Privatizing Canada’s Water Infrastructure Should be an Election Issue

With the Canadian federal election just days away, it’s amazing that there’s been no media focus on the Liberals’ plan to privatize our municipal water and wastewater systems. As far as I can determine, only one alternative media site, Press Progress, has mentioned this worrisome plan, which was announced by the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) on July 15, 2019 when it agreed to provide $20 million in “innovative financing” for a public-private partnership (P3) in Mapleton, Ontario.

The Township of Mapleton is seeking a private consortium to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the municipality’s new and existing water and wastewater infrastructure for twenty years. By committing $20 million to the project, the CIB claims it “will improve the cost of project financing and attract private capital expertise while ensuring appropriate risk transfer to the private sector.” The CIB considers this a “pilot project to demonstrate new models for structuring and financing smaller municipal water and wastewater infrastructure projects.” [1]

Confusing Spin

There’s a lot of confusing jargon and spin in those statements, but the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) has cut through it with this observation: “There’s nothing new about federal programs and institutions that try to make P3s more palatable, especially to smaller municipalities. In this case, the CIB will subsidize the borrowing costs for corporations bidding on the 20-year deal … The bank is offering to lend the private sector money at a lower rate than corporations could get on their own. Details about the loan terms are blacked-out in public documents about the deal.” [2]

While the Township of Mapleton will still retain ownership of the core assets, the consortium that wins the contract will obtain a secure stream of profits from operating and maintaining the system for the next twenty years. No doubt, rates to homeowners will have to rise, as the consortium will want a solid return on its investment.

So what is this “new model” for structuring and financing such projects? We taxpayers will subsidize the borrowing costs of the private sector so they can privatize the revenue stream from our water and wastewater systems. Moreover, according to CUPE, Mapleton Township will have to pay back the $20 million to the CIB. [3]

In other words, the Canada Infrastructure Bank is hoping to prove that not only is there a sucker born every minute, but most of them live right here in Canada.

Breaking New Ground?

As CUPE President Mark Hancock told Press Progress,

“We’re very concerned this could be the start of a bigger push to privatize Canadian water and wastewater services.” [4]

That concern is shared by the Council of Canadians, which recently stated:

“One challenge to the commitment to public water services is governments’ growing reliance on public-private partnerships (P3s). The Canadian government is imposing new and higher standards on municipal wastewater treatment across the country – which is a good thing for water safety. However, it appears the only funding for this is through the Canadian Infrastructure Bank, which is run by corporations and promotes P3s. The changes from the new regulations must be in place by 2020, limiting municipal governments’ options to choose public solutions.” [5]

The Canada Infrastructure Bank (widely known as the “privatization bank”) is apparently keen to open up this sector for corporate profits. As CUPE notes,

“The CIB’s mandate is clear. It’s trying to break new ground in a sector where there are very few P3s. In 2016, Statistics Canada reported that municipal and regional governments owned 3,400 water and wastewater facilities. Fewer than 20 municipalities have privatized their systems through some form of P3. The bank is zeroing in on the smallest communities, and is using Mapleton township as a pilot project.” [6]

The business case for the Mapleton project was presented to the town council by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the top global consultants that facilitate P3s. Not surprisingly, PwC recommended the CIB’s financing model.

With municipalities struggling financially across the country, and with many water and wastewater systems in need of upgrading, refurbishment, or outright creation, no doubt the private sector is thrilled about the new “innovative financing” from the CIB.

Just weeks after the CIB announcement about Mapleton Township, Google parent company Alphabet Inc. and affiliate Sidewalk Labs announced in August 2019 that they are partnering with the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan to launch a new company that invests in North American infrastructure. The new company, Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, will operate and invest in five areas, including “water and waste”. [7]

MORE

NOTES:

[1] “Canada Infrastructure Bank Announces up to $20 Million Investment Commitment in Mapleton Water and Wastewater Project,” Canada Infrastructure Bank, July 15, 2019.

[2] “Infrastructure bank targets local water systems,” Canadian Union of Public Employees, July 19, 2019.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “The Liberal Government Says It’s Looking to Privatize Municipal Water Systems Across Canada,” Press Progress, August 6, 2019.

[5]”Whose Water is it, Anyway? book tour brings idea of Blue Communities across Canada,” Council of Canadians, September 25, 2019.

[6] “Infrastructure bank targets local water systems,” op cit.

[7] The Canadian Press, “Sidewalk Labs and Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan to launch infrastructure company,” CBC News, August 29, 2019.

Blaine Higgs’ populism undermined by his hardline stance towards labour


File photo of Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, part of CUPE. Photo by Stephen MacGillivray

Despite his folksy charm, Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs has shown scant sympathy for New Brunswick’s workers in a simmering labour dispute he inherited. Higgs’s hard line stems from a belief that his government is broke — but it also resembles the hardball approach Irving Oil took toward its refinery workers back in 1994-96, when Higgs was an executive at the company.

