century in the wake of the European potato famine of 1845–46, the Chartist revolt in England and the tumult of 1848 revolutions in continental Europe. After Marx connected his synthesis of classical economics, German philosophy and French revolutionary politics to the struggles of the emergent working class, labour leaders felt intellectually validated, while intellectuals liked the prospect of a vanguard role. Of course, economic instability and insecurity have also fuelled various forms of populist and counterrevolutionary movements as well.

In the past decade, on campuses (and also in other parts of society), generational change has weakened the memory of Marxism and labour struggles, while the growth of ethnic pluralism and Indigenous rights has increased the salience of race and colonialism as an issue. The irony is that, for over a century, the leading critics of colonialism and imperialism (whether in the classroom, in the streets or on the battlefield) were Marxists like Frances Widdowson. The 20th century doesn’t weigh heavily on those under age 50, especially when there are academic jobs and programs at stake. In colleges and universities postcolonial and critical race theorists managed to connect the intellectual ground prepared by postmodernism to the growing strength of racial and sexual identity politics. (One might say they are “standing Foucault on his head,” to use a loose analogy to Marx’s transformation of Hegel.) Postmodern approaches to knowledge view all empirical claims to truth as value-laden constructs of culture. They reject the dichotomy between the objectively true and universal and the subjective/individual in favour of “multiple valid knowledges and truths … constructed by groups of people with shared markers of identity,” as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay put it (p. 29).

From the 1980s through the early 2000s, postmodernism was increasingly applied to queer, Indigenous, postcolonial, critical race and feminist theories. Since about 2010 these ideological currents have coalesced under the banners of “intersectionality” and “social activist” or “social justice” scholarship. They exhibit a joint preference for identity politics and hostility toward traditional disciplines and Enlightenment values. Implicit in philosophical liberalism is sceptical rationality and scientific method. Replacing the individual and society with the intersectionality of group identities as the primary objects of study has boosted the academic prominence of identity-based programs and disciplines, has attracted many students from various self-identified minorities and has provided a common focus for a new generation of scholars who collectively wield great influence in university administration and policy and hiring committees.

My own experience has been that of a mainstream professor with moderate liberal / social democratic political views. I have generally appreciated the various postmodern critiques that interrogate mainstream social science and philosophy, and have supported Indigenous rights and various initiatives for diversity in hiring, “inclusive excellence” and so on. The expectation was that, once a roughly equitable representation of women and minorities had been achieved, we could get back to our regular business of truth-seeking and merit hiring. Postmodern critiques would provide a richer variety of ideological, theoretical, methodological and empirical approaches to choose from.

In the past several years, however, those expectations have been increasingly thwarted. Just as Pluckrose and Lindsay and John McWhorter predicted, third-wave antiracism and anticolonialism are hostile to the ideals of “colour blindness” or “objective truth,” goals now perceived as masking systemic White supremacy. My calls for the hiring of a security studies expert and a political behaviour / research methods specialist and even the creation of an economics program at my university have all been ignored. Instead, a new equity studies program and recent hires in queer and transgender studies, postcolonialism and Indigenous politics have taken priority. On a theoretical and ideological level, diversity has been shrinking, not growing. Usually, only feminist or minority scholars well versed in postcolonialism or identity theory are deemed to have met “the highest standards” of cultural sensitivity and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). Merely questioning either evidentiary or theoretical opinions held dear by Indigenous activists is a risky business.

As the comedian Bill Maher has put it, “political correctness is the elevation of sensitivity over truth.”

John Richards

After World War II, McCarthyism exploited legitimate misgivings over Stalin’s totalitarianism. Led by the eponymous senator, McCarthyism destroyed the careers of many radical journalists, actors, writers, union leaders and academics. Within a decade, McCarthyism collapsed under the weight of its indiscriminate violation of human rights to free speech and due process. Is McCarthyism a probable precedent for undoing the ideological excesses of wokism?

Alternatively, is a better precedent the survival of Soviet-style Marxism, especially in developing countries? Despite its being the source of many political abuses and failed economic policies, in South Asia, Africa and Latin America many journalists are implicitly arguing that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In the past, European colonial powers exploited and colonized us. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is providing you, Europeans and Americans, with some of what we have experienced. What do you predict to be the medium-term fate of wokism – positive and negative? And what do you think is its durability as a major ideological approach to academic and political activity?

Frances Widdowson

John has raised three areas of discussion: (1) the possible similarities of wokism with other authoritarian ideologies in history, (2) the medium-term extent of wokism and (3) wokism’s durability as a major ideological approach in intellectual and political matters.

With respect to the first area, there are some similarities between wokism and other autocratic moments in history. McCarthyism was especially relevant in the university context, but it differs in that the pressure for censorship came from outside while the threat today is internal (from professors, faculty associations, student organizations and administrators). Studying the development of Stalinism and Nazism can inform our understanding because they both tried to assert control over the ideas discussed in universities. Examining developments in German capitalism in the 1930s is particularly instructive; local Nazi organizations and student activists were instrumental in transforming scientifically advanced universities into fascist propaganda centres. Wokism’s uniqueness is its capacity to combine subjectivity with sympathy for the plight of the oppressed.

The development of wokism as a force today needs careful study and it is likely that many variables are involved. The philosopher Susan Neiman has pointed out that wokism was to some extent a response to the failure of liberalism’s promise of equality of opportunity. Although equality under the law and due process overcome the oppressive characteristics of feudal and tribal systems (what Max Weber called “traditional authority”), liberalism does not address the unfairness and indignity of being subjected to exploitative economic relations – something George Orwell was acutely aware of in The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. Liberalism is also silent on the deprivation facing those denied access to the means of subsistence. As Anatole France poignantly declared over a hundred years ago, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”

Because it denies the fundamental importance of economic factors, wokism has no response to the contradictions found when liberalism is paired with democracy. Instead, advocates of wokism opportunistically demand legal and bureaucratic privileges for intersectional and boutique identities such as “Two-Spirit, “women of colour or “Black fat queer femmes.” This opportunism needs to be challenged, but the totalitarian tendencies of wokism suppress dissent and prevent greater understanding.

The medium-term extent of wokism will depend upon the forces that respond to it. If its control continues at the present rate, we will experience more and more speech being criminalized, and the legal system will be completely undermined by woke assumptions. We have already seen a decline in due process rights. Oppressed identities should be “believed” / “affirmed” / “respected; any critical analysis can be decried as “gaslighting or even “epistemicide.” Equality under the law is also under threat because wokism implies that oppressed groups need greater legal protection to overcome their marginalized position in society.

Wokism has become influential because it fits well with the logic of late capitalism, which requires dismantling of the gains made under the Enlightenment and liberal democratic regimes. This has been facilitated by the subjectivity embraced in the postmodern turn in the 1960s. As capitalism is a fundamentally unsustainable system – because of its need to constantly grow and lower labour costs to maximize profitability – wokism is necessary to disguise our increasing incapacity to deal with the existential problems we are facing. We will soon be descending into fascism unless we reject wokism’s reactionary thrust and reassert the need to use reason to create a more cooperative and sustainable economic and political system.

Mark Crawford

I hope that the McCarthyite analogy turns out to be the right one, that we are experiencing a temporary fever of enforced conformity and cultural authoritarianism produced by fleeting political or economic conditions. But I think the Soviet/Marxist analogy is probably more accurate, for two reasons. First, the seeds of wokism contain some pretty fundamental assumptions about liberal culture and epistemology that have been developing over several decades; they are attractive to antiracist and anticolonialist theorists and will not melt away quickly. The critiques of universalism, objective truth and colour blindness are empowering to identitarian social activists. Second, tenured woke professors and social activist scholars are institutionally entrenched, and are by their very nature predisposed to being the most politically active in university and college committees, departments and administrations. An entire class of people now exists whose jobs depend on DEI. For both of these reasons, I think we are likely in for a long generational struggle to restore common sense and the primacy of liberal and rationalist ideals in the university.

