Justin Trudeau at Presse Café in Montreal, 2011

By supporting Harper’s draconian Bill C-51, Justin Trudeau has revealed the unofficial Parliamentary coalition: between the Conservatives and the Liberals. Trudeau and Harper seem interchangeable: while Harper didn’t vote for his own party’s bill, Trudeau did. But Trudeau’s support for Bill C-51 is not an aberrancy, as the Globe and Mail summarized:

“Under Mr. Trudeau’s leadership, the Liberals on most major files have become virtually indistinguishable from Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. On the question of taxes, for example, the Liberals would retain all the Conservative measures, save for a minor income-splitting tax cut. The NDP, on the other hand, would raise corporate taxes. On the environment, Mr. Trudeau appears content to allow the provinces to lead the fight against global warming, as does Mr. Harper. Mr. Mulcair is committed to compulsory national standards to reduce carbon emissions. On natural resources, Mr. Trudeau backs the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and supports oil sands development, while Mr. Mulcair opposes Keystone and talks of a ‘Dutch disease’ of oil dependency. On national security, the Liberals support Bill C-51, the Conservative anti-terrorism legislation that the NDP opposes. The Liberals are also behind the Canadian military training mission in Ukraine, which the NDP insists must first be approved by Parliament. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives support the proposed $8-billion NDP child care program. The Conservatives prefer direct payments to parents. The Liberals are silent on the issue. And on Quebec separation, both the Conservatives and the Liberals back the restrictive Clarity Act, while the NDP endorses the Sherbrooke Declaration, which would make it much easier for Quebec to separate.”

The Conservative/Liberal unity on issues such as tar sands and militarism helps explain why Trudeau supports Bill C-51: because it will target Indigenous communities to expand tar sands, and it will target Muslims to justify militarism. All this is not Trudeau’s fault but reflects his party’s long history. 

The Liberal record

As the twin party of Canadian capitalism, the Liberals supported the colonization of Indigenous land, even restricting Crime Minister John A Macdonald‘s minimal version of democracy. As an article from Elections Canada explained, “Laurier’s Liberals repealed the Electoral Franchise Act in 1898, removing the right to vote for Status Indians. The stated reason was that, as wards of the state, they could not act independently and freely.”

During the Second World War it was William Lyon Mackenzie King, Liberal Prime Minister, who turned away Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust, while interning more than 20,000 Japanese-Canadians. As Kim Koyama wrote:

“Despite the wartime racism, there was a growing sentiment from the general population as the war progressed that the internment was wrong, and should be ended. In 1944, with increasing pressure from the media, the Canadian government began to move Japanese Canadians out of the camps. There were two choices offered by the government (aside from remaining in the camps, which some chose over the alternatives): be deported, i.e., move ‘back’ to Japan — a place three quarters of the population had never been — or move further east across Canada, away from the coast. For most, the move east was the preferred choice, as they felt leaving the only country they knew was not an option.”

It seems ironic that Justin Trudeau would support Bill C-51 that undermines the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that his father is known for. But Pierre Trudeau’s legacy also includes excluding Quebec from the Constitution, while sending the army into Quebec under the War Measures Act — using the FLQ as pretext to revoke civil liberties and lash out against a rising independence movement. As Prime Minister Trudeau said at the time, with words that would even be harsh by Harper’s standards today, “There are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it is more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of a soldier’s helmet.”

This came after another Liberal attack on civil liberties, the so-called “White Paper.” As Harold Cardinal wrote in The Unjust Society, “In spite of all government attempts to convince Indians to accept the white paper, their efforts will fail, because Indians understand that the path outlined by the Department of Indian Affairs through its mouthpiece, the Honourable Mr. Chrétien, leads directly to cultural genocide. We will not walk this path.” The Liberals’ white paper, and the broader issues related to it, sparked the Red Power movement in a similar way that Harper’s omnibus Bill C-45 sparked Idle No More.

When he became Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien imposed his own “anti-terror” legislation, including Bill C-36. Lawyer Rocco Galati summed it up at the time:

“1. Protests that interrupt public facilities are acts of terrorism under this bill… 2.The other thing the Bill does is that it can convict you of facilitating terrorism without any knowledge or intent… 3. Then there is the 72 hour arrest on suspicion… If you use the same religious or codeful symbols that some terrorist group has misappropriated for their own purpose, even though they are valid religious or cultural symbols of Islam or being Arab or being Tamil or being Sikh, then the legislation grants the police and the Courts the right to use that as the basis of suspicion. In my language that is just racist profiling. Racism, that is all it is… 4. Investigative hearings are nothing short of Roman Catholic Inquisitions. That is all they are, maybe without the torture, maybe not… 5. Really nasty provisions that no one seems to be talking about, quite frankly because they are so foreign to our law and our experience, are the secret trial provisions.”

These laws led to the persecution of Muslim men through secret trials, and paved the way for Harper’s Bill C-51. In a joint open letter about Bill C-51 Chrétien hypocritically warned that “experience has shown that serious human rights abuses can occur in the name of maintaining national security.” If he were serious about this statement, he would condemn his own legislation, demand an end to secret trials end, and call for the repeal (not simply oversight) of Bill C-51.

Strategic voting and mobilizing

The Liberal support for Bill C-51, combined with the NDP beating the Conservatives in Alberta, has seen the federal NDP lead in the polls. This could change the dabates around “strategic voting” in the lead up to the federal election. The NDP have demonstrated they can beat the Conservatives, and the Liberals are clearly not an alternative to Harper’s agenda. Instead of the simplistic “Anybody But Conservative” slogan that benefits the Liberals, there could be a real strategic vote against the twin parties of corporate Canada — reinforcing the strategic shift behind the 2011 Orange Wave.

But simply voting NDP is not enough. It was only mass opposition in the streets that pushed the NDP to oppose Bill C-51, and Mulcair has vacillated between opposing the bill outright and opposing aspects of it. If the NDP is elected they will not automatically defend civil liberties — as we can remember this August, the 20th anniversary of the B.C. NDP government’s paramilitary assault on the Indigenous community in Gustafsen Lake.

While the state has restricted civil liberties throughout history, under various parties, it has been movements outside Parliament that have won and defended any rights we have — including repressive defeating laws that have already been passed. In 1990 the Conservatives passed Bill C-43 to recriminalize abortion, but a mass movement ensured that it died in the Senate. During the 2012 Quebec Spring, Liberal premier Jean Charest passed the draconian law 78 that banned gatherings and criminalized striking students. But mass protests broke the law in the streets and then at the ballot box — forcing the new government to repeal it.

This tradition of defending civil liberties by exercising them en masse continues May 30 in the day of action to unite for our rights. Then on July 4 there will be “We > tar sands” days of action across the country, and on July 5 a March for Jobs, Justice and the Climate, which can help push back against the criminalization of the climate justice movement in general and indigenous communities in particular. These mobilizations can help build momentum for using the federal election to expose MPs who voted for Bill C-51 and to push whoever is elected into repealing it.


Image: Flickr/davehuehn

Jesse McLaren

Jesse McLaren

Jesse McLaren is a physician, activist and blogger, who like Virchow believes that if medicine is to accomplish its great task, it must intervene in political and social life. He blogs at yourheartsontheleft.blogspot.com,...