With all respect to the many readers who have urged me to dedicate this column to rebutting John Baird’s rebuttal to last week’s column, I must decline.
We have other urgent issues to confront with no further stalling. Incrementally, stealthily, furtively, Stephen Harper is moving Canada towards the conservative dystopia he has always cherished, even if he has taken exquisite care never to campaign on it. As Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells summed up the Harper strategy a couple of years ago, “Changing a society one small step at a time.” This is not a man for a Full Monty.
“Conservative values are Canadian values and the Conservative Party is Canada’s party,” the PM declared, flushed with the thrill of majority government. Yet according to the most recent polls, only 32 per cent of the Canadian public now supports his government. He won his majority last May with just under 40 per cent of the vote. So he has already lost close to one-quarter of that support. Yet though he lacks the approval of the large majority of Canadians, Mr. Harper functions virtually without constraint.
Whatever vocal opposition exists outside the paper tiger of parliament does so in small bites, in isolated silos, through indignant tweets, letters to the editor and op-ed pieces in newspapers. This is known as militant Canadian activism. It’s the Canadian equivalent of the Jon Stewart strategy. While conservatives use every vile trick in the book to undermine American democracy, Mr. Stewart pokes fun at them on cable TV. He gets the laughs, they get the country. Here too.
Mr. Harper’s plummeting popularity preceded his old age security bombshell announcement last week, bringing fear and panic to many senior citizens. That the government intended to undermine the well-being of vulnerable seniors was surprising only in its timing. Not a word was breathed during last year’s election – more evidence, no doubt, of Mr. Harper’s vaunted strategic wiles. But no one has ever questioned that whenever he thought he could get away with it, the Prime Minister would reveal his obvious disdain for the welfare state and the notion of a government-provided social safety net. Now the process is underway, and he has a minimum of three-plus years to do his worst.
Initial steps towards the Conservatives’ goals are well known: the undermining of many traditional parliamentary and democratic niceties; the indifference to evidence; the embrace of the monarchy, militarism and harsh justice; the denial of global warming, the unconditional commitment to the tar sands; the attack on trade unions; the contempt for the United Nations (though only after it rejected Mr. Harper’s bid to win a seat on the Security Council); the tragic transformation of foreign aid; the intimidation of independent NGOs. All of this began under a minority government. But we ain’t seen nothing yet. Where does an unstoppable majority stop?
Or at least unstoppable in parliament. Poor Barack Obama: the most powerful man in the world, he’d give up smoking if he could have the power of a Canadian prime minster in a majority government. I’m sure the NDP will put up a vigorous fight. But the fact is they can huff and puff till they’re blue in the face but they can’t blow the majority House down.
So where are all the angry Canadians hiding? There are those dangerous radical environmentalists – aka Canadian citizens – waiting patiently to have their three-minute turn at the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings? There are some trade unionists who have protested the openly class warfare ultimatums presented to unionized workers by the Caterpillar company, Rio Tinto and other greedy corporations. And then there are those really tough, angry op-eds and tweets denouncing the government for its various sins. Fighting words, by god! Mr. Harper and his merry band of right-wing radical fundamentalists are laughing all the way to Dickens’ London.
But where are any serious signs of peaceful but serious anger, protest, fight-back? (I emphatically don’t mean anarchists, Black Bloc thugs, or anyone else who thinks smashing windows or cop cars is anything but unethical, stupid and counter-productive.) The Occupy Canada troops seem to have evaporated into thin air, incapable of perpetuating the movement.
On the one hand, they had enormous success in putting the 99:1 phenomenon on the public agenda. On the other, nothing has changed, and even the crisis of inequality has begun to slip below the radar again here while it flourishes in the U.S. Is it an exaggeration to say that Stephen Harper’s policies mostly benefit the 1 per cent? Will multi-millionaire seniors be crushed when the pension age jumps to 67 years? Will they even be aware of slashed government services?
Millions of Canadians have serious grievances against this government. Yet beyond sharing their frustration with pollsters, the world would hardly know it. Isn’t it about time they came together to demonstrate their deep anger at their government? Someone must bring them together. Someone must call together a representative group of angry citizens and figure out what to do next. Call it a summit, a conference, a meeting, an indaba, the alternative Davos – the name’s not important. Getting them together, and fast, is what counts.
There are lots of obvious suspects to take the initiative––the Council of Canadians, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, human rights and civil liberties groups, environmental groups. Two years ago Stephen Harper frightened many of these organizations to band together as a virtual protest group called Voices-Voix. At one time, more than 200 organizations were members of the Coalition. It’s time it got re-ignited again.
Canadians need a multitude of creative and effective opportunities to make their voices heard loud and clear. We need an extra-parliamentary opposition that Mr. Harper will ignore at his peril. I don’t claim to know where the leadership will come from. But it needs to happen, and soon.
Author Gerald Caplan: