Issue 252: January 2008


The Disappearance of ‘Public’


Over the holidays we drove to Connecticut to visit my sister and extended family. Driving through New England I was struck, once again, by the ‘Greens’ or market squares which still exist in so many of the of the colonial towns. Once upon a time – and still, in a great many villages and towns around the world – public life took place in and revolved around the village square or Green. The market took place there; so did various festivals and celebrations – and the politics of the community, of course. Public life took place in a public space. Nowadays we do most of our shopping in the publicly accessible spaces of privately owned commercial shopping centres. In these spaces, however, the public are ‘consumers,’ not citizens.

The village greens also served as parks. We still have parks, but although they are public and accessible to all, at least formally, they are not the sites of political life and public commerce. Permits from some public agency are almost always required for any kind of parade or demonstration, thus calling into question their ‘public’ nature.

I have memories of sleeping undisturbed in such places while hitch-hiking around the southern USA. I also have memories of listening to the popular Methodist preacher Donald Soper, who held forth in Hyde Park, London, every Sunday, often in a grand debate with the gathered crowd. Can you imagine such an event taking place in your local shopping mall, which in many towns and cities is all there is for a village square? (Cathleen was one of the Ottawa Raging Grannies – a peace & justice action group – who were ushered out of a local mall shortly before Christmas for committing the illegal acts of singing anti-war songs and distributing information about non-violent toys to an appreciative audience of shoppers.)

Grannies and Security

Of course politics have always been a characteristic of the British pubs (‘public houses’) and French cafés. The city of Curitiba, Brazil has structured itself so that political life can take place on the main street. When I visited there many years ago, I was told that the politicians each had their favourite coffee bar where they could be found at certain times of the day so that the public could talk with them informally. The coffee bars were scattered the length of the main street, which had been closed to traffic –  except human – and covered with terrazzo.  A very inviting public space.

Compare this scene with Ottawa today, where bureaucrats, to say nothing of politicians, are not available to the public except by appointment (perhaps) and are housed in ‘gated’ offices, protected from the public they are supposed to serve, and providing us less and less information. The civil service is under the heavy hand of the Prime Minister’s Office, and only their union, still called the Public Service Alliance, keeps alive the original idea of service to the public, not the politicians.

‘Public’ has all but disappeared.  Not quite the way political opposition critics, union activists and social justice advocates were ‘disappeared’ during the years of Latin American military dictatorships not so long ago, and not voluntarily, but rather it has surreptitiously been ‘disappeared’ by neo-liberals in their quest to privatize and commodify everything. A strong sense of public and strong public institutions stands in the way of private greed and corporate profit. 

It’s a perverse and corrupt government that spends public money to lobby for its partisan legislation. The federal government spent $1.2 million on advertising for its Wheat Board/barley ‘plebiscite’ earlier this year.  While spending that much on propaganda in their attempt to remove barley from Canadian Wheat Board jurisdiction, the government put a gag order of the CWB prohibiting the CWB from explaining its point of view.  In addition there was a lot of money spent by individual Conservative members of Parliament promoting the government’s “ideological crusade” as it was described by NDP MP Pat Martin who obtained the information under an Access to Information request.
– source: WP,6/12/07

The primary beneficiaries of this government corruption were the daily and weekly newspapers and farm press, and radio – a clear attempt to buy editorial support.

Since The Ram’s Horn is supposed to focus on food systems, I got to thinking about the better-known public markets (not to be confused with farmers’ markets) in Canada: Granville Island in Vancouver, the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto and Byward market in Ottawa. Each of these provide examples of public and private institutions and spaces that can lead to interesting reflections on the nature and value of public. The question of who actually owns these markets, or at least the land they are on, is not a simple one, nor is the question of how they are managed and who makes up the rules. How public are these places and who is the public that one finds there?

