This summer, Catherine Lu decided to write up a list of reasons to vote against the Conservative Party of Canada in the current federal election. Over a period of 40 days, she came up with one new reason per day, which she posted to her Facebook page. In recognition of her labours, over the next few days we will republish them here:
Supporting our troops does not mean cutting their access to benefits when they need them the most, or requiring disabled veterans to submit to a demeaning bureaucratic process in order to receive benefits. Of the forty thousand Canadians who served in Afghanistan over 12 years, more than 2,000 were wounded in battle. In 2006, the Harper Conservative government changed the way it compensates the wounded, offering a lump sum payment rather than a lifetime pension. The change costs the government less in the long run, so will save Canadian taxpayers money (!), but introduces a significant inequality in lifetime benefits between soldiers severely wounded before or after April 2006 (to the tune of $1 million). A group of wounded veterans (including one who lost both legs in a mine blast in Afghanistan), who launched a class-action lawsuit against the change, argued that the lowered benefits for the wounded broke the promise that the Canadian government has made to members of the armed forces since World War One, that ‘they will be protected when they get maimed and their families will be looked after if they are killed.’ According to the legal response of the Harper Conservative government lawyers, ‘At no time in Canada’s history has any alleged ‘social contract’ or ‘social covenant’ having the attributes pleaded by the plaintiffs been given effect in any statute, regulation or as a constitutional principle written or unwritten.’ The Harper Conservative government, which characterizes this group of wounded veterans as driven by ‘pure economic interest,’ spent $700,000 fighting this legal battle.
Have you noticed that the media no longer publishes stories showing emotional farewells between members of the Canadian Armed Forces and their families? The Canadian public has not seen any farewell images of the 70 Canadian special-force soldiers now deployed in northern Iraq, or of the 600 troops in Kuwait, those on the front lines in the war against ISIS. The reason is that last October, ‘the Department of National Defence barred journalists from interviewing or photographing Canadian military personnel departing for Kuwait, saying it was concerned for the safety of the troops and their families.’ Journalists who accompanied Prime Minister Harper on his visits with these forces were warned that showing the faces of Canadian soldiers involved in the mission could make them and their families vulnerable to attacks by extremists; reporters also had to sign declarations not to publish or broadcast soldiers’ images in their reports. Imagine the confusion, then, when the security breach of these rules came from the Prime Minister’s Office! The PMO published two promotional videos on Harper’s video blog series, called ‘24/7’ (I kid you not!), of the Prime Minister’s recent visits to Iraq and Kuwait; and both videos revealed Canadian Armed Forces members’ faces! When questioned about this violation of security protocols, the PMO lied about having obtained the approval of the military to release the videos, before withdrawing the videos.
Why has there been no accountability for the 2005-7 policy of the Canadian armed forces to transfer detained persons to Afghan prisons that were widely considered torture factories? Did members of the Canadian armed forces commit war crimes by transferring prisoners to another country’s authorities in the knowledge that the prisoners will likely suffer torture? International humanitarian law obliges all states and their militaries to uphold duties of humanity that are owed at all times – from war to peace – to all human beings – whether they are enemy prisoners of war, detained insurgency suspects, or civilians. One of the key legacies of the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials is that governments – specifically the civilian officials holding key posts in governments – bear primary responsibility for ensuring that prisoners of war, detainees, civilians and any vulnerable persons under their control are treated properly. Not only are those who directly mistreat vulnerable persons responsible, but those officials in ruling governments who know of abuses and do not ensure protection, are also responsible. If criminal accountability was not a feasible option, political accountability surely was. Instead of calling on the then Defence Minister, Peter MacKay, to cooperate with the commission investigating allegations of detainee abuse, and instead of holding officials politically accountable, Prime Minister Harper closed down the commission and rewarded Peter MacKay by making him Minister of Justice.
