Rick Strankman

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is open in his disdain for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s politically calculated admission he has recently consumed marijuana.

Fair enough under the circumstances, I guess. I’m enough of an old fuddy-duddy myself to feel that a citizen, let alone a Parliamentarian, ought to obey a law even if he or she is working to have it overturned as ill-conceived, harmful or unneeded.

So I have to admit that Trudeau’s comment left me feeling uncomfortable, especially since it so clearly illustrated the difference in the way the law treats a well-off young man with powerful connections and working class kids with no house, little influence and a beater or a bus for a ride.

Still, it must trouble our wedge-obsessed prime minister that one of his principal political opponents has concluded that what has worked as an effective wedge issue for the governing Conservatives might work just as well from the other side for the third party in Parliament.

As used to be said in the car rental business, after all, when you’re only No. 2 — or No. 3 in the case of the Liberals in the House of Commons — you have to try harder. It must strike fear in the heart of the PM — who doesn’t really try very hard at all these days, other than to find the most convenient wedge issue — that what worked for Avis might prove effective for young Mr. Trudeau and his Liberals as well!

Unmentioned in the coverage of this brouhaha, however, has been Harper’s inconsistency when dealing with lawbreakers whose misdemeanours involve other vegetative materials. Indeed, his hypocritical rallying cry seems to be: “Grass crime no! Grain crime yes!”

I speak, of course, of the PM’s admiration, affection and support for the 14 farmers — one of whom is now an Alberta legislator himself — who in 2002 openly broke the laws governing how to export wheat and barley to the United States. A dozen of them were eventually found guilty of willfully breaking several laws and served time in jail.

If you are a lawbreaker who takes a couple of tokes at home and admits it, apparently you earn a curled lip and Harper’s undying contempt.

But if you are a lawbreaker who rolls past the Canada Border Services Agency’s agents in a truck loaded with grain to sell illegally in the United States, and do it with sufficient defiance to calculatedly get a jail term, you earn a photo opportunity with the same prime minister, his unstinting praise, and the co-operation of Parliament to overturn the law you ignored. What’s more, you get a prime ministerial pardon!

If you then decide want to run for public office yourself, you can count on the support of the prime minister’s party apparatus — as was the case with Rick Strankman, who is now the Wildrose MLA for Drumheller-Stettler.

Alert readers will recall that Strankman spent a week in jail for taking part in just such a shenanigan back in 2002 when he and a group of a dozen other market-fundamentalist farmers drove their trucks across the Canada-U.S. border at Coutts, Alta., and illegally sold grain to a US. broker to protest against the collective bargaining role that was then the responsibility of the Canadian Wheat Board.

Canadian farmers will undoubtedly suffer as a result of the eventual demise of the Wheat Board in 2011 — indeed, it is already happening — and taxpayers in all parts of Canada, rural and urban alike, will be asked to bail them out. But the farmers who took part in the willful violation of the Customs Act were certainly entitled to fight for their economic beliefs, however misinformed.

What they were not entitled to do was to knowingly break the law to assert their views — leastways without uncomplainingly accepting the penalty.

Strankman was found guilty of violating the Customs Act by not presenting a valid export licence at the border. He served a week of his 180-day jail sentence. Some of the farmers involved were also charged and found guilty of breaking the Immigration Act and the Criminal Code.

Strankman was so angry about his conviction, it is said, that he contemplated moving to Brazil and for a time choked on singing O Canada.

The prime minister’s attitude about all this law breaking? In 2011, once the act dismantling the Wheat Board had been passed, he hailed the lawbreakers for their “conviction” and called them “people who had the courage to challenge the injustice of the law by placing themselves in violation of it.”

“For these courageous farmers, their convictions will no longer tarnish their good names,” Harper said during a 2011 ceremony marking the passage of the Orwellian-sounding Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act, which effectively privatized the marketing of Western Canadian grain. 

Harper then exercised the royal prerogative of mercy and announced he had pardoned the convicted farmers whose praises he had just been singing.

Soon thereafter, Strankman seems to have then gotten over his unhappiness with life in Canada and successfully got himself elected as a Wildrose MLA in east-central Alberta.

Of course, a case can be made that use of recreational drugs is different from questions about economic rights, however defined, but the principle is really much the same.

If it’s so contemptible in the prime minister’s view to break one law because one disapproves of it, why is it heroic to break another one for the same reason?

If “by flouting the laws of Canada while holding elected office,” Trudeau showed “a poor example for all Canadians, particularly young ones,” as Justice Minister Peter MacKay trotted out the Tory talking points, why did the Tories back a candidate who had been found guilty of flouting the laws of Canada?

We all know the answer: with this prime minister, it’s all about which way the issues wedge.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...