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Brian Bird: For reconciliation to stand a chance, vandalism must stop

Commentary

The disturbing discoveries of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the sites of former residential schools offer a chance to increase awareness of the enduring tragedy of these schools and build new bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

Instead of seizing this moment to treat longstanding wounds, fresh ones are being inflicted. They may stall our journey to reconciliation, and even take us off the path that leads to it.

The vandalism and burning of several churches amid the discoveries at former residential schools is a disgrace. To add insult to injury, many of these churches sat on Indigenous lands and served these communities.

It does not take much reflection to realize that the culprits are likely not Indigenous persons but opportunistic agitators who wish to foment chaos at a precarious moment for Canada. Many Indigenous individuals and groups have condemned these acts, saying they jeopardize reconciliation.

It is dismaying that it took the burning of several places of worship before the prime minister commented on the matter on June 30, more than a week after the initial fires. It does not seem farfetched to think that the absence of an immediate and unequivocal condemnation by Justin Trudeau and other politicians emboldened copycats.

Trudeau has been quick to cite his Catholicism when calling on the Church to confront the wounds caused at residential schools that it administered, but slow to condemn the defacement and destruction of churches belonging to this faith tradition. It should never be politically incorrect or inexpedient to oppose such acts, yet one cannot help but wonder if that is where we are.

The low point in this saga may be a tweet by the executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association on the same day that Trudeau broke his silence. Harsha Walia, in response to an article about the burning of churches, said “Burn it all down.”

That the head of an organization that defends civil liberties would endorse actions that imperil religious freedom is appalling. Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s Solicitor General and Minister of Public Safety, called the tweet “vile” and “disgusting”. Walia said, after the fact, that her tweet should not be taken literally. Two weeks later, she resigned.

This tweet is, sadly, not an isolated incident. A law professor in Toronto, commenting on Harsha Walia’s tweet, suggested that whether it is legitimate to burn Catholic churches merits debate. Another lawyer declared her support for Ms. Walia and said she would “defend anyone charged with arson if they actually did burn things.”

When members of the legal profession openly legitimize violence and crime, there is reason to fear that vital threads holding our social fabric together are fraying. If these tweets reflect the thinking of even a substantial minority of the Canadian population, then certain pillars of our civil society are under serious stress. If we do not tread carefully, they may collapse.

In moments of strain and strife, we must be particularly steadfast in our commitment to our ideals.

We are witnessing brazen vandalism not only of sacred places, but of principles that shield us from the flaws of human nature. In a society ruled by law and committed to basic decency, injustice is resolved peacefully and through proper channels, not by vigilantism and violence. The reasons why are obvious: violence begets violence, breeds resentment, and cultivates toxic tribalism.

At this moment we need antidotes to these forces and we need them in spades to meet the challenges we collectively face.

In the past we have often fallen far short of what we expect of ourselves and our society, and we continue to fall short today. Our failings toward Indigenous persons are a prime example.

But these failings do not entitle us to abandon our basic aspiration and common desire for peace, order and good government. On the contrary, in moments of strain and strife, we must be particularly steadfast in our commitment to these ideals.

The attacks on houses of worship and the disturbing responses to them are especially frustrating given that, after the revelations of the graves of Indigenous children, Catholic leaders have unreservedly apologized and firmly recommitted themselves to reconciliation.

These sentiments, I believe, are shared by lay Catholics across Canada. There is much work to do, but ingredients for real progress are present. We risk squandering this opportunity and even regressing, however, if animosity prevails over solidarity.

Retribution tempts us when injustice is committed. Retaliation can feel not merely satisfying, but righteous. But this path sets the stage for more injustice. It invites a vicious cycle. We must, for the sake of progress, choose virtue.

Reconciliation is a steeper and longer climb, but it is indeed the better way. We must summon our better angels at this crossroads, or the fires may spread beyond brick and mortar to something far more precious: the tangible but ever fragile ties of kindness and goodwill that, as Canadians, bind us together.

Opinion: Canada’s next frontier of clean energy must include nuclear

Commentary

The Hub launched with a core mission of getting Canadians thinking about the future. We’ve been stuck in the doldrums, pessimistic and polarized, for too long. To lay out a roadmap for the next 30 years of Canadian life, we asked our contributors to pinpoint the most consequential issue, idea or technology for the country in 2050. This series of essays by leading thinkers will illuminate Canada’s next frontier.