Because of guilt about the historical kernel of truth in the woke critique of postsecondary institutions as engines of social reproduction, universities are currently more afraid of accusations of racism than of erosion of universal and rationalist ideals. The constituencies for racial identity and equality are concentrated, whereas society’s interest in freedom of thought and expression is diffuse, essentially a public good. That is why we sometimes “forget what our organizations are for,” as Lionel Shriver has put it.

Nevertheless, there are reasons for medium- to long-term optimism. An increasing number of top-rate scholars recognize what is at stake. They are beginning to remind us that truth cannot be subordinated to sensitivity and identity if universities are to be anything other than an ideological silo. Steven Pinker, for example, defends the Enlightenment Project in his recent books, and also serves on the editorial board of a new book publishing company (Heresy Press) that welcomes non-woke perspectives. Jonathan Haidt is a prominent social psychologist whose books The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind have explored the reasons behind the recent political polarization and its implications for higher education. He is also a founder of the Heterodox Academy, which is dedicated to “improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement.” I have already mentioned John McWhorter, a prominent linguistics scholar and journalist who has dissected wokism quite well.

I am probably more sanguine than Frances about there being a market solution to the ideological excesses of DEI: students may come to recognize that courses and programs that reinforce their sense of victimhood may seem empowering in the short run, but are actually not valuable to them in the long run. On the supply side, philosophy departments now often see postmodernism as passé, and may be able to offer some needed correction. (Susan Neiman is a philosopher who has lucidly analyzed the differences between real progressivism and woke activism in terms that are easy to understand.) Government funding and private-sector innovations may yet serve to promote real diversity that can reinvigorate the Enlightenment Project while correcting its deficiencies. The “public good” nature of academic freedom has meant that these responses have been slow to materialize; they will require both publicity and policy to bear fruit.

John Richards

I recognize that your final paragraph, Frances, is fundamental to your thinking. I agree somewhat with you. In high-income countries, corporate entrepreneurs seek constantly to find new dimensions of consumption. Walmart is an invitation to working-class people to buy lots of cheap “stuff” made in China, with no thought paid to the destruction of working-class communities in the United States. If Schumpeter was alive, he would refer to the benefits of creative destruction. If Ricardo was alive, he would refer to China’s comparative advantage in making “stuff.” In the United States, Trump and J.D. Vance (author of Hillbilly Elegy and now Ohio senator) are the most persuasive populist critics of free trade – albeit Biden fears global free trade and, as president, has prioritized “onshoring.” Furthermore, I agree with you inasmuch as unions have been unduly weakened, starting with Reagan in the early 1980s. In many European and North American countries, earnings below the median stagnated from 1980 to 2020. The disruptive dynamic of the COVID pandemic has, in the short run, increased below-median earnings relative to those above.

However, Frances, I agree only somewhat. It is a bit much to blame “late capitalism” for postmodernism and the present woke obsession with conflict between exploitative and victimized identities. Surely, the most important problem facing late capitalism this century is creating coalitions to tackle climate warming and habitat destruction. Wokism complicates the problem: countries of the “racialized” global South are assuming little or no responsibility for climate warming and are blaming all on the White global North, which industrialized earlier and is responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas increases over the last two centuries. Does the left have any good climate change strategies?

Frances Widdowson

In both Mark’s second response and John’s initiation of the “third round,” there is an implicit assumption that the problems plaguing the world today can be addressed through capitalist imperatives. John implies that environmental problems can be solved by building a coalition of elements in advanced and newly industrializing capitalist countries, without any consideration for how the pursuit of profit will impede the need to cooperatively control production and consumption. Mark, on the other hand, points to the possibility of market solutions helping to rectify some of the educational contamination wrought by wokism. Private-sector innovations, however, will constrain those aspects of truth-seeking that challenge their profitability.

If there had been no postmodern reaction to the Enlightenment, we would have seen lively debates among conservatives, liberals and socialists on the questions that John and Mark raise. Although there would be significant disagreement, no one would have argued against the use of reason, evidence and logic to try to grapple with these issues. With the postmodern turn in the 1960s, however, subjectivity began to replace objectivity; intellectual progress on such questions was stalled.

As an academic uncomfortable with activism, I find it difficult to discuss solutions when we have yet to clearly identify the nature of the problems. Is it possible to solve an environmental crisis that has been brought about by capitalism with the continued pursuit of profit? Will a capitalist educational system facilitate the pursuit of truth, which is so necessary for human progress? We might be able to have some areas effectively shielded from powerful private interests, but in the end it will be the ideas of the market, not a marketplace of ideas, that prevail in capitalist societies.

Perhaps common ownership and democratically controlled production and distribution will always face insurmountable challenges. This, however, does not mean that capitalism is a sustainable system that satisfies human needs. Protecting the environment requires living within the Earth’s carrying capacity. Capitalism dooms environmental protection, because capitalist entrepreneurs constantly seek to expand as a result of declining profitability. Market saturation and the depletion of resources will also thwart solutions, because workers cannot afford to buy what they produce.

I would love to resume debates with liberals and conservatives about whether the labour theory of value is true, and how increasing cooperation and the tendency for productive forces to develop are related to human progress. Wokism, however, must first be defeated to make these debates possible. Intellectuals with different ideological persuasions who value the intellectual gains made by the Enlightenment must put aside differences for now and join forces to fight for open inquiry, freedom of expression and critical thinking in universities and the wider society.

Mark Crawford

I concur with Frances’s last paragraph. But if we have to solve “can’t live with it / can’t live without it” capitalism before we solve the problem of climate change or before we can overcome the obstacles created by wokism’s attack upon truth, universalism, justice and belief in progress, my mid-term optimism disappears and my long-term optimism begins to fade. Yes, the rapid emergence of wokism as a dominant ideology on campuses is rooted in, among other things, the after-effects of the most recent financial crisis, as well as longer-term contradictions of capitalism. Thomas Piketty’s analysis of the return of chronic and growing inequality is germane here: the rising tide is no longer lifting all boats and ethnic minorities are determined not to be left behind once again, while the threatened White working class is easily directed toward its own identity politics of the right-wing authoritarian kind. All of which is amplified by news silos of digital capitalism.

Yet, as Susan Neiman points out, wokism’s roots are not just in disillusionment with liberalism’s failure to deliver equal opportunity; the roots are also with traditional state socialism. The post-1991 ennui on the left was not cured by the “Third Way” or by a new emphasis upon “civil society,” to quote two of the more important buzz phrases of that decade. A lot of left thinking therefore gravitated toward postmodernism and identity politics, and/or environmental politics. Which brings us back to climate change. Are greens and environmental activists proud of the scientific basis of their beliefs? If so, they need to join liberals and socialists in affirming a belief in science, along with the belief that both scientific and social progress is possible.

On campus, that suggests at least two short-term strategies. First, the supposed harmony of scholarly and political virtue in social activist scholarship needs to be challenged. Activist scholars wear two hats, but seldom acknowledge that fact: for example, every time they point to the UN Genocide Convention while conveniently ignoring how the International Court of Justice has interpreted it; or the cultural/power matrix of how certain legal and scientific standards of evidence came into being without asking whether the standard is an objectively higher one or not. Second, rationalists need to seek out interdisciplinary alliances wherever political imperatives clash with scientific ones.

