- Avi Lewis
Host of On the Map, a new international affairs news and analysis show on CBC Newsworld in Canada. He is also a documentary filmmaker and co-wrote the preface to a new book on Argentina’s worker-run factories with Naomi Klein. The book is called Sin Patron: Stories from Argentina’s Worker-Run Factories.
Beginning on August 20, thousands of activists plan to converge in Montebello, Quebec, to protest a meeting between President Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Canadian broadcaster Avi Lewis discusses the Security and Prosperity Partnership and its connection to the rendition of Maher Arar. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Avi Lewis is the host of a new international news analysis show on a mainstream Canadian television channel, CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. This unapologetically politically progressive daily show is called On the Map. Avi is also an author and a documentary filmmaker. Earlier this summer, he, along with award-winning journalist Naomi Klein, co-wrote the forward to a new book on the inside story of Argentina’s remarkable movement to create worker-run factories.
AMY GOODMAN: Sin Patron: Stories from Argentina’s Worker-Run Factories was published by Haymarket Books in June. The book was compiled by Lavaca, an Argentine editorial and activist collective. Three years ago, Avi and Naomi had worked together to produce The Take, a documentary about the workers in Argentina’s reclaimed spaces.
Avi Lewis now joins us in our firehouse studio to talk about corporate media, to talk about independent media, to talk about doing independent documentaries, and also talk about this late breaking news about around Maher Arar that we read in headlines, which is the story of this Canadian citizen — and you can tell us the rest — who came to our country, the United States, JFK Airport, and was sent off to Syria by U.S. authorities.
AVI LEWIS: This news is astonishing. And when — you’ve done great coverage here on Democracy Now! of Maher Arar’s case, and it gripped Canada for months and months on end as this commission went forward and tried to get to the bottom of what happened. Of course, he was completely exonerated. He was given an apology and a settlement, the biggest settlement we’ve ever seen for any case like this.
AMY GOODMAN: It was something like $10 million?
AVI LEWIS: $12.5 million in Canadian terms at that time, but let’s not get confused with the exchange rate. It was over $10 million. When they released the commission report, there were 1,500 words that were blacked out that the government said, "National security, we can’t let the public see these words." And yesterday, those — the black was removed from most of those words. And what we know now is that it was what we always suspected: It was absolutely a case of CIA rendition. There was a rented Gulfstream jet and everything. Canadian authorities knew within two days of Maher Arar’s rendition that he was likely to be tortured in Syria. This is really some of the smoking gun material, in terms of the integration and harmonization of Canadian and U.S. security approaches after 9/11.
But there’s another part of the story that is not going to be told in the mainstream coverage, and it’s part of a broader context of integration which has been happening since 9/11 in the NAFTA countries. There’s something called the Security and Prosperity Partnership. And in 10 days, the leaders of the three NAFTA countries will be gathering in 10 days in Montebello, Quebec, to meet at the latest summit around integration. The SPP has been called NAFTA on steroids. It’s a deep integration project that reaches into every aspect of policy, health and immigration and food safety. It’s about access to the tar sands in Alberta, this massive and dirty source of energy. And it’s happening without any public debate, like NAFTA. It’s happening without any legislation, all at the level of regulation and bureaucratic harmonization. Two weeks —
JUAN GONZALEZ: In other words, what you’re saying is that there won’t —- this won’t be another treaty that will have to be approved by the various parliaments or -—
AMY GOODMAN: Elected bodies?
JUAN GONZALEZ: — elected bodies of the governments?
AVI LEWIS: Precisely. And it’s actually been designed that way. And various declassified documents from the SPP meetings over the last couple of years have specifically said that the time is not right for another big public debate, and this should be done by stealth.
The connection between the SPP and Maher Arar is a really deep one. Two weeks after 9/11, the head of the business lobby in Canada, a guy named Tom d’Aquino, called immediately for deep harmonization and integration of U.S. and Canadian policies in order to keep the border open and the trade flowing. Two months later, without any debate or without any legislative debate or really public involvement, they announced this "smart border" initiative for harmonizing the border. And, well, you know, it was a piece of spin, the "smart border" initiative. Nine months later, they announced that they had synchronized and harmonized Canada and the U.S.'s approach to passenger screening of international passengers. And one year after 9/11, based on that precise harmonization, Maher Arar was taken and subjected to extraordinary rendition and began his yearlong odyssey in hell in a Syrian prison. So the connection between this mobilization that's going on in 10 days in Quebec around the SPP and the situation of Maher Arar is one that won’t be made broadly in Canadian or U.S. media. But for people who care about sovereignty of nations and civil liberties, it’s at the heart of it all.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But I’d like to get back to whether they can legally do this, given the fact that, by your description of it, this would require all kinds of federal agencies at all levels with these governments to implement new rules of procedure, or they’d have to have a rule-making process, at least, that would bring it into the public sphere.
