Winner of the 2014 Atlantic Journalism Award for Commentary — Any Medium.
For as long as I can remember, Canadian politics has been a pleasantly diverting if meaningless game of rascal tossing. We pick one set of rascals to govern us and toss the last set out. After a while, those no-longer new rascals run amok. Can you say sponsorship scandal? Brian Mulroney? Need we say more? So we kick those rascals out, and let the old lot back for another kick at the governing can. Occasionally, we say a pox on both their sorry houses and elect enough neither-of-the-aboves to make things interesting without fundamentally altering anything significant.
When one rascal party replaces the other, the new government rarely revisits legislation the previous group passed. That’s because, until recently, all parties shared a traditional, transcendent understanding about who we are as a people and what we are as a country.
What was that consensus? Well, when Stephen Harper’s Heritage Department recently accidentally (it had to be an accident) asked Canadians what and who made them most proud to be Canadian — the Tories probably hoped for Stephen Harper, Afghanistan and the War of 1812 — it got a very Canadian response.
What are Canadians most proud of? Well, start with Medicare, followed by international peacekeeping and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Not to forget multiculturalism, bilingualism and the Canadarm.
When asked which Canadian had inspired us the most, we ranked former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau number one, followed by Marathon of Hope runner Terry Fox and the late NDP leader Tommy Douglas. Another departed NDP leader, Jack Layton, made the top 10. So did living Canadians like environmental activist David Suzuki, astronaut Chris Hadfield and Canadian soldier and former senator Romeo Dallaire. Stephen Harper was conspicuously absent. In fact, the only Conservative to crack the top 10 was Sir John A. MacDonald, the long-dead prime minister, who ranked eighth.
You won’t be surprised — the Harper government being the Harper government — that Canadian Press had to file a freedom of information request just to read the results of this taxpayer-funded online survey. It was initially compiled for use in the 2017 celebration of our 200th year of nationhood, but — again no surprise given those results — will now never again see daylight.
But, as the poll shows, there is a jangling disconnect between what Canadians say they believe in and the values Stephen Harper has enshrined in Canada’s laws and practices since his party won the majority of seats in the 2011 election.
The Tories did not win a majority of votes, of course. Thanks to the our first-past-the-post system, the balloon-like rise of Layton’s NDP and the pricked-balloon collapse of the Bloq Quebecois in Quebec and the rudderless Liberals everywhere, Stephen Harper managed to translate 39.6 per cent of the 61 per cent of votes cast — a sliver increase of less that two per cent from his previous minority — into an unassailable, do-whatever-the-hell-he-pleased mandate to change who we are.
Which he has done. He’s cut the netting from under our social safety net, slashed public services, done a 180-degree foreign-affairs pirouette from global honest broker to ideological barking dog, glorified the military while denigrating veterans, stealthily imposed a new unilateral Medicare funding formula to eviscerate national health care standards and download costs on to the provinces, imposed tough-on-crime legislation and mandatory minimum sentences despite evidence they don’t work, attacked the courts, eliminated the long-form census, muzzled scientists, destroyed important data, emasculated environmental protections, audited charities and environmental critics, cut taxes for the rich while leaving gaping loopholes for offshore tax cheats, gutted the CBC, passed Orwellian legislation like the Fair Elections Act to make elections anything but…
The list goes on. When I asked on Facebook recently “what a post-Harper government would need to do to undo Harper’s disastrous re-making of Canada,” I got close to 100 responses with at least three dozen different specific suggestions.
All of this means the scheduled 2015 federal election should not simply be another rascal-changing exercise.
The 60 per cent of us who didn’t vote to radically change our country’s laws and values must now ask those who would seek to replace Stephen Harper not simply what they will do for our country but what they will undo to give us back our country.
This column originally appeared in the September-October 2014 edition of Atlantic Business Magazine. The magazine’s editors have set up a link where you can offer your own answer the question: What would a post Harper government need to do to undo Stephen Harper’s disastrous re-making of Canada? The website is open for your comments.
Correction: The original story inadvertently mis-stated the scheduled date of the next federal election. It is 2015. And the anniversary we celebrate in 2017; it’s the 150th. Math was clearly not my strength…