In the wider society, I suggest public policies taxing financial transactions, pollution, land speculation and unearned wealth more heavily, and correspondingly taxing working-class earnings less heavily. Somehow, we need better incentives for ecological stewardship in the global South, and an emphasis upon public spaces and well-funded public institutions in which notions of reason and the common good can be incubated.

Haitian Day of the Dead – First of November: for the year 2022, the party is not taken, the activities of the GEDE have not attracted crowds. Because of the different problems of the country, the groups, the people, don’t really travel.

In February, Inroads subscribers received our Special Report on Haiti. This had originally been envisioned as one of the lead articles for the current issue. However, with that country descending into anarchy, we felt it urgent to bring the deteriorating and desperate situation in Haiti to readers’ attention. We aimed to alert public opinion in Canada to the Haitian situation and Canada’s need and responsibility of to intervene. The article cited a recent United Nations report, followed up by UN Secretary General António Guterres, which concluded that only with the support of an international force could the Haitian police restore order, and that Canada was best placed to lead such a force.

Wecould not avoid being keenly aware of the situation. During the winter months, we are in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, just three hours away from the Haitian border. The Dominican Republic, faced with massive illegal immigration from the failed state with which it shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, has repeatedly called for international intervention.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with an estimated annual per capita economic output of $1,819 USD (compared to $20,625 USD in the Dominican Republic) has no functioning governmental, economic or social institutions. In the mid-20th century, the economies of the two countries were comparable. Since that time, the Dominican economy has grown significantly while the Haitian economy has shrunk. Haiti’s poor performance was due partly to external factors like earthquakes but also to incompetent leaders, especially the dictators who ruled the country for 30 years, voodoo practitioner “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son “Baby Doc.”

In 2018 we visited Cap Haitien, the second-largest Haitian city with 190,000 inhabitants, in the country’s northeast. We had hoped to return to Haiti once the pandemic subsided, but because of the increased risk of being kidnapped, we have not been able to do so. However, in Puerto Plata, we maintain regular contact with Haitian acquaintances who have fled their country and receive continuous news coverage about what is happening there.

The international press has drawn attention to the violence of the gangs that control 80 per cent of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, where almost half of Haitians reside. There are frequent credible reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, serious abuses by the authorities, enforced disappearances or abductions, torture and physical abuse. The UN Integrated Office in Haiti reported that 51 people were killed during police operations from June to September 2022 and that rape had been weaponized in the gang wars, leaving no family untouched.

We had thought things could not get worse. But now vigilantism appears to be spreading. On April 25, residents in the hilly suburbs of Haiti’s capital, armed with machetes, bottles and rocks, unleashed their anger on the gangs. They took 13 suspected gang members from police custody and, filling the tires surrounding the central square with gasoline, set them on fire. The mob lynchings have since spread to other areas. Residents in the communities where violent mobs are operating fear possible retaliation from the gangs whose members were tortured, killed and mutilated.

What can – what must – be done

In light of these deteriorating conditions, a consensus has emerged in favour of outside intervention, even though opponents of unelected President Ariel Henry are justifiably suspicious that he seeks to use such intervention to prop up his illegitimate regime.

The need for outside intervention is made clear in a long December 2022 report by the International Crisis Group. The report also sets out the challenges facing any foreign military intervention. The question is not whether such intervention is needed but whether and how it could come about. Calling for helping the Haitians, as the Dominicans did after the last earthquake, does not win Dominican politicians any votes in this election year, but they know that it is in their interest to cooperate with any outside intervention.

There is no excuse, then, for Canada’s stance of excluding such an intervention. In early May, the new United Nations Envoy for Haiti, María Isabel Salvador, renewed the UN call for an international force to be deployed to Haiti to support the Haitian police in quelling rising gang violence. She warned that further delay could lead to a spillover across the region.

Learning from past failures, such a deployment must be planned in advance so as to be in a position to operate effectively in support of the police. The police would be provided with training and increased firepower to take on the gangs, which have obtained large quantities of ammunition and high-calibre weapons via arms trafficking. The prospect of high-intensity clashes in densely populated areas crisscrossed by narrow streets, often located at the heart of overcrowded slums where gang members and civilians are hard to tell apart, will pose many operational challenges.

Information making it possible to play off the rivalry among the gangs will need to be assembled. Clearly, such an intervention will have to be a long one, requiring renewal of the mandate of the “timebound specialized support force” called for by the United Nations Commission

Alternative institutions will take time to build; without them, the gangs will return once the intervention is over. Ideally, a first stage would reduce the pressure from refugees massing at the Dominican border, liberating the territory in regions closer to the Dominican Republic where the gangs are relatively weak. Here the democratic forces could begin the task of (re)building functioning political and economic institutions. This would take a seldom-attained level of trust between the two peoples sharing the island of Hispaniola, which cannot be counted upon.

Canada must take the leadership role. It has a large immigrant Haitian population. Quebecers, especially, have the needed linguistic skills (French is still prominent in Haiti). While the United States is geographically closer and more affected by the drugs that pass through Haiti’s long stretches of unpatrolled beaches (often in return, apparently, for lethal weapons), U.S. intervention is not, by any means, the best option. Given the past American role in propping up the Duvaliers, intervention led by the United States would encounter more opposition in Haiti and beyond, and thus make it more difficult to rally the needed international support for the mission.

The ball, whether we like it or not, is in Canada’s court, and it will stay there. Action will become unavoidable. We need to be prepared. Opponents of such an outside intervention cite lack of resources and note that Canada’s military capacity is already stretched. While this is true, priorities can change. NATO will certainly be able and willing to replace Canadian soldiers transferred from Latvia to the Caribbean. And other countries are ready to contribute personnel and money. It is time to take our government’s head, and our own heads, out of the sand.

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On February 18, the CBC reported that MP Leah Gazan (NDP – Winnipeg Centre), whose motion to recognize what happened in residential schools as genocide received unanimous consent in the House of Commons last October, now proposed to outlaw denial of that genocide as “hate speech.”¹ The Inroads listserv responded quickly, and honed in on a question that became the subject of an intense – but civil and informed – discussion: What is genocide?

February 18

I hadn’t realized that Parliament had unanimously voted to call what happened at the residential schools genocide. Once something is called genocide, then the next logical step is to make denying it a criminal act.


According to the UN Genocide Convention, which Canada has signed on to,

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.²

Seems to fit.

Okay, now let’s see if we can discuss this calmly. My first question: Do you oppose all legislation against hate speech?


Two answers, Frances:

One: I do not believe that the same word adequately describes what was done in residential schools and in Nazi death camps.

Two. As someone all of whose grandparents, uncles and aunts were killed in the latter, I still support the United States in rejecting restrictions on hate speech.

Here is my thinking on this.

Consider the statements below and how we are to react to them. Should we

  1. Make it illegal to express them publicly,
  2. Disprove them.
  3. Ignore them.

A: The six million killed by the Nazis is an exaggeration.
B: The death camps are a myth.
C: The residential schools did some good as well as harm.
D: The residential schools did more good than harm.

My answer to all of them is to prove them untrue where that is the case, but not to use the state to punish the person who stated them, however hateful the content. It comes down to the simple proposition that in the end “because it hurts my feelings” is insufficient justification for the use of state sanctions. Otherwise, we open ourselves to what we see in certain academic settings where discussion of controversial issues is silenced (and people’s careers threatened) because they (might) hurt someone’s feelings.


Thanks for this, Henry. I hate to spoil a good argument, but I find myself largely in agreement with you.



How about your thoughts on:

NDP MP Leah Gazan, who got the House of Commons last October to unanimously recognize that genocide occurred at residential schools, now wants to take the issue a step further by drafting legislation to outlaw attempts to deny that genocide and make false assertions about residential schools.

“Denying genocide is a form of hate speech,” said Gazan, who represents the riding of Winnipeg Centre.