The current contretemps came to a head this past May, when Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, which represents 4,100 mostly female nursing home workers at 46 provincially financed retirement homes, angrily confronted Higgs, shouting at him during a media scrum in the legislature.

Teare was ticked off because her union, part of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), has spent two and a half years attempting to get a new collective agreement from an indifferent government.

She is unrepentant about challenging Higgs. “He wanted me banned from the legislature” after the confrontation, she said, shaking her head.

Her members get paid $18 to $24 an hour and work in often difficult circumstances, including chronic understaffing, added Teare. “Physically, emotionally and mentally, we are depleted,” she said.

CUPE workers protesting outside the offices of New Brunswick’s minister of social development in May 2019. Photo courtesy CUPE
Nursing home standoff caused by 2009 law

The roots of the labour dispute go back to 2009, when the province passed a law greatly restricting the ability of nursing home workers to strike. In the following years, the government increased wages by just one per cent per annum. With the cost of living rising 15.5 per cent since 2011, the buying power of nursing home workers has fallen 7.5 per cent.

Last year, a provincial labour board said the workers’ charter rights had been violated by the 2009 law. But the Higgs government rushed to court to prevent a walkout, while also refusing to send the matter to binding arbitration.

A week before her confrontation with Higgs at the legislature, Teare met privately with Higgs to see if they could resolve matters. But this meeting only occurred after CUPE occupied the constituency offices of eight cabinet ministers and organized a three-day sit-in outside the offices of the minister of social development.

Teare says Higgs listened to her and was respectful, but also told her “I cannot move off the ones,” meaning he wouldn’t consider a wage increase of more than one per cent per year. CUPE is seeking an increase above the cost of living. “He is not open,” Teare said. “He will talk to you and look at you when he is speaking and acknowledge your words, but he is taking a business approach to health care.”

Higgs’ refusal to budge led all three opposition parties to hold a vote in late May, asking the government to enter binding arbitration. Higgs didn’t blink, baiting the opposition to force an election over the issue, perhaps confident in his standing in the polls. The courts, meanwhile, have ordered the province to rewrite the 2009 law by this winter.

Higgs cut budget to pay down debt

Higgs’ position on wages is part and parcel of his goal of balancing the budget. New Brunswick is paying nearly $700 million in annual interest payments on its $14-billion debt load — one face of a province that lags on almost any socioeconomic indicator you care to name, except for the spectacular wealth of one family: the Irvings.

This year, Higgs cut $265 million from the provincial budget to help pay down debt, which is falling for the first time in more than a decade. However, this accomplishment was assisted by a $185-million increase in federal transfer payments from the Trudeau government — the very government the fossil-fuel-friendly Higgs hopes will lose in this fall’s federal election.

This makes it ironic that Higgs has cozied up to Alberta’s new premier, Jason Kenney, since Kenney has demanded the end of transfer payments from provinces such as Alberta to provinces such as New Brunswick. (Higgs has said in the past that he too would like to see transfer payments cut.)

Overall, Higgs chopped payments to child welfare, disability support services, income security, housing services, wellness programs and training programs for nurses. He postponed a planned museum in Saint John, withdrew support for the 2021 Jeux de la Francophonie (Francophonie Games) and delayed the upgrading of a dangerous highway.

But his most controversial cut was a program offering free university tuition to low-income students. “Wherever I go, especially in poorer places in New Brunswick, people are coming up to me and literally telling me because of that [decision], my son or my daughter is not going to be able to go to school,” Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said.  MORE

The Canadian Green New Deal and migrant justice

Image: kai kalhh/Pixabay

The Canadian Green New Deal movement is picking up steam, as prominent activists join forces with over 80 organizations to demand radical change.

On June 11, Indigenous lawyer Pam Palmater and journalist Naomi Klein were two of the speakers at a Green New Deal town hall in Toronto. More town halls are planned in the next few weeks, with an open invitation to organize events to anyone committed to building the movement.

Instead of implementing temperate solutions such as the carbon tax, the Canadian Green New Deal calls for an economy that redistributes wealth and resources to benefit the vast majority of the population while drastically reducing emissions.

That translates into transformative action on “systems of transit, energy, housing, agriculture, and public services” as well as addressing migrant justice.

“The migrant labour piece needs to be central in that,” says Karen Cocq, an organizer with the labour-advocacy group Fight for $15 and Fairness.

Alongside multiple unions such as CUPE, the Green New Deal coalition includes labour advocacy groups including Migrant Rights Alliance for Change.

Cocq emphasizes solidarity with Indigenous peoples in Canada and abroad who have been displaced due to corporate extractivism, leading to disruption and forced migration. MORE