By Nora Abercrombie
I am not a fan of Stephen Harper by any measure but we have to acknowledge that he conducted himself fairly well this week. He did not shy from telling Canadians that economic times are going to get tougher. He commended Manley’s report on Afghanistan without leaping to agree with it, asserting to Canadians that he would do the right thing.
I have no confidence, though, that Harper has a comprehensive understanding of how tough the tough times ahead are going to be. I would prefer that he warn Canadians that we have to completely reorder our society and economy in order to survive a post-carbon world. He has not done that and he should, even if it draws boos and boo-hoos from the business community.
How tough will things get? Those of us old enough to have heard Depression stories from our grandparents and parents would do well to remember them in detail. We can find indicators in those stories of what we might expect. My grandmother did not taste milk for ten years, sewed all the family’s clothes and sent her son, my father, to hunt meat for the evening meal. My father remembers being rationed two shotguns shells into his 10-year-old palm and being told to “make them count.” The occasional roast of beef was made to last all week from a glory of a Sunday meal through sandwiches and hearty soup. My grandfather was sometimes paid for his work as a mechanic in bags of potatoes because few in the neighbourhood had any money to spare. In the last years of her life, my grandmother still washed plastic bags and hung them to dry on the clothesline. She never learned to drive because she would never own a car.
That is the kind of lifestyle we have to get ready for. Earlier this week I mentioned to family members that they might want to sell their expensive cars now, while they were still worth something, especially if they were still paying for them. I was laughed down. I don’t think they’ll be laughing a few years from now.
We have to keep in mind that our current lifestyle is not typical in history or currently on the planet. The Depression occurred in living memory and is far more typical of human lifestyle than the we one we enjoy now. In fact, our current affluence happens only rarely and usually right before a significant political or economic crisis. To survive, we will have to accept a radically different lifestyle. If we don’t do this together, in an orderly way with supportive public policy, we will still live a radically different lifestyle but likely in an atmosphere of panic and chaos.
Harper did make one wrong step this week. Bouncing the torture controversy back to the Canadian military despite energetic criticism from the opposition was Harper’s mistake of the week. He should demand a full investigation into the controversy surrounding Canada’s transfer of detainees into the hands of Afghan torturers, even as Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Union ramp up their lawsuits against the federal government. There are two problems with this situation. First, the Canadian military must take proactive measures to protect detainees before torture becomes a possibility. Surely they would expect Afghans to have different standards and plan accordingly. It is not sufficient only to react. Secondly, the federal government cannot bounce this back to the military. This is a question of oversight. The Canadian military is not independent. It is responsible to the federal government and the federal government must demand accountability. Where that accountability breaks down, the correct response is swift and decisive discipline, not finger-pointing.
Canada’s credibility as a civilized people is badly damaged when we fail to protect military prisoners. Combined with our whimpering apology of last week to two known torturers — Israel and the U.S. — Canada looks like an errand boy of the barbarians.
That said, Harper’s language has been strong, solid, and displayed the leadership qualities that will inspire voters to back him simply because they’re nervous. I hope the opposition — whose policies I am more inclined toward — will find a confident tone before the next federal election.