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Hill Dispatches

karl nerenberg's picture
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.

New report scorches Harper's record on democracy

| June 16, 2015
Image: Voices-Voix

A new report called Dismantling Democracy should be compulsory reading for all Canadian voters before the next election.

It gives chapter and verse on the Harper government's multi-pronged efforts to stifle not only legitimate dissent and free speech, but even freedom of thought.

The report is from Voices-Voixa coalition of 200 organizations, including Amnesty Canada and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, and 5,000 individuals.

Voices-Voix released its massive study on Tuesday morning, on a day when all of the federal political parties are actively pushing their electoral agendas.

The Harper government has just introduced a series of bills that will not pass before the House rises next week, but will form the basis of the Conservative election campaign.

Retiring Justice Minister Peter MacKay announced one such piece of legislation on Tuesday: increased penalties for drunk drivers.

The Conservatives promised this several years ago, but have only decided to introduce it now that there is no time to get it through Parliament.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair travelled to Toronto to give a major economic speech. He promised an NDP government would promote Canada's struggling manufacturing sector.

And, also on Tuesday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announced his party's democratic reform platform, at a hastily arranged event that was moved, at the last moment, from the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau to Ottawa's Chateau Laurier.

Trudeau's announcement includes new advocacy rules for charities, and commits the Liberals to electoral reform, which could entail e-voting and either a partially proportional system or a single transferable ballot. Trudeau says that if he has his way the 2015 election will be the last one under first-past-the-post.

The Voices-Voix report enumerates the many ways in which the Harper government has undermined democracy, from "misusing and abusing Parliament" to squelching scientific research.

Much of this has been reported before.

The value of Voices-Voix's work is that it brings it all together in one, clear, detailed and well-documented account.

The study describes how Harper has sidestepped Parliament through the use of massive omnibus bills of a scope and dimension never before seen, muzzled "watchdog mechanisms" and failed to protect whistleblowers, after specifically promising he would, following the Liberals' sponsorship scandal.

Less well known, perhaps, have been the Harper government's attacks on an independent and "robust public service."

The report mentions how budget cuts have hobbled the Departments of the Environment, Agriculture, Fisheries and Natural Resources, targeting, in particular, work on climate change and its impacts.

There have also been nearly invisible attacks on the federal government's chief source of legal and constitutional advice, the Department of Justice.

"Cuts to legal, research and statistics staff have been eroding the department's collective capacity to act as the government's independent counsel," Voices-Voix says. "Compounding this, fewer staff are given
 ever less time to review proposed legislation or to draft major new bills …"

The result has too often been poorly drafted legislation, much of which is almost certainly unconstitutional. Bill C-51, the "anti-terror" bill, and the government's legislative response to the Supreme Court's decision that overturned prostitution laws, are two notable examples.

Firing or undermining officials who do not toe the line

The report goes into the cases of seven oversight officials, some of them officers of Parliament, whom the government has chosen to attack, or, in some cases, dismiss.

Linda Keen, president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission was fired in January 2008, after she closed down the Chalk River nuclear reactor for not meeting safety standards.

Yves Côté, ombudsman for the Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces "was advised in January 2008 that he would leave his position part-way through his mandate. This announcement came after Côté had written several scathing reports and publicly criticized the government for its treatment of military families and veterans."

Paul Kennedy, head of the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP (CPC), "was advised in November 2009 that his appointment would not be renewed. Kennedy had repeatedly called for more funding and more independence, and conducted a number of high-profile investigations into RCMP practices. The CPC's funding was cut in 2009, considerably limiting the scope of its investigations."

Pat Stogran, then the veterans' ombudsman, was told in August 2010 that he would not be re-appointed for a second term. This came after Stogran advocated for better services and benefits for veterans, and decried Veterans Affairs Canada's "penny-pinching insurance company mentality."

The Conservative government publicly criticized the next veterans' ombudsman, Pierre Daigle, for writing letters to the chief of military personnel on behalf of two veterans wrongfully dismissed from their employment with the Department of Defence. The government accused him of having "overstepped his jurisdiction …"

The Federal Commissioner of the Environment, Scott Vaughan, stepped down in 2013, two years before his term was to expire. His early resignation "was attributed to his deteriorating relationship with the minister of environment," who ignored a number of the commissioner's recommendations.

Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, will not have his term renewed when it expires in 2015. Since his appointment in 2004, "Sapers has spoken out about the federal government's handling of the prison system, including the treatment of inmates from radicalized communities, including Aboriginal inmates, people with mental illness and the use of solitary confinement."

The federal government "has also mounted a sustained attack on its own elections watchdog -- Elections Canada -- using myriad tactics including direct interference, legal challenges and limitations on the mandate of
 this vitally important oversight institution."

When he introduced his now notorious Fair Elections Act, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre famously accused the Chief Electoral Officer of "wearing a team jersey."

More recently, the Conservatives would not even allow the Privacy Commissioner, Daniel Therrien, to testify at Committee on C-51.

