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Voices going unheard during this election

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Every election is an artificial exercise in which each party pushes a tiny number of issues that the media then largely focus on, while other Canadians try desperately to get a hearing for other causes, often more urgent, that go largely unheard. In the leaders' French debate last week, funding Montréal's Champlain Bridge got as much attention as the unsettling kind of country Canada has become under Stephen Harper. Here's a few examples of what we should have been debating for the past several weeks.

Though mentioned intermittently, Mr. Harper's determination to muzzle critics will not be a "ballot box question" for most Canadians when they vote. Yet the implications for a Canada ruled by an unrestrained Harper majority government are obvious, and terrifying. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has now published an excellent commentary by Maria Gergin called "Silencing Dissent: The Conservative Record". Here's the summary:

Over the past five years, exercise of the fundamental freedom of speech in Canada has been curbed and discouraged by a federal government increasingly intolerant of even the mildest criticism or dissent. Particularly affected have been organizations dependent on government funding which advocate for human rights and women's equality. Their voices have been stifled, some completely silenced, by cuts to their budgets. Also financially throttled have been individuals and groups that speak out for reproductive rights, humanitarian immigration policies, and for changes in Canada's foreign policy in the Middle East.

The Harper government's now lengthy record of silencing -- or attempting to silence -- its critics also includes the removal of heads of government agencies, commissions, and tribunals who insist on making independent decisions. Academics who have spoken against government actions or policies have also been targeted.

This blatant suppression of basic human rights by a government constitutionally responsible for guaranteeing their expression is unprecedented in Canada's history.

Kairos and Rights & Democracy are the highest profile among Mr. Harper's victims, attacked by their own government for the crime of DWH -- disagreeing with Harper. Far less known are the many outstanding issues related to women's equity, a phrase and concept that is treated very much like leprosy in the Kingdom of Harper. The Ad Hoc Coalition for Women's Equality and Human Rights is actively promoting these issues, their message often included in Voices-Voix's useful daily compilation of unheard issues.

Another defunded offender is that great Harper bete noir, the Canadian Council of International Cooperation. Even though it had to lay off most of its staff, the CCIC has issued an "Election Platform to End Global Poverty and Injustice 2011". Bad mistake, Comrades. Mr. Harper hates the word injustice as much as equity. He doesn't mind a bit of charity, but justice is beyond the pale. The platform begins by pointing out that:

Canada has long been respected as a good global citizen. Our diplomacy, participation in the multilateral system, and the contribution of Canadian Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) gives Canada credibility to be a strong advocate to end global poverty and injustice. But this reputation is under threat and cannot be taken for granted.

Canada should be a leader on the international stage. What is needed is a global vision and an ambitious multisectoral agenda to help end global poverty.

This CCIC document exposes the Harper record on aid, advocates for women's rights abroad (another ginormous no-no in Mr. Harper's Ottawa, of course), promotes real corporate social responsibility and global environmental justice -- in other words, critical issues that are banned in Harper's Ottawa, and mostly in the election campaign.

Also off any Harper table is the nightmarish case of Abousfian Abdelrazik -- only one man, sure, but one whose treatment tells us a great deal about the kind of Canada we've become, none of it flattering. A Canadian Muslim born in Sudan, Mr. Abdelrazik's life has been shattered by the government of Canada, first under the Liberals, now the Conservatives. He's guilty of nothing yet is treated as a terrorist. His cause has been taken up by a devoted Montreal-based group under the rubric Project Fly Home, which deserves all the support in the world.

Sometimes the victims of our governments have no names, at least none we ever hear. Extraordinarily enough, Mr. Harper and Jean Charest are determined to revive one of Canada's last remaining asbestos mines for export to poor countries. Even though every health expert in Canada and around the world agrees that asbestos kills, Mr. Harper offered his support for the industry during a campaign stop in the Quebec riding where the mine is located. After all, this could mean another seat, and nothing, but nothing, matters more to our Prime Minister. Or indeed to the Liberal candidate for the area, Rene Roy, who publicly supports the Quebec asbestos industry. The indomitable Kathleen Ruff continues to lead the crusade against asbestos mining and exports, and has won over everyone in the country -- except the two governments that matter and the next MP for area. Great subject for a tourist ad: "Harper's Canada -- We only kill workers in other countries."

The bizarre Harperite attack on knowledge and evidence-based public policy, represented at its nuttiest by its attack on the long-form census (where there's a fiasco there's Tony Clement), has barely received a nod in the campaign. I bet most Canadians have never heard of Gordon McBean, who was Chair of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. He's worth knowing. In the past decade or so, this group has distributed $120-million in research funds concentrating on crucial issues related to climate change. But this entire subject vies with women's equity on Mr. Harper's never-do list, so he simply disappeared the Foundation by letting it run out of money.

Mr. McBean is furious and hasn't hesitated to say so. "Budget 2010 was basically the nightmare scenario for scientists across the country -- our community is gutted....Without sound scientific information, how will the government evaluate the effectiveness of green technologies, or build northern infrastructure, or develop our energy industry, or assure water supply and clean air?" Good questions, no answers. As Sergeant Joe Harper says, "Anything but the facts, ma'am."

This contempt for facts, coming right out of the Bush/Cheney/ Rove playbook, infects every decision being made by the Harper government, from jets to jails to corporate tax breaks, as someone has put it. If you want to hear some sense about defence issues, don't miss the Rideau Institute's fine analyses. If you want to know how taxes can be fairer and how desperately needed public services can be paid for, check out the program of Canadians For Tax Fairness. If you want more on our growing democratic deficit, try Democracy Watch. But be warned: Groups like these have a weakness for facts, evidence, reason. If you fear the hard smack of reality in your political education, I have a new TV station you won't want to miss.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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