Since his 1965 publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, a damning assessment of North American car safety, consumer activist Ralph Nader has been a thorn in the side of U.S. corporate and political culture. Now, the Washingtonbased lawyer has turned his attention to Canada. His latest book, Canada firsts, is a compilation of more than 150 Canadian achievements in sports, industry, social policy and other fields. Last month, Nader,
58, also appeared before a parliamentary committee in Ottawa to testify against the Conservative government’s Bill C-91, now before the Senate. That legislation will end Canada’s system of compulsory licensing, which allows for the production of cheaper, generic drugs up to 13 years before the expiry of a drug company’s 20-year patent.
An outspoken critic of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, as well as American presidentelect Bill Clinton and the North American Free Trade Agreement, Nader recently spoke with Maclean’s Assistant Editor Joe Chidley in Toronto. Excerpts.-
required for a country to continue to innovate from a self-determined base, rather than from an international downward harmonization process as represented by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and other international trade agreements. Maclean’s: What Canadian achievements impress you most?
Maclean’s: What made you decide to write Canada firsts ?
Nader: In the United States, we’re in a big fight over national health care, and in the past we’ve been struggling for a variety of improvements. Whenever we can point to Canada as a model to operate on, our case is strengthened. In that sense, the United States has needed Canada over the years. As far
as Canada goes, this came out -
of a realization I had in addressing Canadian audiences that they don’t know very much about Canadian achievements.
Maclean’s: Why is that important?
Nader: Canada is going through the throes of a crisis: should it be one united country? The transcontinental railroad has been ruptured and you’ve got the separatist movement— apart from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, it is hard to see what is keeping the country together. But when you go through the history of Canada, you realize that the independence of the country was related to its originality and creativity. So this book is an attempt to start a discussion about what kind of society is
Nader: The tremendous advances and quality of the National Film Board—the first documentary on auto safety was done by the NFB. National health insurance. Compulsory drug licensing—until very soon. Credit unions. Adult education. Consumer co-ops. The CBC— that was my first television interview, after the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed. A lot of the country’s social legislation. And you cannot minimize Canada’s technical achievements. If you asked an average selection of Americans, ‘Who started the first commercial jet transport?’ they would say the United States. Wrong—Canada. Who started the first commercial oil well? Why, it was in Pennsylvania.
Wrong—Canada. It is obvious that Canada has been somewhat of a laboratory of social pioneering that reform groups in the United States have learned from.
Maclean’s: What effect will NAFTA have on Canada?
Nader: It is a real threat to the legitimate sovereignty and self-determination of Canada. This compulsory drug licensing law, which is being scrapped—it is being scrapped because 20-year patents are built into NAFTA. The critical sovereignty issue of determining the price of health care is being surrendered to an authority where disputes are settled in a most undemocratic way, by secretive tribunals, because the North American agreement eventually comes under GATT. And you’ve got Mulroney, who is surrendering piece by piece Canadian sovereignty to an international order that pulls standards downward and is controlled by global corporations.
Maclean’s: What do you think will be the effects of NAFTA on Mexico?
Nader: Mass displacement of millions of Mexican peasants, especially corn farmers, because they cannot compete against the efficiency of U.S. corn producers. That means peasants will pour into the cities or head north. And a lot of dirty industry will decide to go to Mexico, because the pollution laws will not be enforced. Here we are moving towards a common market among Canada, the United States and Mexico, even though Mexico has many characteristics of a police state and Mexican citizens
who try to pass laws or get laws enforced are treated in a very rough manner—to put it mildly. This is a country where labor organizers are suppressed or destroyed, where the press is bought and sold, where elections are stolen as soon as the results are in, one way or the other, by the ruling party. The entire premise of NAFTA is that the three countries will have equal environmental and other laws, but they are not equally enforced. The laws are phoney, in terms of enforcement, in Mexico. The very premise of equality that politicians are pointing to as a way to sell NAFTA is seriously flawed.
Maclean’s: Spokesmen for the industries you take on—most recently Canadian patent-drug companies—have called you a ‘hired gun. ’ Nader: They are not hired guns, of course— they’re doing it for a charitable purpose. Maclean’s: Is that your only response? Nader: No. First of all, I come up here a lot, working with citizens’ groups around the country, and I don’t get any funds personally for speeches. These are plowed back into our programs in the United States. So the companies’ line is a laugh. Industry in the United States tried to do this years ago—they don’t even try now. It is a way that these Canadian corporate interests, who are puppets of U.S. corporations, try to divert attention from the issue. Maclean’s: Canadians, even among themselves, have a reputation for being apathetic. Do you find much support in Canada for what you are doing?
Nader: Well, I think there is a lot of support. But in the last decade in Canada you’ve had democratic elections to produce a dictatorial government, ramming legislation through with abusive procedures. When the history of the Mulroney government is written, the title can be, ‘Prime Minister of Canada, on loan from Washington.’ I have never seen a head of state so contemptuous of preserving the sovereignty of a nation. It is just inconceivable, other than because of a personality failure, that a prime minister would consistently thumb his nose at history, evidence and public opinion. Maclean’s: What is your assessment of president-elect Clinton?
Nader: Clinton is an accommodationist. In many ways, his personality is similar to Mulroney’s. Up from a relatively poor background, climbed his way to the top and ever since has been saying ‘Gee whiz, here I am—wow.’ Hobnob with powerful corporations and fly on their jets. Go to their mountain lodges. That is what Clinton is. He basically conceded issue after issue in Arkansas when the corporations wanted something against the interests of the average people. He has no political fortitude. But we’re always hopeful that the White House will change a person. Pending that, we just have to keep mobilizing in our democracy, make it tougher, stronger, so that public servants are servants of the public.
Maclean’s: You have long had a reputation for frugality. Do you still own only two suits? Nader: No, three. And no car. □
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