The Canadian Election of 2015

bent-dorsal-fin-from-killer-whaleWhat do killer whales in captivity have in common with the Canadian electorate? Both have collapsed dorsal fins.

Ba-dum-chissss!

No consensus exists on why whale fins collapse. However, when it comes to the electorate our fins have collapsed because Canadians either don’t believe their vote matters or they’ve lost faith in democracy altogether.

Democracy was born out of a veritable ocean of ideas. The idea, quoting Dennis from The Holy Grail, that “supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not some farcical aquatic ceremony” was a huge leap forward in the march towards freedom because reason, rather than tradition or superstition, became the basis of government; and with the separation of church and state achieved, a secular basis for authority in Western society was established giving individuals the responsibility and freedom to look after themselves; moreover, the creation of constitutions, effectively limiting the power of the executive branch, established equality for all (in principle) and the rule of law (again, in principle).

In the early days of democracy—the 1780s for the United States and the 1840s in Canada—citizens gladly took an active role in their own government. I’m sure you’ve heard of Jefferson, Adams or Lincoln. Have you ever heard of Baldwin or Lafontaine? Canada’s federal system, with its checks and balances, didn’t just materialize out of nowhere; it began out of troubling and problematic circumstances and was eventually shaped into a “responsible government” through a combination of rebellion and progressive reform. Suffice to say that in 1840 Canada’s House of Assembly was as dysfunctional as the Congress is today. Except instead of Democrats and Republicans going at one another’s throats, French and English members formed the rival blocs. The House was divided into an equal number of French and English representatives; and when a French member proposed a bill they could count on French support; yet, for a bill to become law it also required English support. Predictably, this support never materialized and the government was paralyzed by political deadlock in the early 1840s.

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The situation improved only when two men had the imagination and courage to challenge the status-quo: Robert Baldwin, an English politician from Ontario, arranged it so a francophone named Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine ran (and eventually won office) in an English riding in York. Lafontaine returned the favor by helping Baldwin win an election in a French district. This action broke the political deadlock as representatives began voting on the basis of opinions instead of origins. Arguably,Baldwin and Lafontaine’s greatest achievement was to end the ethnic division peacefully. By 1848 the Baldwin-Lafontaine alliance led to Canada being given the right to responsible government from Great Britain, i.e. a party could only run the government so long as they had the confidence of the people’s representatives (you know, the people you and I vote for in elections). In addition to responsible government, these two men more than anyone else, established the following principle as a foundation to Canada’s political culture: the government does not exist to solely protect the interest of one’s tribe, or to secure the interests of an elite; instead, it exists to protect the interests—both long and short-term—of the nation and its various members as a whole. Canadians ignore this lesson history teaches at their peril. Baldwin and Lafontaine are my heroes.

Democracy is an idea; a conception of society where the rule of law prevails and authority is accountable to the people both in form and in fact. Democracy, like a constitution, functions best when people have faith in it. Democracy, however, ceases to function properly once we lose our faith in it. The reasons many of us have lost faith, or walk about with our dorsal fins between our legs, are relatively simple to identify: firstly, corporate money, and not the public will, too frequently decides elections and public policy. By simply outspending their competitors, political parties manufacture the votes required to win elections through propaganda, e.g. the niqab non-issue. Once in power, political parties look to their masters—not the people but the corporations who put them in power—for direction on where to steer government and the political decision-making process; and secondly, faith in democracy is waning because leaders are failing to uphold democratic first principles as reflected in their respective constitutions; instead, politicians are looking for ways to interpret their constitutions for political advantage.

In 2004 allegations of Americans torturing enemy combatants at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp emerged. The American use of torture, eventually confirmed as fact, was not only a clear violation of international law (see Geneva Convention, Article 3); it also violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishments.” The ironic thing is the torture, justified largely to “defend freedom” and one assumes the rule of law, was itself an assault on the law: in principle the law, or Constitution, is the supreme authority placing logical and concrete limits on the various branches of government; ultimately, what can or cannot be done is determined by the following legal test, e.g. Does my intended action violate either the spirit or letter of the law? If there is a violation, then the action cannot be undertaken. So, when a person in power believes and acts as though they are above the law, they chip away at the public’s confidence in the ability of the law to secure society and keep power accountable. To be a leader in a democracy is to accept the fact you cannot make the rules up as you go along or ignore the law when it proves too inconvenient to follow. The law is supposed to be “inconvenient” for a reason: so the interests of the powerful can be reined in, evaluated, limited, and the rule of law preserved. As I said earlier, democracy is an idea; and when we weaken the people’s sense that the law indeed prevails, as opposed to naked power, the public is left floundering in a moral vacuum where whatever powers says goes and whatever power says is right is right. This is the gateway to fascism.