Granville Island is a tourist as well as local mecca for lovers of the best in foods, arts and crafts. It is also home to a cement plant and a major school of art, boatbuilders, ship chandlers, and a brewery. The Public (food) Market itself, always crowded, is really ‘over the top’ with its number and variety of vendors. But in what sense is it public, other than being open to the public? Most of the vendors are commercial, carrying produce and foods from anywhere and everywhere, not what they have grown themselves. (There is a special weekly farmers’ market which is what it says it is.) Nevertheless, Granville Island is an interesting example of various forms of ‘public.’

The 35 acre island the Market sits on was dredged up from the harbour in the 19th century.  In 1915 the newly formed Vancouver Harbour Commission (a public agency) approved a reclamation project for the Island that made it a significant industrial area managed by a government agency collecting rents from private businesses.  By the 1950s the older industries were in decline and the space was in need of a new life, but it was 1972 before the redevelopment of Granville Island was initiated by the federal government to create, foster and maintain a unique, very public space in the heart of Vancouver. In the same year, the administration, management and control of the revitalization of Granville Island was transferred from the Harbour Commission to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), a crown (government) corporation.  Today, Granville Island is administered by The Granville Island Trust, an advisory body to CMHC’s Granville Island Office appointed by the Minister responsible for CMHC. The Board of Trustees is composed of representatives from Granville Island, local area residents and the City of Vancouver.

The CMHC is itself an interesting example of a government agency acting specifically in the public interest – the sort of agency that Canada’s current government is determined to do away with. The federal government created the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in 1946 to house returning war veterans and to lead the nation’s housing programs. Toward the end of the 1940s, the federal government embarked on a program of much-needed social and rental housing, creating a federal-provincial public housing program for low-income families, with costs and subsidies shared 75% by the federal government and 25% by the province. Affordable housing, supported by the public out of general tax revenue, meant that people on a low income could afford both food and housing.

Between 1973 and 1982, the federal government invested heavily in Granville Island, including the assumption of the Harbour Board’s debt. Since 1983, however, Granville Island has been financially self-sustaining, with funding for capital improvements and operations covered by revenues from its tenants, which are from the public, private and non-profit sectors. 

The Market, like the whole little island, is hugely successful as a public space accommodating a wide variety of non-profit activities and institutions along with many small private businesses.

Clearly, Granville Island is a good example of a ‘public good’ (space and facilities) provided –  or one might say ‘owned’ – by the public through a non-profit crown corporation with direct government funding. This does not, however, make it the kind of public space that the village greens and town squares have provided. One does not go to Granville Island or its Public Market for political debates, however much political conversations might occur between private individuals over lunch or a beer there. –,


#252: January 2008 TOC
The Disappearance of 'Public' - Brewster looks at public markets as a way of considering the use - and loss - of public space
"Eau de Source Public" - tap water may be more 'private' than you think
Product of Canada - of of nature? - how can publicly-controlled water be sold in bottles?
Political meltdown affects food industry - although Unilever is struggling with tea supplies, fresh veggies are shipping from Kenya to the UK no problem
Analysis from Eldoret, Kenya - a friend writes that this struggle is about power, not tribalism, and the poor continue to suffer
From animal to machine: the next step, cloned meat - the industry defends cloning as 'substantially equivalent'
Safe as Milk? - the US FDA support for cloning is questioned
Hey, Nobody's Perfect - James Watson, famous for his work on DNA and his bigoted statements, discovers he probably has a grandparent of African descent
Resources on Agrofuels
The Depressing Section:

  • Monsanto collects from farmers - farmers in the US lose lawsuits
  • Yet another Monsanto front group - American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology
  • Another hidden subsidy for Monsanto - called the Biotech Yield Endorsement program
  • No benefit to consumers, just shareholders - Monsanto's actions are clear
  • Supreme Court won't hear case against Monsanto - Saskatchewan Organic Directorate case denied leave to appeal

On the Other Hand

  • Rural Movement Attacks Syngenta - activists shut down an agrochemical plant in Sao Paulo, Brazil

More Corporate Food News

  • Big Meat - Cargill is forced to recall a mountain of ground beef
  • Commodity Trader Moves into Agrofuels - Louis Deyfus is diversifying
  • Termites, Bakers, and Ethanol Makers - enzymes in the spotlight