Thursday, March 26, 2015

My Log 465 March 26 2015: A little history lesson: how the Algonquin people of Barriere Lake have been treated in Canadian history: I revive a talk from 2008, still relevant

English: Highway 117 at Reservoir Dozois and t...
Highway 117 at Reservoir Dozois and the Ottawa River, Quebec,  built in Algonquin lands(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Rapid Lake reserve of the Barrière La...
Rapid Lake reserve of the Barrière Lake Algonquins, Quebec, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Rapid Lake reserve of the Barrière La...
Rapid Lake reserve of the Barrière Lake Algonquins, Quebec, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Rapid Lake reserve of the Barrière La...
Rapid Lake reserve of the Barrière Lake Algonquins, Quebec, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A friend of mine this week produced unexpectedly the script of a talk I gave in Ottawa in 2008 about the perilous life lived over the centuries by the Algonquin people of Barriere Lake, situated in the La Verendrye Wildlife Reserve, in Quebec several hundred miles north of Ottawa.
The talk dealt with the history of these particular lands which were occupied by the Algonquins when Europeans first came to Canada, and are still so occupied. But what happened to these people, or should I say what has been done to these people, how they have been treated by Euro-Canadian legislatures,  businessmen and officials, constitutes a history lesson that I would venture to say hardly any Canadians have ever learned in their schools.
First, I decided to leave aside the inherent rights of indigenous people, stemming from before Europeans came among them, rights that have been recognized by the Supreme Court, have been included as inalienable rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, although largely denied by society at large. So my talk dealt with only those rights that indigenous people have secured under the white man’s law that has governed them ever since colonial Canada was founded.
In 1763 the Royal Proclamation winding up the years of war between England and France provided that no lands should be settled without the agreement of the Indian tribes who occupied them, that agreement to be given at some sort of public assembly. In fulfilment of this undertaking, between 1870 and 1921, what are called the Numbered Treaties were signed across the country, from Ontario to Alberta, under which the native people undertook to cede and surrender all their rights  to the land, in return for provisions written into each  of the  treaties. These were, of course, woefully unequal negotiations, to such an extent that one could be forgiven for calling them fraudulent; but they form the basis of much Indian politics as it exists to the present day.
However, this provision did not apply to the vast territories ceded in the seventeenth century by the Sovereign to the Hudson’s Bay Company, in which Barriere Lake rests, but these lands were sold to the federal government by the company in 1870, and so became subject to the Royal Proclamation.  In 1912, the lands in what is now Quebec province were transferred from the federal government to the province of Quebec, which undertook to obtain surrender of Indian rights in the same way as Canada had done in the past. Somehow or other, this law was never applied in Quebec, or in most of British Columbia, for that matter, another part of the country in which treaties were, for the most part, never signed.
Of course, the lower Ottawa Valley --- including the city of Ottawa --- was occupied by loggers and other businessmen without the legally necessary consent being obtained. The Algonquins who had lived in these lands from time immemorial repeatedly petitioned to have their rights respected, but eventually so many of them were moved away that those who remained were treated by the law as squatters on their own lands. (I invite my readers, as I invited my audience, to reflect here on the monstrous arrogance and injustice of this.)
Many of those who were moved away from their traditional lands --- I believe most of them came from the Ontario side of the river --- were gathered by priests at Oka, Quebec; and in 1851 at the urging of the Roman Catholic Church, a large reserve was established at Maniwaki by the federal government , where all Algonquins were supposed to be gathered --- safely out of the way of loggers and others wanting to use their lands; and easy of access for the priests.
The Algonquins of the northern Ottawa valley in Quebec --- the Ottawa is a long, meandering river across the middle-northern part of  Quebec, finally coming down in a wide sweep to form the boundary between the two provinces, before flowing into the St Lawrence at Montreal --- the Alqonquins from northern Quebec never did move to Maniwaki. These included the people of Barriere Lake, and other settlements that remained  independently living their traditional way of life were those of Grand Lake Victoria and Lake Simon, hidden away almost until the present day, in the vast Quebec wilderness.
Barriere Lake got that name because  the waters of the Gatineau and Ottawa rivers would, at a certain time of the year, cross a natural stone barrier, and run into each other. Fish would spawn and feed in the shallows around the stone weir, which became a central place for the Algonquins --- so they have always called themselves the People of the Stone Weir.
