The social effects of extreme weather for the homeless, the poor, the elderly and the colonized, in the cities and on the roads; the abnegation of social responsibility and the public interest by the media and governments shows the need for empowerment. “When tragedies do occur, the monopoly media focuses on the technical mechanics of the disaster, excluding who should be held accountable, how the concerns and campaigns of the community were dealt with or ignored, and the response of the public bodies” | TONY SEED
(December 30, updated January 5) – According to the CBC, the main “news” and social consequences of the record extreme cold weather seems to be the status of outdoor civic New Year’s parties, the condition of the ice on a short-term, multi-million dollar outdoor rink erected on Parliament Hill, polar bear dips, and an outdoor World Junior hockey game between Canada and the U.S. in Buffalo on Friday December 28th.
A fiery crash of a tractor trailer truck on the QEW (pictured above) that shut down the Niagara bound lanes near Bartlett Ave. in Grimsby was reported merely as a freak obstacle or an inconvenient “long delay” to the many Canadians heading to the game. While no one was hurt this time, the damage to the highway was extensive and will take time to repair.
One CBC anchor, Hanna Thibodeau, joked with meteorologist David Phillips as to whether Russia was to blame for the Arctic front.
In seeming contrast, CBC published on December 29 a long photo feature titled “Toronto has officially frozen over. See it here in all its icy glory” highlighting the beauty of a nature that is benign. The kicker called on readers to “Take in the stunning sights of the city during the deep freeze.” (The photos were submitted.)
As 2017 ends, the working people face a media onslaught about what is going on in Canada and around the world, of which the weather occupies one sphere. We think that a sober approach going into 2018 is of importance.
The threats from extreme weather to homeless people and the elderly, the poor and the colonised apparently do not exist according to this media.
I wrote recently that when an extreme weather event strikes, the reporting of the monopoly media proceeds from the premise of the insurance companies: it decontextualizes and portrays it as a supernatural “act of God” or “human error” – a natural disaster divorced from the social conditions made by man. When the “news” tells us “what’s happening with the weather,” those potentially cataclysmic developments are not mentioned. “Weather” is defined in a limited way: cloudy and clear, cold and warm. The weather is reported the way bourgeois politics is reported: isolated daily particulars unconnected to the larger structural, socio-economic and meteorological forces that help create them. People are meant to turn their backs on science and technology because nature is out of their control and they can do nothing about it.
This media is not proactive, preparing articles to convey essential and helpful information to assist people to cope in advance. Too many honest journalists are divorced from the people and their problems and concerns.
When tragedies do occur, the monopoly media is reactive, focusing on the technical mechanics of the disaster, excluding who should be held accountable, how the concerns and campaigns of the community were dealt with or ignored, and the response of the public bodies.
On December 30, for example, a CBC item from New Brunswick titled “3 people in critical condition after carbon monoxide leak in Saint John” reported that “30 people were evacuated from townhouses after carbon monoxide alarm was reported to police by a neighbour.” And that essentially was that.
Every natural disaster is unique – be hurricanes, typhoons or extreme cold – but similar in its social consequences and response by the state and this media. During the fall hurricanes, the main preoccupation of the Canadian monopoly media and the state broadcaster was with Canadian tourists stranded in Florida and the Caribbean and not the massive humanitarian crisis that was developing. This has been the norm for as long as I have been writing on this question (e.g. see here and here). Instead of an internationalist approach of providing assistance to all the small Caribbean islands that were affected, the disaster relief mounted by the Canadian Forces was directed to islands that are still European colonies such as Martinique and Bermuda, i.e., strategic possessions of NATO colonial powers. As New Years approaches, over 660,000 Puerto Ricans are still without power as part of the social devastation since the Maria and Irma hurricanes in September. The interests of the most economically powerful are always a pressing consideration; the public interest is never a consideration.
