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February 17, 2011

Can the Egyptians Come to Canada to Liberate Us?

Dr. Jason Kunin

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As I sat glued to Al Jazeera for two weeks watching the Egyptian revolution unfold from my home in Toronto, I must confess to having experienced feelings of jealousy. How nice it must be, I thought, to live a country where people want democracy.

Not so in Canada, it seems. 

In a piece of news that could not have been better timed to deliberately taunt those of us who had been caught up in the Egyptian euphoria, the day Mubarak stepped down and Egyptians were dancing in the streets with jubilation, a new Ekos poll showed the Harper Conservatives with a two percent increase in support and a decisive lead going into the next election.

True, 37.3 percent was not exactly a ringing endorsement, though with our lopsided plurality voting system, a spineless opposition, a servile corporate media, an apathetic population (40 percent of whom don’t even bother to vote), and a colonial governance structure left over from the nineteenth century, it’s enough to ensure another few years of one of the most authoritarian governments this country has seen.  And that’s saying a lot.

The State of Canadian “Democracy”

For those who haven’t been paying attention – and too many Canadians haven’t – Stephen Harper is no friend of democracy. 

Not a lot is known of Harper the man. 

He’s an intensely a private person whose penchant for secrecy has led some to wonder if he is a disciple of Leo Strauss, the anti-liberal political philosopher who believed that since individuals rarely do things for the right reasons, good governance was best left to a small elite who would need to rely on secrecy and deception to manipulate the masses toward desirable ends.  This could certainly describe Harper’s five year command of the country.

As a political manager, it’s become routine to hear Harper called a “control freak.” 

Canada is a control freak’s dream.  Its system of government, designed in the nineteenth century to facilitate the pacification of the indigenous population and the rapid settlement of land, lends itself toward a centralization of control that produces what the journalist Jeffrey Simpson has called a “friendly dictatorship” (though most of these “dictatorships” have been anything but “friendly” to Canada’s indigenous peoples).

Past Liberal prime ministers such as Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien increased the concentration power in the Prime Minister’s Officer, but Harper has taken this centralization of control to new heights. 

Policy in the current government is developed by unelected advisors, many of them under thirty, who are organized into “silos” that meet only with the prime minister, never with each other, so that only Harper and his chief of staff know everything. 

Cabinet ministers take marching orders from the PMO, their public statements tightly controlled. 

Civil servants and elected Conservative MPs alike must submit Message Event Proposal requests to the PMO before appearing at events, laying out exactly what they will say, what they will wear, and the backdrop against which they will appear. 

In 2010 Harper issued an order forbidding staffers and cabinet ministers to appear before parliamentary committees. 

For that matter, Harper has gone out of his way to sabotage the work of the parliamentary committees that examine government legislation. 

In 2007, his office distributed a 200-page manual to Conservative committee chairs instructing them on how to select party-friendly witnesses, solicit testimony that favoured the government’s agenda, and derail debates with obstructive procedural delay tactics.  It also instructed committee chairs to storm out of the room and shut down committee meetings when debate turned overly critical of the government.

Harper has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid debate, not the least of which was to shut down parliament – twice – once to avoid defeat by a Liberal-NDP coalition, the second time to avoid embarrassing questions about the role of Canadian forces in handing over Afghan detains to be tortured. 

Despite a compliant media which, at any rate, has seen its access to government ministers severely restricted, the Harper government has reportedly been working behind the scenes to create its own private ministry of propaganda through the creation of new right-wing television news station that critics have dubbed “Fox News North.” 

The station would be financed by Pierre Karl Péladeau, CEO of the Quebecor and Sun Media empires.  Though the application for a license was rejected by the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, the CRTC is now looking to change its broadcast criteria to allow for the broadcasting of false information as long as it does not cause “substantial public harm.”

Though he has led two minority governments, Harper has been able to rule as if he had a majority by keeping his opposition perpetually off balance, turning every motion into a confidence motion (thereby exploiting their fears of an election), and issuing attacks ads against opposition leaders even between elections. 

