The following post is deliberately alarmist. Orwellian, you might say. I’m not trying to paint a picture of what things are like in Canada right now, or even what I think they’ll be like in the near future. I’m not an idiot. But I do want to paint a picture of the sort of Canada that is explicitly permitted under some of the legal changes proposed and/or actually passed by the Harper regime.
Whether these accord in any way with the policies of a party that used to stand for small, transparent, and accountable government is up to you. I think by the end of this you’ll have a good idea where I stand on that question. So some of this list has already happened, but more of it are things the government has said they want to be allowed to happen, but haven’t actually done. Yet.
We’ll start from the perspective of an immigrant, rather than a newborn Canadian. You apply for immigration, you make sure all your ducks are in order, and you wait for your application to be processed. Because the government can’t afford to process the paperwork, your application may languish for a considerable time. Sometimes, the government simply eliminates the waiting list altogether and instructs you to start over from square one. You will also need to keep your political beliefs very quiet (or make sure they agree with the government in power), because the law allows the minister to personally reject your application for the nebulous reason of “public policy considerations.”
Assuming you arrive by air, from the moment you step off the airplane, you’ll be subjected — like all Canadians — to constant surveillance by the national security service, which routinely records all conversations at major airports. Also like all Canadians, your email, Internet use, and cell phone may be monitored at any time by the security service or the police, secretly and without a warrant. But as an immigrant, you’re also subject to some more intensive surveillance activities too. For instance, if the security service visits and demands that you report for an interrogation, you must agree. At this interrogation they can ask any questions they wish, and if you fail to answer truthfully, that’s grounds for expulsion from the country.
There’s another good reason to keep your political beliefs quiet, too: even after you become a citizen, if for some reason you’ve drawn the ire of the government (or the government’s American ally), once you leave the country the government claims the power not to let you back in. This isn’t a power granted to the government by the Constitution; in fact, it’s a power specifically denied by the Constitution. However, the government’s official policy is that when a minister makes a decision on a “matter of high policy,” ministerial prerogative automatically trumps the Constitution. So, in practice, the Constitution doesn’t apply to government policy in those areas.
It’s no surprise that the government routinely violates its own and international law: that’s part of how the Canadian state functions. The ruling party and its Cabinet ministers have been under investigation for various incidents of fraud and corruption for six of the past seven years, racking up multiple convictions and findings of guilt. None of these convictions have amounted to more than mild admonitions, however, so all of the people in question, including the minister responsible for the police, are still at their posts. Recently an opposition party levelled yet another allegation of petty corruption; in retaliation, they were hauled into court to give an accounting for themselves.
You find a job in a federally regulated sector — at an airline company, say, or on the railway. In federal sectors, there are large trade unions, but strikes are outlawed. Even in the private sector, the federal government appoints arbitrators to determine your wages and working conditions, rather than allow these decisions to be made free of government interference in the labour market. So you pay dues to the union, you work for a private employer, but your wages are set by the government, sometimes in collaboration with the employer, sometimes not.
For some reason the government requires that a broadcast of Parliament be included in all cable packages, so you tune in a few times before rapidly growing bored by the inanity of it all. Under the Harper regime, Parliamentary debate does occur from time to time, but it’s strictly optional. The Speaker has ruled that, if the government really wants to, it can introduce all of the legislation for the session in a single omnibus bill, hold a paltry five hours of debate on that bill before passing it, and then close up shop early and come back in a year for the next session. The Speaker has also ruled that although opposition MPs have the right to ask questions of the government in Parliament, the government does not have an obligation to actually answer them.
That’s not out of the ordinary, either. Parliament has an array of theoretically independent commissioners, but their powers are minimal. One of them has actually threatened legal action to force the government to supply him financial information they’re legally required to provide; in response, the government has hinted that his job will be next on the chopping block. Another commissioner has repeatedly pointed to the illegal lobbying activities of several of the Prime Minister’s senior advisors; but in no case has this resulted in a charge being laid. The government and its advisors, it seems, are above and beyond the reach of mere law. You also have legal options open to you to request government information as a private citizen, but those options are very limited. The government routinely engages in illegal obstruction of access-to-information requests, ranging from excessive delays to retroactive reclassification of documents under a system known — at least in some departments — as the “Purple File.”
Of course the Charter guarantees you the right to protest all of this. But you’ll want to be careful with that. The government still provides subsidies to a range of NGOs and quasi-NGOs (what the British call quangos), but increasingly those subsidies come with explicit strings attached. Until last year, the only obvious one involved Canada’s foreign allies: criticize their domestic policy, warned the immigration minister, and your funding will get pulled. Since 2011, the list of enemies has broadened. The new policy, one minister revealed following the shutdown of the country’s premier environmental policy council, is that advocating a policy position which the government disagrees with is grounds to have your funding pulled. The prime minister subsequently clarified that organizations whose positions were “contrary to government policy” would be defunded and/or “eliminated” where possible. Recently a union economist was hauled before a Parliamentary committee and given a grotesquely comical McCarthyist grilling on his links to opposition political parties.
