Do democracy and freedom begin at home for Prime Minister Stephen Harper?
Recently the Prime Minister told Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych he will be judged on his actions, not words, as violence against the country’s pro-democracy protesters steadily escalates. Harper signed a joint statement at the North American leaders summit in Toluca, Mexico, saying “[the leaders] agreed they will continue to monitor the situation closely to ensure that actions mirror words.”
The Prime Minister also called for an emergency debate in Parliament this week, saying “we understand that this violence is occurring because the majority of the population is very worried about the steps taken by their government that very much remind them of their anti-democratic and Soviet past.”
While Canadians will no doubt be relieved to see the country and its leadership take a meaningful stance against the oppression and violence of President Yanukovych’s regime, there’s sure to be some cognitive dissonance associated with Harper as a ‘democracy-for-the-people’ spokesperson here at home.
In fact, Harper has been throwing his political weight around a lot lately. Including during a trip to Israel.
In January Harper addressed the Knesset in Jerusalem during a high profile trip where he lavished praise on Israel as a bastion of democracy in a troubled region. (You can see the fully edited and polished Harper-esque version on the Prime Minister’s new newsfeed 24/7).
During his address Harper scattered the words “democracy” or “democratic” more than 10 times in the relatively short speech. The word “freedom” was also liberally applied as he lauded Israel’s leadership.
Interestingly, Harper threw in a little aside about political dissent when he said, “no state is beyond legitimate questioning or criticism. Indeed, Israel as a democratic state makes such criticism a part of your national life.”
It’s refreshing to see a Canadian leader sticking up for democratic values abroad and one can argue more leaders should do it. But wouldn’t it be nice if Harper also supported some of those high-minded values at home?
At least it would be good to know how Harper defines “legitimate questioning or criticism” here at home when it comes to, say, energy development or pipeline infrastructure in Canada. Are criticisms still legitimate if they come from environmentalists or First Nations groups?
Because when you look back over the past several years you can see all calls for democracy are equal when it comes to the Harper government; just some calls are more equal than others.
Harper has his own unique style of suppressing democratic dissent in this country, a particular flare for beefing up the executive and legislative branches of power in order to hold 'democracy' in check. All things in moderation, after all.
Take the scaled-up attack on charities as an example.
Federal tax authorities are aggressively auditing some of the government’s most articulate and pointed critics, including the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, the Pembina Foundation, and the Ecology Action Centre.
We now know that Ottawa is giving the Canada Revenue Agency a cool $13.4 million to investigate charitable organizations, a probe that will now extend beyond 2017, according to documents obtained by DeSmog Canada through Access to Information legislation. The investigation spending in an otherwise parsimonious budget is a sharp boost from the $8 million publically announced in the 2012 budget.
But it could pay off. Ottawa seems to have a new victim.
Environmental Defence, which has been “working since 1984 to protect Canadians' environment and human health,” is on the verge of losing its charitable status under the taxman’s probe. Another organization, Physicians for Global Survival, was the first organization to loose its charitable status – the one group out of over 900 investigated.
"They have told us that, yes, more or less that they consider that things that we've been doing for 30 years are things that they now feel are not charitable," Tim Gray, the executive director of Environmental Defence, said in a Toronto Sun report.
This haranguing against green groups has deep roots. Harper and his ministers have long worked to link environmental organizations to terrorism or to mischaracterize groups as fronts for well-funded American interests that threaten Canadian domestic energy supplies.
“I think we’ll see significant American interests trying to line up against the Northern Gateway project, precisely because it’s not in the interests of the United States. It’s in the interests of Canada,” Harper said in 2012, as recounted in the book, The Longer I’m Prime Minister.
“They’ll funnel money through environmental groups and others in order to slow it down,” he said.
The sentiment is strange when you consider the oilsands are important for American oil interests, as is evidenced in the drawn out battle for the Keystone XL pipeline, destined to supply U.S. refineries with Albertan oil. The resentment of foreign interests also seems misplaced when you consider growing Chinese ownership in the oilsands and significant Chinese state investment in the Northern Gateway pipeline.
One this is certain: it was after these anti-environmental group statements that the Harper government directed the Canada Revenue Agency to target the legitimate dissent of some of Canada’s most prominent and respected environmental charities.
Columnist Mitchell Anderson, writing in the Tyee, opened a recent column with a pointed question: “Is Canada getting creepy?”
Mitchell outlined the CSIS affair, including Chuck Strahl’s resignation as chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, watchdog for the country’s powerful spying apparatus. Strahl resigned after his role as a lobbyist for the Northern Gateway pipeline project came to light. As Mitchell wrote, this was “an obvious conflict given that CSIS was spying on anti-pipeline activists – in partnership with the RCMP and private oil companies.”
At the same time as the crackdown on the environmental NGO sector, the Harper government has also vanished some of Canada’s most crucial environmental laws, expedited approvals for major energy projects and defanged the National Energy Board, which now has strict limits on how the public can participate in the project review process.
Critics have accused the Harper government of engaging in undemocratic politics. This lengthy list, compiled by Lawrence Martin, outlines all the times this government was found to behave in anti-democratic ways (contempt of Parliament, prorogation of Parliament, weakened watchdogs, abuse of process, suppression of research, document tampering and more) at a time when 62 per cent of Canadians felt the country was in a state of crisis.
That was in 2011, before the Harper government won its majority. By all accounts things have only gotten worse.
So while we’re working hard to protect civil dissent and promote democracy worldwide, let’s not forget to fight for the same at home.