A group of lawyers representing Ecuadorian villagers asked Canada’s Supreme Court on Thursday to try their decades-long case against Chevron in Canadian courts. The lawyers, led by primary attorney Steven Donzinger, are seeking compensation of about $9.5 billion dollars, granted by a judge in Ecuador for environmental damages in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Whether or not Canadian courts will take on the case relies on a juridical technicality called “corporate veil.” Although Chevron has subsidiaries with billions of dollars in assets in Canada, the corporate veil principal distinguishes subsidiaries from their parent companies and establishes that they are not responsible for the actions of their parents, thus making it difficult for Canadian courts to have claims to the case.
The lawsuit was originally filed against Texaco in 1993 for environmental damages caused between 1964 and 1990 by the company’s disposal of billions of gallons of oil sludge into local tributaries, in what has been called the “worst oil-related pollution problem on the planet.” After a $40 million dollar cleanup, Ecuador and Texaco signed a contract releasing the company from further charges. Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001, and in 2003, Donzinger filed a suit against Chevron that in 2011 resulted in $19 billion dollars awarded in favor of Ecuadorian villagers. That amount was later reduced to $9.5 billion, which the oil powerhouse has refused to pay.
As the dust slowly settles on last week’s terrorist attacks in St. Jean, Québec and the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, it may be a good time to assess the fallout. Overall, Canadians did not panic, and responded with compassion and moderation. The Canadian media avoided the sensational, and stuck to a balanced and thoughtful coverage. Canadian politicians were able to stand above the partisan divide.
It was also a time to reach out to our Muslim fellow citizens. Canada is a pluralistic society that cherishes its diversity. It was a moment to reassert our values and not succumb to finger-pointing or profiling.
Our U.S. friends and partners immediately expressed their solidarity. President Obama called Prime Minister Harper at the height of the crisis. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will also visit Ottawa.
In the past few days, observers in the media have tried to make sense of what happened. The how and the why are only beginning to be scrutinized. The theory of the lone wolf terrorist acting domestically appears to be a serious by-product of the war against terrorism. After two soldiers were killed within a 48 hour period, it is now obvious to most Canadians that the homeland is facing a threat where there is no textbook defense or tested, reliable counteroffensive. Granted, the two killers were troubled individuals who apparently became Islamic extremists, but their actions seemed to be motivated by propaganda on the Internet. This is difficult to assess, much less prevent.
Yesterday, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) concluded their investigation of the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec train derailment that occurred on July 5, 2013. According to the final report, the accident was caused by a runaway train carrying crude oil that was parked at the top of a hill for the evening, but upon its brakes failing, slid down the tracks and crashed near the center of town resulting in an explosion killing 47 people. The TSB determined that eighteen factors led to the catastrophe, but emphasized a “weak safety culture” as one of the major causes.
TSB found that the rail operator, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), which has since filed for bankruptcy, had a weak safety management system and lacked effective training and maintenance procedures. Their report also criticized the transportation ministry, Transport Canada, for a lack of management and regulation. The investigation found that Transport Canada was aware that MMA carried a higher risk of accidents in recent years due to an increase in the transportation of crude oil, yet performed few audits and failed to follow up when it uncovered problems.
The report recommends more comprehensive audits and improved technology to prevent runaway trains caused by brake failure. In January, the safety boards of Canada and the U.S. collaborated on suggestions to improve safety, given that crude oil transportation by train has increased considerably in the last ten years due to advanced technology and the subsequent shale boom. New Democrat Member of Parliament Hoang Mai has attributed the accident to the fact that “conservatives have left companies to monitor themselves,” and other opposition politicians have also blamed the federal government for the disaster.
On April 7, 2014, Québec voters chose to elect a majority Liberal government, and handed the pro-independence Parti Québécois (PQ) its worst defeat ever. Since then, speculation has surfaced about the future of the Québec independence movement.
In his first post-election press conference, Québec’s new premier, Philippe Couillard, struck a positive note when he was asked whether the idea of Québec independence (separation) was over. An ardent federalist, Premier Couillard astutely responded that you could not kill an idea. And he’s right both in fact and in tone.