Disaster and tragedy in the Bronx
CBC, citing the New York fire chief, blamed a fire that ripped through an apartment building on December 28 in one of the poorest districts of New York on a three-year-old and the mother – as if all social classes enjoy uniform standards of home heating. The inferno killed 12 people, including a 1-year-old child, with four others critically injured. Our heartfelt condolences to all those who have lost family, friends and neighbours in this tragedy, and our sympathy to all those who have been affected and traumatised. Our thoughts are also with the firefighters who had to heroically cope with the immensity of the tragedy under very difficult circumstances. Our solidarity also goes out to the local people and other volunteers that stepped in to do the work which by right is the responsibility of the public authorities.
Those affected were a cross-section of the city’s immigrant class, newcomers from West Africa, the West Indies and Latin America. The CBC’s story from the Thompson Reuters agency was titled “Bronx apartment building fire that killed 12 caused by a child playing with stove.” Way down the story, at the end, it acknowledged, “The building, with 26 apartments, has at least six open building code violations, according to city records. One violation was for a broken smoke detector in an apartment on the first floor that was reported in August… Self-closing doors, which swing shut on their own to keep fires from spreading, were also supposed to have been installed…” People are blamed for their own conditions as it was all simply a horrible accident caused by carelessness, or, as suggested by the report of the three-year-old playing with the stove, parental irresponsibility. Public authority played fast and loose with residents’ lives and safety. This is criminal. It is clear that the fire spread rapidly up the building, people were blocked on the stairwells from evacuating, and the concerns which have been raised over recent renovations and the lack of fire safety measures in place are proving well-founded.
Another report informs that “the apartment building is just over a century old, its construction dating to 1916. According to public records, the building was sold by the city in December 1983 for about $31,000 after having been seized for nonpayment of back taxes. The brick building was not equipped with sprinklers and had been reported for several safety and building violations in recent years.” The social irresponsibility and the criminal negligence of the ruling elite that led to this tragedy must be condemned.
Eight thousand New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents were without heat by midday January 3. Heating systems in five public housing developments were shut down completely, according to city records, with some residents having lived in these bone-chilling conditions for days.
Home fires and electricity
The record cold weather is bringing with it an increased number of deadly house fires across the US. “In New York over just the last several days – in Harlem, the upper Manhattan area near Van Cortlandt Park, and the West Farms neighbourhood in the Bronx – three other major fires, while not resulting in deaths or life-threatening injuries, required up to 100 firefighters to subdue and led to homelessness for dozens of families,” the wsws.org website reports.
Electricity seems to equal heat. Every week across Canada, eight people die in house fires, the primary cause of which is defective electrical wiring. Inevitably the onset of the winter heating season sees an increase in the loss of life and debilitating injuries. The poor condition of many older houses, older farm houses, mobile homes converted into permanent shelter in rural areas (forming whole suburbs in some outlying areas of the Maritimes), and apartments is generally characterized by inadequate insulation, wiring, or improperly maintained or non-functioning central heating systems, often the result of strained budgets. People are forced to use less safe, alternative heating methods such as space heaters or even stove ovens. The risk of cooking fires skyrockets at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In addition, ice storms, freezing rain and heavy snow accumulation inevitably bring down power lines. The main transmission lines of provincial grids cross paths cleared from the forests, but many local feeder lines in rural areas do not; many pass through wooded areas to poles along county roads and lanes and are particularly vulnerable. Outages may be frequent.
Peter Zimmer pointed to a basic flaw in an article in Shunpiking Magazine: “The experts said: accumulations of freezing rain exceeding 40 mm in thickness might occur perhaps once in a hundred years in any particular location, so if we design our transmission systems for the weight of 70 mm of ice on our power lines and pylons we’re sure to be safe. That allows for three times the weight of the expected worst case. And then freezing rain fell for an unprecedented five days over an area bigger than ever seen before on this continent, and the ice grew to 100 mm thick on wires and branches and roofs, and the lines and the poles and some of the roofs and some of the trees came down. And stayed down for hundreds of thousands homes for weeks.” (Peter Zimmer, “Thinking about heating a Canadian home,” Shunpiking Magazine)
He adds that even your oil- or wood- or solar- or gas-fueled heating system won’t work without electricity to pump fuel in and/or to blow or pump heat to where you want it. You’re 100 per cent dependent in your house. A decent generator to power small motors (fans, pumps, etc.) on your oil, gas, solar or wood furnace or space heaters, and a few lights, and a stereo and fridge runs $1,000 and north. Nevertheless, simply using a generator in the Ice Storm of 1998 proved hazardous for some – carbon monoxide gas killed some Quebecois whose generator’s exhaust did not get safely outside their home. And many generators broke down as continuous use and heavy loads stretched to weeks.