AVI LEWIS: Well, these discussions aren’t public, so we don’t actually know what — that’s the problem fundamentally. We don’t know what rule changes are being proposed or even being made. But they’re specifically being made at the level of regulation and not at legislation, so that they can be altered by the government without, you know, disclosure of the kind that you get when you have a full public debate around legislation.
AMY GOODMAN: Avi, this program that you’re doing — we just did this piece on high-power, on full-power FM stations and the importance of community media. We’ve been talking a lot about Rupert Murdoch, as he takes over The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Corporation. Can you talk about media consolidation in Canada and your own media moguls?
AVI LEWIS: Well, most people don’t know — I mean, I think there’s a tendency in the United States and progressive communities to have a little bit of Canada envy. And I don’t think — around issues like healthcare, I think some of it is justified. In terms of media consolidation, Canada actually has a more consolidated media environment than the United States, and this is a largely untold story. But there have been huge mergers just in the last year and a half in Canada and over the past 10 years, tremendous consolidation.
One of the big waves of it took place in the late '90s with a man named Conrad Black at the helm. Now, you folks probably know of Conrad Black, because he had a somewhat publicized fraud trial in Chicago. He was convicted on multiple counts of fraud for $3.5 million of defrauding his company. But Conrad Black in Canada is our sort of Rupert Murdoch. And I think it's something that Americans don’t really know. It was treated, to the extent that it was covered, as one of these celebrity corporate scandals.
Conrad Black in 1998 launched a newspaper called The National Post in Canada, with the explicit and stated intention of changing a political landscape of Canada. At that time, Canada had two right-wing parties. And there was a — he would really champion the campaign with this national newspaper in an unapologetic political, ideological way to unite the right in Canada. And 10 years later, we have a conservative government in Canada, because they managed to unite these two right-wing parties. And the shift in the media landscape had a very direct role in that. So Conrad Black is not just a convicted fraudster, as he’s been reported in the United States, he really is one of the architects of the neoconservative success in Canada.
AMY GOODMAN: And did that trial have any effect on him, on that power and media control in Canada?
AVI LEWIS: He sold that paper a couple of years later to some other media moguls in Canada that are even more right-wing on some issues. And I don’t think that — I mean, I think it has to do with — we need to make the connection between the ideological interest of media barons and how they play out in our public discourse, if these — in the same way that Enron needed to be seen as a policy and political phenomenon and not just a scandal. If we see them as just corruption trials, then all of a sudden they don’t have political consequences. So we have to make those connections.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what’s been the impact of media consolidation on the public space in media? Obviously, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation still exists.
AVI LEWIS: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I don’t know to what level it is still a major force in Canada.
AVI LEWIS: It’s a major force in Canada. And things like the way that we cover elections on public broadcasting in Canada, things like the way we cover things like the Arar commission, there is an independent space within public media. Now, it’s subject to huge pressures, and there are huge pressures to privatize the CBC, and there always have been. We’re constantly being told that the CBC, that we’re a hotbed of leftists by the rightwing corporate media. In fact, the CBC is a bastion of classic journalism of the old school, a very rigorous news environment.
But the CBC recognizes that as a public broadcaster it needs to represent a broad spectrum of views. So they’ll give a show to a person like me, whose politics are well known in Canada, and I’m allowed to do point-of-view journalism, where the point of view isn’t hidden or, you know, there’s no subterfuge where when a guest starts making a point that I don’t agree with, all of the sudden I go to a commercial, because, you know, the hosts resort to passive-aggressive techniques when they can’t just put their views on the table. And the CBC has right-wing hosts on some shows and some radio shows and commentators on the national news, so it’s a real spectrum that we have.
AMY GOODMAN: So what’s On the Map?
AVI LEWIS: On the Map is a show that I did in June. Cbc.ca/onthemap has an archive where all the shows that we did in June, a daily international news analysis show, they’re all archived there. And we’re going to launch it again in early 2008. And it was an attempt to cover stories that are off the map. A lot of what we do is inspired by what you guys do and have been doing for many years and to try to cover some of the critical stories of the day that for various reasons, political and otherwise, just don’t get the attention they deserve.
JUAN GONZALEZ: To get back to the issue of the CBC, for our American audience who’s not familiar with the Canadian system, how is the CBC funded? Is it subject to the same kind of political pressures, for instance, from the right-wing forces that the PBS is in this country?
