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

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.           

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.

Preston Manning and Stephen Harper

Preston Manning
Preston Manning’s painful relationship with Stephen Harper

The Manning Centre’s annual Ottawa-based gathering of Conservatives has come and gone for another year. Reform Party founder Preston Manning and his wife Sandra created the organization in 2006 to act as a training ground for Conservatives to win in politics. This year’s event featured the usual array of Conservative politicians and operatives from right wing think tanks, the religious right, and a good number of journalists. The event is treated almost as a political convention with abundant television coverage, newspaper stories and live Tweeting. Increasingly, journalists have become speakers and panelists at the event as well – a questionable and dubious activity given the obvious partisan nature of the organization and its events.

Stephen Harper has appeared at Manning’s gathering once or twice in the past but not this year.  In fact, the stars of the show invited by Manning were people vying to replace Harper as his tenure shows the fissures created by scandals in the Senate and in the way Conservatives try to steal elections.

The relationship between Manning and Harper has always been complex and – from Manning’s point of view – painful.  Manning hired Harper back in 1987 to work for the Reform Party but Harper was to betray his mentor on numerous occasions. Manning was still recovering from those wounds when in 2002 he published a book called Think Big: My Adventures in Life and Democracy. In it, he described Harper as elitist,cruelly disloyal, and a quitter. Harper’s actions toward Manning anticipated the self-preserving ruthlessness he has shown as Prime Minister.  What follows here is an edited version of a piece that I published on this blog in April 2009 about what Manning had to say about Stephen Harper in his book.

Manning hires Harper

In 1987, Manning recruited Harper, then a University of Calgary economics student, to become Reform’s chief policy officer. Harper played a major role in drafting Reform’s 1988 election platform. He also ran in that year’s election and lost. Reform did not win any seats but Deborah Grey soon became the party’s first MP in a by-election and Harper became her legislative assistant in Ottawa.

In 1992, Harper clashed with Manning over the Charlottetown Accord. Manning writes that he expected to oppose the accord but that first he wanted to consult the Reform Party membership. Harper and his close associate Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary professor who doubled as a key Reform policy advisor, demanded that Manning announce his opposition to the Accord immediately. “It would not be the first time that Tom and Stephen and I would differ on the extent to which we should involve the grassroots of the party in decision making,” Manning wrote. “At this point, I did not fully appreciate that while Stephen was a strong Reformer with respect to our economic, fiscal and constitutional positions, he had serious reservations about Reform’s and my belief in the value of grassroots consultation and participation in key decisions. . .”

In July 1993, Manning and other Reformers were engaged in a two-day meeting to plan for the upcoming federal election. He had another contretemps with Harper and Flanagan, which he describes as “a dark cloud” hanging over the session. He says that Harper and Flanagan wanted to run a campaign focusing resources and activity on Western Canada. Manning wanted to run a national campaign and says that is what Reform Party members had resolved to do at their previous convention. Manning wrote, “Stephen had difficulty accepting that there might be a few other people (not many, perhaps, but a few) who were as smart as he was with respect to policy and strategy. And Stephen, at this point, was not really prepared to be a team player or team builder.”

Harper quits Manning

Harper had already quit as Reform’s chief policy officer by 1992, but remained a candidate in the next election. Manning wrote: “He withdrew from the national campaign effort to work almost exclusively on his personal campaign for election in Calgary West.”  Reform won 52 seats in 1993 and Harper was elected in Calgary West. Several months later, in April 1994, he and some other caucus members went public with criticisms about Manning’s use of a personal expense account provided by the Reform Party for its leader. Manning used some of the money to enhance his wardrobe and his appearance.

In his book, Manning said that he expected attacks from his political opponents, “but the ones that affected us most as a family, were the ones that came from internal sources.” Manning said that Harper attacked Sandra Manning as well as her husband, then “professed not to know what all the fuss was about, saying that he was being ‘unfairly accused’”.