Read more: Peter Zimmer, “Thinking about heating a Canadian home,” Shunpiking Magazine
Hundreds of thousands of people live in desperate housing conditions in Canada and the USA, many failing to keep pace with spiralling rents as private landlords capitalize on the acute housing shortage, not to mention soaring utility rates and the price of home heating oil, which has increased by 20 per cent since the onset of the extreme cold. The US Department of Energy is predicting that this winter’s energy costs will rise by 8 per cent for electricity, 12 per cent for natural gas, and 17 per cent for home heating oil. The main reason given for a hike in energy bills is the record cold temperatures.
A rise in energy costs will undoubtedly lead to an increase in house fires, as more households are unable to afford the energy bills and resort to less safe alternative heating methods such as space heaters. As of the end of 2017, 2,152 people had perished in house fires across the US. The victims were overwhelmingly poor and working class.
Luckier workers waste their lives paying mortgages that in many instances account for half the family income, hoping to be “home owners” by the time the state comes to sell their property to pay for their care home costs. Cutting funds to local authorities and public services including fire protection, and red tape around health and safety regulations, combined with deep social inequalities threaten to produce terrible human tragedies with major political repercussions.
Mortal threat to the Indigenous People
For the more than 328,000 Indigenous people who live on reserve, the chances of dying in a house fire are 10.4 times higher than in the rest of the country, according to a 2007 Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. report, compiled when the federal government was still collecting such data.
A Toronto Star investigation found that at least 173 people have died in fires in Indigenous communities across the country since the government stopped tracking the deaths seven years ago. At least 25 of them are children.Most fires have taken place during winter. The federal government doesn’t even know the death toll of these fires because it stopped keeping track of on-reserve fire fatalities in 2010; out of sight, out of mind. “Though the factors contributing to these deaths are numerous and complex, many of the homes that burned to the ground — with people inside them — did not meet basic building or fire code requirements. Many didn’t have a working smoke detector.” 
Ontario regional Chief Isadore Day of the Serpent River First Nation told the Star that, by not tracking fire-related deaths of the Indigenous communities, “the government is saying First Nation lives don’t matter.”
“These deaths are preventable deaths,” he told the Star. “The fact that the government wants to walk away from examining them and investing in solutions, while they say there’s no more important relationship than the one we have with indigenous people, is totally contradictory.”
In a 2014 government survey, which included responses from 78 First Nations, about four per cent said their fire halls were “non-operational.” Nearly 20 per cent described fire hall operations and maintenance conditions as “poor.” More than half said their water supply couldn’t be relied on to fight fires as the pressure was inadequate, the Star journalists inform.
Nevertheless, the Indigenous people have resisted and are demanding answers. In addition to proper equipment to fight fires, Indigenous leaders have been calling for years for mandatory adherence to building and fire codes, which would help ensure people are sleeping in safe houses. In fact, it is clear that they themselves have the answers, but wish to have justice. What they are coming up against is the private interests in cut-throat contention with each other who see no authority but their own self-serving drive for profit, and let the devil take the hind-most.
The series further revealed how the Trudeau Liberals has sat on reports even from its own ministers which have drawn attention to the stark dangers which were lurking, and demanding that the government take action. According to the Toronto Star:
“They also want a First Nations fire marshal’s office that would be responsible for collecting data on fatal house fires, and overseeing fire inspections, investigations, education and outreach in First Nations communities.
“In a letter to her predecessor in 2013, then Liberal Indigenous Affairs critic Carolyn Bennett called fires on First Nations reserves a “public safety crisis” and urged Indigenous Affairs to implement the long-sought recommendations.