(I might mention here – I didn’t in my original talk --- that the Algonquins have played an important role in Canadian history, not surprising when one considers they lived astride the great Ottawa river, and controlled access for the first whites who penetrated Canada in the sixteenth century. When Champlain, fresh from founding the new town of Quebec in 1608, noticed that it was the Hurons, from what is now northern Ontario, that were bringing in all the furs, he decided he had to reach them, so as to establish himself and his community as first buyers. For some years his access was stopped by the Algonquins, who were part of the Hurons’ immense network of trading contacts across eastern North America. That is another story, one also probably unknown to most Canadians, but it has been the subject of one of the greatest works of history written by a Canadian, Bruce Trigger’s Children of Ataaentsic whose subtitle is A History of the Hurons until 1660).
In 1871, without any warning, the land occupied by the Barriere Lake people was flooded behind a large dam, whose purpose was to store water so that logs could be floated down the Gatineau, to Ottawa. So, the fish, animals and people had to move elsewhere. None of the legally required consent was obtained, no meeting or assembly was held, nothing like that: the Algonquins were simply treated as if they weren’t there.
At first the northern Algonquins were able to survive, because the logging techniques used in those days were simple, and the loggers did not build roads or settlements. But by the 1890s, the whole of the Algonquins’ traditional forest was subject to timber leases, given away by the provincial government for $8 a square mile. Naturally, no consent or consultation delayed the deal --- again, in fact, a veritable steal for the companies.
From 1928 for the next five decades, Quebec province passed more than  100 orders-in-council governing the Barriere Lake traditional lands. In that year the Grand Lake Victoria Indian game reserve of 6,300 square miles was established. This is the closest that Canadian law ever came to recognizing the rights of the Algonquins in and to their traditional lands, It did recognize that Indians had previously been exclusive occupants of these lands and gave them exclusive hunting rights.
So what happened to this Indian game reserve? Well, a year later, 1929, Gatineau Paper, a subsidiary of Canadian International Paper, built the Cabonga dam to create a reservoir in the very heart of the Barriere Lake lands. No consent was obtained; no compensation for flooded lands was paid; the Algonquins were never even told how much land was to be flooded or that the reservoir would have a fluctuating shoreline --- a matter of essential importance to the Algonquin way of life. The company paid 13 or 14 people $30 each to enable them to build small cabins --- a total of $525 in compensation. Another really good deal. Nobody could say the law wasn’t generous --- to the companies.
The province made no effort to enforce the exclusive indigenous hunting provisions of 1928 ; in fact in 1936 they revoked them. Three years later the province built a major road right through the hunting reserve --- again without consultation --- and declared 10 miles on each side of the road to be a reserve forbidden to all hunters, specifically ending the indigenous “privileges,” as they called them.
In 1948 what was left of the 1928 hunting reserve was renamed a beaver reserve, in which the Algonquins now had an exclusive right only to trap beaver.
In 1945, 1950 and 1955, the highway reserve that had been carved out around the road was gradually increased in size and re-named LaVerendrye Wildlife Reserve, in which all hunting was forbidden.
As a result of this a running Algonquin battle began with game wardens. But again, preferential treatment was given to outside hunters; a large tourist establishment was built by Euro-Canadians that was given exclusive hunting rights in the area in which hunting was otherwise forbidden.
In 1965, the Wildlife Reserve was opened for one year to a moose hunt. That has been renewed every year since then. At first, Indians were given some priority as guides, but this was removed in 1980. Henceforth white sports hunters have taken more moose than the Algonquins whose whole way of life depended on the moose. (This was true at least in 2008, and I would be surprised if it is still not true.)
(It is worth observing in parenthesis that the designation of the reserve as being for wildlife protection was surely either the most farcical joke ever attempted in Canadian nomenclature, or a cruel and pitiless measure designed to humiliate the traditional occupants of the land. The department of natural resources was given control over the wildlife. But another department, concerned with industry was in charge of the forest. Such confusion gives an idea of the inchoate incompetence of the provincial government.)