AVI LEWIS: Well, first of all, I should clarify that I work at CBC Newsworld, which is our all-news network. It’s the premiere all-news network in Canada. It really is our CNN for the mainstream audience. It is not publicly funded. It survives on cable revenues. So, you know, cable subscribers pay, and cable operators pass on the revenues for CBC Newsworld. It operates completely independently of the public purse.
But CBC Radio and Television, the main networks, the terrestrial channels, are publicly funded. There’s intense independence from government interference. But there are perennial debates about, you know, how much the government is subtly sending messages to the CBC. And what the real story is, is over the past 15 years a slow starvation by cuts and cutbacks, which is increasing the arguments of those who are in favor of privatization, hobbling the CBC in its ability to cover the world the way that it always has and do programs that are real hits.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve just come out with a book on Argentine worker struggles, and that’s a companion to the documentary that you and your wife Naomi Klein did in Argentina. Can you talk about the significance of this today?
AVI LEWIS: So delighted to talk about this book. I did not — we didn’t really organize a product shot, but it’s called Sin Patron, and this is a book that — I just wrote the forward with my partner Naomi Klein. It’s a book written by the Lavaca collective about Argentina’s extraordinary movement of recovered companies.
In the economic crisis that melted down Argentina in 2001, which many of your viewers and listeners will remember, out of that uprising, as Argentina threw out presidents and had a massive upheaval of hundreds and thousands of people in the street, new social movements were born. And one of them were these workers who recovered their bankrupt companies, companies that were pushed out of business by their versions of Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch and other corporate fraudsters — actually, Murdoch hasn’t been convicted of anything; I should really take that back — who heavily indebted companies drove them out of business, took the money and ran, when the crisis hit. And these workers were left, literally in the most industrialized country in Latin America, in the strongest middle class in Latin America, all of a sudden they were left in a wasteland of abandoned factories.
And so, what workers started to do was simply get together, form cooperatives and put their factories back into operation. It’s an extraordinary movement. And six years later — seven years later for some of these companies — they’re still flourishing. They have, in some cases, complete workplace democracy. Decisions are made in assemblies, and the workers all have a single vote. They make all of their struggle decisions, their political decisions, their production decisions democratically. And they have proof that this is, you know — the managerial class in a lot of industrial settings is a huge burden on businesses. The perks and the chauffeurs and the trips and the consultants were weighing these companies down. And workers are running them very successfully, very democratically, and in solidarity with each other.
This book is an extraordinary work, because it is the definitive work on this inspiring new movement, which has really gripped the imagination of activists around the world in the past few years. And the collective, Lavaca, that wrote it are a worker cooperative inspired by the people whose stories they tell. The book is — the bulk of the book is in the words of the workers themselves.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what has happened to that workers cooperative movement once a more sympathetic or progressive government, Kirschner, came to power?
AVI LEWIS: A-ha.
JUAN GONZALEZ: What’s been the fate of that movement, continuing to thrive or develop?
AVI LEWIS: You know, in truth, the Kirschner government has not helped this movement in the slightest, and it appears to be almost entirely unaware of it. The movement has thrived without any real assistance from anything in the state in Argentina. And, in fact, the threats continue.
I mean, just this week, the Bauen Hotel, an extraordinarily symbolic place, because it was opened in 1978 by the military, under the military dictatorship, with a huge state loan from the dictatorship to a friendly businessman, a loan that was never paid back, a debt that finally crippled the business — the workers took it over in 2001. It has become a meeting place for the movement in the center of Buenos Aires, and they’ve been fighting eviction attempts for years. They started with 40 or so employees and an empty building, and they now have 150 employees and a beautiful, flourishing hotel, which is also a meeting space, which is also a space of political action. And this week they’re facing another eviction threat from a hostile city government.
The Zanon factory, the biggest ceramic tile factory in all of Latin America, which has some 450 employees now — they make something like 500,000 square meters of tile a month — are now facing another eviction threat. Despite the fact that they had a court give them a three-year mandate to run the company as a cooperative, the former owner from Italy is launching a separate attempt to get back the business that he drove under. So the movement still has to fight for every little gain that it makes. But it is flourishing.
AMY GOODMAN: Before you leave, Avi, we have to ask you about Canadian healthcare. I’m going to play a clip of Michael Moore’s SiCKO, because it has put it certainly on the map here in the United States.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We’ve got an issue in America: too many good docs are getting out of business. Too many OB/GYNs aren’t able to practice their love with women all across this country.
NARRATOR: When Michael Moore decided to make a movie on the healthcare industry, top-level executives were on the defensive. What were they hiding?