“After more than a year in power, the Liberals have not enacted any of the recommendations from the 2013 letter.”
Indeed, it can be said that the government has the aim of covering over and burying these crucial issues.
Callous devastation of the homeless
The most vulnerable of the society are bearing the brunt of the extreme cold, the denial of social housing and the right to food, clothing and shelter.
Numerous deaths due to hypothermia in London, Ontario; Chicago; Cincinnati, Ohio; Rapid City, South Dakota; and Ogden, Utah over the Christmas holiday period are regarded as isolated accidents. Two fires in eastern Iowa killed nine people, including four children, bringing the total number of fire deaths in 2017 in Iowa to 51, the highest level in more than a decade.
In the US, the federal government does not even track weather-related deaths nationally. NBC News reports that the sustained period of brutally cold weather has claimed the lives of at least 20 people in the US since December 26. The cold wave has taken at least 11 lives in the past 24 hours, as of January 5th, according to CNN, including five in Wisconsin, four in Texas, and one each in North Dakota and Missouri.
City after city across the United States as well as Canada has reported record annual death tolls among the homeless. In Los Angeles, where there are there are 20,000 people living on the streets in its downtown Skid Row alone, 805 homeless have died, up from 719 in 2016. The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty visited this area as part of his recent tour of high-poverty areas in the United States, and cited it as part of his report, which concluded that for many millions of people, “The American Dream is the American Illusion.”
In New York, the wealthiest city in the USA, 60,000 people spend each night in homeless shelters and thousands more on the streets.
On December 4, two social workers authored an op ed in the Toronto Star and reported that “more than 5,000 people access shelters each night and many more precariously housed or on the streets,” prompting the Toronto city council to debate the declaration of an emergency. Demands were raised for the federal government to open the Moss Park Armouries to provide shelter. In this “debate,” those most affected were neither involved nor consulted, and in fact excluded from participation in setting the terms of reference, from voicing their concerns, and from putting forward the crucial issues which are affecting their lives.
The housing crisis in Canada, amongst many other problems and social diseases, is profound. “There are estimated to be 181,000 people on the housing waitlist. At least 230,000 people will experience homelessness each year in Canada,” the social workers write.
“That’s a staggering number and it has staggering consequences. In the first eight months of this year alone, according to Toronto Public Health, over 70 homeless people have died, a number that is likely an underestimate but which exceeds the city’s murder rate. Homelessness is among the leading causes of avoidable loss of life. More than half of those who have died in Toronto this year were younger than 48, a shocking reflection of the adversity faced by people without a home.”
Toronto has become a city for capital not people. It builds for Google, Amazon, financial transactions and luxury condos, not for homes. There is a strong sense that poor people matter less in a city run for the rich; they are regarded as a cost.
A brief CBC item on December 28th highlighted the benevolent role of the state; Toronto’s municipal government is funding a new winter respite shelter for the homeless. It “is now doing exactly what the city intended: keeping people out of dangerously low temperatures…People sleeping on the streets have no protection from the wicked weather that chilled Toronto on Tuesday, and getting them inside is the shelter’s first priority.”
There is no sense of an emergency; faces and voices of the homeless do not appear in this article – only statistics and a warning from the director that it will be overfilled in a few days. The shelter is a private agency formed to do such humanitarian work, which by right is the responsibility of the public authorities. It has but 100 cots, 50 of which were occupied within days, and as the news item acknowledges, is located in Exhibition Park, a peripheral area of the city accessible only by bus. An order from the Trudeau government to open the Moss Park Armoury to provide additional emergency shelter of 100 beds was only given on January 5th – one month later. The callous indifference of the state is indicated by Toronto Mayor John Tory’s acknowledgement that the number of the homeless has increased by 35 per cent in one year.
In the US, the homeless census on a night in January 2017 counted 40,056 veterans unsheltered, according to a new report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development cited by wsws.org. “The number of homeless vets increased by 1.5 per cent from January 2016 to January 2017. On December 1, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin announced he was gutting a $460 million program dedicated to veteran homelessness, telling the Military Times that he did not believe it was practical to aim for zero veteran homelessness. Shulkin reversed his position a few days later after an outcry from veterans’ advocates.”