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Some critics of the American use of torture called for President George W. Bush to be charged with war crimes. American apologists argued enemy combatants weren’t protected by the Constitution because they weren’t Americans citizens. (A Supreme Court decision in 2006 over-turned Bush’s interpretation of the Eighth Amendment, compelling the executive branch to extend minimum protections to detainees at Guantanamo.) As unconstitutional as the torture was, the greatest damage to the Constitution came in form of something Vice-President Dick Cheney said in the wake of the allegations of torture. He argued it was he, and not the president, who’d given the CIA, etc. permission to carry out torture for the purposes of gathering intelligence; he argued that although the Constitution placed restrictions upon the executive branch these limitations did not apply to him because he was not technically part of that branch. While it is true executive power is vested fundamentally in the office of the president, Article Two of the Constitution explicitly states the vice-president belongs to the executive. Cheney, nonetheless, refused to submit to Congressional oversight. When politicians act as though they’re above the law like Cheney did, the public becomes justifiably pessimistic and frustrated.

Just like the president (and vice-president) in the United States, the Canadian prime minister has the important role of upholding the principles articulated within the Canada Act (1982); it seems reasonable, to me at least, he should not be allowed to exploit constitutional loopholes or ambiguities for the benefit of his corporate sponsors or political backers. For example, consider the recent Senate scandal. According to the British North America Act (1867) (the pre-cursor of the Canada Act) a senator must own property and reside in the province they represent (see Section III, Article 23). In the case of Senator Michael Duffy, he was a senator for Prince Edward Island while living in Ontario. Duffy argued he met the constitutional requirements to qualify as a senator by simply owning a home in PEI (that, by the way, he did not live in). For obvious reasons Prime Minister Harper sought advice from a constitutional lawyer on the legality of allowing Duffy to continue sitting as a member of the Senate even though the basic stipulation—you should actually live in the region you represent—clearly was not being met. The lawyer argued Duffy did not qualify. Harper ignored this legal opinion and, using his prerogative power as prime minister, accepted Duffy as meeting the minimum requirements.

Obviously, a prime minister is confronted daily with making difficult decisions; and whatever one thinks of Stephen Harper’s policies you cannot argue all the decisions he makes are always self-serving. He loves Canada as much as any other Canadian. He just has a different view of the country than many of us. I think, though, that his critics were right to point out a potential conflict of interest in keeping Duffy in the Senate. Duffy was a Conservative member of the Upper Chamber and could be counted on to help support bills initiated by the Conservatives in the Lower Chamber; it would appear, on the surface at least, Harper made preserving his power base in the Senate more important than upholding a simple requirement of the BNA Act. What I don’t get is why Harper didn’t simply appoint a new conservative senator for PEI? Perhaps he didn’t because the law requiring him to do so proved too inconvenient?

Politicians not only look to exploit constitutional loopholes, they can also be bought and paid for by corporations. The sad thing is this isn’t even a controversial statement to make. (I’m not sure what that says about us as a society that we tolerate this…) Immediately following the 2011 Canadian election, once the Conservatives won their Parliamentary majority, and with the direct assistance of lawyers and executives from Alberta’s energy industry, an omnibus bill (C-45) was crafted and brought before Parliament. Once passed, Bill C-45, removed protections from millions of lakes and rivers across Canada. No scientists were consulted in the process of the bill’s creation, just energy industry enthusiasts and executives; no Parliamentary debate took place to discuss the wisdom of removing environmental protections previous administrations (and scientists) thought necessary. Obviously, the regulations were removed so the energy sector could more efficiently exploit Canada’s resources from coast to coast to coast. I’m all for growing Canada’s economy; however, I’m also strongly in favor of having the appropriate scientific oversight for the energy sector, and every other industry, so we can minimize harm to ourselves and the environment.

People seeking more information on the interplay, interference, and interdependence of corporations and the Conservative government please see Chris Turner’s book The War on Science.

Jean Jacques Rousseau observed we are born free but everywhere we are in chains. The chains Rousseau spoke of were in one sense real and in another sense imaginary: the real chains existed because we must give up some of our freedom in order to live in society; however, in terms of the imaginary chains—and that’s what they are, imaginary—when we think we are captive to a corrupt or dysfunctional political system then we end up creating and living in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy; that is, when we believe we can’t make a difference, we don’t; instead, we hang our heads and dorsal fins in defeat which simply makes the situation worse. If we believe our vote matters (and it does), a new world opens to us and apparent obstacles turn in to opportunities.

In Canada there’s a tendency to wait for government to do everything for us. We’ve grown passive in our relative peace and prosperity; and in our passivity we’ve lost the vitality which so invigorated and energized public life in the United States and Canada in the early days of democracy. We’ve forgotten what it cost or how difficult it was to wrest power from our elites to establish the rule of law; we’ve also forgotten that we’re supposed to take responsibility for ourselves and be active in our own government.

Canadians have an election coming up in only a few days. Some of you might think your vote doesn’t matter or it won’t change anything. Yet, your vote does matter. What if you were to vote for a candidate who possessed the principles of a Baldwin instead of a Cheney? Or become that Baldwin; become that Lafontaine.

When you vote you are selecting the people who will represent all Canadians in Parliament; and the type of people you vote in to office ultimately determines the type of government you get.

My fellow Canadians straighten your fins! And wade in to the nearest polling station to cast your vote. You just never know what you might catch.

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