In 1996, Manning and other Reformers were laying the groundwork for another election when Harper let the side down again. “Stephen Harper had gloomily concluded that we were going nowhere and would likely lose badly in the next election,” Manning wrote. “Rather than pitching in to help turn things around, Stephen again chose to withdraw. This was now the third time that Stephen had vacated the field prior to a big battle …”

In 1997, Harper chose to resign his seat as an MP six months prior to the federal election held in that year. Manning wrote: “The media predictably interpreted this as yet another sign that Reform was in decline, which made it even more difficult to energize the pre-election campaign.”

When the election campaign moved into full swing in May 1997, Manning wrote, Reform came under public attack “from within”. He said that  Harper, Flanagan and others told journalists that the party would fail and that Manning was a liability. Manning wrote: “Why people who professed to be supportive of the principles of Reform would provide comments disparaging its election efforts, at the very time when grassroots Reformers were working their hearts out to make the campaign launch a success, was beyond me.”

Harper returns

Between 1997 and 2002, Harper sat on the political sidelines decrying any interest in coming back. Manning was later defeated by Stockwell Day in the leadership race for the new Canadian Alliance party. Day flopped as a leader and in 2002 Harper defeated him in yet another leadership race. Harper then contested a bye-election in Calgary Southwest. Ironically, the seat was vacant because of the retirement of Preston Manning.

Harper’s multiple betrayals must have been particularly hurtful to Manning. In the interest of what he perceives as the greater Conservative good, he has for years chosen to set aside all the attacks and slights of his former protégé, but it is difficult to believe that he has forgotten them.

Manning has cultivated his image as an elder statesman but has also played the role of a good and loyal soldier toward Harper and the Conservative government. He has made mild criticisms but was always sure to tack back to support the cause and the regime.  But in the past couple of years he has become increasingly blunt in questioning the Conservatives on environmental policy, integrity in government and other issues. This signals that he, too, is anticipating a changing of leadership and will be pleased when it occurs.

Stephen Harper in Israel, politics and flawed principle

Stephen Harper addresses Israeli Knesset
Stephen Harper addresses Israeli Knesset

Stephen Harper has returned from a feel-good trip to Israel on which he was accompanied by an entourage of 208 people, largely at government expense — cabinet ministers, MPs, Senators, rabbis, officials from Jewish groups,  evangelical Christians, business people and various others. There has been much speculation about whether this was a trip based on politics or principle. The answer is both – politics as usual and deeply flawed principle.

The political dimension was caught perfectly in comments by Toronto area MP Mark Adler, who was desperate to push through security so that he could have a photo opportunity with Harper at Old Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Adler was heard on tape begging a Harper aid to let him get close to the prime minister. “This, it’s the re-election,” said Adler whose constituency contains a significant number of Jewish voters. “This is the million-dollar shot.” Eventually his wish was granted.

The Harper coalition

The Harper entourage was the largest such travelling road show that anyone can remember. The group nicely reflects core elements of the coalition that Harper has built with the intention of placing him in power and keeping him there. Key to the religious wing of that coalition is a collection of socially conservative evangelicals, Jews and conservative Catholics. Progressive Jews and Catholics and mainline Protestants were not represented on the junket.  It is well worth noting that groups such as Independent Jewish Voices were vocal in their criticism of the way in which the trip was organized and  executed.

Political level

At the political level, Harper was accompanied by six cabinet ministers including John Baird and Jason Kenney both hawkish supporters of the Israeli government. Among the MPs on the junket was B.C.’s James Lunney, past chairman of the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group. Lunney has travelled to Israel frequently and in an OP Ed in the Jerusalem Post in October 2013, he called for re-examining the two-state solution which has long been the cornerstone of peace negotiations in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Lunney described this policy process as akin to “trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole” – even though a two-state solution is official Canadian government policy. In a classic blame-the-victim moment, Lunney wrote that Israel lives with its neighbours in peace and he challenged the Palestinian authority to do the same.

Stockwell Day and his wife Valorie were also in Harper’s entourage. Day, another ardent supporter of Israel, was a guest speaker at a Canada Celebrates Israel event held during the 2011 federal election campaign. He was quoted at that time by the Canadian Jewish News as saying that Israel, as a Jewish state has “an aboriginal right to exist.” Most of us in Canada believe that Israel does indeed have a right to exist but it is ironic that the Canadian Alliance, which Day once led, contained MPs who did not believe that Canadian aboriginals have such rights in their homeland.

