Where is Stephen Harper and what will he do now?

Stephen Harper has dropped out of sight. We're waiting to see if he has a passion to contribute anything positive in retirement.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Art Babych photo

Stephen Harper has vanished from sight in the past six months but his Where’s Waldo status may be about to change. Harper will address the Conservative convention in Vancouver late in May.  Recently he also spoke to Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson and other Republican super donors about how fractured political parties can unite.

In Canada, Harper last spoke publicly on October 19 when he conceded defeat in the 2015 federal election.  He resigned almost immediately as Conservative leader but remains an MP for the riding of Calgary Heritage. He receives a salary of $167,400 but could collect considerably more in pension each year if he resigned his seat. Continue reading Where is Stephen Harper and what will he do now?

Racism in the Canadian election, suppressing our better angels

Syrian refugees cross from Hungary into Austria on their way to Germany in September 2015. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons
Syrian refugees cross from Hungary into Austria on their way to Germany in September 2015. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons

The main issue in the Canadian election was supposed to be who could best manage the economy. Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims that it’s he, and warns that other political parties will run deficits and raise taxes. Of course, Harper ran six deficits in a row. Apparently, he runs good deficits but it would be irresponsible for others to do the same. Continue reading Racism in the Canadian election, suppressing our better angels

White hats, black hats: The Harper government’s policy toward Israel

The Harper Record 2008-15
The Harper Record 2008-15

I have contributed, along with 35 other writers and researchers, to a book called  The Harper Record 2008 – 2015.  It is a project of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. My chapter is called: White Hats, black hats, the Harper government’s policy toward Israel. As you will see I draw the title from a simplistic comment made by former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird (remember him?) I am providing here the introductory and concluding segments of the chapter. Continue reading White hats, black hats: The Harper government’s policy toward Israel

Years of scapegoating refugees haunts Harper Conservatives

Syrian refugees entering Turkey, UNHCR/I.Prickett
Syrian refugees entering Turkey, UNHCR/I.Prickett

Stephen Harper and the Conservatives have spent years scapegoating refugees and it is coming back to haunt them in the 2015 election campaign. The Conservatives’ messaging has been derailed by the sight of hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into Europe, and by the images of the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi being carried from a beach in Turkey. There is a widespread call within Canada for action. Continue reading Years of scapegoating refugees haunts Harper Conservatives

PM Harper a deadbeat on climate change

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, MP website photo
Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, MP website photo

Federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq wrote recently to the provinces, criticizing them for not providing enough information about how they will combat climate change. She says Ottawa needs that data in order to submit Canada’s emission reduction plans to the United Nations. This is politics at its crudest. Aglukkaq is a minister in a government that has earned a well-deserved international reputation as deadbeat, laggard and obstructionist when it comes to taking action on climate change – yet she chooses to criticize those who are trying to accomplish something.

Aglukkaq’s letter arrived just prior to a scheduled announcement by the premiers of Ontario and Quebec on April 13 that they would sign a cap and trade accord which will attempt to have industry in their provinces reduce carbon emissions. The ink was barely dry on that agreement when federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver opposed it as “negative for the economy . . . negative for consumers and taxpayers.”

Aglukkaq’s epistle also preceded a meeting of provincial and territorial premiers in Quebec City on April 14. They gathered to pool their various climate change initiatives into something resembling a unified plan. The premiers are doing this in the absence of federal leadership from the Conservatives, who oppose pretty well anything that would reduce Canada’s carbon emissions. Continue reading PM Harper a deadbeat on climate change

Security versus civil rights Debating anti-terrorism Bill C-51

Stephen Harper announces anti-terrorism measures. PMO photo.
Stephen Harper announces anti-terrorism measures. PMO photo.

There’s an intense debate happening in Parliament and now in the streets over Bill C-51, which the Harper government says is needed to prevent terrorism on Canadian soil. The legislation provides sweeping new powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which collects information covertly on security threats and forwards that information to the RCMP. Bill C-51 proposes that CSIS be allowed not only to monitor individuals who the agency thinks pose a threat, but also to disrupt their activities in a variety of ways, including seizing passports and cancelling travel reservations. Bill C-51 would also provide the RCMP with new powers to make preventative arrest or detention of suspected terrorists and lower the legal threshold under which such arrests occur.

Caught in the web

What’s more, Bill C-51 would allow 17 government departments and agencies to share amongst themselves — and with security agencies — information that they collect about Canadians, including tax records and details of travel for business or pleasure. It’s something Daniel Therrien, the federal Privacy Commissioner, objects to, saying “All Canadians — not only terrorism suspects — will be caught in this web.”

