Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Adult Learning and Intentional Citizenship

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 22, 2006

Summary of a talk by Maude Barlow at the Canadian Council on Learning conference, Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Maude Barlow - Council of Canadians

I come from a good long line of activists. My father told me what they build and why it's so important to fight for it. Our ancestors knew that if we didn't share for survival we wouldn't make it. I think that's a very different narrative than survival of the fittest. The same government that didn't have enough to feed us and send us to university during the depression had enough money to send my dad to war. When he came back he was determined that these would be available, and they came to fruition during the 60s. We basically used income distribution and social programs as the foundation of equality in this country.

This has been eroding. We used to have 80 percent insured against unemployment; now it's 40 percent. Health care has been cut. Canada Assistance Plan has been cut. More and more of us are in 'precarious work' - it doesn't have benefits, and you have to work at many jobs. "George Bush has created lots of jobs; I myself have three of them." The numbers here are stark - not as stark as the U.S., which just became the nation with the greatest income inequality in the world. When Bush came to office, they cut social assistance 13 percent every single year.

Though public schooling is accessible to all, they are commercializing the schools. We don't want our schools to go the way of the U.S. Rats in the kitchen. Textbooks that say "One day man will walk on the moon." Education is becoming the domain of the elite.

It's one thing to have education in an environment where everyone wants it, another in a society and environment that creates winners and losers. When we look at young people and how they turn out, will they think of themselves as having rights or will they think of themselves as little entrepreneurs? A school where the principle introduced himself as the CEO of the school. A student said, we are not so easily fooled.

Intentional citizens - people who learn about the challenges against these rights. A productive prosperous and just nation offers citizens opportunities for lifelong learning. Your definition of adult learning...

Effects of globalization. Our model is one I want to share with you. Not that people become members. We have groups of people who come together. Instead of lobbying on behalf of our members, we share with them the info they need to do the lobbying themselves. To me that's the model of adult learning. We call that the citizen's agenda, where citizens are informed through many channels. We have various programs - clean water, safe food, etc. We never take on any plan that doesn't have an action plan, the vision of what we want for society. Our most vital role is taking complex issues, like WTO, and making it intelligible and accessible to ordinary people - easy to do, it's usually just hidden behind verbiage.

What I've learned about social justice and adult learning:

Global water initiative - we are concerned about water, we have a lot but have signed a trade agreement that gives the U.S. access to it when the time comes. Water companies - bottle it, sell it, and move on when the water is gone. Or Bolivia - water company built an armed camp under the glacier, they pipe it to La Paz and sell it - people don't have access to water because they don't have money. Lessons:
- listen to, and work with, the grass roots - they will always know more
- take time to establish common principles - we held symposiums around the world - eg., water is a human right, it belongs to the earth and all species, it should not be for profit
- take the time to build an inclusive and diverse movement - eg., put the environmental community and the human rights communities together
- we have to take on the institutions working against democracy - in this case the World Bank and WTO - articulate an alternative set of goals
- articulate a common vision - in this case, water as a human right - this is the empowering tool for the most grass roots of communities

No school taught me that, no university or school taught me that

Other issue: integration of our continent, which is taking place off the radar screen. Waco, Texas - security and ... agreement. Wasn't debated in Parliament. Means visitors to Canada are accountable to U.S. authorities. One bloc, with a superpower that wants to open up our health care and education to commercialization. And they have opened up all of our health and safety standards - moving them mostly downward. Bush - cut down or eliminated more than 400 pieces of environmental legislation. Resource pact - further loss of control over resources, energy, water.

How do we make Canadians feel this is something that has to do with them? We held a 10 city inquiry with citizen commissioners. I wrote a book. We did reports. We've done lobbying. More. And again, no school taught me to do this. This knowledge has come from years of experience with adult learners. Ordinary citizens who thought things could be better and have mobilized themselves to do it.

