Sure, we may be geeks … but apparently we’re trusting geeks, too. On Monday — which just happened to be the deadline for filing our annual tax returns — many Canadians were still keen to give the government even more information about themselves, overwhelming the StatsCan website with their replies to the 2016 census. “Here are all my receipts. Want my diary, too?”
Call it endearing, call it naive — Canadians’ enthusiastic embrace of the census’s return at least tells us that we’re not a paranoid nation. And that’s a good thing. Paranoia in politics can lead us down roads better left untravelled: distrust of newcomers, cultural snitch lines, or, say, a character like Donald Trump being regarded as a serious contender for high political office.
Trump’s candidacy for president, as many commentators have observed, is fuelled in large part by a strong streak of paranoia running through the American electorate. The longer he’s stayed in the race, the more references we’ve seen to a 1964 article by Richard Hofstadter, titled, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
“The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent,” Hofstadter wrote, more than a half-century ago.
Canada’s political culture isn’t totally free of paranoia, but it’s safe to say (I think) that we collectively have more faith in the state to manage our money, our health care or, as we saw with the census, our personal information.
Come to think of it, maybe website crashes have become our way of reminding ourselves in 2016 how un-Trump-like we are. Just a few months back, one of Canada’s immigration websites went down right after Trump’s victories in the Super Tuesday round of presidential primaries. The speculation at the time was that the site was being overwhelmed by Americans looking into how to move to Canada in the event Trump takes up residence in the White House.
Clearly, all the enthusiasm about the census this week was an echo of last fall’s election result and the widespread rejection of Stephen Harper’s brand of politics, which often seemed laced with paranoia toward everyone, from the media to public servants to the courts. The decision to end the mandatory long-form census, never fully explained, was assumed to be rooted in some kind of deep-rooted Harper distrust of government in general.
But the old saying still holds true: Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Which brings us around to the subject of Senator Mike Duffy. The census is back, and so is Duffy — back in the Senate after a three-year ordeal as a designated enemy of the state.
Regardless of what one thinks about Duffy, the story of his downfall and trial should be first and foremost a lesson about how the top political leadership of this country messed around with someone’s life and livelihood.
Justice Charles Vaillancourt wasn’t subtle about this in his verdict. He talked of a prime minister’s chief of staff ordering senators around “like pawns on a chess board” and a culture that never stopped to ask itself whether it was doing the right thing — or even the legal thing. He went on at some length about the presumption of innocence and how it’s the cornerstone of our system of justice.
All the plotting that Vaillancourt found “shocking” didn’t happen in some dark corporate boardroom, or even in a political backroom. It happened in the top political office in the land, with some help from eager order-followers in the Senate and a scattershot of charges from the nation’s police force. (Why was Duffy charged with receiving a bribe when no one was charged with offering one? Why wasn’t the prime minister ever called as a witness?) What started as political damage-control ended up consuming a large part of the time and energy of the people who were supposed to be running the country. That’s a bit chilling.
Any citizen, seeing that the power of the state could be used this way, would be justified in feeling a bit paranoid. What if the state decided, in a similar way, to use the tax system to intimidate political opponents, such as environmental groups or bird-watchers? That couldn’t happen in Canada, right?
Hold that thought.
It’s surprising, to say the least, to see how some senators have failed to see Justice Vaillancourt’s ruling for what it was — a slap against the use of high political office to punish a citizen, to deny that citizen the presumption of innocence. Again, regardless of what one thinks about Duffy, the law has handed down a powerful reminder that neither the PMO nor the Senate can act as laws unto themselves — notwithstanding the fact that some senators still insist that they were right to dock Duffy’s pay for two years.
Canadians celebrated the end of paranoia in our politics this week by filing their taxes and personal information to the state. The Senate, in that same spirit, should restore the salary it took from Duffy before the law settled the matter of his guilt or innocence.
It’s great that Canadians still trust the government enough to be geeks about the census, but the Duffy verdict has shown us that we should at least be vigilant about that trust. Or that maybe we should be a bit geeky about the fine points of law and the power of the state, too.
Author: Susan Delacourt