The nascent Liberal-NDP coalition in 2008 was derailed through a massive public miseducation campaign that successfully convinced voters that such an act would amount to a “coup.”

His thirty-six Senate appointments since taking power in 2006 have given his party a majority in the upper chamber that has helped him squash bills passed by the elected House of Commons, such as the Climate Change Bill C-311, which was killed in the Senate in November 2010 without debate.  A similar fate is likely to meet the Transgender Protection Bill C-389, which just passed in the House of Commons last week.

Not that it matters, of course, since the Harper government has already demonstrated that it ignores resolutions passed by parliament when it doesn’t like them.   

A resolution allowing U.S. war resisters to stay in Canada has been passed twice in parliament – one in 2008, and again in 2009 – yet the Canada Border Services Agency continues to deport war resisters. 

Another motion passed in 2007 requiring the government to sign a draft agreement with Mexico and the U.S. to protect Canada’s water from bulk export has similarly been ignored.

The Harper government also ignores Supreme Court rulings when they don’t suit their political interests, as it did with a 2009 ruling instructing the Harper government to seek the repatriation of Canadian citizen Omar Khadr from Guantanamo Bay.   It has still failed to do that.

Though Harper once called information “the lifeblood of democracy,” his party has made a mockery of the calls they made when still in opposition for more “transparency” by setting up endless roadblocks to accessing information. 

The Harper government has also not been above doctoring released documents, as the House Speaker ruled it did this week in trying to disguise the fact that the government had interfered with the grant approval process of the Canadian International Development Agency, which ran afoul of the Harper government’s pro-Israel policies by approving grants to one Israeli and two Palestinian and human rights organizations.  (The word “not” was clumsily inserted before the word “approved.”) 

Other times, as in the case of redacted documents concerning the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, anything that can be used to incriminate the government is blacked out beyond comprehension.

At times it seems as if the Harper government has declared a war on information, or what we might call “facts.” 

In 2009 they announced massive cuts to research funding, thereby delivering a blow to scientists measuring the effects of climate change, something that Harper and much of his political base don’t believe in and that their bankrollers in the Alberta oil industry want to ignore.  

It is not surprising that a man who has referred to Human Rights Commissions as “totalitarian” would display a callous indifference, even hostility, to human rights.   

Women’s rights have taken a hit, with across-the-board cuts to women’s advocacy organizations, the gutting of pay equity legislation, the cancelling of the national day care program, the removal of the words “gender equality” from the mandate of Status of Women Canada, and the refusal to fund abortions in overseas maternal health programs. 

The government also ended funding for the Court Challenges Program, which gave marginalized groups the ability to fight for their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

Gay rights have not fared better, which is not surprising given the Conservatives’ evangelical political base and its ties to the homophobic president of Canada Christian College, Charles McVety, who once boasted, "I can pick up the phone and call Harper and I can get him in two minutes."

One of the first resolutions the Harper government introduced upon taking power in 2006, though it lost in a free vote, sought to revoke the same-sex marriage law through a reassertion of the “traditional” definition of marriage. 

When the Tourism Minister, Diane Ablonczy approved a grant for Toronto’s Gay Pride Parade in 2009, her status in cabinet was promptly downgraded.  The new citizenship guide for new Canadians now omits anything to do with LGBT rights.

Perhaps more seriously, the government has undermined the value of Canadian citizenship by ignoring its obligations to Canadians abroad when they happen to be Muslim, as in the case of the Canadian-born Omar Khadr, the fifteen-year-old child soldier captured by American forces in Afghanistan in 2001 who remains today the only Western national who has not yet been repatriated back to his home country.  (A plea bargain made in 2010 will see him finally transferred to a Canadian prison later this year.)