Deterioration of and disasters on the roads
Cold weather contributes to treacherous driving conditions. The danger from ice accumulation on the roads is augmented by blowing or drifting show. Vicious whiteouts caused by lake effect snow squalls suddenly envelopes several provincial highways in Southern Ontario, leading to multiple vehicle collisions and pile-ups such as the 96-car-and-tractor trailer doozy on the 400 Hwy that occurred February 27, 2014 outside Innisfils, south of Barrie, with moisture creating blinding driving conditions. I have written on this event before at some length here:
“Such squalls are common in southern Ontario, which is relatively flat and surrounded by the Great Lakes. The influence of auto exhaust, industrial air pollution, and other fossil fuel emissions acting like a blanket to create and trap heat close to the earth’s surface, causing it to warm, on lake effect is beyond me to explain for now.
As with social ills, whiteouts can be limited or prevented; hence the consequences are a government-made disaster, compromising public authority by its failure to uphold the norms and principles of the rights of all:
“During the 1990s, which is not some ancient history, the Harris provincial government privatized the maintenance of the 400 series of highways and sold the 407 ETR toll highway to private interest, amongst other public assets such as Service Ontario and hydro/energy, which slashed the number of work crews available to emergencies, the consequence of which was seen in during the 2014 winter in Toronto where residents suffered without power for up to two weeks. The highways were part of the infrastructure across Canada that was being privatized, to the extent that provincial ministers even examined a project to convert the Trans Canada Highway into a toll highway operated by private monopolies. Toll highways in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and a toll bridge to Prince Edward Island were constructed through “public-private partnerships”. The Cobequid Bypass in Nova Scotia – part of the country’s Trans Canada Highway – is a toll highway now owned by a US financial conglomerate based in New Jersey. Numerous mass crashes have taken place in winter conditions; this foreign monopoly has no responsibility for maintenance. In Ontario, upkeep of the highways was contracted out to private contractors, who stated they could never maintain the same level of service as the Ministry of Transport. The building of windbreaks along provincial and county highways was severely cut back.”
Defend public right, not monopoly right
The provision of social housing, the right to food, clothing and shelter are basic conditions of a modern society. What all these tragic effects of extreme weather is bringing home is that the people must have the power which belongs to them by right, and which they must take into their own hands. A system which does not base itself on democratic principles can be manipulated and subordinated to private interests in the blink of an eye.
To take one example, the Trudeau Liberals have put this plan to privatize the national infrastructure from the late 1990s back on the agenda. Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s ballyhooed National Infrastructure Bank of $40 billion “investment” funds is a mechanism of those who have dismantled the public authority and handed over the state institutions directly to monopoly interests. The pay-the-rich plan originate from the Advisory Council on Economic Growth and was drafted by the US oligopoly McKinsey & Co., whose CEO, Dominic Barton, is at the same time chair of this council. According to Macleans, citing the Department of Finance, McKinsey’s “consultants are providing the council, which has no budget of its own, with “research, analysis and administration’ – all for free.”
Instead of the federal government building infrastructure such as safe highways suitable to the Canadian climactic conditions, a giant subsidy is to be created with pubic funds for private developers and investors, who would also receive generous tax credits and retain ownership; private bridges, private highways, private railroads, ports and airports. The public may even be charged another time – tolls and fees to use them. Trudeau’s plan means that, in place of public roads and bridges, Canadians will have private roads and bridges. U.S. president Donald Trump has a similar plan for the USA. Neither of the plans include providing public housing.
Infrastructure investments and the privatization of rail, ports and airports is the latest panacea of governments waging the anti-social, neo-liberal offensive. This, not Arctic Air, is the danger to be addressed by the united action of the people to uphold public right, not monopoly right. The handful of such monopolies use their ownership of the main means of production and control over the government to pass self-serving legislation and budgets.
