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The year began with promises of a new start for so-called Crown-First Nations relations, spurred by the housing crisis in Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario.
It may seem like a long time ago, but when the Prime Minister met the leaders of Aboriginal Canada, late in January of 2012, there were ambitious promises of action on education, self-government, housing and the colonial era Indian Act.
The year ends with a bitter sense of betrayal, with Idle No More and the Attawapiskat Chief's hunger strike.
Anything the Government has done on the First Nations file has been stealthily buried in its two budget omnibus bills and without consultation with the people directly affected.
Toward the end of 2012, the Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs, Michael Wernick, told a Senate committee that the Government would have new legislation to reform First Nations education in 2013.
When a Senator asked what the main features of that would be, Wernick had to say he didn't know because in his words, "the legislation is not written yet."
This follows a scathing Auditor General's report on First Nations education that goes back to the spring of 2011. In addition, the government has had in hand a well-documented series of tangible recommendations from its own hand-picked National Panel on First Nations Education since November of 2011.
And so, there is no tangible progress on big issues such as First Nations education -- that the government itself has said is a major priority -- while the budget implementation omnibus bills have forced unwanted legislative measures on First Nations, without anything resembling consultation.
Hard and tough economic priorities
The Prime Minister left that now almost forgotten Crown-First Nations encounter early to fly to Davos, Switzerland.
There, at the World Economic Forum, Stephen Harper lectured the Europeans on their unaffordable "entitlements and services" and told the world that a good part of Canada's economic focus, going forward, would be on energy exports and more flexible labour markets (part of which would include bringing immigration policy in line with labour market needs.)
He added, almost in passing, that Canada would also be looking at reforming its "unsustainable" pensions.
It may have been an odd place to announce an economic program, but Harper was good to his word.
In 2012, the government passed a plan to raise the minimum age for the Old Age Security (OAS) from 65 to 67. The Canada (and Quebec) Pension Plans will remain as they are, for now.
Raising the OAS will hit the poor the hardest, because receiving the OAS also triggers the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), that is means tested and only goes to the truly poor among seniors. The combined OAS and GIS comes to about $12,000/year, today. That means the Government plans to take away $24,000 (in current dollars) from seniors living in poverty.
The Harper government also tightened requirements for unemployment insurance especially for seasonal workers and lowered the cost to employers of employing foreign temporary workers (while cutting off maternity benefits for those workers).
And they did it all, legislatively, in the fine print of massive omnibus bills.
Defining environmental groups as 'the enemy'
As for energy exports, even before Davos, Energy Minister Joe Oliver got the ball rolling with an open letter blasting Canadian environmental organizations for their opposition to pipelines, unregulated tar sands exploitation and the mining industry's practice of turning pristine trout lakes into tailings ponds.
Oliver accused the environmental groups of abusing their non-profit or charitable status by doing political advocacy -- and taking foreign money at the same time.
Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton chimed in with a Senate "inquiry" into the foreign connections of Canadian environmental groups.
She has no plans for a similar investigation of the human rights record of Chinese or Malaysian state firms that have taken over Canadian oil companies.
Nor does the Conservative Senator plan to look into the impact on Canada's rights to its own laws and regulations of the secretly negotiated Foreign Investment and Promotion Agreement with China, something Harper also announced while out of the country.
When, later in 2012, it was time to legislate on energy and the environment, the government was, again, true to its word.
It used the budget omnibus bills to gut the federal role in environmental regulation, a role painstakingly built up by both Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments over decades.
Nothing escaped the Harper government's zeal to get the regulators out of the way of resource industries.
It even found time to abolish Canada's oldest environmental legislation, the Navigable Waters Act. And, again, Harper's government slipped the measure into the middle of a massive omnibus budget implementation bill.
The government even found room in one of its budget bills to allocate special funds to the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) in order to investigate environmental organizations and other charities. Just last week, the Alberta based quasi-organization spawned by the writings of Ezra Levant, Ethical Oil, took advantage of this new Government thrust to file a 65 page complaint with the CRA against the Sierra Club of Canada.
Getting cozy with a hatemonger's "ethical oil"
Ezra Levant is, of course, the Sun TV commentator who used extreme and racist language to characterize the entire Roma people, for which Sun TV actually apologized in writing.