In 1993 I wrote in my book People of Terra Nullius (p 116): “For more than 40 years, from at least 1919, the Quebec government repeatedly refused to confirm the Algonquin ownership of their land, arguing that it was under timber licence and within a game and fish reserve. In contrast land grants were given to the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Church as soon as they asked.” (This is a common theme of Canadian history: e.g. in the area of Banff national park, established in the traditional lands of the Stoneys, the Stoneys were booted out, while a German mining company was given immediate priority over the Indian interest. In fact, the Stoneys were confined to a small reserve in which they could not make a living, and had to be reluctantly supported by the government, so reluctantly that the Stoneys found themselves wanted neither in the reserve nor out of the reserve, where they were a nuisance in the way of tourist and other development. And, closer to home, in James Bay, the people who originally lived where the town of Chibougamau now stands had to move around at least 10 times to make way for industrial developments of some kind or other.)
“Finally, in the late 1950s, at the urging of the Church, Quebec offered the Algonquins the use (but not the ownership) of 59 acres of sand on the shores of the Cabonga reservoir. The people themselves were not consulted. The reserve was established by an order-in-council of September 7, 1961, it referred to the Algonquins as les sauvages, a term that has long since lost its benign meaning, even in French. This is not remote history, the man who signed the order-in-council was Jean-Jacques Bertrand, who was premier of Quebec just before the first term of Robert Bourassa.”
The Parti Quebecois government carried on this noble record of ignoring the Indian interest. Thanks to the PQ’s efforts, today (2008) Barriere Lake lands are subject to administration by at least four government ministries (each ministry has two regional offices with something to say), two forest management units, a Crown corporation  SEPAQ set up to manage recreational activities within wildlife reserves, with a requirement to make money. I know that fifteen years ago none of these took any account of the aboriginal interest.
But I believe a proposed new Quebec Forestry Act will set up regional committees in which aboriginal communities are supposed to take part. (This is presumably the initiative which, when challenged by the Grand Council of the Crees, was declared to be unconstitutional because it ignored the aboriginal interest. As a result a judge ordered Quebec to suspend forestry operations for six months while they wrote a new law. .The Quebec government appealed for a new judge, so the old one was dismissed and the new one  turned out to be more amenable to the government’s  interests, and Quebec won the case. Wow!)
So far as I know land planning in the region does not even mention the Algonquin interest. And this is a region in which they are almost the only permanent population.
I better stop it there. I imagine that no one here has learned any of this history when going through the education system. But perhaps this outline may give you some idea of how the Barriere Lake reserve --- which, of course, does not appear on any map of Canada that I have ever seen --- became one of the poorest communities in Canada.
When I first visited the reserve late in 1980, some four million dollars of support payments of one kind or another were coming into the reserve, but there was no shop, not even a taxi, not a single business, so all that money went straight out to be spent in Maniwaki. This is almost the definition of a colonialist situation. Right here, within a few miles of
the nation’s capital.

Long before I gave that talk, of course, in 1991, the people of Barriere Lake signed what has become known as the trilateral agreement, with Quebec and federal governments, designed to take account of the indigenous interest in their own forest, that has continued to be clear-cut around their ears ever since. The agreement was hailed by several noteworthy observers as a landmark in government-indigenous relations, that could lead to more similar agreements across the country. But here we are in 2015, and still one or other of the governments is resisting having to implement this agreement. The governments have taken advantage of a split within the community by suspending the band council, elected by traditional methods, naming an alternative band council that had to make its seat of government outside the community, imposing Third Party Management on the reserve, and using various other of the tricks that governments have always used to avoid taking honest responsibility for the affairs of the Indians whose care is assigned to them under the constitution.
Although I do not have chapter and verse for each move in this tragic drama, I know that still, 35 years after all this began:
     *the housing crisis in the community has reached tragic proportions
     *The Quebec government continues to use its police forces to impose its will on the people of Barriere Lake.
      *Children have been prevented from speaking Algonquin in school by teachers hired by Third Party Management --- a grim throwback to the era of residential schools.
And so the grim and tragic dance continues.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

My Log 464 March 19 201: A BBC report on Catholic Church control of the Philippines recalls a place where they have managed to get rid of such controls: namely, Quebec, Canada

English: View of the Catholic Church in St-Eva...
View of the Catholic Church in St-Evariste, Quebec (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Front of Roman Catholic church, Ubay,...