The funding issues are only the soft and slushy tip of the iceberg, however. The security service routinely infiltrates and monitors political advocacy groups, especially ones with ties to environmentalist or to First Nations. Raise too much of a stink, and you’ll be labelled an “enemy of the state.” Calling a minister’s office to complain about a new piece of legislation could be enough to get you cited for contempt of Parliament. If you do it anonymously, or issue threats, the government will ask the police and the intelligence service to investigate. But even if you just call to register a complaint, you can still be charged with the rather nebulous offence of interfering with a government official in the course of his duties. And if you’re an immigrant, these sorts of political activities probably raise the risk of you getting summoned to one of those pesky CSIS interviews.
Plus, if you’ve decided to identify yourself in a protest to your politician or a Cabinet minister, you’ll also be entered into another database, a separate one maintained by the ruling party with the objective of maintaining an up-to-date record of the address, political beliefs, and public activities of every citizen in the country. Government officials privately acknowledge that during the last election someone — a party insider or an outside hacker, they don’t know — accessed this database and downloaded contact information for thousands of suspected political dissidents, who were then misdirected to bogus polling stations in a bizarre attempt to prevent them from casting their votes. More recently, unknown but clearly well-organized hackers came within a hair’s breadth of shutting down an opposition party’s leadership convention. No one claimed responsibility; in fact, no one seems remotely concerned with identifying the guilty party.
And meanwhile, the government is trying very hard to explain to Canadians that the increasing gaps between their ideological vision of utopia and the reality of Canadian dystopia are the fault of a widespread liberal conspiracy which has penetrated deep into the government bureaucracy with the intention of undermining the government. For instance, recently, the government announced that lengthy delays in processing Employment Insurance paperwork were not the fault of government cutbacks (which actually improved service levels), but rather the fault of an organized conspiracy among the EI administrators to engage in work slowdowns and anti-government wrecking. For years, the ruling party has alleged that Liberals are secreted away at every level of the CBC and are trying to use the state broadcaster to undermine the government. Conservative commentators also allege that liberals have squirreled themselves away in Elections Canada and are trying to use that organization for much the same purpose.
A particularly telling sign of the paranoid authoritarian streak behind these tactics is that in recent months actual and former Conservatives and Conservative government appointees have become seen as sufficiently disloyal that they are denounced as members of the liberal conspiracy. Conservative appointees Marc Mayrand (head of Elections Canada), Tom Lederer (the Toronto judge who threw out Ted Opitz’s election), and Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, to name just three recent examples, have all been denounced as having been scheming liberal dissidents all along after falling afoul of the government. Recently two card-carrying Conservative veterans complained that a government MP on a Parliamentary committee had fallen asleep while listening to their presentation; for this seemingly minor faux pas, they were promptly denounced as pro-Russian NDP agents trying — once again — to embarrass the government.
Hoping that another exercise in dividing an conquering will shore up their flagging support, the government is returning to and escalating this war on the bureaucracy with new gusto. The day I sat down to pen this piece, a secret report was mysteriously leaked to the state broadcaster, and then announced on the evening news with great fanfare, purporting to show that bureaucrats were booking excessive sick time. It’s not hard to imagine who “leaked” this. To cut down on unwanted leaks and criticism, all employees in the federal public sector are being issued variations on a general order that they have ”a duty to refrain from public criticism of the government,” not just from within the workplace but also as a private citizen. Parks Canada’s version can be found here. A vaguer version of the duty of loyalty is also applied, as of May 2012, to English- but not French-language employees of the state broadcaster.
In addition to tightening the flow of information in this way, the government is also increasingly resorting to the more subtle tactic of simply deleting information entirely. Councils that have tried to change government policy on contentious issues, like the National Roundtable on the Environment, aren’t the only research-related programs being scrapped this year. The government’s ongoing war of attrition against Statistics Canada is continuing as well, with one of the most recent incidents being the mysterious disappearance of the agency’s online data tables on Employment Insurance rates just as the debate over EI reform was picking up speed. If you don’t know what’s going on, you can’t criticize what’s going on.
In short, the Harper regime has banned strikes, implemented massive new surveillance programs (extending to personal computers and cell phones as well as normal passenger traffic in public spaces), gutted the customary rights of Parliament, committed numerous incidents of electoral fraud, censored the public service, suppressed and classified formerly public information, denounced critics as members of a partisan conspiracy, and argued that routine ministerial decisions take precedence over not just the law but even the Constitution. Thank God the Conservative Party stands for small and transparent government, or I’d be starting to get a little worried just about now.