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Brace yourself for a tumultuous three weeks in Parliament

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Parliament is back in business, until the next break three weeks from now, and one senses that the government is anxious to push through a hamper full of legislation in a very short time.

The opposition, on the other hand, are concerned that the Conservatives are pushing too hard and in undue haste on a number of fronts, while dragging their feet on some major priorities for Canadians.

Here's what's happening.

1. The Fair Elections Act

This bill is still before the Procedure and House Affairs Committee, which is doing clause-by-clause examination. That examination includes considering the series of major amendments the government has just proposed.

Those amendments are a surprise, coming from this normally obdurate and arrogant government. 

Until very recently, Harper's Democratic Reform Minister, Pierre Poilievre, responded to any criticism of his bill with near-vicious ad hominem attacks on his most prominent critics (among them the former Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, and current Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand). His proposed changes do not go nearly far enough, but they do answer a number of key expert and opposition concerns.

The government will now allow folks to vote with only one piece of ID, even without address, if another qualified voter vouches for them. That will allow most for whom the proposed total abolition of vouching would have denied the franchise to vote.

As well, the government has now made it clear that the Chief Electoral Officer will have freedom of speech, and will have the right to warn Canadians if, for instance, he gets reports of phony calls purporting to come from his office.

The Conservatives have also scrapped that complete legislative non-sequitur, the loophole that would have exempted from spending limits all campaign activities supposedly directed at those who donated $20 or more to a political party. From the very day this bill was introduced, we have been asking, in this space, what such a measure had to do with assuring a "fair election." 

The answer now seems to be: "nothing."

There are other significant changes -- all of them the result of the mountain of criticism the bill has received and the dogged and persistent NDP opposition, led by the party's Democratic Reform Critic, Craig Scott.  

As to what Poilievre's amendments do not do...

The Conservatives still refuse to give the Elections Commissioner one of the most necessary tools he needs to investigate criminal fraud: the power to compel recalcitrant witnesses to testify.

And they still insist on moving the Commissioner out of Elections Canada and into the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. That latter official complained to the House Committee that he had never been consulted on this idea -- and did not think it was a particularly good one.  

This fight, it seems, is far from over.

2. Temporary Foreign Workers

Just the other day, Employment Minister Jason Kenney, in great haste, improvised a moratorium on guest workers in the food services industry. Then he promised to bring in more reforms for Canada's overgrown guest worker system, in the near future.

However, Kenney has refused the NDP's suggestions that the government ask the Auditor General to study the guest worker system, and that, for now, Kenney extend the food services moratorium to other categories of low-skilled workers.

Meanwhile, the labour movement and its community activist allies are warning that Canada should not punish guest workers for the misdeeds of employers.

The umbrella group Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, which includes Unifor, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and a number of grassroots organizations, argues that "a moratorium is not the solution. Migrant workers need a just transition to a permanent immigration system in 'low-skilled' industries rather than being blamed for government mistakes."

The Alliance proposes that the government continue to allow guest workers in the food service industry while it develops a "just transition mechanism into permanent residency for migrants already in Canada, along with future immigrants in the low-wage, 'low-skilled' sectors..."

Unfortunately for the migrant workers, all political parties may be more concerned with the needs and worries of workers who have the right to vote than with those of transient workers from developing countries.

3. First Nations Education

The existing system for managing and funding the education of First Nations children and youth on reserve is a totally dysfunctional mess.

This government knows that, and has known that for years.

The former Auditor General told them so, repeatedly, as did a National Panel on First Nations Education which the Harper government set up, and which reported more than two years ago.

But movement toward any sort of reform has been glacially slow.

Ironically, the Conservatives have long claimed that education for First Nations is a high priority for them. This is not primarily out of fairness or social justice motives, but because of the hard fact that First Nations peoples' lag in basic educational attainments is a huge drag on the Canadian economy.

For the Harper government, raising the quality of First Nations education is, in essence, part of its extractive industries policy.  

As long as too many Aboriginal Canadians lack the basic skills necessary to work in frontier mining and oil and gas operations, First Nations communities will tend to be hostile to such operations. Or so goes the argument.

And so, getting a First Nations workforce educated, trained and up to speed is a precondition for massive resource development in Canada's north and mid-north.

The National Panel's report -- and other reports going back to that of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the 1990s -- had a different point of view.  

Those reports started from the lived experience of Aboriginal people themselves, and then posited that an effective education system, one that would equip First Nations people to fully participate in "the economy," must be rooted in Aboriginal history and culture. And to make that possible, the reports all said, Canada must recognize and institutionalize First Nations control over education.

In addition, all reports have stated emphatically that the Canadian government must provide adequate and predictable funding for First Nations education. Currently, the government funds education on reserve through an archaic and unworkable renewable 'contribution-agreement' system.

The First Nations Education Act makes encouraging noises about respecting Aboriginal sovereignty and stable and predictable funding, and some First Nations leaders, including (former) Assembly of First Nations National Chief, Shawn Atleo, have signed on, at least tentatively.

The Act is not perfect, they admit, but they argue that it is a start, and that the current system is so bad we have to do something or risk sacrificing another generation of Aboriginal children and youth.

Others among the First Nations are not so ready to trust the Harper government, and they are pushing back, hard.

As with so much else before the House, the government wants to get this educational reform passed before the House rises in June, for the summer.

The NDP opposition is listening carefully to the dissident First Nations groups. It will put up a spirited fight in Parliament, while First Nations people opposed to this legislation take their fight to other venues.

This is far from a settled matter.

4. Omnibus budget implementation bill 

And, lest we forget, Harper's government still has not pushed its latest omnibus budget implementation bill through Parliament. This one got delayed -- first by the resignation, and then the death, of Jim Flaherty. We can now expect the Conservatives to try pushing this bill through as though it were an out-of-control freight train running through Lac-Mégantic.

And simmering on that back-burner known as the Senate is a bill on Internet access and privacy that the Interim Privacy Commissioner says completely fails to deal with the flaws in the system that allowed for the hundreds of thousands of potential breaches of privacy just reported.

More on all of this in the days to come.  

It will be a very busy three weeks until Victoria Day.

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