Levant has never, however, personally apologized nor retracted his words. Nor has he responded to the fairly vigorous characterizations of his interventions in this space and elsewhere. Former Canadian Jewish Congress head Bernie Farber even signed an op-ed pointing out that Levant's words against the "Gypsies" were eerily reminiscent of Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda.
Normally when you come that close to calling someone a Nazi, they respond with outrage. For a voluble on-air bully and loudmouth, Levant has been amazingly closed mouthed on this.
Levant invented the concept of "ethical oil" as a way of saying about tar sands oil that it may be may 'dirty,' but it does not come from some "unethical" Middle Eastern dictatorship. Now the 'movement' he spawned is using the CRA to go after environmentalists.
Levant -- and what he had to say about the Roma -- brings us to what was probably the government's biggest legislative initiative this past year, apart from the Budget and its two huge implementation bills: Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s Bill C-31, the reform of the Canadian refugee system
Plowing new ground on refugees
C-31 was a re-write of a bill on refugees that the previous minority Parliament had passed with all-party agreement. Had Kenny allowed it to proceed, that consensus bill would have been implemented in the spring of 2012. Instead, almost as soon as the Conservatives won their majority, Kenney introduced a new series of tough measures, which the Opposition parties could not support.
Both the consensus bill and C-31 have safe "Designated Country of Origin" provisions. Those mean that asylum seekers from those designated countries can be processed more quickly than those coming from countries not considered "safe."
But there are big differences between the two bills.
In the consensus bill, the Minister would have to apply objective criteria in designating a country as safe and would have to consult experts in human rights as part of that process.
In C-31, there are no defined, objective criteria for deciding which countries are safe, except for the secondary-level facts of the rate, in Canada, of abandonment or rejection of refugee claims from a given country.
The Minister is not obliged to take into account the objective conditions in a country to be designated safe, and need consult no one.
The main target of this exercise is the Roma (sometimes called "Gypsies") of Hungary and its neighbouring countries.
But C-31 also targets refugee claimants based on how they get to Canada.
Asylum seekers who manage to buy plane tickets and fly to Canada by regular scheduled airlines are "regular" refugee arrivals.
Those who come by boat (however exploitative and abusive the owner of the craft) are "irregular" arrivals, subject to detention and not permitted to bring in family members for five years.
In almost closing the door to the Roma, Kenney can at least claim that Canada is lining up with Europe, where Roma cannot, as a rule, get refugee status (as though that were to Europe's honour).
On "irregular" arrivals, however, Canada is covering new ground. The Europeans have professed themselves perplexed by this idea, since the very notion of a refugee is of someone who may very likely need to get away from danger in some "irregular" way.
In the end this whole area of Conservative policy -- refugees and immigration -- has been, sadly, largely ignored by the mainstream media.
Not so for the so-called "roboacall" affair. That was, initially, largely the result of enterprising reporting by Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor of Postmedia News.
Eight Canadians go to court over voter suppression
The Guelph chapter of the "Robocalls" story (complete with "Pierre Poutine") broke in February, and got major attention for a while, in the House in the media. Then it went on simmer -- especially when, after months, Elections Canada did not come up with anything as a result of its ongoing investigations.
What has kept the issue of voter suppression going is a court case initiated by eight Canadians in six ridings.
The eight are asking the Federal Court to overturn the election results because of fraudulent and harassing phone calls to non-Conservative supporters that, they say, tainted the voting process.
After months of legal sparring, the eight had their days in court in mid-December. They were supported by the Council of Canadians. Lawyer Steven Shrybman was their lead counsel.
Shrybman says he had to prove that there was fraud -- and he thinks he did that. And he had to prove that the fraud, on a balance of probabilities, tainted the election results. He thinks he succeeded at the latter, as well.
The eights' view, and that of their counsel, is that if the Judge agrees with both the first and second propositions, he must then find in their favour and order by-elections.
Even if the Judge only agrees with the first proposition, that there is credible evidence of serious fraud during the 2011 election, that, in itself, says the Council of Canadians, will be a sort of victory.
We will not get a decision from Judge Richard Mosley until late winter, 2013, or even spring, and the whole case is almost certain to end up in the Supreme Court.
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