“That kind of speech is violent and re-traumatizes those who attended residential school.” …

The Office of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said he would be interested in reviewing the proposed legislation.

“Residential school denialism attempts to hide the horrors that took place in these institutions,” Miller’s office told CBC News.³


I agree that the residential school system constituted genocide.

I don’t think it is wise or helpful to compare horrors and suffering. My imagination can hardly stretch to comprehend the Shoah. But there are other horrors: Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Rwanda, slavery in the Americas …

I am willing to keep considering Gazan’s legislation idea to see if there is something I have missed, but I start from the position that it won’t help and will quite possibly do harm. Seems like an ill-considered response.


We are getting closer, though not yet on genocide: On one level it is just semantics; on another, however, since the term genocide really only emerged with the Shoah, I find attaching it to the residential schools a bridge too far.

Consider not uncommon historical examples of Nation A conquering lands belonging to Nation B. The conqueror imposes the language and culture of A upon B. For example, this is what happened when the Americans took over parts of what been Spanish colonies by force. Genocide?

PS: The trouble with semantics is that they can sometimes kill. This could be the case now if ideologues denouncing it as white colonialism manage to keep an armed intervention in desperate Haiti from happening.


I think we need to distinguish physical genocide, i.e. the attempt by a majority group to kill any or all of a minority group or people on the basis of their racial, tribal, religious character, from cultural genocide, i.e. the attempt to extirpate the linguistic, cultural, religious identity of a minority group by imposing the culture of the dominant group to the exclusion of that of the minority one.

Examples of the first would include the Armenian massacres of World War I by the Turks, the Holocaust, Rwanda 1994, Tigray in recent years. Examples of the second would include the Uyghurs in China, First Nations in Canada and various other New World societies, and arguably what would happen to Ukraine if Putin had his way.

The lines are not always clearcut, but the examples I cite may help to clarify the discussion.


Why is this a useful distinction?

The UN definition of genocide, which lacks an adjective to modify it, covers every one of the cases you list.


There seems to me to be an important difference between the desire to physically exterminate a particular group of people and the desire to extirpate their cultural identity and replace it with another. While many Canadians might accept that an element of cultural genocide was at play in our historical treatment of First Nations, they would not accept the argument that the physical extermination of First Nations was the name of the game in this country. Perhaps the drafters of the UN definition may think it makes no difference how we define the word genocide – ask the victims of physical genocide if they agree,


I follow you, Phil, but what you are saying does not quite make sense to me.

First, we should not make arguments based on what “many Canadians” might accept. On that reasoning, we’d still have the death penalty. Surely we need labels that state frankly what happened, whether or not “many” agree.

It has been established that the purpose of the residential school system and its companion, the Indian Act, was to eliminate First Nations as societies, and that such leaders as John A Macdonald wished to “kill the Indian in the child.” It’s true that the physical side of this involved starvation, residential segregation, separation of children from their parents, mistreatment of children and policing, not death camps.

I think it does not advance understanding to try to compare horrors. But I wonder if you are thinking that we risk normalizing or “demoting” the massive horror of the Shoah by naming other instances with the same term. Maybe that is the case. But the drafters of the UN Convention did not think so. It always seemed to me that they just did not want anything remotely like the Shoah to ever happen again, to anyone.


I’m increasingly sceptical of attempts to use extreme words as a way to fan the flames of solidarity, discontent and resistance.

As Henry pointed out, genocide was coined to describe the Holocaust. (I’m not sure why we needed a new word.) But once it was associated with the Holocaust, people recoiled from the word genocide in horror. So naturally all the oppressed people of the world wanted access to that horror.

As far as I can make out, then, killing or causing distress to two members of a group can be genocide, as long as it’s done with the intent to destroy part of a group. (Well, two is part, isn’t it?) How do you prove intent? Or lack of intent? The result: “Well, I guess genocide isn’t really serious.”

The point is, laws don’t work unless they’re respected, in both senses of the word. Language escalation creates scepticism of national and international law, which does no one any good.


The origin of the term genocide goes back to 1944. It was framed by Raphael Lemkin, with the Holocaust very much in mind, to refer to the attempted destruction of a people. To that degree, physical destruction was central to the original definition. And to that degree, it could be extended in its original meaning to include other cases such as the Armenian massacres, the Rwandan massacre and many others throughout history.

I have no problem with widening the definition to include the extirpation of cultural identities of the type that the historical treatment of First Nations in this country often entailed. But if we are going to use the term genocide in this case, I think it is important to distinguish it from the physical extermination that has underlain the practice of genocide in the cases referred to above. If we fail to do so, by not inserting the term cultural genocide into the discussion, we end up equating Canada’s treatment of First Nations with the practice of the Turks during World War I, the Nazis during World War II or the Hutu exterminationists. And that simply won’t do, Frances, however much you may wish to argue the contrary.


Phil, Lemkin was closely involved in the drafting of the Genocide Convention and it is very explicit that “killing” is just one of the means by which genocide can be accomplished.


Fair enough, Gareth. But that doesn’t change the fact that if we use the term too loosely to apply to any and all cases of cultural, racial or religious victimization, we end up diluting it beyond measure. Is the treatment of the Kurds by Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran a case of genocide? Of the Rohingya in Myanmar? Of Muslims in Modi’s India? Of Christians in various parts of the Middle East? By Boko Haram of its victims in the Sahel?

Genocide is one of those words that has to be used carefully. And if we want to extend its use more broadly, as in the Canadian case where First Nations are concerned, then the qualifier cultural becomes all-important.


Gareth is right about Lemkin, though his wide-ranging accusations of genocide seem to have remained a secret. As Michael A. McDonnell and A. Dirk Moses wrote in the Journal of Genocide Research in 2005,

In “Part III: modern times” of a projected global history of genocide from antiquity to the present, he wrote, inter alia, on the following cases: “1. Genocide by the Germans against the Native Africans”; “3. “Belgian Congo”; “11. Hereros”; “13. Hottentots”; “16. Genocide against the American Indians”; “25. Latin America”; “26. Genocide against the Aztecs”; “27. Yucatan”; “28. Genocide against the Incas”; “29: Genocide against the Maoris of New Zealand”; “38. Tasmanians”; “40. S.W. Africa”; and finally, “41. Natives of Australia.” Then, in a “Report on the preparation of a volume on genocide” dated March–May 1948, a less ambitious project comprising ten chapters, two of which covered extra-European colonial cases: “2. The Indians in Latin America” and “10. The Indians in North America (in part).” The Holocaust, a term Lemkin never used, was not included, although the Armenians and Greeks in Turkey were, as well as the Early Christians, and the Jews of the Middle Ages and Tsarist Russia.⁴

Which brings us back to the problem. If genocide is extreme and rare, we will be horrified. If it’s ubiquitous, well, we shrug.


What worries me is how the politics of hate speech and “social activist” scholarship is having a chilling effect. Part of that chilling effect derives from the expanding definition of words like harm, hate, genocide, discrimination, abuse and now even phrases like residential school denialism and hostile work environment. Paradoxically, I think that our working vocabulary in this area is actually shrinking with each new edition of the Newspeak Dictionary, as each word or phrase is expanded to cover more territory – because, as Arthur nicely put it, “all oppressed people want access to that horror.” The emotional, political and often legal and financial investments are so great that academics are needed to provide some detachment and objectivity that is otherwise lacking.

