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:
When I’m planning a large party, I try to get details on things such as how many people are coming and what kinds of drinks and food they prefer, and so on. No one wants to be short on food or drink or, at my age, have too much leftover dessert. Governing a country – at municipal, regional, provincial and federal levels – also requires accurate information on what citizens need and how policies are functioning, so that government resources can be spent wisely, appropriately and efficiently. In 2010, the Harper Conservative government eliminated the mandatory long-form census, which was the most effective means of getting solid information on the Canadian population. As a Globe and Mail Editorial noted this February, ‘we know less about Canada in 2011 than we did about Canada in 2006 [when the last mandatory long-form census was conducted]. Who thinks that’s a good idea?’ And the switch from a highly effective to a highly ineffective means of information gathering actually cost more money: ‘The 2011 voluntary household survey increased errors, reduced accuracy, chopped the response rate by 30 per cent – and cost an extra $22-million. Congratulations: The Harper government figured out how to spend more for less.’
A few years ago, federal scientists were studying the problem of ‘rock snot’, and found that its dramatic increase was due to ‘global climate change factors’. The Canadian Press requested to interview the federal scientist who co-authored the study, but instead of an interview, it got ‘110 pages of emails to and from 16 different federal government communications operatives,’ about whether or not the Environment Canada scientist was permitted to talk with the media about the study findings (which had just been published). Canadians (and scientists) want science to be done in the public interest, and to have consequent scientific information and data made accessible to the public through the media. How can Canadians trust that government policies are based on sound scientific evidence, or have any intelligent, evidence-based debates about policy, if scientists are not able to communicate their findings to the public, and are not protected from political interference? Although the Harper Conservative government claims that no muzzling of scientists has been happening at the research level, ‘there has been a significant drop in National Research Council publication numbers, from nearly 1800 in 2006 to 570’ in 2012.
Alberta declared an agricultural disaster in late August, expecting crop yields to be 25 to 30 per cent below the five-year average. Aggressive, out-of-control wildfires have been raging this summer in Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia’s southern Interior, and in the Northwest Territories. Is the Harper Conservative government committing resources to support scientific study of the causes of drought and how to mitigate their effects? On the contrary, in March 2012, the Harper Conservative government pulled the plug on the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS), which was the main funding body (started in 2000) for university-based climate and weather research. Among many other things, the CFCAS produced a systematic examination of the 2001-2 drought in the Prairies, Canada’s worst natural disaster to date, which caused 41,000 jobs to be lost, and nearly 6 billion dollars in damages. The report noted that ‘drought causal factors are not well understood. The large-area atmospheric and oceanic patterns suspected to cause previous major droughts were distinctly different than those associated with these recent droughts. This suggests that a better understanding of the causal factors is needed to reduce our vulnerability by providing early warning.’ Have we made any progress on understanding and combatting these causal factors of drought? It’s hard to say. In July, ‘A CBC crew booked an interview with drought-watch federal scientist Trevor Hadwen about the weather in Alberta. The scientist agreed to the interview and a camera operator went to meet him. In the end though, he didn’t talk at all about anything drought-related or otherwise. Media relations wouldn’t give him the approval.’
Before you go for that dessert, you might think about whether the Harper Conservative government really cares about Canadians’ health. Scientific evidence shows that sugar is a main culprit in several common diseases, including diabetes and heart disease. Canadians consume an average of 104 grams (26 teaspoons) of sugar per day. The World Health Organization recommends that people try to limit their sugar intake to approximately 25 grams daily (equivalent to 6-7 teaspoons), or at most to 50 g (12-13 teaspoons) daily. Last month, Health Canada released the Harper Conservative government’s proposals for improving nutrition information on food labels. The good news, from a nutritional perspective, is that the proposed new labels would group sugars together, and provide, for the first time, a new % DV (daily value) for sugars. The bad news: Health Canada seems to be using 100 grams (25 teaspoons) as the recommended daily sugar intake!
Canadians have known for quite a while now that inhaling asbestos can cause cancer and other diseases. Mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure, has been the ‘most common cause of workplace deaths in Canada for every year between 2007 and 2012.’ In that time period, however, the Harper Conservative government continued to defend the export of chrysotile, a form of asbestos, to developing countries, and Health Canada’s website continued to endorse the claim that chrysotile was safer than other forms of asbestos. Finally, only in July of this year, Health Canada changed its website to inform Canadians of what they could have figured out from reading the newspapers over the past decade. Even now, the Harper Conservative government has not committed to a policy to ban the import, export, or use of asbestos within Canada.
Do Canadians want to harm workers, wildlife, and our waters by approving the use of toxic chemicals in the environment? What a silly question. And yet, the Harper Conservative government is currently moving to approve Corexit EC9500A and EC9580A, chemical dispersants used in oil spills, which are currently effectively prohibited in Canada. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion on April 20, 2010 that led to the largest marine oil spill (3 million barrels) in history, British Petroleum used Corexit EC9500A in its attempt to clean up the oil spill. Of 48,000 workers who did the clean up, thousands became ill, with burning lungs and skin blisters. According to the Harper Conservative government, Corexit EC9500A and EC9580A are ‘practically non-toxic’, but this result is based on asking how toxic products are relative to each other, and only means that these versions of Corexit are the least toxic of a highly toxic bunch of chemicals. (Recall that this is how chrysotile asbestos was found to be ‘innocuous’, compared to other types of asbestos).
