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Canada's lessons in democracy for Egypt and Turkey

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Photo: Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας/flickr

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Soon after the 2011 election, with his majority government at last in hand, Prime Minister Harper decided that nothing, but nothing, was more important to Canada's entire future than a pipeline to carry oil from Alberta to the Pacific. This came as a shock to many Canadians, first, because it hadn't been raised in the election, second, because many believe that to combat global warming we must reduce, not expand, our reliance on fossil fuels.

In some countries, those who disagree with their government's policies are vilified, demonized, accused of being unpatriotic and operating under the influence of malign foreign influences. In Turkey, for example, Prime Minister Erdogan blames anti-government protests on terrorists and extremists supported by "foreign conspirators."

The same is true in Egypt, as Deepak Obhrai, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, informed the House just last week. An Egyptian court had convicted 43 non-profit workers of illegally using foreign funds to foment unrest in the country and sentencing them up to five years in jail. This was unacceptable, Mr. Obhrai said.

"Civil society and international NGOs are legitimate actors in any democratic state. These individuals were working to support the transparency of the government that has been closed for too long. The targeting of civil society actors undermines the legitimacy of the judicial process and is a clear misuse of government power. Without legitimate institutions, a government cannot hope to maintain the confidence of its people. We continue to call on Egypt to work with their citizens to build a stronger and more democratic Egypt."

But this is deeply democratic Canada, of course. So here is how Harperland dealt with civil society and international NGOs who opposed a pipeline from the oil sands to the Pacific.

In January 2012, natural resources minister Joe Oliver published an article in the Wall Street Journal harshly attacking "environmentalists and other radical groups [who] threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda." Their agenda was obvious, he said: killing projects on which the country's future depended. And their goal was simple: "to undermine Canada's national economic interest."

In other words, these Canadians disagreed with the Harper government about Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

Suddenly, a great crusade against ostensible eco-fanatics was on. Government members, a good chunk of the media and the entire united oil industry began treating simple citizens and legitimate NGOs as disloyal insurrectionists. In the words of Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel, "I think we're facing a very strong, almost revolutionary movement to try to get off oil worldwide." And indeed the oil industry has spent many tens of millions of dollars on advertising and lobbyists to defeat these revolutionaries.

But this wasn't enough, apparently. Soon Harperland upped the ante. Like Turkey and Egypt, the government decided to expose the sinister role of foreign influence, including "foreign money," behind Canadian environmental groups. Eight million dollars were accordingly budgeted to allow the Canadian Revenue Agency to audit charitable groups that were, so it was implied, improperly enabling the subversive work of the renegades.

And if the threat of a CRA visit doesn't do the trick, you call in the cavalry: the Senate of Canada. "Recognizing her role as a fundraiser for the Conservative party," so Wikepedia helpfully tells us, in 2009 a Nicole Eaton became a Conservative senator. In February 2012, the Hon. Sen. Eaton launched an inquiry into the nefarious "involvement of foreign foundations in Canada's domestic affairs and their abuse of existing Revenue Canada's charitable status." This too was all about the opposition to the pipeline.

Our Senate, you may have heard, has its own unique political culture. Call it Canada's Wonderland. As Humpty Dumpty informed Alice in her Wonderland, a word means "just what I choose it to mean." So in the Canadian senate, an inquiry actually does not mean an inquiry. It is a "debate" on a topic chosen by a senator, if anyone wants to debate it, with no concrete outcomes and no vote. An inquiry can last for many days or hardly any. If no one speaks on it for 15 consecutive days, the inquiry is simply dropped. Sen. Eaton's inquiry was launched on Feb. 2, addressed by her in the Senate for 20 minutes on Feb. 28 (with two questions from other senators), and dropped on June 29 because of the 15-day rule. You might call it a non-inquiry inquiry.

As Sen. Eaton's cordial assistant Dustin Hall explained to me in an email, she would not issue a formal report on the findings of the non-inquiry. But she did eventually announce that thanks to bold action by her government -- siccing the CRA on certain renegade charitable NGOs -- the issues addressed by her non-inquiry were largely resolved.

But not quite, it seems. Enter Public Safety Minister Toews to up the ante once more. In September, Vigilante Vic announced that the government's new comprehensive anti-terrorism strategy would target the real threat to Canadians -- eco-extremists, a.k.a. anyone who believed in global warning.

The government, the Minister announced, was now determined to be vigilant not only against foreign threats, but against a treacherous species of domestic extremism that is "based on grievances -- real or perceived -- revolving around the promotion of various causes such as animal rights, white supremacy, environmentalism and anti-capitalism." Those are his very words. Similar examples of "domestic issue-based extremism" were said to be the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (168 killed) and the 2011 Norway massacre (77 massacred). Just like Canadian environmentalists.

And that's why Canada is a great democratic country that can lecture Egyptians about how they can be greatly democratic too.

This article was first published in Canadian Dimension.

Photo: Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας/flickr

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