The bill would also allow CSIS to counter any activity that “undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada.” That list includes “terrorism,” obviously, but also “interference with the capability of the government of Canada in relation to … the economic or financial stability of Canada.” Does this mean that CSIS can disrupt aboriginal protests against pipelines or mining on their lands, or target trade union members engaged in a rail or postal strike? Government ministers insist that legitimate protest is exempted but critics remain skeptical.

“So-called experts”

In defence of the legislation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that “the international jihadist movement has declared war” and Bill C-51 is needed to keep Canadians safe. The context here involves two domestic fatal attacks on Canadian soldiers by disturbed and lone-wolf individuals, as well other attacks in Paris, Australia and elsewhere. These acts, as deplorable as they are, can hardly be accurately described as a war.

The Conservatives accuse those who question Bill C-51 as being soft on terrorism and they mock as “so-called experts” those scholars, government privacy commissioners and ombudsmen who say that the bill goes too far in offending the privacy and civil rights of Canadians.

Harassing  Zunera Ishaqa

Meanwhile, the Conservatives continue to defend the prohibition of Muslim women from wearing the niqab, a face covering, during oath-taking at citizenship ceremonies. Zunera Ishaqa, a new Canadian, had agreed to unveil in private before an official prior to taking the oath but not in the public ceremony but she was refused. She fought the ban in court and won, but now, the government is appealing the ruling.

The Conservative Party at one point even used Ishaqa’s case as the basis of a fundraising letter to its supporters. More recently, Harper responded to questions about the government’s appeal by asking, “Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice that … frankly is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?”

Election prism

This must be seen through the prism of a coming federal election. The Conservatives laud themselves as good managers, but the economic news has been bad as of late: lacklustre job creation, an oil industry meltdown, growing inequality among Canadians and mounting consumer debt. As a result, the Conservatives’ new narrative is that only Harper can keep us safe from Muslim terrorists.

So what are we to do? For one thing, we can start treating rhetoric out of Ottawa with some scepticism. We can make our views known. We can also reach out to our Muslim neighbours. After all, this cannot be a pleasant time for them.

A shorter version of this post appeared on the United Church Observer blog on March 12, 2015.           

The politics of annexation in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin and Ukraine, Wikipedia photo
Vladimir Putin and Ukraine, Wikipedia photo

George Melnyk is a founder and former director of the Consortium for Peace Studies at the University of Calgary, and he is also a close observer of the events unfolding in Ukraine. In this guest piece, Melnyk says the Canadian left is wrong in supporting Russia’s contrived rebellion in Ukraine.    

The situation in Ukraine has been overshadowed by the horrors of Gaza with its more than 2000 dead and thousands injured, as well as hundreds of thousands of traumatized children. With Stephen Harper’s undiminished support for Israel, it is no wonder that progressive Canadians who identify with the Palestinian desire for freedom and independence have been confused on Ukraine.

Harper is equally vociferous in his support for the Ukrainian government, and his anti-Russian rhetoric against Vladimir Putin seems very much like his glorify and demonize approach on Israel and Palestine. However, to separate Harper’s position on Palestine from his position on Ukraine, we must view each situation on its own merits.

In an op-ed in The Globe and Mail on July 26, the Prime Minister described the situation in Ukraine as “a threat to Europe, to the rule of law and to the values that bind Western nations.” He pointed the finger at “Russia’s aggressive militarism and expansionism.” It is this characterization that bothers the Canadian left, especially when it comes from someone whose over-all foreign policy they abhor.

Domination,  annexation

The left tends to accept the argument that Russia has an inherent right to either control or guide Ukrainian affairs in its self-interest, either because Russia has a “right” to a buffer between Europe and itself, or because Russia has dominated Ukraine for several centuries prior to the country’s independence in 1991. Secondly, the left agrees with the Russian annexation of a significant part of Ukraine (Crimea) earlier this year.  Again, the rationale is that Russia has a right to the place, no matter how contrived and undemocratic the process. The Canadian left seems to have fallen for Russian propaganda that Ukraine is under the control of “fascists” because these categories were accepted currency in the good old days of capitalist and communist camps. However, viewing Putin as some kind of social progressive and the Ukrainian government as reactionary is a complete misreading of socio-political ideologies and realities.

The principled position 

The Canadian left should view this matter from a principled position. As long as Putin felt that he could control Ukrainian affairs it was business as usual. But when the “Euromaidan” revolution brought about the overthrow of its pro-Russian president, Putin moved into high gear discrediting the revolution, creating a fake uprising in Crimea, and launching a separatist insurgency in the east of the country. The Ukrainian people responded by voting for a new president in a democratic manner. Those in the areas still controlled by “separatists” had no such freedom or right. If the Canadian left, which has a long history of supporting popular uprisings against dictators and empires, could find its way to see that the February revolution was a democratic revolution against corruption and foreign manipulation, it would support it.