The dream of an independent Québec has its origins in history, from the early settlers who followed Québec’s founder, Samuel de Champlain, to the British Conquest of 1760—where the struggle for survival and identity became the central theme within French Canada’s polity for the next two centuries, and beyond.
By the early 1960s, pro-independence political parties surfaced in Québec, in line with the progressive forces dominating the political debate of the day. The so-called “Quiet Revolution,” led by the progressive Liberal Party of Premier Jean Lesage, ushered in dramatic reforms in the economic, health, cultural, and educational sectors. With it came the rise of a democratic pro-independence movement that in 1968 merged into a political party—the Parti Québécois, led by former prominent Liberal minister René Lévesque.
After just 18 months at the head of a minority government, Québec Premier Pauline Marois went down to a stunning defeat in Québec's April 7 elections. The governing Parti Québécois (PQ), hoping to form a majority government and leading in the polls in early March, dropped from 54 seats to 30, and saw its popular vote numbers decrease from 32 percent to 25 percent. Premier Marois also lost her seat and immediately resigned on election night. The Québec Liberal party will now form a majority government, and its mandate extends until October 2018.
While subscribing to the adage that “campaigns matter,” I must acknowledge that this is the most spectacular turnaround in Québec election campaign history. This marks the fifth consecutive election that the pro- independence PQ receives less than 35 percent of the popular vote, and it has suffered four defeats in the last five contests. With a leadership race now in the offing, the often fractious PQ is in for some trying times.
It may not be as dramatic as “Mr. Smith goes to Washington,” but Hillary Clinton’s conference at the Montreal Board of Trade Leadership Series on Tuesday had all the trappings of someone on the move towards the big prize in Washington. Unlike Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Nicholas Sarkozy, Tony Blair, and Rudy Giuliani, who participated in the Series after their active political careers, Mrs. Clinton was seen as a “leader with a future.” Will she or will she not run in 2016?
The event attracted over 4,000 patrons as well as the three major Québec political party leaders, who interrupted their election campaign to listen to Secretary Clinton, whom most of the attendees hoped will be the next President of the U.S.A. She won over the room with her presence, garnering a standing ovation before she even spoke. The conference was composed of an address given by Mrs. Clinton followed by a question and answer session.
In her speech, she spoke about women’s issues and the impact of integrating women into the economy, illustrating how studies show a marked increase in a country’s GDP if women are fully integrated and become active economic participants. It is clear that her work in philanthropy will continue to be focused on helping women in all spheres of human activity. Needless to say, her message was well received by the audience.
During the Q and A session two women, Mrs. Clinton, and the CEO of GazMétro, Sophie Brochu, spoke at length about economic issues, covering topics such as paid maternity leave in the U.S., relations between Canada and the U.S., the crisis in Ukraine, and civic engagement. The discussion was undoubtedly inspiring for many in the room.
If there is one election campaign that usually resonates across Canada outside of a national election, it is the one held in the province of Québec (a federated state). This has been the case since the 1960s when the modern age of Québec politics and the growing impact of television converged. A strong thrust for major progressive reforms advocated by the Liberal government of the day, and the emergence of a strong nationalist fervor dominated the campaigns. The political effervescence of the day resulted in the creation of pro-Québec independence party with a social democratic agenda in 1968. It was named the Parti Québécois (PQ).
In the early 1970s the pro-independence and highly nationalist PQ became a growing force. By 1976, they formed a majority government and committed to have a referendum that would result in an independent Québec and the breaking up of Canada as we know it. Since then, the PQ has been in (1976-1985/1994-2003/2012-) and out of power but when in power, they tend to promote Québec’s political separation from a federal Canada. There have been two referenda in Quebec (1980,1995) and the pro-independence forces have lost both.
In September 2012, the PQ formed a minority government and has worked since then to win a majority by building up support. On March 5, Québec Premier Pauline Marois asked Québec’s Lieutenant Governor to dissolve the National Assembly for an election to be held on April 7. A majority would give the PQ the reins to push for Québec independence and possibly stronger advocacy of language legislation to protect the French language (Québec’s official and majority language).