Volume 4 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report points to the death or disappearance of about 3,000 children over the history of the schools, about half from tuberculosis, and a majority in “school or school-related cemeteries.” Just how clandestine they were is a bit vague and varies quite a bit. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, the main reason most kids’ bodies weren’t returned to their families or home communities was just described as “cost.” The ground-penetrating radar results broadly confirm the Truth and Reconciliation Commission analysis, but there are some credible suggestions that they may be inflating the results because not every disturbance or burial is necessarily of a distinct human skeleton. A sceptical, questioning attitude is essential to this scholarly enterprise, but I know that most of my colleagues are afraid to have one when it comes to Indigenous policy.


Phil, it’s not about what I want. I used to lean towards the use of the term cultural genocide myself, until I actually read the UN definition. Since then, I have not been able to see what is not “physical” about the things that were done to First Nations.

Obviously one is free reject the UN definition, or find ways to modify it.

February 19

According to the UN definition, neither I nor anyone I know is guilty of genocide. That’s a relief.

Wait. I wonder if dozens of people I know are guilty of genocide because they participated in “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group,” i.e., they adopted BIPOC children. If so, I would think many of them are justifiably proud of their part in genocide.

Since immigration involves integration and, likely, eventually absorption, is accepting refugees an example of genocide? Refugees are, after all, forced to migrate.

We can see that there are millions of instances of genocide daily, and since “it does not advance understanding to try to compare horrors,” they’re all equally genocide. (Should we try to prevent the international adoption of Turkish and Syrian children orphaned by the earthquake?)

Has anyone written about “systemic genocide”? In that case, every murder of an Indigenous person, committed by anyone – in fact, every death of an Indigenous person under the average life expectancy of Canadians – would be an instance of genocide. Every Indigenous person unable to speak his or her language is an example of genocide. Every refusal by any government to provide cradle-to-grave education in the appropriate Indigenous language is …

The other day I had a conversation with an Indigenous person about his pipe ceremony, which relegates women to an inferior role. Am I guilty of genocide? I admit it – I had the intent of modifying an Indigenous religious practice.

Perhaps I’m also guilty of reductio ad absurdum. But the UN definition is absurd to begin with.

Really, read Tomson Highway’s Permanent Astonishment⁵ and see if you want to use the same word to describe residential schools and the intentional murder by starvation of Ukrainians.


Arthur, there are plausible and implausible arguments in law. You can’t just pick a phrase and then argue something is genocide without regard to the rest of the definition.

Not all atrocities are genocide. The famines in Ukraine in the 1930s and in Ireland in the 1840s were not genocides because they lacked the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. I am willing to court controversy by saying the Canadian state’s current neglect of violence against Indigenous women is also not genocide, because however much it might be rooted in racism, the element of intention isn’t there. But it definitely was with the Indian Residential School system, and this has been documented extensively.

Apartheid and colonialism also aren’t (or aren’t necessarily) genocide. The coalition in Israel has genocidal parties in it, but Israel hasn’t committed genocide – although that was the program of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionists, and almost all the mainstream Israeli parties now are their descendants. This does not necessarily mean they wanted to kill every last Palestinian, but they did want to destroy them as a people. And that was the “unnamed crime” for which Lemkin developed the concept of genocide.


Perhaps for these various acts where no one is trying to physically wipe out a people, we can use another term. I suggest crime against humanity, which is defined by the International Criminal Court as an act “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” This can include, among other things, murder, extermination, torture, enslavement, sexual violence, deportation or forcible transfer of population or other inhumane acts.


This is an “interesting” discussion about an awful topic, but I would like to make one simple point that may be overlooked in all this. While I understand that it might seem repugnant to separate moral condemnation from “objective” analysis of matters like the Holocaust, ideologically inspired exterminations of entire peoples, deliberately engineered famines, etc., I must assert the necessity of social science analysis requiring some degree of detachment, however painful, from moral repulsion. Here is where the all-encompassing UN definition of genocide falls short. Genocide has indisputably become a highly charged political term – understandably of course. A one-size-fits-all definition has a clear political value. But as an analytical term it just won’t do. Surely the industrial-scale extermination of the Jews of Europe in death camps is a different phenomenon from residential schools designed to “kill the Indian in the child.” Both are morally repulsive and I wouldn’t want to even open a discussion of comparative moral turpitude because it would be fruitless and dispiriting for all concerned. But from a position of social science, conflating the two is only going to make for poor analysis. Here’s where cultural genocide does have a demonstrable analytical advantage over genocide, tout court.

February 20

Indeed, Raphael Lemkin invented the term genocide. In his vision, it was broad enough to cover what today we think of as “cultural genocide.” He contributed to drafting the 1948 Convention. But the text adopted by the UN General Assembly was considerably narrower in scope than what he had envisaged.

African Americans were among the first to invoke the Genocide Convention. In 1951, a very compelling petition focusing on lynching was presented to the United Nations. By then, Lemkin had become a cold warrior. He was dismissive of the African American complaints, arguing that “real” genocide was being perpetrated by the Soviets in the Baltic states.

The definition in the 1948 Convention lists five punishable acts, of which killing members of the group is only one. However, it is misleading to focus on the five acts, because the introductory paragraph requires that any of these acts be committed with the intent to destroy the group. That requirement has been interpreted by the major international courts as requiring an intent to destroy the group physically.

Some commentators have suggested that “forcible transfer of children,” as such, amounts to genocide. But the Convention, as it has been interpreted by the International Court of Justice, requires that such forcible transfer be committed with the intent to exterminate the group physically. If the evidence of the intent to destroy the group is circumstantial, based upon inferences drawn from conduct, it is also necessary to rule out any other reasonable explanation for the facts. This is where most of the allegations of genocide falter.

International lawyers have no monopoly on use of the word genocide any more than criminal lawyers have ownership of terms like murder, torture and rape. Journalists, pundits and politicians, including national legislatures, often use the term in a manner that suggests they have departed from the legal definition. This may be deliberate. Many are probably unaware of the legal definition. Some of them obviously think genocide is no more than a synonym for atrocity.


Hello Bill,

Bringing your unquestioned expertise in this area into our discussion is much appreciated.⁶

Let me put you on the spot. Does Canada’s policy of residential schools qualify as genocide?



The first question to be answered is whether there is direct evidence proving intent to destroy the group physically. This might take the form of official statements or policy documents confirming that in establishing the residential schools the federal government intended the physical destruction of Canada’s First Nations. I’m not aware of such evidence.

Then, the second question: whether evidence of genocidal intent – the intent to destroy the First Nations physically – can be inferred from the conduct of the government of Canada and those who administered the residential schools.

If the answer to the second question is positive, we must consider what is usually the stumbling block. Is there another reasonable explanation for the conduct other than the intent to destroy the group physically? If there is, then the genocide charge fails.

We apply the same reasoning in Canadian law when people are charged with first-degree murder. If they have provided clear direct evidence of homicidal intent in the form of a statement or an admission, this will generally be enough to convict. But if the charge of first-degree murder is based only on inferences drawn from patterns of conduct – what we call “circumstantial evidence” in Canadian law – all other reasonable explanations for the crime must be ruled out.

In my earlier post I emphasized that the restrictive and narrow approach to genocide is a consequence of the interpretation of the Convention adopted by the major international tribunals. My own sense is that while a new and broader interpretation is possible, it is also unlikely. The International Court of Justice adopted its interpretation in 2007, in the Bosnia case. It was invited to revise this in 2015 in the Croatia case but declined to do so. The same is the case for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which maintained a narrow interpretation of the crime throughout its existence, from the late 1990s until it closed in about 2017. And its successor, known as the International Mechanism, has refused to deviate from this in its most recent rulings. These are recent rulings, and they have been confirmed again and again. We are not dealing with some old precedent that has passed its sell-by date.

The reluctance to change the definition is readily explained by the fact that the conduct in question, although it fails to reach the genocide threshold, is easily condemned as a crime against humanity where the requirements are not as restrictive. It’s a bit like distinguishing between first-degree and second-degree murder. Either way, the convict gets sentenced to life in prison.