The distrust of Ukrainian nationalism, which goes back to the Soviet era, was very much tied to the Canadian left’s support for communist Russia and its opposition to American imperialism. In the Cold War era only the Soviet Union had the political might to balance that of the U.S. But this legacy of opposition to imperialism, of which the left can be proud, has to be even-handed and applied fairly in the post-communist era. Opposition to American imperialism should not ignore Russian imperialism, or Israeli imperialism, or any attack, overt or covert, on small nations.

Support the Ukrainian revolution

The Ukrainian revolution is one that deserves the support of the Canadian left because of its emphasis on democracy and pluralism. Ukraine’s wanting to embrace Europe and the West is something to be applauded, not reviled. As someone who has been active in the contemporary peace movement, I have applied my peace principles to the conflict in Ukraine. As an opponent of war, I decry the killing that has gone on in that country because of a contrived “rebellion” instigated, directed, and supplied by a foreign power. Since April there have been over 1100 civilian deaths and a quarter-million displaced people, as well as military casualties.

As an anti-war activist,  I accept the right of small and weak nations to defend themselves as best they can. In supporting Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty, I am supporting a democratic revolution against imperialism and a dictatorial Russian regime, in the same way that I have supported and continue to support Canadian independence, democracy and sovereignty against foreign intrigues and domination.

Canada and the propaganda war in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin trades propaganda barbs with the West
Vladimir Putin trades propaganda barbs with the West

Truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war. There is no war in Ukraine yet, but the potentially violent standoff has been accompanied by an inflated war of words, which includes no small measure of hypocrisy on all sides. In Canada, both Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have compared Russia President Vladimir Putin to Adolph Hitler. Baird even compared the Russian action in Crimea to that of the Nazis’ invasion of Sudetenland in 1938. If that’s the case, then why hasn’t Canada pulled its athletes from the Paralympic Games in Sochi, as one Canadian newspaper columnist has asked.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton also indulged in a Putin-as-Hitler reference — this coming from someone whose country has invaded Cuba, the Philippines, Nicaragua (twice), Panama, Grenada, and Vietnam in the 20th century. You can add to this list America’s engineered overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954), and its placement of compliant dictators in these countries. There was also the invasion of Iraq in 2003 based on the fabricated allegation that then-President Saddam Hussein amassed and intended to use weapons of mass destruction. Interestingly, the West compared Hussein to Hitler, too.

Propaganda works best when it takes a dollop of truth before distorting it. The West once celebrated Putin as a liberal reformer but has come to understand that he is no such thing. He exists somewhere on a continuum running from schoolyard bully to authoritarian dictator. But he is neither a Hitler nor a Stalin.

Although Viktor Yanukovych won Ukraine’s presidency in a 2010 election widely considered to be fair, he quickly showed himself to be incredibly corrupt. Still, it was his turning his back on a promised free trade agreement with the European Union that led to massive demonstrations in recent months and his ouster more recently.

But the Russians suspect, with some justification, that demonstrations in Ukraine were partly the work of right-wing Ukrainian nationalists assisted by the West. This claim strikes a deep chord among Russians because of the great sacrifices that were made fighting fascists in the Second World War. And if the West indeed orchestrated the ouster of an elected president based on his own corruption, it is certainly on thin ice. After all, it has supported its fair share of corrupt dictators in the past.

For his part, Putin persists in the big lie that Crimea is Russian in character because they are the dominant ethic group and he says they have defended the territory with their blood against all invaders.  The problem with this narrative, according to University of Toronto professor Victor Ostapchuk, is that Crimea had for much longer been the home land of the Tatars, who are also Muslims.

After the Russians conquered Crimea in the 19th century, they forced two-thirds of the Tatar population to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire and replaced then with Slavic colonists.  Then in 1944 Joseph Stalin loaded almost the entire remaining Tatar population onto cattle cars and deposited them in Central Asia, where about half of them perished. That was accompanied by another round of colonization in Crimea, mainly by Russians.

When many of the Tatars began to return to Crimea in the late 1980s, they found their homes and lands had been expropriated by others. Crimea, whose population in 2001 was 58% Russian, is now considered by most Russian speakers living there to be territory that belongs to them – but they ignore their own brutal banishment of the Tatars.

We are mostly spectators in the propaganda games being played in Ukraine. But we owe it to ourselves to read, watch and listen to what is being said by players on all sides — and to do so with critical discernment.

This article appeared in shorter form, in my United Church Observer blog on March 13, 2014.