SECURITY GUARD: That’s not on, right?
MICHAEL MOORE: No.
SECURITY GUARD: OK.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The intent is to maximize profits.
MICHAEL MOORE: If you denied more people healthcare, you got a bonus?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When you do not spend money on somebody, it’s a savings to the company.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I want America to have the finest healthcare in the world.
MICHAEL MOORE: Four healthcare lobbyists for every member of Congress. Here’s what it cost to buy these men, and this woman, this guy and this guy.
And the United States slipped to 37 in healthcare around the world, just slightly ahead of Slovenia.
DR. LINDA PEENO: I denied a man a necessary operation and thus caused his death. This secured my reputation, and it ensured my continued advancement in the healthcare field.
NARRATOR: In the world’s richest country.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I work three jobs.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: You work three jobs?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic!
NARRATOR: Laughter isn’t the best medicine.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I get a bill from my insurance company telling me that the ambulance ride wasn’t pre-approved. I don’t know when I was supposed to pre-approve it. After I gained consciousness in the car, before I got in the ambulance?
NARRATOR: It’s the only medicine.
MICHAEL MOORE: There was actually one place on American soil that had free universal healthcare.
Which way to Guantanamo Bay?
REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Detainees representing a threat to our national security are given access to top-notch medical facilities.
MICHAEL MOORE: Permission to enter. I have three 9/11 rescue workers. They just want some medical attention, the same kind that the evil-doers are getting. Hello?
NARRATOR: Michael Moore’s SiCKO.
AMY GOODMAN: That, a trailer of Michael Moore’s SiCKO. It has put Canadian healthcare on the map here, and industry fighting back: "What do you mean? You want to stand on those long lines?" Avi?
AVI LEWIS: Yeah, well, you know, yeah, we do have some long wait times in the Canadian healthcare system.
AMY GOODMAN: So, do we.
AVI LEWIS: Yeah, I think you guys do, too. You know, the people who complain about waiting times are rarely the people who have had surgeries. There’s a sub-industry in Canada, too, of finding those people who have been waiting two years for a hip or whatever else. Look, the truth is that I think that Michael Moore unduly romanticizes Canada. We have a complicated, problematic healthcare system, like every country in the world. We don’t have a fully public healthcare system. There’s a huge amount of private insurance and private delivery of services in the Canadian market, the healthcare market, which is increasingly referred to as a market.
But fundamentally, we have universal coverage. And you don’t have to be rich to get sick. You know, it’s a system, which is — it really is at the heart of our national identity in Canada, and we argue about it constantly. But the fact is — like just a quick personal story: I had a huge accident when I was about twenty years old. I took a bad fall. My tibia was split in two pieces, my ankle was shattered. I had major reconstructive surgery: three plates, 24 screws, skin grafts, bone grafts. I was a month in the hospital. And when we left the hospital, they gave me a bill for $79 for a pair of crutches that wasn’t covered by public insurance. That is also the Canadian healthcare system.
But you have to say that like any public service, people of privilege, people with white skin, people of a certain socioeconomic class, have an advantage, because you have to work the system in order to get the best care. And so, definitely healthcare and its quality is racialized, and it’s a matter of class and gender, as well. But fundamentally, we have a belief in our society that we pay, you know, 35, 45 percent in personal income taxes, and we are taken care of when we fall down.
JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of the impact, not only on the individual citizen, but on companies and corporations, as well, I think one of the things that’s created the increasing debate in the United States is that major corporations now are facing huge problems in being able to pay for the healthcare insurance of their own employees. What’s been the impact in terms of companies in Canada to have this kind of healthcare system that’s basically government-subsidized?
AVI LEWIS: One of the biggest drivers of the Canadian economy is the auto industry on the Detroit-Windsor border. And for many, many years, there were two things that kept it going. One was the Auto Pact, which said if America wants to build a car in Canada, sell a car in Canada, they have to build one there. That was made illegal by NAFTA, and so we don’t have those basic trade protections and agreements anymore. But the other thing was that the Canadian healthcare system is a huge subsidy to industries, and along with a low dollar and some of those other policies that we had, Canadian healthcare was seen as — you know, made Canada a great place to invest, which is why there’s — well, but there’s also huge money at stake. And big healthcare corporations are looking at Canada’s market and just going, like, "We’ve got to get in."
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. But you can report back to us on how that all pans out.
AVI LEWIS: We’re fighting this privatization of healthcare thing in Canada.
AMY GOODMAN: Avi Lewis, host of the new CBC program On the Map, also co-wrote the preface to the new book, Sin Patron: Stories from Argentina’s Worker-Run Factories.