As the North American leaders Stephen Harper, Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto meet in Mexico City this week, we can expect smiles and all the rhetoric about intensifying the relationship between the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) partners. While the trade numbers justify applauding and celebrating the NAFTA agreement 20 years after its inauguration (January 1994), there remains a lot of “behind the scenes” tension, conflict and unresolved issues.
For Canada, NAFTA has been a positive development. In 2010, trilateral trade represented $878 billion, which is a threefold expansion of trade since 1993. Mexico now represents Canada’s first Latin American partner in trade, and we are Mexico’s second most important trade partner in the world. Bilateral trade has expanded at a rate of 12.5% yearly to attain $30 billion in 2010. Canadian investment in Mexico is now estimated at over $10 billion. In short, both countries have benefitted from the deal.
This being said, it is generally acknowledged that both Canada and Mexico invest more time, energy, and resources in pursuing bilateral relations with the world’s number one economy, the United States. As a result, some outstanding issues such as Canada’s imposition of visas on Mexican tourists continue to be a major irritant for the Mexican government. The continuing disputes on respective beef import bans also continue to create tension between the two countries.
Just this past weekend, Canada’s highly respected Globe and Mail had the following headlines: “Mexico has stern messages for Harper” and “Canada-Mexico relations merit more than forced smiles”. Clearly, the relationship is strained.
Reforms to Mexico's energy sector were signed into law late last year. The legislation proceeded rapidly from President Enrique Peña Nieto's announcement of the reforms in August, to the negotiations among the major political parties during the fall, to voting in both houses of Congress, resulting in a majority of the 31 state legislatures changing the Constitution. For the first time in 75 years private participation will be permitted in Mexico's energy sector, not only in oil and gas, but also in electricity and power generation. The repercussions of this reform will be felt not only in Mexico but across the hemisphere, including Canada as increased development of Mexico's energy sector is a win-win for Mexico and the rest of North America.
The reform has led to large expectations and deservedly so. It goes further than what was originally envisioned when Peña Nieto announced the reforms in August 2013. The two conservative political parties, Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) and the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, PAN), molded the legislation to make it deeper and more robust. The opposing liberal party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido Revolucionario Democrático, PRD), demonstrated rampant opposition to the reforms as they viewed them as a “privatization” of Pemex, the state oil company. The PRD is still hoping to halt the reform through a popular referendum, but the success of this initiative is unlikely.
They say the devil is in the details, and proponents of turning around Mexico's declining oil and gas production appear pleased with the components of this legislation. The vehicles that allow foreign investment vary in the amount of risk involved. These include service contracts, profit-sharing agreements, production-sharing agreements, and licenses. The latter functions in the same way as a concession, and faces a potential legal hurdle as Mexican law prohibits concessions. Nevertheless, these contracts allow foreign companies to have more skin in the game, and catapult Mexico into the top 10 in the world in terms of investment regime offered.
On November 25, Canadians went to the polls in four by-elections—two in Manitoba, one in Québec and one in Ontario. The results were not dramatic, as they maintained the same distribution of seats in Canada’s House of Commons. The Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper kept its two Manitoba seats—albeit with highly reduced margins. The Liberals, led by new leader Justin Trudeau, won both the Ontario and the Québec seats.
What made news was the fact that the Liberals captured second place in the Manitoba contests, leaving the New Democratic Party (NDP) to ponder whether they are losing their hold as the alternative to the governing Tories.
Harper’s party is still mired in the Senate scandal from last spring, which involved alleged spending infractions by former Conservative Senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin—then part of the Conservative caucus.
To the opposition parties, it’s the scandal that keeps on giving, as daily revelations dominate the newswires. The prime minister is finding out the hard way the Watergate scandal lesson—the “cover-up” is usually more damaging than the “crime.” Evasive answers, contradictions and improvisation have amplified what should have been an isolated case of misbehaving senators (since expelled from the Tory caucus) into a full-blown scandal.
Conservatives have suffered the blowback in recent national polls, and the by-elections results confirmed that the government is in troubled waters. What may be encouraging to the government strategists, however, is that the Tory fall in the polls cannot really be attributed to the government’s major agenda item: the economy. Rather, it is the scandal and how the government conducts its business in the light of the scandal that are the source of the current rejection. With two years to go until the next election, there is plenty of time to adjust and recover—or so the Tories think.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.