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Harper undoing Canada

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Stephen Harper's Conservatives dislike Canada. They reject much of what the rest of the world values and praises about us -- our respect for cultural, linguistic and racial diversity; our sense of social responsibility towards one another; our support for collective as well as individual rights; our history of common institutions and programs specifically designed to buffer citizens, regions and provinces from the vagaries of uncontrolled market forces; our honoured international role as a moderate middle power and the originator of international peacekeeping.

For proof of the low esteem in which our current government regards Canadians and their country, look no further than Thursday's federal budget, the first where the Conservatives could fly their true colours thanks to the "strong, stable, majority Conservative government" frequently bragged about by the prime minister.

Harper's Canada is the exact opposite of the Canada he now keenly looks forward to dismantling. Respect for cultural, linguistic and racial diversity is being twisted into trolling the world for specific human widgets to power specific needs of business and industry. Refugees and families seeking reunification are to go to the back of the bus, if not be pushed right off. Intergenerational and interprovincial social and economic responsibility for each other as citizens, once the purview of a robust panoply of federal initiatives, is being downloaded onto the provinces after a short phase-out period.

Resources are to be exploited as fast as possible. Concern for the environment and the rights of aboriginal and other citizens are a distant second. Food safety is to be left to the food manufacturers, drug safety to the pharmaceutical industry, transportation safety to the transport industry. In the new, "liberated" marketplace, self-regulation is the mantra. When it comes to matters of human health and safety, individuals and families will be largely on their own.

The tax system is to be revolutionized. The ability-to-pay principle that undergirded tax policy throughout most of the 20th century is being reversed. Rich individuals and corporations will save ever more of their gains; the poor will be left to become ever-poorer. Simultaneously, social supports are being systematically dismantled.

Even the reworking of Canada's once-highly-esteemed public pension system has been perverted. It's a mean-minded and highly political savaging of any notion of intergenerational equity. The Harper government will maintain the current generous pension system for baby boomers and seniors -- not coincidentally their base vote -- while cutting pensions for their children and grandchildren and those least able to save for themselves -- the growing number of working poor families and young people.

The former are forced to spend all they earn just to survive. The latter face skyrocketing university and college tuition debt. Both face a bleak, ever-narrowing labour market and a crazily overpriced and inaccessible housing market. They are the first generation in many to know they will not only not have it better than their parents, but will have it much worse.

Harper, the man who co-authored the infamous 2000 Alberta firewall letter, abhors the 1982 Canadian Constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He is a strict constitutional constructionist. He believes in the Canada of Confederation in 1867 when Ottawa managed defence, foreign affairs, fisheries, the currency and penitentiaries and the provinces looked after matters of a local nature.

Unfortunately for Canadians, what were local matters 145 years ago now constitute government's biggest, most expensive and important programs -- health, education and social assistance. The notion that 10 provinces and three territories of vastly different size and wealth can be left to finance them on their own assisted by an equalization program whose future is now in doubt as it comes under increasing attack from the right, is simply a prescription for growing disparity -- and disunity.

It was all predictable. During his years with the libertarian National Citizens' Coalition, the prime minister seldom hid his disdain for Canada and Canadians. "Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status," he told the National Post in December 2000. In 1997, he asked an American audience not to "feel particularly bad" for Canada's unemployed. "They don't feel bad about it themselves, as long as they're receiving generous social assistance and unemployment insurance."

Most ominously in light of Thursday's budget, he told an NCC audience in 1994 that: "Whether Canada ends up with one national government or two governments or 10 governments, the Canadian people will require less government no matter what the constitutional status or arrangement of any future country might be."

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg

author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2012 A11

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