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Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Hill Dispatches: Cutting jobs, sacrificing fish and jailing refugees

| May 2, 2012

From time to time, Hill Dispatches will scan the horizon to see what is happening now and what is coming soon. As the Conservatives try to re-make Canada in their own image, it is taking many individual stories to  form the big, and sometimes quite scary, story.

Job losses

The Public Service Alliance of Canada has started to publish what the government calls "workforce adjustment" information.

The union is reporting on the numbers of members in different job categories who have received notices saying they could lose their jobs. That number is now over 12,000 in total, with the largest number in the National Capital Region.

Cuts to Parks Canada of 1,689 jobs have been well publicized.

But there are many others

In fact, the job cuts are across the board -- in everything from health to environment, from correctional services to food safety inspection.

Among the hardest hit departments or agencies is the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), somewhat surprising for a government so concerned about security issues.  1,076 CBSA employees have received notices.

National Defence has taken a big hit as well, with 1,124 notices; as has Correctional Services, with 705.  Even the relatively small Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) has so far lost 106 positions.

All of this is extremely puzzling for a government that is making so much noise about law and order and tightening Canada's refugee and immigration system.

PSAC institutes a special levy on members

To deal with the fallout from all of these cuts, PSAC's members have agreed to a special levy on members of $5.00/month. This will cover revenue shortfalls that could result from the onslaught of job losses.

As it stands now, this levy is only a backup plan, to be implemented should the Government cuts be severe enough that they push PSAC's revenues off their anticipated levels.

The union leadership has undertaken to keep track of the effect job losses have on total membership and report every six months. It has prudent projections of a total membership of 170,000 (down from the current 186,000) with average member earnings of a little over $51,000.00

Government crippling its capacity to do analysis

The Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE) reports that 3,000 of its 13,000 members have received notices. This group includes economists, statisticians and analysts.

These cuts will, argue the union, end up costing more than they save. They will deprive the government of the information and analysis it needs to develop sound and cost-effective policies.

This, says Claude Poirier, CAPE's President, should not only worry people in government. It should worry us all. The ultimate result will likely be that self-interested private sector groups will have free rein to write government policy.

"The government openly admits that it consulted the oil industry before developing its policy," Poirier points out. "So, if the government wishes to take into account the oil lobby's thinking before it drafts its environmental policy, it needs analysts to perform due diligence and determine which of the oil industry's views are fact-based and which only serve to protect the interests of big oil."

Sacrificing fish

One of the scary aspects of the bizarre über omnibus bill disguised as a budget that the government brought to Parliament a little more than a month ago is that it will bring about huge program and policy changes, with very little opportunity for serious discussion or debate.

Take fish, for example.

Even former Mulroney Conservative Fisheries Minister Tom Siddon has spoken out against the radical re-writing of fisheries protection in this most recent Flaherty budget.

The Conservative budget bill will narrow fish habitat protection so that not all species in all habitats are protected. The only protected fish will now be those "that are part of a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery," or "fish that support such a fishery."

Keith Ashfield, the Fisheries Minister, tries to argue that the new streamlined regulations will only get rid of irritants, such as the Federal Government regulating the habitat in farmers' ditches.

But the new provisions go much further than that.

They will allow industrial and resource development that destroys all kinds of fish habitat, as long as the fish are not "economically important."

Many scientists have pointed out that an ecosystem is indifferent to economic considerations and destroying or damaging any part of an ecosystem can have unpredictable and perhaps damaging consequences on the whole system.

Three NDP members weighed in on this new destructive Conservative move: Nova Scotia's Robert Chisholm, Quebec's Phil Toone and British Columbia's Fin Donnelly.

As East Coast Fisheries Critic Toone puts it: "What is the purpose of Fisheries and Oceans if not to protect fish habitat. These changes to the Act strip the department of its powers to protect fish habitat, making it easier for big companies to push through major resource projects."

Refugees under attack

The Commons Immigration Committee is now considering the Government's proposed new refugee rules, Bill C-31.

This bill will replace Bill C-11, the "Balanced Refugee Reform Bill," that passed with all-party co-operation in the last Parliament. In a minority situation, the Conservatives had been forced to put water in their wine and pull back a number of their more draconian proposals, some of them possibly illegal.

In the latter category is the provision, now in Bill C-31, to incarcerate refugees who arrive by "irregular means" (meaning, for the most part, by boat, having paid so-called "people smugglers").

Montreal lawyer Mitchell Goldberg, speaking for the Quebec Bar Association, told the Committee that these incarceration provisions are certainly contrary to international law and probably contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights as well

But Conservative Members on the Committee did not seem impressed.

In fact, on a number of occasions during the question-and-answer portion of the meeting Conservative MPs tried to get Goldberg to shut up.

One such case happened when the NDP's new Immigration Critic, Jinny Sims, asked Goldberg about the infamous story of the ship full of German Jews, the St. Louis, that tried unsuccessfully to dock in a number of countries, including Canada, in 1939.

In the end, the Jewish passengers had to return to Nazi Germany where many perished in the Holocaust. Canada has since apologized for this incident.

Sims wanted Goldberg to explain what would have happened to the St. Louis under the rules of Bill C-31. 

The Montreal lawyer attempted to do so and started by saying: "I want to see my country remember the past not just by memorials and apologies, but by applying the lessons, today!"

Conservative MP Costas Menegakis then called a point of order and argued that the witness was not talking about the current Bill C-31, but speculating about what would have happened in 1939.

The Committee Chair, David Tilson -- who has been scrupulously fair throughout these proceedings -- ruled Menegakis out of order.

"The witness is only trying to answer the question," Tilson said.

And the witness proceeded to do just that.

The Committee will continue to hear witnesses this week.

On Thursday, the one and only Roma person invited to testify, Gina Csanyi-Robah of the Roma Community Centre in Toronto, wil appear.

Roxanne James, the Conservative Member for Scarborough Centre, is on the Committee. She is also Csanyi-Robah's MP.

James has been one of the most vocal in complaining about what she describes as "abuses" of the welfare system by so-called "bogus refugees."

James does not, as a rule, use the word "Roma," but her Conservative colleagues certainly know what she means, even if the Opposition members don't always seem to get her insinuations and challenge her.

It will be interesting to see what reception she gives her Roma constituent later this week.

Csanyi-Robah has a story to tell that is much different from the lurid insinuations about cheats and frauds, laced with barely disguised ethnic stereotypes, that Conservative MPs and some witnesses have been trafficking to the Committee.

And Csanyi-Robah will speak from real experience.

So far, not a single member of this Committee -- be he or she Opposition or Government member -- has mentioned ever having even met a single Roma person.

Gina Csanyi-Robah testifies on Thursday.

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