The level of anger was palpable. On Cross Country Check Up, the Sunday afternoon, CBC call-in program, caller after caller phoned in to express outrage at the news story that broke this week. Right in the middle of a long weekend.
The Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, paid the $90,000 bill that Mike Duffy, the Conservative Senator guilty of illegitimate expense claims, owed the Senate. Paid it out of Wright’s own personal account. It was a gesture of friendship according to the PMO, but one which involved lawyers. The PMO expected the investigation into Duffy to end with the payback. It didn’t. Duffy had already quit the Conservative Caucus but he still sits as an Independent in the Senate. Nigel Wright resigned Sunday morning.
Many of the outraged callers were Conservatives, who announced that they, at least, were not about to offer one more dollar to the Conservative party coffers.
Wright clearly hoped to neutralize the Duffy situation, although he did nothing for two other Conservative senators who have also been investigated over expense claims. Makes you wonder what exactly Duffy could say if he hadn’t been rescued.
The Prime Minister and the Grassroots
The Fraser River of British Columbia, four million years old, 845 miles long, home to white sturgeon, salmon and steelhead trout, the largest river by volume draining into Canada’s western seaboard, is no longer protected by the Federal Ministry of the Environment. Why? Environmental protection laws threatened to block the Northern Gateway Project to deliver bitumen to the west coast for delivery to China.
Once again, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has demonstrated his apparent contempt for both democracy and the environment, and put Big Oil interests ahead of everything else.
Harper erected his majority government in May, 2011 on a foundation of two ideas only: Juicing the economy and hammering crime. His strongest power base is in Alberta and his plan to bolster the economy is based on the Alberta Tar Sands. He leads a government dedicated to control, to the implementation of his agenda, not to democracy.
The environmental risks of this Northern Gateway Project are huge both to land and water, and the environmental protection laws that were in place made this project seem impossible. So Harper, whose government has labelled the opponents of the Northern Gateway Project “terrorists”, set about quietly gutting those protection laws in Bill C-45.
This omnibus bill, ostensibly a bill on budget, encompassed a number of other areas as well, areas that deserved separate bills and separate debates, and may well not have passed if put under public scrutiny. Bill C-45 was so huge that few Members of Parliament had a chance to read it through, let alone study the implications of the changes in areas other than budget. The public, distracted by Christmas and the hockey strike, had much less awareness. The Prime Minister rushed the bill onto the table and then limited the time spent in debate to the budget section of the bill. Bill C-45 passed. A victory for the Harper government, a defeat for the democratic process. Increasingly these two go hand in hand.
But sometimes the controlled bite back. Buried deep in the omnibus Bill C-45, was the shard of legislation that led directly to the Idle No More movement.
Bill C-45 shreds the Navigable Waters Protection Act of 1882. This act was originally designed to protect all waterways in Canada that are navigable by any kind of craft. It required a solid consultation and approval procedure for any development and construction on or near those waterways and represented a formidable roadblock to the Northern Gateway Project.
In C-45, the original act is now renamed the Navigation Protection Act. As a result of the various changes, 99.9% of rivers in Canada are now left unprotected by the Federal government, and the biggest barrier to Harper’s oil pipeline and tanker plan has been removed. Hardly anyone noticed.
But many of these unprotected waterways run through indigenous lands, lands where Harper and Big Oil want to run pipelines, threatening wildlife, salmon rivers and livelihoods. So Native People have paid attention. Four university-educated First Nations women decided to act and the Idle No More Movement was born. The women circumvented the more male-dominated, traditional First Nations’ leadership, the chief and band council and the Assembly of First Nation’s national chief, Shawn Atleo, the ones Harper has been courting to promote his pipeline plan. Using peaceful rallies, a website, a Facebook page and a hunger strike by Chief Theresa Spence, Idle No More burst onto the scene. The use of social media attracted a lot of public attention and gained public sympathy and support, including an unusual amount from women. On January 11, the day of a meeting between the PM and aboriginal chiefs, the number of tweets topped 56,700 according to the Globe and Mail.
However public sympathy dropped as Idle No More protests disrupted traffic and commerce, and the aboriginal community has been divided. Theresa Spence has ended her three month hunger strike. The movement has lost its momentum. On the surface, it looks like a return to the status quo, without significant gains. But this isn’t the whole story.
Stephen Harper’s Politics of Control, his blatant undermining of democracy and the means he uses, has attracted the attention of women and men across the country. The breakdown of the democratic system in Canada means that the public must take on the responsibility of opposing the Prime Minister. What the Idle No More movement began, the rest of us need to continue. The Sierra Club of Canada is considering civil disobedience and the Idle No More Movement is drawing breath to continue the fight. Through Harper’s tight-fisted control and refusal to listen to or negotiate with opponents, he himself is paving the way for a grassroots renewal of democracy in this country. It could be the Canadian version of the Arab Spring.
We Are the Opposition
Has anyone else noticed that Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not like to share power? Over the years he has left cabinet ministers out to dry (remember Rona Ambrose’s time as Minister of the Environment?) and cut the feet out from under members of his own party as well as various diplomats and civil servants who disagreed with him. He has launched savage personal attacks on opponents. His tactics have been successful; Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff have disappeared along with most of the Liberal Party. Very few people will stand up to him.
None of the other parties has a permanent leader in place, the Conservatives have a majority government and there is no one to oppose him. The recent Supreme Court decision to keep Vancouver’s Safe Injection Site open represents almost the only successful opposition Prime Minister Harper has faced.
Experts he ignores. Remember the economists who opposed Harper’s decision to lower the GST? The scientists who have spoken out on global warming and fish farms? The police and lawyers who say his omnibus crime bill will cause more problems than it solves? The business people and statisticians who tried to keep the long form census of Statistics Canada in place? Harper even gets around the press by refusing to answer questions except formal scripted situations. He sets the script.
In the absence of more effective groups, it’s up to individual Canadians to oppose the Prime Minister in situations where opposition is required. Write letters to him, to his cabinet, to your MP, to the people leading the opposition parties, to newspapers. We are the opposition.