Clio’s Current’s Year in Review, 2013-2014

In his book, The Rites of Spring, historian Modris Eksteins tries to encapsulate what Europeans thought on the eve of the First World War in 1914. He turned to culture and the arts, and attempted to gauge whether Europeans knew that one of the costliest and deadliest wars in global history was going to envelop the continent in a few short months.

Historians rarely attempt to be soothsayers, but it’s still worthwhile to assess contemporary ideas and beliefs about what the future holds for ourselves. We know with some degree of confidence that the vast majority of Europeans in the 1910s felt that their societies had progressed so far that war was a thing of the past. As we know, however, Europe would embark, not once, but twice down the long and perilous road to war in the twentieth century.

Like many other blogs, newspapers, and magazines, we want to inventory 2013. In recounting the events of the previous year, our New Year Review hopes to situate 2013 and assesses the key events that made headlines this past year. Stories like Miley’s twerking episode or the Rob Ford crack-smoking admission, which has regrettably put Toronto politics on the global map, have received a great deal of attention elsewhere so we won’t dwell on them.

On a serious note, 2013 witnessed a number of international talks and agreements that will likely—for better or for worse—make a significant impact on geopolitics in years to come. Just two days ago, the BBC reported that great progress was made between the West and Iran on Tehran’s nuclear program. In December 2013, Iranian President Rouhani permitted the UN’s nuclear agency to visit a heavy water plant for the first time in two years. This was part of the Geneva talks between America and Iran, which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to as an “historic mistake.” In accordance with the talks, Iran must not, among other criteria, build additional enrichment facilities nor install additional centrifuges. In general, many in the West have greeted the deal with optimism. In Canada, however, Harper’s Conservative Government has curiously criticized the historic agreement for allowing Iran to possess a nuclear program in any capacity. We have discussed the peculiar relationship between Harper and Israel once before, but it’s worth emphasizing how historically divergent this sidling with Israel is.

In Syria, 2013 saw no end to the bloody war between President Bashar al-Assad and the disparate array of forces against him. In a different set of Geneva talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has tried to convince opposition forces to attend peace talks. Talks between both belligerents are the only way to stop the violence, which has killed over 130,000 people since 2011. Reminiscent of the Cold War era, the war in Syria has divided Western states and worsened diplomatic relations between the West and Russia. When evidence to support the claim that chemical weapons were used in Syria emerged in 2013, Russia initially opposed any measure to intervene. However, under surveillance of China and Russia, a program was agreed to whereby over 500 tonnes of Syrian chemical agents would be transported by cargo ships and guarded by Danish and Norwegian naval escorts. As of 2 January 2014, the removal of chemical agents from Syria has been stalled for a variety of logistical reasons.

In late 2013, al-Qaeda claimed to have overtaken local authorities in Fallujah, Iraq where in 2004 American troops fought vicious battles in the streets of that city. This is a key development and suggests how fragmented and volatile the situation in Iraq continues to be following the withdrawal of American troops. In Afghanistan, too, we might question to what degree NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), of which Canada was a key part, contributed to the stability of the country. This, however, will be the topic of a future post. Suffice it to say that while many have seen positive changes in one part of the Middle East, between the West and Iran, in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan the future is both unstable and uncertain.

Canada too has had an exciting year. One of the most enduring political issues has been the Senate Scandal, which as so many pundits seemed pleased to point out has nearly reached Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself. Since Harper's (now former) Chief of Staff Nigel Wright wrote Senator Mike Duffy a cheque to cover the Senate expenses, the details surrounding who knew what and when have slowly become unravelled. In 2014, the Senate will face one of its most stringent audits yet and it remains to be seen if other Senators will be reprimanded for improper expenses like Duffy, as well as Senators Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb, the sole Liberal senator implicated so far, though on much more serious charges. Many have looked at the Senate scandal as a prelude to the Prime Minister’s fall from power. We hope too that it rouses Canadians to examine our democratic institutions with more scrutiny. Or, at the very least, push for political leaders to campaign on government accountability and actually carry through with their promises.

Another far-reaching event is the political organization of Aboriginals in Canada. The Idle No More movement, which began in the fall of 2012, seemed to have fizzled over the ensuing year. Theresa Spence and the Attawapiskta First Nation disappeared from most major newspapers' headlines after Spence ended her hunger strike in January, other than a recent fire. Like the Occupy Movement, most have been ready to write the obituary on Idle No More as yet another flash-in-the-pan protest from Generation Y. Unbeknownst to many Canadians, however, Idle No More continues to have serious consequences throughout the nation. Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs has led a splinter group of Aboriginal leaders away from the Assembly of First Nations. Nepinak believes that the AFN is discussing too much with the federal government behind closed doors while accomplishing little. Nepinak and his supporters' decision emerged as a result of the stalled negotiations after Spence's hunger strike and during the height of the Idle No More movement. In response AFN Chief, Shawn Atleo amicably stated that any group of Chiefs is allowed to represent themselves to the federal government. Meanwhile, the federal government has continued its cuts to the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which has seen its federal funding go from $2.5 million to $500,000. Tensions continue to brew as October's protests in New Brunswick demonstrated and 2014 might reveal that Idle No More has not simply disappeared because it's not in headlines.

Finally, one of the most significant series of events in Canada this past year has involved disasters, natural and man-made. From the Albertan flooding this summer, to the Lac Mégantic train explosion, to this winter's ice storms, many lives have been lost or irrevocably changed. The cost of this negligence, either through failing to enact the proper regulations or failing to react to increasingly extreme weather from climate change, is growing. The cost in human lives and suffering is terrible in its own right, but the economic cost of cleaning up after these disasters is equally damaging. Estimate costs for Alberta's flood is a shocking $5 billion. For Lac Megantic, $200 million. For the recent ice storms, it's still too early to tell, but it's estimated to have cost Toronto $106 million. Unless Canadians force their government to react to these events, such as better regulation of rail transport or flood zones or better research into future environmental conditions, these costs will only increase. Worse, they will eventually be levied on the taxpayer one way or the other. As the Conservative government continues to cut research funding, we should be asking serious questions about the cost in the longer term rather than trying to balance a budget for 2015.

Our New Year review has been limited to a few select events, but 2013 has been a year in which monumental changes have been brought to the international and Canadian stage. Like the Europeans of the years before the First World War, this year has witnessed crucial changes that have the potential to be momentous across the globe. We don’t know for certain what 2014 has in store for us, but it’s worth while to look at how international and domestic factors can come together and influence the decisions we make this year and in the future.