Front of Roman Catholic church, Ubay, Bohol, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
BBC World today broadcast a programme that drew attention to the parlous state of the Philippines, in which a quarter of their 100 million people live below the poverty line --- which is to say they live in the most abject poverty.
The interviewer, Stephen Sackur, interviewed a woman of 30 who, married at 17, had borne 11 children. Asked if she had had a choice in the matter, she said she would have had three. Sackur, by implication, put a great deal of the blame for this on the Roman Catholic Church and the hold it has over Filipinos.
But hang on a mnute --- we can illustrate this same story, closer to home.
In the 1980s I wrote a book, called Life of the Party, about a French-Canadian friend of mine, Gerard Fortin, who, born in 1923, told me the first strong memory he had in life was of an occasion after the death of his mother at the age of 29. She had married at 17, and just like the woman in contemporary Manila, she had borne 11 children before dying, wornout from child-bearing. In those days, the local priest --- usually a man assigned to a parish in which he stayed for most of his lifetime,  without whose advice no family made decisions  --- had called his parishioners together at Sunday service, instructing them it was their duty to take care of the children of the recently-deceased member of his flock. So Gerry remembered how they had all been dressed in their best clothes, lined up in the tiny farmhouse which was their home, as the parishioners from the same rang of farmhouses populated by semi-literate people like Gerry’s family, came in and said, “I will take this one,” or “I’ll take the baby,” or “Let me have the eldest boy.” And so the family was distributed around the rang, where they mostly lived as unhappy, half-accepted appendages to the already large families of the local farmers and their wives.
Gerry went to school, effectively, for three years, learning how to read, but not how to write. He was a boy curious about the world, and he made a habit of going to a neighbouring farmer every evening and reading the newspaper to him aloud.
In this way he struggled into puberty, barely educated, unprepared to undertake any role in life, and it became inevitable that when he reached the age of 15 or so he joined the winter exodus of 100,000 similar youths and men from Quebec villages into the endless forests to their north to work as bushworkers  in appalling conditions for companies owned either by Americans or by English-Canadians.
The similarity with the Philippines goes deeper than just the high birthrate: to all intents and purposes, the French-Canadian population of Quebec was kept by the Church and its priests in a condition which made it inevitable that the only role they were capable of playing in the developing industrialization of the province was at the lowest, poorest-paid level of labourer and navvy. Of course, as in all such societies, there was a local elite that could afford good schools and all the rest of it for its children, but in the 1950s Quebec still bore the marks of a priest-ridden, downtrodden society unable to lift itself on to its feet.
The Church, of course, had done a remarkable job in ensuring the survival of French-speaking people in North America. After the English turned out victorious in the battle for North America, most of the French-speaking elite returned to France, leaving the 70,000 ordinary people to be ministered to by their Church. In what is still called to this day “the revenge of the cradle”, the Church encouraged their flock to have as many children as possible, so that those 70,000 people grew to today’s total of almost eight million in Quebec, another million who are said to have migrated to other provinces, and some five million who over the years, left Quebec to live in New England and other parts of the United States. This is an astonishing result by any standards.
Unfortunately, the Church which directed and inspired this great effort was extremely reactionary, and although it was in complete control of the education system until 1960, it suspected technical, scientific and modern education to such an extent that the pupils it turned out from its schools were unfitted to take part in the growth of a society that, along with others across North America, was evolving, industrializing and requiring more of its citizens.
Naturally, this was not occurring without opposition. When I first moved to Montreal in 1957 I came immediately into contact with French-Canadian journalists who one could say were seething with indignation at the impact the Church was having on their society, and were desperate to find a way to change it once and for all. By this time, of course, Quebecers had built a vigorous union movement, whose leaders also were as determined to bring their society into line with neighbouring North American jurisdictions, as were similar leaders elsewhere.
Nevertheless, although the account I have written above may paint too broad a brush of the backwardness of Quebec society at that time, it is true in its major aspects.  Years later I made a film about a Quebec farming family half of whose members went to Alberta to become French-speaking citizens there on the land in an atmosphere that, their priest hoped, would free them from the dangers of the technical education to which he feared they were falling prey in Quebec.  He issued this instruction to his parishioners in a document which astounded me: in the early 1950s he spoke of technical education as a sort of evil incarnate, as of all the accompanying features of society built upon it. He left it to his parishioners to decide which of them should emigrate west and which stay in Quebec, but he left them in no doubt that this was their duty. And so --- extraordinarily, when one looks at it from the eyes of today --- they loyally carried out his instructions, went to Alberta, and there, outsiders in an English-speaking world, they had created their own settlements, built their own farms and institutions, and were bringing up families of young people who --- a great irony this, surely --- had become bilingual, and were free of all aspirations to the separate national status that their cousins left behind in Quebec were being swept by.