Canadians expect the state to provide all its citizens with basic goods, such as access to clean drinking water and basic transportation infrastructure for social, economic and political life. Canadian federalism has not worked for the residents of the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation reserve for a century. A hundred years ago, the Ojibway community was moved to a man-made island, so that an aqueduct could be built to supply Winnipeg with drinking water. For 17 years now, the reserve (on the Manitoba-Ontario border) has been under a boil-water advisory. The city of Winnipeg, and the governments of Manitoba and Ontario have now committed to funding the construction of an all-weather road and bridge to connect the reserve to the mainland. Without a road, a water treatment plant to provide clean drinking water to the first nation is not possible. Canadian federalism can now finally work to correct this injustice to this Ojibway community. The only hold out, until very recently, has been the Harper Conservative federal government, which would not commit, in principle, to funding the construction of Freedom Road.
While the Harper Conservative government said it couldn’t decide to build the Shoal Lake road until the design study has been completed, despite the fact that practically everyone agrees that the road should be built, the Harper Conservative government has committed to building the highly controversial memorial to the ‘victims of communism’, despite the fact that practically no one wants it built on its current proposed location, and no design has been approved. In an attempt to ram through the project and create facts on the ground before the election, the Harper Conservative government made three new appointees to the board of directors of the National Capital Commission, 24 hours before it voted to give the green light to start decontamination of the proposed monument site. Luckily, thanks to a federal lawsuit filed by opponents, the NCC decided a couple of days ago to postpone the decision about the final design of the memorial until November, making it likely that no work on the monument site will start until after the election on October 19.
The Canadian Cancer Society is a well-known charity that supports people who have cancer, and tries to influence ‘government to pass public policies that will help prevent cancer and help people living with cancer.’ The Canadian Cancer Society’s research investments in 2013 totalled $38.3 million, $5.1 million (13%) of which went into prevention research. Imagine if the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) were to tell the Canadian Cancer Society that it can no longer help Canadians to prevent cancer, and that if the society continues to help people prevent cancer, it would no longer qualify for charitable status because helping to prevent cancer might benefit people who don’t have cancer! This is exactly what happened last year to Oxfam, the well-known anti-poverty charity. CRA officials informed Oxfam that while alleviating poverty was a charitable goal, ‘preventing poverty’ was not an acceptable goal for a charity, because ‘preventing poverty could mean providing for a class of beneficiaries that are not poor.’ Three years ago, Ottawa allocated extra money — up to $13 million now — to probe 60 charities dedicated mainly to environmental, development and human rights, as well as charities receiving donations from labour unions. What about Tribute to Liberty, the organization founded by longtime Conservatives in 2008 with a mission ‘to establish a Canadian memorial to commemorate the victims of Communism’? It received the status of a charitable organization in 2010 because, you know, working to build a controversial memorial that is the pet project of the Harper Conservative government is not political or partisan.
My parents lived in Mao’s China from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, so what it means to be a ‘victim of communism’ is somewhat apparent to me. Blatant disregard for the ‘rule of law,’ or ‘the restriction of the arbitrary exercise of power by subordinating it to well-defined and established laws’ was one major reason that ‘communist’ regimes could produce so many victims. Although Canadian foreign policy is supposedly all about promoting ‘democracy, human rights and the rule of law’, one would think that trying to keep open an island war prison “outside the law” (Guantánamo Bay), where prisoners were denied due process and interrogation methods were unrestrained by law, does not constitute helping to promote the rule of law abroad. But the Harper Conservative government did its very best to ensure that Guantánamo Bay would stay open, by refusing to take back a Canadian citizen, Omar Khadr, who at age 15 was the youngest inmate, and after ten years, was the last citizen from a Western country to be transferred from Guantánamo. When Khadr was freed on bail earlier this year, while appealing his convictions in the United States for war crimes, the Harper Conservative government expressed its disappointment ‘that a convicted terrorist has been allowed back into Canadian society without having served his full sentence.’ Despite the lip-service that Prime Minister Harper pays to the rule of law, he has never desired or been able to acknowledge or pursue accountability for the blatant disregard for the rule of law in the treatment of Omar Khadr since his capture in 2002. How vigorously the Prime Minister must have been shaking his head when he read the statement by retired lieutenant-general and Senator Roméo Dallaire and Dr. Shelly Whitman, directors of the Child Soldier Initiative (a charitable organization): ‘The treatment of Omar Khadr as a terrorist and not as a child soldier was wrong. Despite the efforts of many concerned Canadians, human rights advocates and child protection experts, Omar continued to languish in prison cell after prison cell. Yesterday, the upholding of Omar’s bail decision is a reminder of the importance of the judicial branch of our government, which upheld the rule of law.’
