Dr. Dawg

Subversion from above

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state of emergency.jpg

Is Canada presently under a state of emergency?

Not officially, of course. Suspending the rule of law holus-bolus is a crude, ham-fisted way of governing, as anyone who remembers the October Crisis of 1970 can attest. Pierre Trudeau, addicted as he was to macho posturing (“Just watch me”), effectively abolished civil liberties for all Canadians under the War Measures Act, supposedly in order to deal with a couple of small armed gangs in Quebec, although he was clearly sending a more general political message as well.

How easy a thing it was. Done in a twinkling, the imposition of national martial law received immediate, overwhelming support across Canada. In a perceived crisis, people prefer safety over liberty. It was a sledgehammer shock, however, for a country unused to seeing soldiers patrolling our streets, and would not have been tolerated for long. As it was, the events of the time have been largely overshadowed by rueful hindsight.

Yet the excesses of 1970 have been dwarfed since, first by the brutal and unlawful behaviour of police during the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010, and, more recently, by mass arrests and unchecked police brutality during the Quebec student strike. What we need to pay attention to, though, is not the behaviour of these uniformed louts, but the cover given to them then and subsequently by the state.

Two years after the Toronto police riot, thanks to media scrutiny and a new civilian review agency in Ontario, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, a very few cops may face internal discipline for their lawless and brutal attacks on ordinary Toronto citizens and peaceful protesters alike. Criminal charges have been laid in only a couple of egregious cases ferreted out by the media. (Kudos where it’s due, by the way—OIPRD got off to a shaky start and is woefully under-resourced, but has probably done more in its short life to bring cops to account than the SIU Alibi Ikes have done since the latter organization came into being.)

Yet, when all is said and done, the police generally got away with it. The police practice of mutual coverups has proven excruciatingly difficult to counter, and, historically, little is done even when officers are shown to have behaved unlawfully. The police in Toronto were backed pretty much to the hilt by by state authority at the federal, provincial and municipal levels, and the Crown Attorney’s office was sometimes in active collusion. There is, in other words, no political will to redress the monstrous wrongs that were committed against innocent citizens. Demands for a full public inquiry have been stoutly resisted. Move on, folks—nothing to see here.

And this year, the Quebec government has demonstrated yet again how easily democratic freedoms can be made to disappear with a handwave. Charter? What Charter? Such is the arrogance of state power that it didn’t bother to avail itself in this instance of the “notwithstanding clause” as a figleaf: the right of free assembly was simply turned from a right into a privilege, with municipal rules passed in tandem, while brutal police assaults continued to be launched upon unarmed, peaceful demonstrators exercising their freedom of speech and assembly, and luckless non-protesting citizens as well.

All this took place in just a few days.

But in the first instance (the G20 protests), there was no formal proclamation suspending civil liberties (even if the Ontario government used a secret law to give unchecked authority to the police); and in the second, the measures apply only to protesters in Quebec, at least officially. Most people don’t protest, however, so when they come for the protesters…

This is, after all, the age of political incrementalism; and we have Stephen Harper to thank for the slow but steady rise of the temperature in the frog pot. Why declare a state of emergency when you can accomplish the same results bit by bit, a little here, a little there, as needed? It’s a question of engineering, fine-tuning, a complex political calculus that Harper, but not his Quebec comrade-in-arms, excels at.

Under a state of emergency, ordinary civil rights disappear, and the accountability mechanisms that help to ensure their existence, imperfect as they be, are suppressed. The political will of the rulers is manifested without the inconvenience of checks and balances. While the law remains, the Sovereign (in Giorgio Agamben and Carl Schmitt’s sense of the word) exists both within and outside it, determining who is included and excluded from it, and where and when exceptions will be made. The streets of Toronto in 2010 and of Quebec today are classic “zones of exception,” wherein the ordinary rule of law ceases to apply.

But it is essential that we not be distracted by obvious state excesses such as these. There is much more going on. The Canadian political system itself, one of convention-based checks, balances and accountability known as “responsible government,” is under continual assault today: to all intents and purposes that system is, or is certainly in the process of being, suspended.

Ministerial accountability, for example, the very cornerstone of responsible government, is now a thing of the past. Ministers habitually stonewall, lie and even steal with utter impunity. The legislative process itself has been replaced: vast, almost randomly-assembled omnibus bills containing all manner of evils are introduced, debate on them is severely restricted, and Conservative-run committees simply grease their path to the inevitable Royal Assent.

Why is this any different, except in style, from rule by decree?