One of the most significant ways that Canadian women’s lives have improved is due to our ability to access effective tools for family planning, including contraception and abortion. According to the UN, 220 million women in the world are deprived of access to family planning tools, such as condoms, birth control pills or safe abortion services. These women ‘get pregnant at a younger age, some in child marriages, which puts them at greater risk of complications. They can’t space out their pregnancies enough to fully recover in between, putting their children’s health at risk. And those who turn to unsafe abortions risk dying from badly performed procedures.’ For example, girls who give birth before their 15th birthday are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. Two million girls under 15 give birth each year, with about 90 per cent of these pregnancies coming out of early marriages. Twenty million women have unsafe abortions every year in poor countries, some 47,000 of whom die of complications (close to 13% of all maternal deaths). Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has been lauded for the Muskoka Initiative, which pledges, over five years, billions of dollars towards improving maternal and child health among the world’s poor. But only 1.4 per cent of Canada’s funding under the Muskoka Initiative has gone to birth control, and the government’s overall funding for sexual and reproductive health overseas remains at about four per cent of its overall international assistance, far less than the agreed target of 10 per cent. The Harper Conservative government has also prohibited the use of any funds for abortions, even for overseas projects that allow war rape victims and child brides to obtain an abortion. Would Harper’s Conservative government dare to deny Canadian women the tools to address such evident humanitarian needs? Could it base its reproductive policies in Canada on denials of overwhelming evidence that show that giving women the ability to decide how many children they have is vital to improving their families’ lives, as well as for general economic development? Despite all the evidence that access to family planning tools is crucial in the fight against poverty and women’s subjection, the Harper Conservative government feels quite comfortable continuing to deprive the world’s poor women of the tools they need to save themselves.
When did it become so hard for Canadians to do the right thing? In November 2012, the Harper Conservative government let down the grandmothers in Canada who were trying to help grandmothers in Africa burdened with caring for the orphans of AIDS victims. Many of those African grandmothers had to watch their grandchildren suffer and die from AIDS, since only 42 per cent of the estimated 1.5 million infants born worldwide to mothers with HIV receive the antiretroviral (ARV) treatments needed to prevent transmission of the disease, and less than 28% of children who end up needing ARV drugs actually get access to them. In 2012, the Harper Conservative government had a unique opportunity to become a true leader on newborn, child and maternal health, by passing Bill C-398, which would have reformed Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR), mainly by eliminating red tape, to make it easier for generic-drug companies to sell cheap, life-saving medication to people in poor countries who suffer from AIDS, malaria and TB. Not even Canada’s brand-name drug manufacturers were opposed to seeing Bill C-398 progress through Parliament. International legal experts testified that the bill was consistent with Canada’s international obligations under World Trade Organization rules. But the Harper Conservatives ‘engaged in a prolonged campaign of misinformation and intimidation of its members to ensure that the proposed legislation was defeated.’
If there is any case that demonstrates the Harper Conservative government’s toxic combination of wrecking cooperative federalism and ignoring scientific evidence at the expense of the public interest, it is the Harper Conservative government’s continued attempt, since 2008, to prevent the creation of supervised safe injection sites that have been proven to save lives and improve health. In 2008, the Harper government tried to close Vancouver’s Insite clinic, a supervised safe injection facility for drug users that connected them with health care services such as drug counselling. The Supreme Court of Canada in a unanimous 9-0 decision ruled in 2011 that the evidence that such sites saved lives and improved health was compelling, and that there was no evidence that such sites weakened Canada’s anti-drug laws or increased crime or drug use in local neighbourhoods. The judgement ordered the Minister of Health to allow such sites to be exempt from drug laws, noting that the ‘Minister’s refusal to grant those exemptions would also, given the right facts, be an ‘arbitrary’ and ‘grossly disproportionate’ violation of the Charter right to life, liberty and security of the person.’ This year, this fight has continued as the Harper Conservative government passed Bill C-2, the ‘Respect for Communities Act’, which critics say was designed to block the creation of safe injection sites. According to the Canadian Nurses Association, ‘Despite the evidence and the direction given by the Supreme Court [in 2011], Bill C-2 seeks to impose unnecessary and excessive barriers to establishing supervised injection facilities.’ I guess according to the Harper Conservative government, everyone has a right to life, except Canadians who suffer from drug addiction.
Deep down, Canadians must have known that this was going to happen. One of those federal scientists, muzzled for too long, was going to break. When Canadian scientists get mad, they turn to writing and performing folk songs. So it was with Tony Turner, a physical scientist, whose last assignment for Environment Canada was studying migratory birds, and who is also a long-time singer and songwriter. Now Environment Canada has put him on administrative leave with pay, while investigating whether he has violated the Values and Ethics Code of the Public Sector because of his participation in his song Harperman, which is critical of the Harper Conservative government record. Why didn’t Turner take to heart the official memo being sent to public servants informing them that, “you are a public servant 24/7”, and warning them against any activities critical of the government during the election campaign? It could be because he knew that the Supreme Court of Canada, in a 1985 ruling, held that while public servants have a duty to exercise restraint in their actions that criticize public policy, “a government employee is as free as a private citizen, however, to criticize government policies unrelated to his or her job or department.”
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).