Canadians have now gotten used to the refrain, ‘Another year, another monster omnibus bill.’ It wasn’t always that way. According to Stephen Harper in 2005 (when he was not the Prime Minister), omnibus bills are undemocratic, untransparent, and “a contradiction to the conventions and practices of the House’. When all sorts of different legislative matters are put in one bill, Harper said, ‘In the interests of democracy, I ask how can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote on a block of such legislation?’ How indeed? But since ascending to power, the Harper Conservative government has passed at least a dozen omnibus bills. Omnibus bill C-38 from 2012 gutted Canada’s environmental laws, cut billions of dollars of health care funding, and weakened Canada’s food inspectors through job cuts. This year’s omnibus budget bill C-59 contained some measures related to taxation and finance, but also included ‘changes to veterans’ benefits, the creation of a new Parliament Hill police force, and an act to allow security officials to seize the passports of suspected terrorists.’ The Harper Conservative government has presented omnibus bills that were 450 pages long, and even a bill with 883 pages in 2010 that included everything from changes to Canada Post to changes to environmental assessments. Back in 1994, Stephen Harper, then an MP of the Reform Party, complained about an ‘omnibus’ bill presented by the Liberal governing party, lamenting that the ‘bill will ultimately go to only one committee of the House, a committee that will inevitably lack the breadth of expertise required for consideration of a bill of this scope.’ That bill was 21 pages long.
In a tyranny that cares about the law only as a form of window-dressing, a government can act in ways that violate existing rules, and then just rewrite those rules to render its acts legally permissible. In our nominal democracy, the Harper Conservative government has attempted this tyrannical move to escape accountability through rewriting rules by stealth, ie through omnibus bills. For example, in 2013, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper wanted to appoint Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court, and then was faced with a legal challenge about Nadon’s eligibility, he tried to effect a change in the rules regarding judges’ eligibility that would have made Nadon eligible, by putting the changes in an omnibus bill about the budget. The Supreme Court of Canada later ruled that Nadon was ineligible, and furthermore, that ‘the federal government can only change the eligibility requirements of the SCC’s judges with the unanimous consent of the provinces.’ This May’s omnibus budget bill included another attempt to change existing laws retroactively, this time in order to get the Harper Conservative government and the RCMP out of a deep mess involving its attempt to end the long-gun registry and destroy its data. Two months before the omnibus budget bill was presented, the federal information commissioner, Suzanne Legault, recommended that charges under the Access to Information Act be laid against the RCMP for its role in withholding and destroying the gun registry data. The charge concerns the RCMP refusing to disclose requested data from the registry when the Conservative legislation to end the long-gun registry was still being debated and not yet law, and its subsequent destruction of some data that should have been provided under the Access to Information Act. Instead of upholding Canadians’ right to know and charging the RCMP with violations of the Access to Information Act, the Harper Conservative government moved to rewrite retroactively the access to information law in a way that absolves the RCMP of any wrongdoing. By backdating the rewritten law to the day the Conservative government *introduced* legislation to end the gun registry, rather than the day the bill received royal assent, the new law ‘effectively alters history to make an old government bill come into force months before it was actually passed by Parliament.’
How can Canadians be confident that the elected representatives in the House of Commons have effective control of ‘the power of the purse’? The Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) is a non-partisan, independent office charged with providing independent, non-partisan analysis on the state of the nation’s finances, and the government’s estimates and trends in the Canadian economy, as well as estimates of the cost of any proposal under Parliament’s jurisdiction. This information enables elected representatives (who have to approve the budget) to hold the executive branch of government to account on economic matters, and decide on an appropriate economic plan for the country. The budget for the PBO under the Harper Conservative government (2013-14) was $2.8 million. The 2015 budget for the pre-election advertising to make the government’s Economic Action Plan look good was $7.8 million. In other words, the Harper Conservative government spent a lot more on cosmetics designed to make the government’s economic plan look good than it did on finding out whether or not its economic plan was actually good.
Catherine Lu is an Associate Professor of political theory at McGill University, and is currently a Visiting Senior Fellow in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).