This has been a stimulating debate and has now prompted my muse to pen some lines:


The very word sends shivers down the spine,
the ghosts of vanished tribes and pariah peoples,
of deep-seated intolerance and gruesome slaughter,
leaving a trail of bone and ashes
for the chroniclers of human malice to record.

We can debate the whys and wherefores,
disaggregate the data,
quibble about the numbers,
and still remain in awe
at what our reptilian brain,
when freed of all compunction and restraint,
has wrought.

And if we turn to the gods for solace,
we will find little consolation
as they battle amongst themselves,
hurling anathemas each against the other,
until the vaults of heaven itself
come crashing down.


Your clarity, William, made me shiver. And sensible judges. Who would have thought?

I would say to anyone who thinks forced assimilation is the same as physical annihilation: pick any recognized genocide or mass murder. Imagine if Jewish victims of the Holocaust had been assimilated or expelled or prevented from living their lives as Jews. Imagine if the Ukrainian peasants starved to death by Russian Communists had been expelled or forcibly assimilated into the working class and all their ploughshares beaten into swords or looms. Imagine if the Tutsi had been expelled or assimilated. Children would play and go to school. Grandparents would hug their grandchildren. Perhaps the Jews and Ukrainian peasants and Tutsi would have disappeared as distinct groups, as has happened to tens of thousands of tribes and nations and peasants and linguistic groups since the beginning of humanity.

Do we really want the same word – the same law – for physical annihilation and forced assimilation or exile?

I have virtually nothing left of my parents’ culture. No Polish or Yiddish. No religion. Different values. All I have is lox and bagels. Am I to regard myself as dead?

Twenty years ago, I found myself on the mailing list of Lubavitcher ultra-Orthodox Jews. A large envelope arrived; on the outside a headline screamed, “A Second Holocaust Worse Than The First.” What was going on!? I opened the letter. It was “the Holocaust of intermarriage.” That’s what happens when you take inappropriate metaphor for reality.

I hope that – rather than water down the definition of genocide to include “cultural genocide” (itself an unfortunate term as it reduces -cide to metaphor) – the UN and its institutions change the definition and explanation of genocide to match what they’re actually doing.

February 21

I am definitely on the side of reserving the (loaded) word genocide for the willful mass killing of a people, which is not the same thing as forced assimilation (also not pretty). A useful way, in my mind, of understanding the distinction is the appropriate punishment. Both are criminal and deserve to be prosecuted, but the first can warrant the death penalty (i.e., Nuremberg), while the second certainly cannot.

As an aside, I have always been wary of debates surrounding the meaning of words, since words are tied to language. I have five languages spinning around in my head, German my mother tongue. The German translation for genocide is Völkermord, which is much clearer. I wonder what the Chinese translation is.

Continue reading “The Meaning of Genocide”

In the Summer/Fall 2023 issue (Inroads 53), Anne Michèle Meggs, a retired senior official in the Quebec immigration ministry and a member of the Inroads editorial board, and Pierre Fortin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the Université du Québec à Montréal and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, exchanged views on recent developments in immigration and their possible implications. They were critical of the Century Initiative, which advocates a Canadian population of 100 million by the end of the century. On June 13, Inroads managing editor Bob Chodos received a response from the Chief Executive Officer of the Century Initiative, Lisa Lalande. Here we present Ms. Lalande’s letter along with a rejoinder by the authors.

Letter from Lisa Lalande

Dear Mr. Chodos:

I am writing in response to the article Are We Heading for 100 Million Canadians? in issue 53.

The conversation between Anne Michèle Meggs and Pierre Fortin starts with the untrue statement that “unplanned massive temporary immigration is consistent with the goal of the Century Initiative.”

The Century Initiative supports and advocates for responsible, planned growth and has recommended an immigration system based on permanent migration. We have never advocated for massive, temporary immigration, as our aim is to advance long-term economic and social prosperity for all.

Our recently released National Scorecard on Canada’s Growth and Prosperity clearly outlines this approach, and in our Key Insights and Actions one of the key recommendations is that: Canada must ensure that its immigration system is based on permanent immigration.

This was the first of several inaccurate references to the Century Initiative and statements on our website throughout the conversation.

For example – as our scorecard (with sources) outlines – projections for Canada’s GDP per capita in the years and decades ahead are low compared to peer countries. The OECD has projected that Canada’s annual GDP per capita growth rate will be 0.7 per cent between 2020 and 2030 while the OECD average projected growth rate over the same period is 1.3 per cent.

Supporting immigrants to move more quickly to employment that matches their skills and experience would help accelerate GDP per capita growth as Canada’s population grows. International research indicates that immigration can lead to increases in GDP per capita in advanced economies, and that the gains associated with immigration are shared broadly among the population.

I would welcome the opportunity to engage in a conversation or interview with yourself, Anne Michèle Meggs or Pierre Fortin to discuss our research and advocacy, but in the short term, would request that you correct the statement that we advocate for “massive temporary immigration,” which is simply untrue.

Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you,

Lisa Lalande

CEO, Century Initiative

The impact of immigration on GDP per capita, population aging and labour shortages is not what you think
A rejoinder to Lisa Lalande, by Anne Michèle Meggs and Pierre Fortin

We are grateful to the CEO of the Century Initiative, Lisa Lalande, for taking our criticism of the views of her organization on immigration in Inroads 53 seriously.¹

Any discussion of population growth and immigration in Canada must be based on three crucial facts. First, given that the natural increase in population arising from the excess of births over deaths is small and set to remain so for the coming decades, immigration is and will be the main driver of population growth in the foreseeable future.

Second, the fundamental identity of demographic analysis used by international organizations and national agencies like Statistics Canada is that in any given year the contribution of migration to population growth is the sum of permanent immigration (all admissions to permanent residency) and temporary immigration (the net change in nonpermanent residents during the year = new arrivals net of admissions to permanent residency and net of exits to outside of Canada), less net emigration.² Both permanent and temporary immigration – not only the permanent variety – add to the total population.

Third, in the past decade there has been a massive increase in temporary immigration, both in absolute levels and relative to permanent immigration. In the old days, most newcomers planning to settle in Canada arrived with permanent residency because they were required to apply for immigration from outside the country. Today, most people arriving from other countries do so on temporary visas and permits or as asylum seekers. The game has changed. And the change is deliberate policy of the federal government put in place largely to hasten the permanent immigration objectives.

Temporary immigration has become the dominant driver of population growth

Table 1 illustrates these facts by reporting the contributions of natural increase (births less deaths) and migration (both permanent and temporary immigration, less net emigration) to the total increase in Canada’s population in the two periods 2012–15 and 2016–19 and in 2022.

The first column of table 1 looks at the 2012–15 period because it came just before the federal Advisory Council on Economic Growth (ACEG) published its 2016 report. The council recommended that permanent immigration to Canada be increased by 50 per cent, from 300,000 in 2016 to 450,000 in 2021.³ This recommendation was hailed by the lobby group Century Initiative (CI, cofounded by the chair of ACEG, Dominic Barton, a business executive and diplomat) as being consistent with its own aspirational objective of growing the population of Canada to 100 million by 2100. The second column of table 1 bears on the 2016–19 period that followed publication of the ACEG report and preceded the pandemic. The last column gives migration details for the most recent year, 2022, which followed the pandemic.