The common factor is hope. Official position - everything is fine, and if it's not, it's your fault. Official Bush line: if you can't make it, it's your fault. I'm talking about a sensible kind of hope, a door in the wall of despair. Despair leads to inaction, to capitulation. "Fear is th cheapest room in the house." Realistic hope looks for a hole in that wall. It is not polyanna, it recognizes what we are dealing with.

If you strip away the right not to know, it hurts. Atwood: if you see clearly, you see through tears.

Then, the understanding that anything can happen. And that possible future makes the present inhabitable. And that is the common message, that we are working for the future.

Hope as a moral imperative.

In social justice today, despair and resignation have become vogue. People with hope seem a little naive. Water crisis, for example. Or growing inequality. Many issues to face, and I'm not saying, don't face them. And in the media, that non-stop relentless reality is newsworthy. But it doesn't take into account the many challenges. "All of a sudden change comes to society just like a change in the weather."

One's hope should not rest on the outcome. Don't judge what you're doing by whether you won a campaign or not. What did you learn. Did you advance a bit? Judge based on your ability to play a part in it. Just do your bit without thinking about the bigness of it. The outcome is not in your control, but the commitment is yours to make.

Fighting for justice is not something you do now and then. It's like taking a bath, you do it every day or you start to stick.

Adult learning - the dream you have taken on is daunting. The overall environment is really more of a competitive dog eat dog world - if you can't make it, it's supposed to be more your fault. It's very important you find common cause, share a dream, keep hope alive.

World Social Forum - held as a counter to the World Economic Forum. Held in Brazil. Motto: "Another world is possible."

Not only is another world possible, another world is under construction. And on a quiet morning, I can hear her breathing.


I did an analysis on how the extreme right entrenched itself. The plan was to get rid of every single liberal from every level of government. The foreign policy hawks have been waiting for many years for this. Plus the big business interests. The big companies stood to gain a great deal from a more aggressive military - the U.S. will spend $1 trillion between military and the War on Terror. It is sucked up from the people - that's what happened in New Orleans. The third component was the religious right, who were convinced (by Rove) to get politically active. Many of them are end-timers (the 'left behind' books). One of the good signs of end-times is environmental devastation, which is how you get an environmental secretary who hates environmentalists and denies global warming. Another sign is a war. Many powerful people in the country actually believe this. Bush is only the current occupant; it could be anyone. But Bush has dropped in the polls, maybe there's another way - maybe Al Gore. And we are quietly handing over our border interests to those people. We are becoming a bloc like the EU but without the environmental and social safeguards. So we have to work with Americans of similar interests.

The notion of the global economy - based on transportation - to set up competition and lower process (and wages). Against the concept of Atlantica - concept of free trade zones. They want to take down "non-tariff barriers to trade" - such as minimum wage. They're the ones to be sacrificed for this new world. The image I have is another corridor - to take away more resources, to take away more young people. To understand that corridor, stay overnight on the Windsor-Detroit highway. It's not sustainable. But that's the model behind the language of "let's gt practical."

Re: Stephen Harper. We are non-partisan, but that doesn't mean we can't criticize governments. And I am very worried. Especially about this deep integration process. Harper is a Bush clone. I did a lot of research on him. I found extremist right wing viewpoints by him, and the National Citizen's Coalition. But all of this has been erased, but I have it all. Eg., boasting at a NCC convention that they were responsible for destroying national social programs and universality, and they would finish the job. If he gets a majority, then we will see the unfolding of the real agenda, the end of national social programs, the transfer to the provinces, we'll be Alberta-bound. Watch how he has very quietly been carving out a new role for the military (started under Martin) - to support the U.S. in Iraq - Canada in Afghanistan so the U.S. can be in Iraq. We are going to start to see a real merging of our security projects. Eg. 'safe 3rd country agreements'. The potential for us to become 'U.S.-lite' is there.

More on Maude Barlow: CBC, Writers' Union, Mother Jones, Activist Cash

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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