When I got to know people of my own generation in Montreal I discovered that most of them came from families of twelve, fourteen, even in some cases sixteen children. But they themselves were having only two or three children. Their opposition to the dictates of the Church had already started before the change of government in 1960 swept away remnants of the old religious societal controls. Within a generation or so, a society that had been completely priest-ridden had freed themselves from this anachronistic religion. I cannot swear to this figure, but I seem to remember than in the 1950s some 18,000 nuns, priests and others of the kind were in residence in the man seminaries and convents in Montreal. Today most of these have been sold, and the Church is finding it increasingly difficult, for want of acolytes, to keep even those few that remain in operation.
Stephen Sackur interviewed agents who propagate family planning in the wasteland of Manila. When he mentioned the policy of abstention favoured by the Catholic hierarchy, they immediately demurred, saying it was useless, that, indeed, the Catholics were the main problem they had to deal with in their efforts to reduce the birthrate so that adults could begin to live a more productive and decent life on the few resources they had. One of these women said she and her husband used condoms, and did not consider themselves poorer Catholics for that reason; and the other said she had been sterilized, and similarly considered herself a loyal Catholic.
Someone should tell these people that the negative controls exercised by the Church can be shucked off, if only the parishioners are ready to do it. And that this has been proven in Quebec, which today has one of the lowest birthrates of any jurisidiction in North America. And that Quebec society has, in the half century they have been exercising their personal freedoms, made significant achievements that have earned them fame and fortune on a world scale, and in many different disciplines --- arts, as well as business, science as well as philosophy.

It’s as easy as pie, if only you can get rid of the Church.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Paris Climate Talks and the Failure of States

Gabriel Levy

LINK OF THE DAY, Mar 11 2015: The States of the world, along with the United Nations, have already given up hope that the climate summit in Paris next December will put the world on-track to achieving the necessary limit of a 2 degrees C increase in global temperature to levels above pre-industrial. Until now this figure has been accepted by the international community as the objective for the world.
 Some states, such as the United States and China have already set their objectives, and an analysis of all such objectives indicates that the projected rise will be between 3 and 3.5 degrees  compared with the disastrous 4 to 5 degrees that would occur with “business as usual.” Diplomats who have worked on achieving this failure are full of unacceptable bromides about being on the right track. For more detail on this tremendously important analysis, see the article by Gabriel Levy in Socialist Project, E-Bulletin No. 1087, just published, under the title The Paris Climate Talks and the Failure of States

My Log 463 Mar 10 2015: Still an open question: Can China feed its billion people? What has happened to the water table? The same question imposed itself in 1978…

English: Roadside billboard of Deng Xiaoping i...
English: Roadside billboard of Deng Xiaoping in Dujiangyan (Sichuan) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Soong Ching-ling, Rewi Alley(right, b...
Soong Ching-ling, (centre, front) and Rewi Alley(right, back row) photographed in Hong Kong in 1939 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The well respected journal The Guardian Weekly, of London, recently ran a story with a banner headline across its front page asking, Can China Feed its People?
This took me back to an occasion in 1978, when I was part of a National Film Board film crew assigned to make three films in China, to be reciprocated by a visit to Canada by a Chinese film crew.
I took advantage of this to put in a request that we might be given an opportunity to interview Rewi Alley, a man unknown to other members of the film crew, but a figure familiar to me since my boyhood in New Zealand. Alley was the son of a well-known New Zealand family --- his brother was an All Black, the representative New Zealand Rugby team, and later national founder of a travelling library to serve rural areas, a ground-breaking activity at that time, anywhere in the world.  But Rewi --- named after a famous Maori chieftain who never surrendered to the invading British colonists ---- was made of different stuff, and in 1929 he signed off as a crewmen on a ship visiting Shanghai, and began a lifetime of work on behalf of the impoverished, downtrodden Chinese people. By 1978 he was 80 and had worked with the Chinese  through all their modern vicissitudes; in the first years working with money contributed by supporters abroad, he founded and ran a number of schools for training rural leaders; he worked through the Japanese invasion which drove him to a remote area beyond the invaders’ reach; he worked as the Communists arrived in his remote area and he realized they were planning to do on a national scale what he was doing on a local level; he worked  as an important propagandist for the new government; and he worked, though with immense difficulties, through the Cultural Revolution, when he more or less had to do what he was told, just to survive.