Take another supposedly fundamental aspect of Canadian political democracy: free and fair elections. The agency charged with overseeing the that process, Elections Canada, was denied the powers it needs to investigate the wholesale electoral fraud that took place last year until, perhaps realizing their vulnerability, the Conservatives uncharacteristically backed down. More recently it has been subject to crude attacks from Conservative shills and catspaws. With the best will in the world, it lacks the staff and the resources to undertake a proper, in-depth inquiry into the dirty doings in 200 ridings in Canada last year. But a full public inquiry? A Royal Commission? Fuhgeddaboudit.

What are ordinary citizens to do? If they band together to challenge the outcome of an election riddled with fraudulent practices, they are subject to public calumny by the government, and their use of legal recourse mechanisms is countered by bogus attempts to prevent access to them.

When they form organizations to protect their environment, they are accused of treason, of being controlled by “foreign radicals,” and bludgeoned by the Canada Revenue Agency if they get too noisy. Meanwhile the government is set to “streamline” environmental assessments, meaning that public participation will be radically curtailed.

Labour unions, too, are being systematically attacked by the Harper administration. Ministerial interference in labour-management disputes has become commonplace: and it’s just about to happen again.

But perhaps the clearest examples of the effects of our unofficial state of emergency is the closing off of access to recourse and redress by individual citizens.

This began when Harper had only a minority: with Liberal support, he managed to abolish pay equity in the federal public service. That fundamental right was removed from the Canadian Human Rights Act. Individual women with a complaint would have to go to the inexperienced Public Service Labour Relations Board instead of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. But woe betide her union attempting to represent her: heavy fines may now be legally imposed upon them for doing so.

With its majority, the Harper regime has become emboldened in its quest to abolish recourse for ordinary folks. Unfairly denied employment insurance? The omnibus budget bill will make it tough if not impossible to appeal. Unemployed people are not among the wealthiest of our citizens, as a rule, but now they will be forced to retain legal counsel where before they could simply tell their story and make their case in their own words.

University of Ottawa law professor Lucie Lamarche says the new measure, which comes on page 196 of the more than 400-page budget implementation bill, is “well-hidden.”

The current system, she says, is easy, non-judicial and free.

“There is this group of people constituting the board of referees that can look at the facts, that can redress administrative mistakes and it’s a system that produces a chunk of administrative mistakes,” Lamarche said.

Lamarche is also concerned that under the new system, applicants will have to hire lawyers. She says it appears that under the legislation, people will have to make more technical, legal arguments.

Did you suffer racial discrimination while serving in the RCMP? Want to have your case heard by a human rights tribunal? Not if Attorney General Rob Nicholson has his way: in an extraordinary act of ministerial interference, he is trying to block access to the tribunal by former Cpl. Greg Morrison Blain, an Aboriginal officer who allegedly suffered what amounts to a campaign of in-house discrimination for two decades.

What about losing a family member to suicide while he served in the Canadian Forces? Want to find out what happened? Good luck: Defence Minister Peter McKay is there to make another extraordinary move, gagging witnesses to prevent an inquiry from proceeding.

Which brings us, by a circumlocutory route, back to the Quebec student strike.

The sheer duplicity of Maclean’s magazine aside, some of the media are asking the obvious question, if not answering it very well. What is motivating students to stay out of class for an entire semester? How are they managing to maintain and even grow their support, attract allies and keep on keeping on? Certainly it’s not about modest tuition increases per se, but just as certainly it is about what those increases iconically represent: the imposition of austerity by the 1% upon the 99%, democracy be damned.

Against Harper’s new political reality, mirrored, if ineptly, by the Quebec government, general resistance is growing. Something is happening here, but the talking heads and glib columnists don’t know what it is—or maybe they do. Even commentators who have taken to wringing their hands over the profoundly anti-democratic turn in Canadian politics, like Andrew Coyne, are utterly unable to see the strike for what it is. Indeed, the irony in Coyne’s case is breathtaking. The students, he says, are crippling democracy. But Charest’s Bill 78, described as an unconstitutional attack on freedom of speech and assembly by constitutional lawyer Julius Grey and by Quebec Bar Association head Louis Masson, is, he insists, no biggie. How fickle Coyne’s attachment to democratic values proves to be when the establishment is seriously challenged.

The Conservative/conservative Borg has clearly absorbed its fair share of Canadians, but the Quebec students are here to tell us that resistance is anything but futile. Those of us who remain committed to defending democracy, presently being stifled under Canada’s stealth state of emergency, can and should be as critical as we like about some of the tactics used by a minority of the students (or agents provocateurs—it’s hardly unheard of), but when the chips are down, we had best stand with them, warts and all. They’re the only serious game in town at the moment, and the alternative, as we have seen, is getting uglier by the day.

[H/ts to a lot of good people]

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on May 27, 2012 7:41 PM.

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