Table 1 first shows that in the past ten years natural increase in population has trended down (from 127,000 to 43,000), and that net emigration was small and declining too (from 53,000 to 37,000). Second, permanent immigration increased by 67 per cent from 262,000 in 2012–15 to 437,000 in 2022. Third, temporary immigration followed an explosive path from an insignificant 25,000 in 2012–15 to a very large 608,000 in 2022, outnumbering permanent immigration by 40 per cent.⁴

The 2016 ACEG report understandably focused on permanent immigration, given that in previous years temporary immigration had been small and was not seen as a significant source of population growth. Despite the enormous growth in temporary immigration since 2016, up to this day CI has remained basically concerned with permanent immigration.

As Ms. Lalande emphasizes in her response to our exchange, one of the key recommendations of her group in 2023 is still that “Canada must ensure that its immigration system is based on permanent immigration.”⁵ In fact, if there had been zero temporary immigration instead of 607,782 in 2022, the permanent immigration level of 437,180 would have sustained an increase of 1.15 per cent in total population, given the net emigration of 37,405 and natural increase of 42,553.⁶ It is worth noting here that, if it was applied repeatedly to each year of the 78-year period 2023–2100, this annual increment of 1.15 per cent would ultimately yield a population of 96.6 million Canadians in 2100, not far from the CI goal of 100 million.⁷ This is consistent with Ms. Lalande’s focus on permanent immigration as the basic channel driving population growth toward CI’s end-of-century target.

The persistent exclusive focus of the Century Initiative and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada on permanent immigration is a serious mistake

The problem with the focus on permanent immigration as the exclusive source of population growth, though, is that it sidesteps the fact that positive temporary immigration (a net increase in nonpermanent residents) in a given year will increase the total population permanently unless it is offset by negative temporary immigration (a net decrease in nonpermanent residents) of the same order of magnitude in subsequent years. A common error is to view temporary immigration as having just a passing temporary effect on population growth. It is true that any given cohort of temporary immigrants does disappear once its members are admitted to permanent residency or leave Canada when their permits expire. However, the impact on total population will not disappear, but will continue to increase if this cohort of nonpermanent residents is replaced by larger and larger cohorts of new temporary immigrants in subsequent years.

This is exactly what happened after the publication of the ACEG report in 2016. The number of temporary immigrants increased continually every year except during the pandemic period 2020–21. The net increase in nonpermanent residents was 88,000 in 2016, 138,000 in 2017, 155,000 in 2018, 191,000 in 2019, and 608,000 in 2022. In this last year, the total population increase of 1,050,110 added 2.7 per cent to the beginning-of-2022 population of Canada. Formally, if this annual growth rate were to be sustained from 2023 to 2100, the population of Canada would reach 100 million in 2057 and 316 million in 2100.⁸

The steady growth rate of population that would bring Canada up to 100 million residents in 2100 from the beginning-of-2023 level of 39.6 million is 1.2 per cent per annum, which is less than half the 2022 actual growth rate of 2.7 per cent. Implementing the 1.2 per cent rate would require a huge drop from the 1,045,000 (437,000 permanent and 608,000 temporary) immigration total of 2022. Temporary immigration would have to go down to almost zero.

As mentioned above, the 2016 report of the Advisory Council on Economic Growth appointed by Finance Minister Bill Morneau and chaired by CI cofounder Dominic Barton suggested that the number of permanent immigrants to Canada be increased to 450,000 in 2021. The targets for permanent immigration stated in November 2022 by then–immigration minister Sean Fraser (465,000 in 2023, 485,000 in 2024 and 500,000 in 2025) are broadly consistent with this ACEG recommendation and with the immigration path leading to a Canadian population of 100 million in 2100 that CI is projecting in its 2023 National Scoreboard on Canada’s Growth and Prosperity. The CI path is solely based on permanent immigration and omits any current or future effect of temporary immigration on population growth. It has population growing at an average annual rate of 1.2 per cent per year leading to the 100 million target in 2100.⁹

Minister Fraser cautioned that his targets for permanent immigration were not meant to achieve the specific CI goal of 100 million for 2100 population.¹⁰ However, they are doing just that – and more, taking the effect of temporary immigration on population growth into account. Neither the immigration growth path projected by CI nor the official targets of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) for permanent immigration give any guidance about where total (permanent plus temporary) immigration is going to lead future population growth.

To sum up, we have stressed the elementary demographic fact that the annual growth rate of the total population is impacted not only by the addition of new permanent immigrants, but also by the net change in nonpermanent residents during the year (a.k.a. temporary immigration). We have also emphasized that temporary immigration was the dominant driver of population growth in 2022. It is therefore a serious mistake to project future population growth based on future permanent immigration levels alone.

CI should clarify its views on how IRCC should deal with the increasing disconnect between population growth and permanent immigration

One objective of our conversation in Inroads 53 was to expose the administrative mess that characterizes the treatment of temporary immigration by IRCC. The idea of prioritizing temporary migrants with Canadian experience or a Canadian diploma for permanent residency – a “two-step” process – is not new. On its face it may seem like a good idea, but in our conversation we underlined the dangers related to the current system, particularly for those living with a precarious temporary status. Nevertheless, IRCC has made it the commanding path toward permanent residency, instead of the ranking (or “points”) system used to assess skills and earnings potential in the old days.

IRCC is all out to increase immigration levels at the expense of the skill levels of new immigrants. There is no upper bound set on the number of people accepted each year as nonpermanent residents. The number is, to a large extent, determined by the free flow of whatever the demand from postsecondary institutions and employers turns out to be. This has led to a ballooning number of applications, huge administrative backlogs, lower acceptance standards, a greater risk of precarity or mistreatment for low-skilled temporary workers, and rising frustration among holders of temporary permits, who are seeing their applications marred by impossible delays. Not to mention the overwhelming challenges these newcomers, like so many Canadians, have in finding affordable housing and daycare. The system is quantitatively out of control and qualitatively deteriorating.

In our conversation, we stated that “this unplanned massive temporary immigration is consistent with the goal of the Century Initiative.” In her response, Ms. Lalande forcefully declares that CI does not advocate massive temporary immigration. She requests that we correct our assertion to the contrary.

We are happy to address the misunderstanding. In stating that IRCC’s unplanned massive temporary immigration was consistent with the goal of CI, we simply intended to point out that IRCC was pursuing the same goal – more immigration and a bigger Canada – as CI was recommending. Indeed, the International Education Strategy of the federal government is proudly geared toward immigration and economic goals.

We did not mean that CI was backing the chaotic management and uncapped temporary immigration in which IRCC is bogged down. However, CI gives no specific guidance about how IRCC should deal with the increasing disconnect between the rapidly accelerating population growth and the much slower-paced trend in permanent immigration. We need more than a limited recognition that “challenges persist.” A detailed clarifying discussion of these matters by CI would be welcome.

In-depth reviews of international research by reputed Canadian economists have shown that immigration does not lead to increases in GDP per capita

In her response to our conversation, Ms. Lalande also complains that we did not refer to the 2021 OECD projection that the potential growth rate of Canada’s GDP per capita will be 0.7 per cent between 2020 and 2030 while the projection for the average OECD country is 1.3 per cent.¹¹ She considers the mediocre relative performance projected for Canada as additional motivation for the country to increase immigration, given her conviction that “international research indicates that immigration can lead to increases in GDP per capita in advanced economies.”

We were aware of the existence of the OECD results when we prepared our conversation, but we did not refer to them for two reasons. First, long-term projections of this kind are too often subject to large errors. Second, and more importantly, Ms. Lalande’s assertion that immigration can lead to increases in GDP per capita according to international research is wrong.

A larger population entails a larger total GDP. With more workers, a country can produce more goods and services and increase national income in the aggregate. A greater total GDP also allows a country to wield a greater degree of global influence. However, a greater population size and a greater degree of global influence do not necessarily support the basic purpose of economic growth, which is to enhance the average material well-being of the country’s residents. That is, its GDP per capita will not necessarily be larger. Here are various pieces of evidence that corroborate this assertion and contradict Ms. Lalande’s statement.