His recent birthday had been celebrated at a banquet in his honour attended by the leaders of the nation, but of course by this time he had come under somewhat severe criticism by Western armchair critics.
Never mind all of that. To me he was still a hero, and one whose hand I longed to shake. The officials handling our film crew came up with the usual anodyne answers to our unexpected request. He was a busy man. He wasn’t always at home. He had been in poor health. He was never in Beijing, and they were sorry a meeting could not be arranged.
After a month or so we were taken inland to visit the extraordinary village of Dazhai, in Shansi province, which had been used by Mao as the model for agricultural work, and had become the focus of all sorts of ridiculous claims. Millions of people were taken to visit Dazhai, the claims of miraculous production figures were later exploded after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao Tse-Tung. Be that as it may, we spent a day or two there, and one evening when we were dining in the capacious restaurant supplied so that the village could handle its multitudinous visitors, I spotted a group of elderly men eating at a table across the other side of the restaurant, and I felt almost certain one of them was Rewi Alley.
Taking the bull by the horns, as it were, I approached nervously, introduced myself as a fellow New Zealander in China with a Canadian film crew, and expressed the hope that, after all, we might get a chance to talk to him.  He demurred, said he was pressed for time, and put me off gently. I returned to our table, disappointed, but half an hour or so later I was surprised to find him approaching our table, where he sat down and talked to us for more than half an hour.
We had become accustomed to hearing of the new programme adopted by the Chinese government called the Four Modernizations. This had been a favourite project of the late great leader Zhou En-Lai, who first posited it in 1963 without success, but who, in his last major action before his death in 1975, had managed to get adopted by the National Peoples  Congress the modernization of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and the military – indeed, of the whole of Chinese society. Alley now told us he believed this modernization would apply mostly to industry, since, he said the Chinese, were a clever, resourceful people, who could build anything, “and they will do so on a world scale.”
He added: “What worries me is agriculture, the feeding of our more than a billion people.” The first problem was to get the land into shape to grow crops. They had done that, he said, but what more could they do?
“You have to remember that almost every year there is some immense natural disaster which  eats into our reserves, and sets back our progress. In 1976 one and a half million people were wiped out by earthquakes. In 1975 six million were made homeless by flooding, and they all needed to be fed and their land restored to production.
“The big problem is water,” he said. “I am very worried about the water table. So many deep wells have been sunk, down to 300 metres, and I have no idea of the effect these will have on the water table. There is underground water feeding down from the Yangtze basin, but no one knows how long it will take to replenish what is lost to irrigation. They have schemes to run the Yellow river down from the mountain tops, irrigating all the way.… what effect will that have?” he asked.

By the time we met Alley I had already been asking questions about the water table in the village commune where we were filming. It was a well-run, productive farm, which included six villages of about 15,000 people living and working on 3,000 acres of land. This amount of land was about four times the size of an average wheat-growing farm in Saskatchewan, that would support usually one family. But, as I wrote recently in a brief monograph on this experience, in Wushing (as the commune was called)  the farm had to support 3,200 households, all of whose members worked on the commune in a variety of occupations.
“Each family had a relatively new house, with a small backyard, in which they were able to raise a pig and poultry.  In those days labour and production on the commune were divided between three administrative levels, at the top the commune with its own enterprises run for the benefit of the whole place, then six production brigades, as the villages were called, each with its individual enterprises, and finally,  within the brigades and employed by them, a workforce divided into  59 production teams. That this system seemed to be operating at a fairly high level of efficiency was indicated not only by the extreme neatness of all the roads and villages, but by the fact that when we arrived in May most of the land was bearing a healthy-looking crop of wheat that had been planted in the previous winter.”