In 1950, Canada faced a difficult choice between the desire to be a leader in the development of nuclear energy technology and the fear that such technology would bring the end of the world a little closer.

Despite concerns related to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Canada elected to be in the vanguard.

As a result, world-class Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactors were developed in this country and exported around the world. The Chalk River nuclear facility in Ontario where the CANDU model got its start also became a global contributor to many international nuclear technology projects. Today, Canada’s nuclear sector includes 19 reactors powering approximately 15 percent of the country. Ontario, with 95 percent of the country’s reactors, generated 60 percent of its own electricity from nuclear power plants in 2020.

Yet today, this positive narrative has largely been flipped on its head. Due, in part, to anti-nuclear messaging from activists and certain politicians, the development of this technology has stalled, and with it, so has Canada’s capacity to compete as a global leader in the development of clean nuclear energy.

This is unfortunate when we consider some of the challenges we face today that were poorly understood in the post-war era. Nuclear energy represents one of the cleanest, most sustainable sources of power in a context in which reducing emissions has become a universal goal. But whereas nuclear energy once seemed to be the next logical step in Canada’s energy policy despite warnings about its destructive potential, today nuclear power ironically gets a bad rap even though it may offer a way of avoiding destructive climate-related effects.

In 2050, Canada’s future leaders must see nuclear as more friend than foe. Ignoring its potential as a fast track to adapting away from greenhouse gas emitting technologies and resources would be a missed opportunity. Turning a blind eye would also be increasingly unpopular as more and more people are becoming convinced of the dangers of climate change.

Admittedly, there are drawbacks to nuclear power, such as waste disposal. While manageable today, this will present more of a challenge as nuclear infrastructure grows to supply more than just 15 percent of our electricity. Still, with Ontario already relying on nuclear for the majority of its power generation, Canada has only produced enough total spent fuel waste to fill the equivalent of a half-dozen hockey rinks to the height of the boards.

For the second-largest country on earth by land area, this is an infinitesimally small amount of space, which lends further support to the idea that Canada is relatively well-positioned to lead the world in the development of this green energy source.

Many experts also believe that the technology is still in its infancy, and may present risks when exported to countries that are not bound by international treaties limiting their capacity to produce nuclear weapons (think of China, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and North Korea in the 20th century). Yet these concerns seem marginal at best when we consider that Canada has a unique profile on the world stage: a reasonably high GDP per capita, a large pre-existing system for nuclear waste disposal, and a peace-oriented foreign policy guided by nuclear non-proliferation treaties.

Shrinking Reactor Size (and Start-Up Costs)

Not only should there be flexibility for the government to invest in nuclear projects from now until 2050, but regulations should be relaxed to allow for the development of ever-smaller reactors. These could become the new frontier of capital investment in a more consumer-friendly energy market of the future.

And indeed, Canada has already started to invest in the development of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). This is an exciting way for this clean energy technology to avoid the enormous state-subsidized start-up costs associated with larger reactors. With most experts pointing to the problem of cost as the largest barrier to a nuclear future, shrinking reactors could be a significant part of the solution.

Nuclear energy can also potentially save lives in the immediate future.

Recent developments in Western Canada may point the way forward. With Saskatchewan set to phase out coal by 2030, the government has committed to funding its next stage of investment in alternative energy development projects. Currently focused on solar, the opportunity for nuclear in Saskatchewan is there.

If SMR technology continues to develop at a rapid pace, Saskatchewan — with only a little over 10 percent of Ontario’s real GDP, but with a low incidence of natural disasters of concern for nuclear reactors — could become a Canadian leader in this technology. If so, it may be Saskatchewan that guides Canada on the path that it ultimately must take to produce ubiquitous clean energy by 2050 and cement its place as an exporter not only of goods, but of good ideas.

In addition, nuclear energy can also potentially save lives in the immediate future. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed Canada’s lack of capacity and capability when it comes to producing pharmaceuticals domestically. Therapeutic radionuclides produced here could offer a path forward and allow Canada to escape some of its current dependence on other countries for life-saving treatments.

There is so much to hope for in a nuclear future for Canada, and so much to lose if we give in to old fears and new distractions.

When looking ahead to 2050, Canadians should not be afraid of what the country would look like with more nuclear power generating capacity, but what it would look like without it.