Then there was the case of Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen arrested in case of mistaken identity in Sudan whose own government refused to issue him a passport home despite being cleared of charges by the Sudanese government, the RCMP, and CSIS.  In fact, the government spent $800,000 in legal fees to fight his return home while he lived in limbo for over a year in the Canadian embassy in Sudan.

Refugees in Canada have fared much worse, as the immigration and citizenship department of one of Harper’s most powerful cabinet ministers,

Jason Kenney, has tightened refugee eligibility criteria and accelerated deportations.  They have dramatically stepped up the number of police raids, particularly at workplaces, and immigration enforcement officials now routinely pose as community workers to enter low-income house and women’s shelters. 

Under Kenney, Canada’s border controls have become highly politicized.  In 2009, the British MP George Galloway was declared a “security threat” for his role in leading a convoy of aid into the blockaded Gaza Strip and was barred from entering Canada.  The decision was later overturned by court order.  Even more absurd is when, later the same year, the U.S. journalist Amy Goodman was detained by Canada border security because it was feared she might criticize the Vancouver Olympics. 

Kenney’s participation in the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism, which refused to accept depositions from groups such as the Canadian Arab Federation and Independent Jewish Voices Canada whose views did not confirm their predetermined conclusions, underscored the Harper government’s fervent support for Israel and its attempt to criminalize all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic hate speech. 

Indeed, sometime it seems that Harper believes he was elected prime minister of Israel. 

When Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, the Harper government announced it was cutting off aid to Hamas even before Israel did. 

The Israeli bombing of Lebanon that killed 1000 Lebanese and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure was called by Harper “a measured response” to Hezbollah’s capture of three Israeli soldiers in a cross border raid. 

Last year, Harper pledged before the Inter-Parliamentary Committee to Combat Anti-Semitism that he would defend Israel “whatever the cost” to Canada, a statement so clearly at odds with his role as prime minister that it could be reasonably considered a declaration of treason. 

The speech provoked on-line columnist Murray Dobbin to ask if Harper was mentally sound.

“Harperland,” as the political commentator Lawrence Martin calls it in his book of the same name, is a place removed from reality and governed by a circular logic of its own. 

Despite a plummeting crime rate, for example, the Harper government is investing millions – perhaps billions – of dollars in the construction of new prisons.  (The exact cost is a mystery since the government has refused to disclose it, citing “cabinet confidentiality.”)

The policy has been justified by the nonsensical claim of Treasury Board president Stockwell Day that Canada is seeing an “alarming rise” in “unreported crime.” 

The prisons are only one warning of the possible police state to come. As G20 leaders met in Toronto during the summer of 2010 to plan the “austerity measures” that would further erode the wages, working conditions, and living standards of ordinary Canadians, $1.1 billion dollars was spent turning the city into a temporary police state, resulting in the suspension of civil liberties, the arbitrary arrest and brutalization of over 1000 people, and a host of police toys, such as sound cannons and street cameras, that are now permanent tools in the Toronto police arsenal.

There has been opposition to the Harper agenda – some admirable mobilizing around the Vancouver Olympics and the G20, spontaneous protests over the “proroguing” of parliament in 2008 and 2009 – yet perversely, protests have the effect of making him more popular with his base, which Lawrence Martin has noted “never drops below 33 percent” support. 

The more he attacks women, the poor, Aboriginals, queers, unions, Muslims, refugees, the environment, liberals, marginalized youth, and so forth, the more popular he becomes with his hard-core base.

The more resistance he encounters – and the more draconian his response to that resistance is – the more he is able to portray himself and his party as the upholders of law and order against the unruly mobs. 

Harper is a shrewd player who understands well that the politics of division – of pitting one part of the population against the other – can enable him to exploit the weaknesses in our antiquated electoral system, in which it does not so much matter how many votes you get, but where you get them and how they’re distributed.

It’s enough to make me hope that maybe the Egyptians can come here and spread democracy.

Jason Kunin is a Toronto teacher and writer. He can be reached at .

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