Oh, Canada: Harper's systematic attack on democracy and media

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Exposing the Conservative's stranglehold on information

If the state of Canada's democracy doesn't already reduce you to tears, it will once you get your hands on Mark Bourrie's latest book, Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper's Assault on Your Right to Know. This book would be worth the time under any circumstances; in an election year, it's absolutely essential reading.

Bourrie, a journalist and historian specializing in military, media, and propaganda, is as thorough as he is focused in his meticulous analysis of the Conservative Party's tightening hold on information and its impact on our institutions.

Bourrie starts off where many authors often do when scrutinizing Prime Minister Stephen Harper's raison d'être: making Canada unrecognizable. This entails ensuring Canadians see the country "in a different light: as an energy and resource superpower instead of a country of factories and businesses, as 'warrior nation' instead of a peacekeeper, as an Arctic nation instead of clusters of cities along the American border, as a country of self-reliant entrepreneurs instead of a nation that shares among its people and its regions."

We know all this. But the genius in this tome is how carefully the author catalogues and analyzes the ways in which Harper has systematically attacked Canada's democratic institutions and the media to bring about this drastic transformation. From avoiding the parliamentary press corps, to doing away with facts and science, to reshaping the country's history and perceptions of itself, Bourrie chronicles just how Harper has been able to do the unimaginable -- and get away with it.

As those who've been on the front lines of this battle can attest, it hasn't been pretty. Take Munir Sheikh for example. He's the former Chief Statistician of Canada who resigned his post to protest the federal government's decision to cancel the long-form census. In 2013, Sheikh noted:

"At a personal level, Canadians make decisions every day based on evidence. They look at mortgage rates before deciding whether, and where, to get a mortgage. They look at food prices to determine what to buy and how much. They look at the job market in various parts of the country to decide whether to move or not. Now imagine all of this happening without citizens and governments paying attention to an evidence-based analysis of the issues: the Bank of Canada not interested in understanding why the inflation target is important; the federal government not realizing why it should or should not cut corporate taxes; and citizens not thinking about what high mortgage rates, high food prices, and job opportunities could do to their well-being. Without appropriate evidence-based analysis, we will all be poorer -- in every sense of the word."

Does less information make us poorer? If that's true, we've been robbed. "[Harper] had to get rid of objective data from the census and from scientists so no one could challenge his narratives on crime, the environmental damage caused by resource exploitation, the extent of climate change or anything else that's complex," explains Bourrie.

Ironically, the long-form census was canned to protect the privacy of Canadians who didn't want to have to answer a long list of questions. That hasn't stopped the federal government from repeatedly pushing forward legislation like Bill C-13 in 2013, and Bill C-51 today. Privacy experts and activists lambaste these laws for granting sweeping powers to expand "cybersnooping."

And if you're a journalist, or activist, things are even more dire. The federal government keeps files on meddlesome citizens who ask too many questions, recounts Bourrie. A Calgary reporter once asked Harper if "access to information rules unfairly punished inquisitive journalists." Harper replied that he punishes them all anyway, with a laugh. A government "addicted" to secrecy, opined one information commissioner.

"[Harper] had to deny that the scrutiny of journalists has any role or value to democracy and to the governance of Canada. And he had to facilitate the creation of arm's-length sycophantic attack media, both mainstream and on the Internet, to handle low-road messaging, float trial balloons and appeal to the most prejudiced and nasty opinions of his base, without much regard for honesty, fairness or civility," notes Bourrie, referencing the now-defunct Sun News Network and the right-wing bloggers who continue to spew their drivel.

All of this makes perfect sense when one realizes that Harper's intentions to remake Canada is based on ideology, not on solid facts or research. Government science has suffered immensely as a result, writes Bourrie. Of course, many of us remember the protests; our scientists have been muzzled like no other academics and researchers anywhere in the free world.

The country's historical record has also been shifted and reshaped. "To remake Canada into that kind of country, [Harper] had to change the way Canadians think about themselves, their country and the country's cultural memory by trashing archives and remaking museums," writes Bourrie.

And what if Canadians didn't like this new direction? Not much chance our parliamentarians would be able to hold this government to account.

"[Harper] had to destroy Parliament's ability to scrutinize new laws and the way the government taxes and spends. He had to cloak decision-making in secrecy. He had to spend billions to beef up intelligence agencies and get rid of meaningful oversight, to the point of hiring an alleged criminal and arms lobbyist to be the public watchdog of the domestic spy agency CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service."

There's more, much more. You have to read it, to believe it, though you've already lived it. And maybe, by now, the tears have all been used up.



Amira Elghawaby is a contributing editor to rabble.ca. Follow her on Twitter @AmiraElghawaby or write to her, [email protected].

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