And we have just learned how former Public Security Minister Vic Toews appears to have misled Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault when he promised to preserve gun registry data that was the subject of an access to information request. In fact, the government illegally ordered the data to be secretly destroyed, in great haste. 

In an act of monumental hubris, the Conservatives have now made that destruction retroactively legal.

Eroding independent science 

The Voices-Voix study provides considerable detail on the Conservative attack on science, especially environmental science.

Budget cuts between 2010 and 2012 have cost nearly 1,000 jobs at Environment Canada, the report says.

In addition, it adds, 2,000 government scientists at the Fisheries and Oceans Department were fired since 2009. Seventy-five of these were fired from the Marine Toxicology Program alone, effectively ending the program in April 2013.

Those scientists who kept their jobs have found themselves to be muzzled.

"In 2007," the Voices-Voix report explains, "the government imposed a new media relations policy on government scientists, significantly limiting their ability to speak at conferences, to the media or to the public, except in a small number of tightly controlled circumstances. … Strict controls on their ability to brief journalists, collaborate professionally and generate quality and impartial advice on government policy has had a chilling effect."

Even the seemingly innocuous archivists and librarians at Library and Archives Canada have not been spared.

The government has imposed on them the requirement that they "demonstrate loyalty" to elected officials. This draconian rule applies even when Library and Archives employees are off duty.

Such limits on the basic freedoms of any citizens start to resemble the sort of restrictions one finds only in totalitarian regimes.

The attack on the capacity of Statistics Canada to do its work, through cancellation of the compulsory long-form census, has been well documented.

Almost unknown is the Conservatives' killing of the small First Nations Statistical Agency (FNSI) that only got its start in 2006.

"FNSI established projects and partnerships with Indigenous communities and organizations across the country to ensure a better understanding of the 
living conditions and needs of Indigenous peoples in Canada," Voices-Voix tells us. "Despite its success, the federal government halved its funding in 2012 and cut funding altogether 
in 2013."

CRA harassment

The Voices-Voix report ranges far and wide.

It includes an account of the government-mandated harassment of charitable organizations through politically motivated audits by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).

"CRA audits have been increasingly used to silence some of the country's leading environmental voices," Voices-Voix says. "The Sierra Club Canada, David Suzuki Foundation, Tides Canada, Forest Ethics, and Environmental Defence are all high-profile environmental charities that have been subject to this silencing tactic."

And Voices-Voix shows how a government that sometimes takes pride in its public apology for the Indian residential school system has tried to undermine First Nations organizations through massive funding cuts.

Here is what the study details:

"Ontario's First Nations experienced 
a 76 per cent drop in federal funding. Three regional organizations in Manitoba saw 78 per cent of their 
federal funding cut. Certain organizations in New Brunswick and PEI saw up to 80 per cent of their funding disappear. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations lost 91 per cent of their funding. And British Columbia's three regional First Nations organizations experienced between 73 and 82 per cent in federal funding reductions."

Plus, the government killed the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF), a community-based organization created to help Indigenous individuals and communities heal from the residential school system.

AHF organized addiction treatment programs, residential healing centres, counselling, on-the-land programs, parenting skills training, and helped to support women's shelters.

"In 2010," Voices-Voix reports, "the federal government refused to provide any further funding. As a result, AHF was forced to terminate partnerships with over 120 community services across the country, and closed its doors in 2013."

Finally, the Voices-Voix report documents the case of the First Nations 
Child and Family Caring Society and its Executive Director, Cindy Blackstock.

The Society filed a discrimination complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal against Indian and Northern Affairs Canada because of concerns about the consistent and sustained underfunding of services to First Nations children living on reserves.

In the complaint, Blackstock "argued that Indigenous children on reserve were discriminated against because child services on reserve receive 22 per cent less funding than similar services provided elsewhere."

The government's response was to subject Blackstock "to retaliatory and antagonistic treatment ..."

She "learned that the federal government 
had been closely monitoring her professional and personal life, conduct later determined by the Privacy Commissioner to be a violation of the Privacy Act."

There is much more in Voices-Voix's exhaustive and detailed account, including the cuts then Conservative star minister John Baird announced shortly after the Conservatives took power in 2006 to women's organizations and the Court Challenges Program.

Baird is only one of many Conservative cabinet ministers and MPs to bow out of politics before the coming election.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay is the most recent of those. But MacKay is still in Parliament and will remain Minister of Justice until the election in October.

The day Baird announced his departure he was pretty much gone for good.

He is now pulling in big paycheques from a number of corporate patrons. But those who watched his almost panicked and hasty departure are still scratching their heads.

There has got to be more to the story, they say.

And in case anyone is tempted to feel warm and fuzzy toward the former Harper confidant (who may have been more "human" than some of his colleagues), it is worth remembering how, way back in 2006, Baird gleefully took the axe to a number of long-standing organizations and successful programs.

Image: Voices-Voix



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