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Hill Dispatches: What a week! (and not just because of the C-38 all-nighter)

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A lot happened this week on Parliament Hill and in national politics.

--Human rights activists warned that Canada's military and economic ties to Central America and Mexico risk worsening the plight of women in the region, who are already suffering from drug war-related murders and sexual violence.

--The organization Democracy Watch publicly complained that the federal Auditor General is failing to fulfill his legal duties by not adequately auditing the $500 million spent by MPs annually.

--Public Safety Minister Vic Toews tabled new firearms regulations and told gun shops they will NOT have to keep point-of-sale data on long guns. He made that announcement despite the fact that keeping that data had been the practice since long before the gun registry even existed. During the debate on abolition, many scrap-the-registry folks argued that the long gun registry was not needed because we would always have the point-of-sale information.

--Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's office issued a rare public statement complaining about a newspaper story (in Montreal's La Presse) on a woman who faces deportation to Colombia. The woman's husband can stay (and cannot risk returning to Colombia); the family will be split by the deportation. The Minister's office took the nearly unprecedented step of releasing what some lawyers say could be confidential information from the woman's file, in order to discredit her.

--Still on immigration: in the West African country of Benin the Canadian government boasts it helped nab about 150 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who, the government claims, were ready to set sail for Canada. The would-be refugees were sent back to that well-known bastion of liberal democracy and human rights, Sri Lanka. Over more than three decades, Canada has accepted the overwhelming majority of Sri Lankan Tamils who have come here seeking refuge status. Despite that, Kenney, his officials and some in the mainstream media describe this thwarted group as "illegal immigrants."

Red Deer River; cell phones and cancer; election court cases

--Bonnie and Gord Johnston of Sundre, Alberta came to Ottawa to plead with MPs to remember the victims of environmental disasters such as the Red Deer River oil spill. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May conveyed their message to the Commons: "remember that when a pipeline leaks it is not just the environment that is devastated, it is families, it is lives. Their beautiful river became a flood of oil that has now contaminated their entire property. Bonnie and Gord [want] members of Parliament to please bear in mind what happens when environmental regulations are weakened."

--Conservative MP Terence Young, from Oakville, Ontario, rose in the House to lambaste corporate giant Bell. He told the Commons that since cell phones and their antennae could be cancer-causing, "the people of Oakville do not want cellular antennae that broadcast electromagnetic radiation located near their homes...[etc.]" Young said that Rogers and Telus have got the message, but that "Bell Canada has placed powerful antennae 11 metres from a child's bedroom and over the heads of our firefighters and refuses to move them. This is intolerable!"

--Bob Rae announced that he will not seek the Liberal leadership and received a standing ovation in the House. Activists in both the NDP and Liberal Parties started chattering more intensely than ever about some sort of merger or plan for cooperation between the two parties - before the next election.

--The Supreme Court of Canada refused Conservative Ted Opitz's efforts to get his appeal heard as late as possible, and decided to, unusually, hear the case in July. Opitz is appealing the lower court ruling that the election in his riding, Etobicoke Centre, was flawed and must be done over.

--The Council of Canadians submitted its and the citizen applicants' responses to the Conservative motions that the eight robo-call cases before the Federal Court be dismissed. The Court will hear the arguments on dismissal on June 25. The cases before the Federal Court allege that the election results in eight ridings should be nullified because many voters received robo-calls giving them false polling place information. The Conservative motions to dismiss made reference to the Council of Canadians' long opposition to Conservative Party policies, and argued that the Council, in supporting these citizen court cases, could "profit" from them through enhanced fundraising. The Council's and the applicants' motions argue that the Conservative Party submissions "represent a classic ‘divert and defame' strategy, are frivolous and vexatious and a waste of the Court's time and resources."

Hunger in the Sahel; Court rules against Kenney: OECD says "Dutch Disease" -- si!

--A Humanitarian Coalition, made up of five leading Canadian aid agencies, launched a joint appeal to help the people of the Sahel region of West Africa survive drought and food shortages. More than 18 million people in that region -- which includes Chad, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso -- are at risk of severe hunger. Patricia Erb, President and CEO of Save the Children Canada said: "We are coming together to ask generous Canadians to support our efforts and to encourage their friends and family to do the same." The Coalition's members are Oxfam, Save the Children, CARE and PLAN Canada.

--Yet more on immigration: the Federal Court ruled that Immigration Minister Kenney may not be able to wipe away the 280,000 strong skilled worker backlog with the swipe of his hand. 900 skilled workers waiting patiently in the queue to get into Canada brought suit against Kenney because of his plan to simply dump their applications to be immigrants, and they won. However, there are intimations the government may ignore the court ruling, to which NDP Immigration Critic Jinn Simms responded: "This government has a habit over and over again of ignoring legislation and ignoring the courts and I would say that we've got to go back. These people are professional people and we need professional people in this country. They applied following our rules... In other words, get them a date when they could come here."

--The OECD's report on Canada, released, this week, said that Canada is, indeed, afflicted with the "Dutch disease." It is true, the OECD said, that Canada's manufacturing exports have been badly hurt by a dollar driven higher by energy exports. The Paris-based economic organization suggested a number of solutions, including increased equalization payments and some form of carbon tax. Somewhat surprisingly, the Conservatives did not accuse the OECD researchers of being socialist-elitist Parisians who should get back to eating cheese. Finance Minister Flaherty said he was pleased the OECD had noted the "strength of the Canadian economy" and simply walked away from the microphone when asked about Dutch disease.

And that's just a sample of what happens in a week in the life of Canadian democracy!

Plus, oh yes, the Commons passed Bill C-38, the massive omnibus, do-everything bill, disguised as a "budget implementation bill."

That bill completely guts the federal environmental oversight role. It repeals landmark Mulroney and Chrétien era legislation that put in place a professional, federal environmental assessment capacity.

C-38 even radically changes the federal Fisheries Act, of which former Progressive Conservative Fisheries Ministers John Fraser and Tom Siddon were proud stewards.

And the budget implementation bill does much more, of course, including raising the age for Old Age Security (OAS) and by extension the program for extremely poor elderly, the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). The bill does this even though Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page did a thorough study showing that the current Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement are entirely sustainable.

The OAS/GIS measure is a direct hit on the poor, and will serve to increase inequality in Canada, as will the Employment Insurance changes, included in C-38 (although without substantive detail) and the never-formally-announced federal policy lowering minimum wage levels for temporary foreign workers.

There is much, much more -- but what disturbs many is not so much the content of this bill, but the way in which it defies basic parliamentary principles and procedures.

Even many supporters of individual measures in C-38 cannot stomach what they see as the totally undemocratic way in which those measures are being enacted.

The opposition mounted a determined effort to slow down Harper's omnibus juggernaut.

The combined forces of the NDP, the Liberals and one determined Green Party Leader, Elizabeth May, forced well over 24 hours of continuous voting on hundreds of amendments.

It raised awareness and made a point, but the bill has nonetheless passed the Commons, unchanged, and now goes to the Senate.

The Conservative majority in the "upper house" will see to it that the C-38 is ready for Royal assent by the end of next, when Parliament will rise for the summer break.

The question pundits and political professionals are now asking is: Will the huge resistance to this bill and its undemocratic nature -- resistance the Conservatives evidently did not foresee -- have a lasting impact?

Or will all of the current anger and concern across the country melt away in the course of time?

That's not a question pundits or politicians can really answer. It is up to the people.

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