13 examples of the Harper government's anti-democratic abuses

| March 27, 2014
Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

Recently, it has not been a good time for the Harper government and they have also shown a disturbing pattern of illegal and anti-democratic abuses.

Here is a baker's dozen of examples with two highly unsettling themes: (1) ignoring the rule of law and (2) flouting the traditional processes of parliamentary democracy.

1. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Harper government's legislation making retroactive changes to parole eligibility breaches the Charter of Rights and is thus unconstitutional.

2. The same court held that the government's appointment of Justice Nadon to the Supreme Court was void because he doesn't meet the Supreme Court Act's requirements for eligibility. Furthermore, amendments to change that Act's requirements, contained in an omnibus bill rammed through the Houses of Parliament, are unconstitutional. The changes require a constitutional amendment, said the court, and that would in turn require a much complicated process than just amending the existing act.

3. Earlier this year, the Federal Court of Canada confirmed that the federal government has a responsibility to follow its own species at risk legislation. Hence, Justice Anne Mactavish held, the responsible departments "acted unlawfully in failing to post proposed recovery strategies."

4. Thanks to American whistleblower Edward Snowden, we know that Communications Security Establishment Canada (Canada's electronic spy agency) tracked internet information of thousands of airline passengers for days after they left the terminal. One of Canada's foremost authorities on cyber-security says the clandestine operation was almost certainly illegal.

5. Jim Prentice (who held three cabinet portfolios in Harper's government before resigning to take a senior position in a big Canadian bank) recently said: "The Crown obligation to engage first nations in a meaningful way has yet to be taken up. ... And take it from me as a former minister and former co-chair of the Indian Claims Commission of Canada, there will be no way forward on West Coast access without the central participation of the first nations of British Columbia."

Several legal cases confirm that the government of Canada has failed to fulfil its constitutional responsibility here.

6. North America's lone supervised-needle injection site in Vancouver won a constitutional reprieve from the country's top court, which blasted the Conservative government for its "arbitrary" and moralistic approach.

"In a decision that sharply pits the court's view of a coherent drug strategy against the Conservative government's, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 9-0 the health minister cannot deny a legal protection to addicts and clinical health workers who would otherwise be penalized by federal drug laws." 

7. In 2010, without any debate, Conservative senators called a snap vote on Bill C-311, the Climate Change Accountability Act. According to The Globe and Mail, it was "the first time that the unelected Conservative senators have used their near-majority to kill a bill passed by elected politicians."

Former NDP Leader Jack Layton denounced this at a press conference. "To take power that doesn't rightfully belong to them to kill a bill that has been adopted by a majority of the House of Commons representing a majority of Canadians is as wrong as it gets when it comes to democracy in this country."

8. "Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called an early election for 14 October in a bid to strengthen his minority Conservative government. ... Holding the election this year breaks Mr Harper's own fixed-date election law ..." (BBC website, Sept. 7, 2008)

9. The much respected constitutional scholar Peter Russell called Prime Minister Harper's use of prorogation, in 2008, to avoid a non-confidence vote and, in 2010, to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the Canadian armed forces' treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan, "a tyrant's prorogations."

Traditionally, prorogation is used after the government has successfully squired its most important legislation through Parliament, in order to allow both the government and MPs to plan their future activities, not to evade the judgment of the Commons.

10. Remember 2011, when the Conservative Speaker of the House of Commons ruled that the Cabinet Minister Bev Oda and the entire Harper government might be in contempt of Parliament in two separate incidents? In some Commonwealth countries, this could mean jail time, but in Canada, after losing a vote of confidence (which should have shown that Parliament was still in control), the Conservatives won the subsequent election--and with a majority yet!

Canadians who voted Conservative that year should look at themselves in the mirror and ask why they helped to erode integrity in politics.

11. In 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the government had infringed Canadian Guantanamo prisoner Omar Khadr's Charter rights by interrogating him, knowing of his mistreatment there, and reporting the results to American officials. The process violated Canada's international obligations on the treatment of youth detainees.

12. The Federation of Law Societies of Canada successfully challenged attempts by the federal government to subject lawyers and Quebec notaries to legal provisions that would have forced lawyers and notaries to breach solicitor-client privilege by requiring them to report suspicious financial transactions. The Federation's position was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada.

13. Is there a single non-Conservative in Canada who doubts that Conservatives have played fast and loose with election financing laws and illegal voter suppression tactics (for example, by using misleading robocalls) and that it was not just isolated individuals acting without authority?

One could also criticize the Harper government for its "war on science," so eloquently described in Chris Turner's book of that name, or its egregiously misnamed and misconceived "Fair Elections Act," which has been denounced by a roster of distinguished political scientists, or its cancellation of perhaps the best census in the world, again denounced by the experts, or the gutting of environmental legislation and the Department of the Environment.

But enough has been said to show that senior Harper government misanthropes, whether because of ideology, stubbornness, stupidity or cynicism, continue to run roughshod over fundamental values of our political tradition, which true conservatives should be the first to defend.

A version of this article originally appeared in Troy Media and is reprinted with the author's permission.

Phil Elder a retired professor from the University of Calgary and and write frequently on political, environmental and climate change issues.

Photo: flickr/"Harper Government welcomes investment in Canadian research and development" by Stephen Harper

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