They were proud of their commune in Wushing, and not much wonder: it was all built on land that would be regarded as marginal in Canada. It did not look any different from villages surrounding it. Indeed, on the 280-kilometre journey by train south from Beijing, we had been impressed by what we saw of the North China plain:
“As far as the eye could see the countryside was planted out with a healthy crop of wheat. The land everywhere appeared to have been flattened, so that there were neighbouring fields of different levels, and trees had been planted all the way along the railway, along every road and path, and surrounding every village. The many villages were of adobe-type construction, the buildings mud-coloured, and between their walls ran paths of beaten mud. But it was along the main road south from Beijing that the spectacle was most extraordinary, for that road was crowded with vehicles of every conceivable type, most of them small rubber-wheeled carts loaded with materials, and pulled by donkeys, ponies, camels, and often by sweating men. An amazing work seemed to be underway, a picking up of earth, sand and rock from one place, and the putting it down on another. Somewhere, some presiding genius must know what was being built, but from the train our impression was that a work like the building of the pyramids was being undertaken with every available unit of muscle power mobilized for the job.”

When the time for harvest came in Wushing, every man, woman and child was mobilized to take part. The commune not only grew enough food to feed its people, but to meet a quota imposed on it by the central authorities to add to the national food store. Our inquiries proved to us that under their management system nothing was wasted: every inch of ground was used to grow some sort of food. The crops were inter-cropped, so that the shoots of a second crop planted between the rows of wheat were ready to grow rapidly from the moment they were exposed to the light. Thus two crops could be taken off land that normally would produce only one; and in addition we saw with our own eyes that fields that had been groaning with wheat when we arrived, were transformed into rice paddies before we left two months later. The spaces between rows of apple trees were planted with herbs for traditional Chinese medicines; the gleanings left over from the harvest and gathered by schoolchildren were used to make hats by a group of 20 working women; the prunings from the apple trees were used to fashion the baskets in which the apples were sent to market; all household waste was fed to the pig that every household had in the backyard; and the manure produced from these pig-pens was sold to the production brigades for use on the fields, a valuable addition to the family income. Perhaps the most striking ingenuity of everything we saw was in their production of all the bricks needed for the many houses they were building. All the earth and clay used came from their fields: the sandy surface soil being set aside, the low-lying clay removed and used by the brick works, and finally topsoil being re-established to allow the field to produce food at a level 12 feet below surrounding fields. Thus a brickworks that produced two and a half million bricks a year --- not, I hasten to add, of a quality that we could use in our construction, but good though for their needs---- used not more than an acre and a half of land at any one time.
It was true that the commune in its agricultural management was caught between two methods, the one --- of modern, power-using tractors and small machines, able to do the work more efficiently and quickly than mere humans --- vying for place with the traditional, natural methods favoured by the peasants. Although they did use some machinery, and fertilizer, the emphasis overall at that time was on natural, organic methods.
I found the commune management generous with their information, willing --- after some hesitation, through being unaccustomed to such questions from an outsider --- to answer all questions. But much of their transformation of the land depended on the 180 wells they had dug across their 3,000 acres of land. And a persistent question I asked was, “With tens of thousands of wells being dug across the North China plain, what is happening to the water table?”
To this I received only the non-committal answer, “That is a matter for the department concerned.” In other words, they didn’t know. Well, it seems, to judge by recent reports, this particular chicken is coming home to roost under the modernized, power-intensive agriculture, growing more food than ever before, sponsored by the Four Modernizations.
It was while we were in China that Deng Xiaoping, who had been out of power during the Cultural Revolution, finally came to full power in China, in the wake of the death of Zhou and Mao. They were talking about the Four Modernizations while we were there --- we left in the middle of the year --- but it was not until December of 1978 that Deng was able to impose modernization as official policy.
What has happened in China since has astonished the world, and transformed the global economy. I am as astonished as anyone, for having seen how well the commune system was working, I had left believing the peasants would never agree to change it.  In the event, they had no say in the matter: the change was imposed on them, and the immense migration from the land to the cities began. Since so many millions of Chinese have been lifted out of extreme poverty by this industrialization --- just as happened in our own Western industrial revolution --- who are we to criticize their methods?
And yet, evidently, as is the case everywhere, immense problems are still to be solved. Not the least of which is the continued availability of water, without which --- as even California is now discovering --- human life cannot survive.