It is up to Canadians to turn this around. People are very concerned and deeply want a pro-social government. The claims of the people should be put in first place. Expenditures on social programs such as health, education, welfare, social insurance, public housing, and pensions must be regarded as investments, not costs. The media and governments refuse to address the real problems that the people are facing including the crisis of social housing, food, clothing and shelter — both the cause and the solution – and instead take refuge in mantras, phrases and billion dollar promises. They avoid taking social responsibility for their own actions and the impact they have in the creation of these problems. Their security agenda means disaster for the people in the same breath as it means disaster for the world’s people. These governments must be held to account.
The working class and people as a whole must join with the most vulnerable in the fight for the rights of all, in which the security of the people lies.
For a Modern Canada that Defends the Rights of All – All Out to Build the New!
With files from TML Daily, Shunpiking magazine and wsws.org
“Fire and death in Canada’s First Nations,” Toronto Star – Excerpt:
1. In 2013, community members in Wunnumin Lake First Nation in northern Ontario had to watch a fire kill three people, two of them children. The community had no fire services.
Two-month-old Errabella Angel Harper died in a house fire in St. Theresa Point in Manitoba in 2011 where virtually everything that could go wrong did. The house was crowded, it had no smoke detector or fire extinguishers, it was not in a 911 coverage area and the community’s fire truck was not operational.
In 2014, the night four people died in a fire in Mishkeegogamang, the First Nation’s fire truck was frozen because there wasn’t a heated building to store it. In the months that followed, the community was so devastated that there were 60 airlifts scheduled for people in need of substance and addiction treatment.
Residents in Pikangikum, the fly-in community 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, are still grappling with the loss of nine people in a single fire last year.
On March 29, 2016, around midnight, Amanda Sainnawap-Peters got a frantic phone call in Thunder Bay from her brother in Pikangikum. Her sister Sylvia was missing.
“I can’t find her,” he told Sainnawap-Peters. “There’s a house on fire, and I can’t find Sylvia.”
Police were on the scene within five minutes, but there was nothing they could do. Flames were already shooting out of the home’s north window.
Pikangikum’s only fire truck did not have water in it when the call came in. Roley Peters, the reserve’s fire chief and only firefighter, struggled to get the truck over roads so buckled by frost heaves that fire investigators later called them “nearly impassable”.
By Toronto Star, February 24, 2017. Part one of a three-part series.and “Fire and death in Canada’s First Nations,”
US monopoly’s defective products
Meanwhile, approximately 2.7 million US Kidde brand fire extinguishers have been recalled in Canada as part of a massive recall of 40 million devices in North America. Fire extinguishers are small canisters that contain compressed gas (usually nitrogen) that, when activated, propel a directed spray of flame-retardant chemicals. The danger posed by these devices has been covered up for 44 years.
The US Consumer Product Safety Commission says 37.8 million fire extinguishers might not work during an emergency. Some of them were included in prior recalls in March 2009 and February 2015, while others were sold more recently. “This recall raises very serious questions about how millions of defective products ended up in the marketplace and why it took the company years or even decades to find out about the problem or take it seriously,” says William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports. The faulty fire extinguishers, even those push button pindicator models, were distributed by the big online retailers and hardware stores, including Sears, The Home Depot, Walmart and Amazon.
The Kidde monopoly had received one report of a related death in 2014, when a fire extinguisher failed to work during a car fire. In fact, it was only when the family of a 23-year-old young man who died took the Kidde corporation to court has there been any action. Furthermore, the Kidde corporation seems to have been granted immunity from prosecution by the US and Canadian governments.
There have been 16 injuries, 91 reports of property damage, and 391 reports of the extinguishers either not working at all or not working properly. But the numbers don’t stop there. The recall includes 134 models manufactured as far back as 1973 – 44 years – and as recently as August 2017. All the units have a plastic handle or plastic push button. Units with a metal handle or valve assembly are not included in the recall. The plastic handles and buttons can break or detach when force is applied, says Consumer Reports.
The danger of using these defective products extends to mobile homes. On December 28, Jayco announced a recall of 49,000 model year 2002-2016 RVs equipped with Kidde Plastic-Handle or Push Button ‘Pindicator’ Fire Extinguishers.