Canadians wake up to the horror of Harper

by John F. Conway

John ConwayStephen Harper’s Canada, as laid out in two omnibus budget bills, is a very different country from the one Canadians embraced for years. It’s a land ruled by a shrinking and mean-spirited government that rushes to imprison people, curtails regulations protecting the public interest, and has nothing but bloody-minded callousness for the environmental consequences of unregulated economic growth. Meanwhile it arrogantly  struts on the world stage, where it rattles its rather small sabre.

This new reality is all about survival of the fittest, and there will be little help or comfort for those who fall by the wayside. The market is king, the arbiter of all things, but each of us is alone in this market. The guiding light has become caveat emptor — “buyer beware”.

This was a Canada that Harper described openly and bluntly for many years before winning power, yet it has taken some time for Canadians to grasp the reality of the prime minister’s long-held vision.

They now seem to have noticed that something is wrong.

In late 2012 and into 2013, as the nuts and bolts of the two omnibus budget bills were rolled out after proclamation, the Harper government faced widespread blowback across the country. As those directly affected — along with political journalists and commentators, and the general public — witnessed the impacts and implications of many of the measures, popular resistance grew. This resistance was expressed by the Opposition in the House of Commons, by a variety of scientists and experts in the areas affected, by civil servants and officers of Parliament, by popular organizations and even by the international community. Expressions of resistance therefore reached from the benches of the House of Commons, to the pavements on Parliament Hill, to streets across the country, and onto the world stage. Increasingly the media reported the impacts of the laws, putting the Harper government on the defensive.

The Idle No More movement, led by a new generation of activist aboriginal leaders and supported by many First Nations chiefs across Canada, astonished many and became a lightning rod for opposition to Harper’s new world. The movement grew like a wildfire thanks to sophisticated use of social media as an organizing tool. Thousands were mobilized in a campaign that lasted weeks, stretching into months. Idle No More hit the streets on Parliament Hill and all across Canada. Highways and rail lines were blockaded. Attawapiskat Chief Teresa Spence began a highly visible hunger strike on Parliament Hill, demanding a meeting between the chiefs and the prime minister.

The protest focused on six of the laws described as a “termination plan” for traditional treaty rights, including an attack on the collective and secure ownership of reserve lands. Deep anger was expressed about the laws degrading the regulation and protection of the environment, most urgently the draconian reduction in federal protection of Canada’s waterways.

The movement was stonewalled by Harper (though he was finally forced to meet the chiefs, promising nothing), and most media coverage was largely negative. Yet public opinion polls reported strong majority support for the movement among Canadians.

The Idle No More movement resonated with Canadians because it occurred in the context of a growing cascade of declarations of opposition and resistance to Harper’s plans from highly credible sources. Cuts to the number of federal government scientists and experts involved in research on the environment, drugs, food and consumer products; cuts in health benefits for refugees; the prevention of scientists employed by Ottawa from speaking publicly; the introduction of new codes of conduct which imposed “loyalty to the government” as the main obligation of government employees — all these and more resulted in hundreds of scientists and doctors taking to the streets in protest in major cities across Canada.

Officers of Parliament and dozens of federal civil servants became more openly critical of Harper’s laws and their consequences. Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page — already long a thorn in the side of the Harper government over reports to Parliament critical of a failure to report the full costs of the Afghan War and of the purchase of F-35 fighter jets, and repeatedly critical of the government’s deceptive economic forecasts — took the government to court over a failure to divulge full and timely budget information to his office.

Then there was the outgoing federal environment commissioner, who reported to Parliament that the Harper government’s measures failed to protect the health of Canadians — and the environment — from the pollution risks associated with the resource boom. Meanwhile the Office of the Correctional Investigator issued a special report, only the second such unusual step in 20 years, expressing concerns about the new laws leading to an abrupt rise in the incarceration of aboriginal Canadians.

On top of all that, Ottawa government lawyers began to leak information that the government was knowingly adopting laws in the full knowledge they constituted prima facie violations of The Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The first such high profile example was provided when a B.C. judge ruled that Harper’s human smuggling law was too broad and sweeping, and constituted a violation of the Charter. Legal scholars predict many more of Harper’s laws face similar fates.

The litany of blowback continues. Leaked e-mails by civil servants, including scientific experts employed by Ottawa and enforcement officers, reveal that the cuts to Environment Canada will prevent the enforcement of laws and regulations protecting Canadians from carcinogenic pollutants, not to mention the enforcement of clean air and water standards. Closing the world-class federal freshwater research station was a severe blow to their ability to monitor and preserve water quality.

Meanwhile, changes in the environmental laws and regulations will allow mining companies and oil developers to cancel regulatory permits requiring compensation for lost fish habitat.

Enforcement officers shared e-mails expressing concerns about the cuts to all programs essential to protecting the safety of the public: safety standards for air, water and rail travel; and the inspection of food, drugs and consumer products. Coming on the heels of the 2012 outbreak of E. coli in Alberta’s XL Foods beef processing plant (caused by cuts in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency), and new policies giving a pass to beef destined for the Canadian market while giving high priority to the inspection of beef destined for export, these further revelations provoked widespread public concern.

Deeply embarrassing for Canadians, the United Nations’ Right-to-Food Envoy publicly criticized Canada for laws and policy measures that will increase hunger and poverty in Canada. Since Harper’s ascension to prime minister, Canada has been on a downward slide on the UN’s measures of public well-being — measures which had, in the past, put Canada at or near the top of the list. In an interview that made the front page of the Globe and Mail, former prime minister Jean Chrétien sadly noted that Canada has lost status on the world stage.

Another blow to Harper’s reputation was delivered by the Commissioner of Elections Canada’s recommendation to the director of public prosecutions that charges be laid as a result of the investigation of the Robocalls voter suppression scandal. The nature and target of the recommended charges remain undisclosed at the time of writing, but most assume key figures in the Tory 2011 election team will be in involved.

The Harper government is in trouble. A February Nanos poll reported the Tories were in a slow downward slide during the previous months, bottoming at 31.5 per cent, 8.1 per cent down from the 2011 majority victory vote. Seven in 10 Canadians were not happy with Harper’s reconstruction of Canada.

But that won’t stop him.  Until the next election, his majority of trained seals guarantee his dictatorial power.