Harper versus Aboriginals and civil society

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Canada Day celebrations in London and New York were cancelled this year. The festivities had been contracted out to a Calgary consulting firm. The firm gave up on the project when big funders Blackberry, and Nexen Energy pulled out. While it was still billable time for the Calgary consultants, those who wanted to celebrate Canada Day in London or New York were out of luck.

This incident encapsulates the way the Harper government operates: it outsources Canadian public affairs, and then looks away. International energy companies are happy to take direction of economic development, the main item on the government agenda.

Harper acts as an enabler, for example gutting environmental regulations to protect oil companies from legal squabbles, or enlisting U.S. Republicans as supporters of bitumen sands expansion.

A bitumen bubble is building. Huge investments in the Alberta sands have little value without pipelines to tidewater ports in place. Approval for the big Enbridge Northern Gateway and TransCanada Keystone XL projects is slow, and opposition keeps building.

With some success, the Harper government has been counting on what the Italians call sottogoverno -- a social network of clients, supporters, hangers on, financiers and legal insiders --  to see its projects through to completion. An army of lobbyists, plus a shadow public service make a nice living, while the Harper people gag the real public service, and choke charitable sector NGOs.

Canada's big banks are behind Harper, along with other member of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. The Conservative shock troops in the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the National Citizens Coalition are active on behalf of the Harper agenda.

The media, part of the unwritten constitution of parliamentary government have been either enlisted (Sun Media), suppressed (CBC), shackled (Press Gallery) or act as friendly in-house critics (Globe, PostMedia, Macleans).

The Prime Minister holds power only with the approval of the House of Commons. When after the Prime Minister had shut parliament down, the opposition Liberals under Michael Ignatieff had the opportunity to defeat Harper in the House of Commons at the parliamentary opening in 2009, the Liberals agreed to keep him in power.

The current leader of the Official Opposition, Tom Mulcair has succeeded in putting Harper on the defensive over the Senate, the Mike Duffy bribery scandal, home postal delivery, Aboriginal education, administrative incompetence and other issues, but Harper now has a majority government, and remains unchallenged by his caucus.

Effective opposition to the Harper tyranny has been generated by First Nations and civil society groups. Though Canada is hardly Czechoslovakia circa 1977,  tactics used to defend Canadian society today are reminiscent of those used to build civil society in the old Eastern European Soviet puppet regime.

Following the adoption in 1976 of the UN Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the conclusion in 1975 of the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Czech activists drew up the Charter of 77, calling on its Soviet dominated government to respect the human rights obligations it had agreed to internationally through the UN and the Helsinki Final Act. By the time the Soviet Union imploded the Czech regime had lost all credibility.

As early as the 1995 Federal Liberal budget, Canadian anti-poverty activists used the UN Covenant on Economic and Social Rights to challenge the Canadian government before the UN Human Rights Commission for abandoning commitments to provide a basic minimum to citizens.

First Nations such as the James Bay Cree have been effective in showing injustices through appeals to the UN.

The Council of Canadians, founded in 1985 by Mel Hurtig to defend Canadian sovereignty under attack by the Mulroney Conservatives, has continued under the strong leadership of Maude Barlow to be active in protecting civil society from corporate and government abuse.

Violations and affronts to basic civic and human rights by the Harper government have been well documented by various groups, notably by the coalition Voices-Voix

Despite having the power to name its members, the one government institution that Harper has failed to dominate or intimidate is the Beverley McLachlin Supreme Court. Citizens seeking to undo wrong, and see rights prevail, can take encouragement from much of what the court has been up to.

Notably, following decades of bad rulings, the court reversed the jurisprudence on labour rights. The McLachlin court in a landmark judgment recognized the trade union right to association was protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Last week the Court found against Wal Mart and in favour of its former employees in an action confirming the right of workers to establish unions without interruption from employers.

Also last week, in what was a most significant strategic victory for environmental sanity, and justice for Aboriginals, the Court accorded and defined Aboriginal title in the Tsilhqot'in Nation case.

The ruling in a case dating back to 1985 identified Aboriginal title as control of the land in ways that exceed historical use for hunting, trapping and fishing, and that gives Aboriginals rights comparable to ownership rights in common law. This means that companies that wish to log, mine or construct pipelines over land not covered by treaty rights must now take into account that Aboriginal title confers the right to consent, not just to be consulted. Pipeline politics just changed.

The unanimous decision penned by the Chief Justice gives First Nations groups the ability to block through the courts energy companies, and their government allies wishing to treat Aboriginal territory as terra nullius (not owned by anybody prior to Canadian settler colonists). Having a judgement of this nature as a precedent modifies the balance of power in public policy development, and checks the Harper government energy superpower strategy.  

Civil society activists wondering this Canada Day what to celebrate need look no further than to the decision to recognize Aboriginal title in British Columbia. 

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: flickr/Gina Clifford

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