Apathetic Canadians have allowed their government to trample freedoms -- but opposition is mounting
There's been a sea change, a darkening of the political climate in this country. The first instinct is to discount such troubling thoughts. So perhaps the view of someone born elsewhere, but long on our shores, is more to be trusted.
Ursula Franklin -- the celebrated physicist, pacifist, author and Companion of the Order of Canada -- recently spoke to CBC Radio's The Current. She had survived a Nazi death camp and come to Canada hoping for better. Now 88, Franklin is "profoundly worried about the absence and erosion of democracy in Canada."
Democracy, I heard her say on the radio, is a slow and messy process. When Frank-lin sees cabinet ministers holding press conferences to discuss legislation not yet debated in the House of Commons, she sees that process being skirted. And when she hears the prime minister saying he does not "trust" the Opposition, she sees contempt for democracy itself. "Who wants to live in a country," Franklin asked, "where those who don't think like you are deemed untrustworthy?"
A German reporter here to cover the G20 summit likened Toronto's walls to the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. I was just in Berlin and the checkpoint these days comprises a few sandbags and two "soldiers" in Second World War American uniforms posing for tourists' cameras. Walls fall in one place, rise up in another. But surely not here?
The annual gathering of the Writers' Union of Canada took place in Ottawa in June, with many former chairs on hand to offer memories of their time in office. Susan Crean remembered encountering a young, blue-eyed politico at a constitutional conference in Calgary in 1992. When the man learned that she had co-authored a certain book about American domination of Canadian and Quebec politicians, the man responded: "You should not have been allowed to write that book."
The man: Stephen Harper. Crean never forgot his words, but especially the word allowed. The room full of writers in Ottawa issued a gasp.
Crean later elaborated on the encounter. "Harper spoke to me first and asked if I had written 'that book.' I asked which one, and he mentioned Two Nations, which I wrote with Quebec activist/sociologist and well known independentiste Marcel Rioux. ... Harper was clearly still angry about having had to read it at university. In his view, I took it, the book was treasonous. I was so shaken by his words, and his open hostility, that I immediately left the dining room."
No PM should be held strictly accountable for every utterance before taking office. But this exchange suggests an instinct to control and suppress, and that is precisely -- 18 years on -- what the Harper government is being accused of.
An on-line petition, called Voices-Voix, is now circulating. Some 1,500 individuals have signed it (including Margaret Atwood), along with more than 150 organizations -- from Amnesty International to Democracy Watch to the Quakers. The petition begins: "Since 2006 the Government of Canada has systematically undermined democratic institutions and practices, and has eroded the protection of free speech, and other fundamental human rights. It has deliberately set out to silence the voices of organizations or individuals who raise concerns about government policies or disagree with government positions. ... Organizations that disagree with the Government's positions and/or engage in advocacy have had their mandates criticized and their funding threatened, reduced or discontinued."
Case in point is KAIROS, a social justice organization that lost its funding after decades of CIDA support. Immigration minister Jason Kenney stunned KAIROS last December by calling it anti-Semitic. More finger-pointing from a government that argues, for example, that anyone not backing Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan is unpatriotic. This is discourse for licence plates, not Parliament.
The Writers' Union spoke out last fall when a B.C. author who had written a book critical of the Olympics was harassed by security officials, and when liberal American authors were detained at the Canadian border. Is there a pattern here?
The G20 summit, with its state police flavour, mass arrests and trampling of basic civil rights, made a kind of sense -- for ours is a government obsessed with order. But the summit was so excessive, so ... unCanadian. The quiet pride that once had Canadian travellers stitching our flag on their backpacks has vanished.
Ursula Franklin defines peace as the presence of justice and the absence of fear. Which is ascendant in our home and native land -- justice, or fear? Canada Day chest-beating and fireworks failed to counter other evidence that this country has morphed so radically that one has to wonder if Lester B. Pearson would, today, even recognize the place. The tar sands, our pathetic stance at the Copenhagen conference on climate change, the prison farms/super prisons debacle, ongoing asbestos mining, the shift from peacekeeper to major player in a dubious war, Afghan detainees: what's appalling, and indeed what has perhaps enabled all this, is our apathy. And there's a price to be paid for apathy.
A few months ago, Ned Franks, a retired political science professor and constitutional expert, spoke in the wake of the proroguing of Parliament (yet again). He gave compelling statistical evidence that the rapid turnover of MPs and senior ministry staff in recent years has left Parliament weak and dysfunctional. Parliament sits less now, and when things don't go the way the PM likes it, he just shuts it down. A power vacuum has been created, and the PMO is rapidly filling it.
"We should call him King Stephen the First of Canada," says Franks, "for that, in effect, is the way he is behaving."
I spent six years researching a book on philanthropy, and I became convinced tax dollars, wisely deployed, can help diminish the gap between rich and poor -- as is done in Scandinavian countries. Our government freely spends tax dollars on prisons, police and war machinery, while insisting "taxes" is a dirty word. After the G8 summit in Italy in July 2009, Harper opined, "I don't believe that any taxes are good taxes." Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson rightly called it "one of the most stunning, revealing and, frankly, ignorant statements ever made by a prime minister ... very, very scary socially and politically."
I interviewed many NGO staffers for my book, and I was struck by how carefully they feel they must tread.
Ursula Franklin likens democracy to a potluck supper in which everyone brings something, even if only a willingness to wash dishes. The Canadian government is offering a closed-door dinner, and only to those who share the ideology of the host.
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