Our exchange in Inroads 53 reported that the static cross-country correlation between the level of GDP per capita and the size of population among 25 advanced OECD economies was almost exactly zero in the prepandemic year 2019. This negligible static correlation between GDP per capita and population size across countries can be extended to long-term growth dynamics.

Based on data from the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations, it is possible to estimate the effects of several potential determinants of the cumulative growth of GDP per capita among the same OECD25 group of countries over the 30-year period 1989–2019. In conformity with the research literature, we find that the initial (1989) level of GDP per capita and the average investment rate are significant determinants of the cumulative growth of GDP per capita, but that the effects of the cumulative growth of total population and the average net migration rate are jointly statistically negligible.¹² In other words, the proposition that a higher growth rate of population (whether coming from local or immigrant sources) augments the growth rate of GDP per capita over the long term is not sustained by the data of the last 30 years in the advanced economies of the OECD.

Our conversation also referred to in-depth reviews of international research on immigration by two teams of Canadian economists who are reputed in this area (Boudarbat-Grenier and Riddell-Green-Worswick).¹³ Their common conclusion is the same as above: immigration and GDP per capita are uncorrelated in advanced economies. Riddell, Green and Worswick put it starkly as follows: “What a large body of evidence indicates is that immigration is neither good nor bad for the economy, as assessed by its impact on the living standards of current citizens … There is no evidence that substantially increased immigration will lead to increased growth of a type that shows up in positive impacts on wages and employment of those already here.”

These two reviews of the published literature fully contradict the assertion that international research indicates that immigration can lead to increases in GDP per capita in advanced economies.

There is more. In June 2023, Matthew Doyle (University of Waterloo), Mikal Skuterud (also of Waterloo) and Christopher Worswick put out a review of the economics of immigration (with many applications to Canada).¹⁴ It helps to clarify why international research finds that more immigration is unlikely to increase GDP per capita.

In the short term, more immigration dilutes the amount of productive equipment available per worker. Their statistical analysis of several decades of Canadian macrodata shows accordingly that there is “no evidence that higher immigration rates can be expected to boost growth rates in per capita GDP in the short run.” In the medium term, they point out that ever since Canada’s immigration rate began to climb in 2014, investment per worker has followed a downward trend that has been “unable to mitigate the adverse effects of increased immigration rates on average economic living standards in the population.” In the long term, they concur with Boudarbat-Grenier and Riddell-Green-Worswick that international research is uncertain about the impact of immigration on multifactor productivity.

They show contrariwise that in Canada the large-scale increase in economic immigration, the shift in admissions away from the points system and toward an employer nomination system, and the concentration of labour shortages in low-skill jobs have together led to mean earnings that are lower for immigrants than for the rest of the population. The likely outcome is a lower average level of GDP per capita.

More immigration is not an effective means of attenuating the aging of Canada’s population or resolving the problem of economy-wide labour shortages

Our conversation in Inroads 53 rejected a few other false beliefs about the economic effects of increased immigration. One of them is that immigration would be a means of rebalancing Canada’s age distribution. We referred to a study by Parisa Mahboubi and Bill Robson as having demonstrated that more immigration would be of little consequence for the aging of the Canadian population.¹⁵ Riddell-Green-Worswick and Doyle-Skuterud-Worswick both agree and point out that the age structure of immigrants is too varied and that immigrants age too. They conclude that immigration is not a feasible means of substantially altering Canada’s age structure.

Another false belief is that immigration can help alleviate the problem of economy-wide labour shortages. It does not. Immigration is certainly helpful in expanding the supply of human resources in specific sectoral or regional markets struck by high job vacancy rates. But as the newcomers and their employers spend their additional income on housing and other consumption and investment goods, the pressure on demand for labour is strengthened in other sectors and regions.

It may even more than offset the initial expansion of supply. We are currently seeing it add stress to the current housing crisis in Canada. The final impact of immigration in the aggregate may not be to reduce labour shortages, but to redistribute them across sectors and regions. Our conversation adduced evidence that this is indeed the case in Canada and in the OECD25 group of countries. The belief that immigration is an economy-wide solution for labour shortages is, simply put, a fallacy of composition.

Maintaining Canada’s net migration rate at the very high 2022 level risks fuelling a destructive anti-immigration movement as in the United States and Europe

Finally, while we fully agree with CI that “public support for immigration is an essential condition for Canada to effectively attract and retain immigrants,” we do not share its optimistic view that this public support “continues to increase among Canadians.”¹⁶ A February 2022 Environics online survey of 5,461 Canadians found that 52 per cent of respondents giving an opinion thought there was “too much immigration to Canada.”¹⁷ Similarly, a November 2022 Léger–Canadian Press online survey of 1,537 Canadians found that 58 per cent of respondents giving an opinion thought the government plan to welcome up to 500,000 immigrants to Canada in 2025 will admit too many immigrants to Canada.¹⁸

Furthermore, an August 2023 Nanos hybrid telephone and online survey of 1,081 Canadians indicated that respondents were “most likely to say the rising cost of living should be the top priority of the House of Commons this fall” and that 72 per cent of those giving an opinion thought that the plan “to increase the annual target of immigrants from 465,000 to 500,000 by 2025” will have a negative impact on the cost of housing.¹⁹

In 2015–19, Canada’s net migration rate of 1.0 per cent was three times as high as the average rate of 0.35 per cent for the OECD25 group of countries.²⁰ But at 2.6 per cent in 2022, the Canadian rate shot up to seven times this OECD25 0.35 per cent average rate for 2015–19. The relevant question here is how Canadians will react if the large 2022 increase in the country’s net migration rate is maintained in years to come, given that a majority already thinks that there is too much immigration to Canada.

Fifteen years ago, a widely cited study of 41 U.S. cities by political scientist Robert Putnam of Harvard University showed that “in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’ trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.”²¹ In other words, in the short run, immigration and diversity would slow down the development of social capital. Fortunately, as Putnam himself argued, people can eventually get over this difficulty, but only if their short-term capacity to welcome immigrants is not exceeded, if the newcomers are given time and resources to integrate, and if the whole of society is allowed enough time to build a new common identity.

Recent events in Europe and the United States and the Putnam findings sound a warning for Canada’s current immigration policy. If Canada’s net migration rate continues at the 2022 level of 2.6 per cent, the country will risk being hit by a hard and destructive anti-immigration movement as in the United States and Europe.

In summary, we feel it is a grave mistake to focus exclusively on the impact of permanent immigration on population growth and forget about the even larger impact of temporary immigration. Not only is massive low-wage temporary immigration a monstrous policy blunder, but its management by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has led to an administrative mess as well.

The three-pronged belief that immigration will lead to increases in GDP per capita, make a dent in the aging of population and reduce economy-wide labour shortages is wrong. The combination of sharply accelerating population growth fuelled by rising immigration and decreasing public support for immigration in Canada risks generating the kind of destructive anti-immigration movement here that already exists in the United States and Europe.

For family and professional reasons, the two of us are sold to the cause of immigration, although our main motivation is not economic, except insofar as economic integration is key to the integration process in general. Rather, we recognize Canada’s responsibility with respect to the increasing forced migration in the world, its attraction as a safe and modern society and the richness that new cultures and their ideas and perspectives bring with them.

We do not know exactly what the optimal level of immigration is for Canada, but until we have figured it out, we know for sure (1) that it is critical to bring it down significantly and (2) that no realignment on immigration policy, whether it be slowing the pace of arrivals or getting back to selecting highly skilled immigrants, will have any effect if it does not include temporary immigration.

On our knees, we beg for moderation and balance.

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