Why isn’t Harper’s record on democracy an election issue?

Photo by Josh Jensen

“The Council of Canadians,” so reads their website, “stands up for democracy as a fundamental pillar of our society.”

It’s a curious statement. You have to wonder why the sentiment needs stating at all; surely it expresses a self-evident truth? Yet the very fact that it’s there means the Council believes democracy is being threatened and that Canadians don’t actually agree on how fundamental it is.

Maybe Canadians should be debating the meaning and value of democracy. We’re taught that Canada has always been one, yet women couldn’t vote until 1918. Status Indians didn’t get the vote until 1960. The human rights of Japanese-Canadians were suppressed during the Second World War. “Jews and dogs” were unwelcome in certain parts of the country. The same dubious record holds true for such supposed shining examples of democracy as the United States and Israel.

Perhaps a democracy is any country that calls itself one. It also seems that few people really care whether their own country lives up to democratic standards or not, especially, in recent years, Canadians. If they did, Michael Ignatieff might now be prime minister, for he campaigned in 2011 on the many abuses of democratic practices inflicted by Stephen Harper and his government. But Mr. Ignatieff’s campaign utterly failed to connect with voters.

Nor has the cause of democracy been helped by most of the mainstream media, which, with notable exceptions, cover specific incidents of Harper’s abuses of democracy but rarely point to their dangerous larger implications. This is a strange oversight. Fortunately, we can find analysis of the broader trend elsewhere, thanks to an activist civil society.

In May, the Council of Canadians issued a 32-page publication written by Maude Barlow called Broken Covenant: How Stephen Harper set out to silence dissent and curtail democratic participation in Canada. Then last month, Voices-Voix issued its own longer report on the subject, Dismantling Democracy: Stifling debate and dissent in Canada. Both documents thoroughly set down the many ways democracy has been undermined by the Harper government: the abuse of parliamentary rules, the intimidation of public servants, the withdrawing of funding and intimidation of organizations that hold views at odds with the government, to name just a few.

Voices-Voix, a non-partisan coalition of 200 organizations and 5,000 individuals, has documented more than 110 case studies that show how the Harper government has muzzled watchdogs; hung whistleblowers out to dry; cut funding to First Nations, veterans, women’s groups and social justice organizations; increased surveillance and intimidation of human rights advocates; curtailed environmental protection; and effectively slapped gag orders on scientists and public servants. It’s a frighteningly long list.

To summarize: Our Prime Minister does not appreciate those who disagree with him – who exercise their democratic right to free speech, in other words – and has used his considerable power to gag those who express dissenting views.

As it happens, the United Nations may be about to wade in on the subject. It was just Canada’s turn to undergo a Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record by experts selected by the UN’s Human Rights Committee. During the two-day review, Canada faced sharp questions about suppressing free speech and dissent under Bill C-51; the Canada Revenue Agency’s intimidating audits of NGOs and charities; denying health care to refugees; and failing to take seriously the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women. When the committee announces its findings this week, Canada may well receive a failing grade.

This, of course, will be immediately dismissed with the usual derision and ridicule by our government. Count on Mr. Harper to claim an attack on our human rights record as a badge of honour, and I suppose his cherished “base” won’t give a damn. But for the rest of the world, it will be read as a terrible disgrace for Canada.

I insist on believing that if more Canadians actually were aware of what’s happened to democracy in Canada under Mr. Harper’s rule, he’d be chopped liver after Oct. 19. But the sad truth is that in the mainstream media, at least, these vital reports have received nothing like the extensive coverage they deserve. I hope they’ve been getting much more attention on social media, perhaps convincing younger Canadians to take their precious right to vote more seriously.

I wish every Canadian knew that the Council of Canadians and the Voices analyses existed, and took a few minutes to check them out online. But maybe I’m dead wrong. Maybe most Canadians couldn’t care less that their democratic rights have been trampled for the past nine years and are certain to be abused even further if Mr. Harper is re-elected.

Hopefully that’s too defeatist an attitude. As all the polls agree, something new is in the political air across Canada. You can almost feel trust in Mr. Harper and his government slipping away. It’d be heartening to think that these two first-rate but harrowing reports help explain why.

Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, former NDP national director and regular panelist on CBC’s Power and Politics.

This article originally appeared in The Globe & Mail.

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