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Harperites undermine democracy

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Canadian democracy is under threat from its own government.

The Conservatives under Stephen Harper are running an effective dictatorship. They believe they are quite within their rights to muzzle Parliament, gag civil servants, use taxpayer money for blatant political self-promotion, stand accused of trying to subvert a federal election and hand over much of Canada's magnificent natural heritage to the multinational oil and gas lobby.

What is even more disturbing is that the national media, with a few notable exceptions, has underplayed or ignored these developments that are a clear assault on Canada's democratic institutions and processes.

Many Canadians were taken aback when, in a precedent-setting decision, the Harperites decided, not once but twice, to jettison the normal parliamentary budget process and bundle the entire budget into two giant omnibus bills and clamp closure on the debates.

Authoritarians want things done their way and right now. Little did the hapless opposition parties know that the 2012 federal budget -- a budget Parliament was forced to work round the clock to pass within the government's time allocation -- gave the oil industry free rein over Canada's lakes, rivers, lands, forests, fish, birds, animals and air, few to no questions asked.

Canada's version of Big Oil's Seven Sisters, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, the Canadian Fuels Association and the Canadian Gas Association, sent a letter to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Environment Minister Peter Kent on Dec. 12, 2011, asking Ottawa to change a series of environmental laws "to advance economic growth and environmental performance."

Greenpeace obtained a copy of the letter and gave it to the media in January. "Within 10 months of the request, the industry had almost everything it wanted," the CBC reported. "The letter specifically targeted six federal laws that relate to the oil and gas industry's ability to do its work."

Those six federal laws safeguard Canada's environment -- the Migratory Birds Convention Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the National Energy Board Act.

It was full speed ahead for the government. On Jan. 9, 2012, less than a month after the letter was written, Oliver accused environmentalists and "other radical groups that threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda" of undermining the Canadian economy.

On April 26, 2012, the government introduced the first omnibus budget bill rewriting the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and making major changes to the Fisheries Act and the National Energy Board Act.

And on Oct. 18, 2012, the government tabled its second omnibus budget bill replacing the Navigable Waters Protection Act -- one of Canada's oldest pieces of legislation -- with the Navigation Protection Act. If this name has an Orwellian cast to it, that's because it is classic Orwellian doublespeak. The act actually eliminates federal protection for almost all of Canada's navigable waters -- and therefore, for their fish, animals, birds and surrounding lands. Only 97 lakes and 62 rivers remain protected from environmental predation.

But the Harperites don't stop there.

They've now moved on to gut Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- at least as far as the federal public service is concerned.

Federal scientists cannot go to international conferences without "minders" to ensure they utter nothing but government-approved talking points and platitudes. Gag orders are spreading like wildfire throughout the federal public service. The latest to be smothered are federal librarians and archivists. If they set foot in classrooms, attend conferences or speak up at public meetings on their own time they are engaging in "high risk" activities, according to the new code of conduct at Library and Archives Canada.

Given the "dangers" of these "high-risk activities," the code warns, librarians and archivists must clear such "personal" activities with their managers in advance to ensure there are no conflicts "or other risks to LAC." James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, says the government's code includes "both a muzzle and a snitch line."

Even more frightening is the code's proclamation that federal employees owe "duty of loyalty" to the "duly elected government" and spells out how offenders can be reported.

This is a historic -- and very disturbing -- development. In genuine democracies, the civil service is expected to be non-partisan and loyal to the Crown (the nation and its citizens), not to the politicians of the current government.

How long will Canada be able to claim to be a first-world democracy if this anti-intellectual, anti-science and clearly anti-democratic climate persists in Ottawa's corridors of power?

 

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2013 A9

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