Jewish groups

The Israel trip also included 21 rabbis. It is difficult to imagine any Canadian prime minister taking along that number of Catholic bishops and priests on a visit to Rome to see the pope.

Frank Dimant, the CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, was listed on the tour. Under Dimant’s leadership B’nai Brith has developed close and supportive ties to Conservatives and the Christian right. Also present were officials from the Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA). That organization has replaced the 90-year-old Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), which was dissolved amid bitter recriminations in 2011. The CJC was liberal and non-partisan while CIJA, as its name implies, is essentially a single-issue organization created to support Israel, and has close ties to the Conservatives.

Julius Suraski, the events coordinator for the Jewish Defence League (JDL) of Canada, was listed as being in the prime minister’s accompanying party as well. The JDL was created in the U.S. in 1968 with the self-described purpose of protecting Jews from anti-Semitism. The American group was classified as “a right-wing terrorist group” by the FBI in 2001 and the JDL’s sister movements in Israel were both outlawed as terrorist organizations posing a threat to state security.

Evangelical representation

There was also broad representation from the evangelical Christian community, including the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and the Christian Missionary and Alliance Church, of which Harper is a member. Also present were representatives of Crossroads Christian Communications, a media and international development organization, The Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada, and The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.  Finally, there was the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem — Canada, which is not really an embassy at all but a conservative Christian group whose main reason for being is to provide support for Israel.

A lone Catholic cleric

Father Raymond De Souza, a Roman Catholic priest, was also on the plane. He is a frequent guest at Conservative-sponsored events on Parliament Hill and elsewhere, and is a regular columnist for the National Post. De Souza has used his column to describe his friendship and social connections to Jason Kenney and John Baird, and he frequently eulogizes the Conservatives. It appears that De Souza was the lone Catholic cleric on the trip. Was he representing the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, or was his bishop perhaps allowing him to freelance?

Eulogizing Israel

Harper used every opportunity on his trip to eulogize Israel and to speak darkly about some of its Arab neighbours. Israel, he said, is a close friend, a beacon for democracy, a Jewish homeland for people who had been long persecuted. “Through fire and water, Canada will stand with you,” he said. He also resurrected the canard that those who criticize Israeli government policies are anti-Semitic.

There are many impressive things about Israel but Harper is completely ignoring recent history. As he knows, and his entourage would as well, the state of Israel was created by intimidation,  force, and at times through terrorism perpetrated by Jewish paramilitary groups such as Irgun. The Palestinians had nothing to do with the Holocaust perpetrated in Europe but it was they who were forcibly displaced when the state of Israel came into being in 1948. The well-known British writer William Dalrymple says that when Israel was created, 700,000 Palestinians (Muslim and Christian) were driven from their homes and fields. The number of their descendants has grown into millions over the decades, many of them living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Following the 1967 war, Israel occupied territories that it has never restored and the United Nations and most of the world community considers that occupation to be illegal. The Israeli government has brazenly pursued a policy of encouraging the building of Jewish settlements on that illegally occupied land, dispossessing the existing occupants. While in Israel, Harper repeatedly refused to voice any criticism of a settlement policy that, on paper, Canada opposes.

Christian Zionism

Dow Marmur, rabbi emeritus at a Toronto synagogue, wrote in the Toronto Star during the trip that, “Stephen Harper is proof that you don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist.” Marmur continued, “[Harper’s] Zionism seems to be rooted in his Christian faith.” The rabbi said that Christian Zionists “believe that Jesus’ second coming is contingent upon the Jews returning to their homeland.” In other words, Christian Zionists believe the imposition of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1948 fulfils a biblical prophecy.

I have always believed that Harper’s policy regarding Israel was driven by domestic Canadian politics but it appears that for him this is also a matter of deep, but mistaken principle. Our prime minister is a Christian Zionist.



Climate change and Canadian churches

Climate change: adding an ethical perspective
Climate change: adding an ethical perspective

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released its most recent report. The blue ribbon group of scientists concluded that is 95 percent certain that global warming is occurring, that it is caused mainly by our burning of fossil fuels, and that we will see more violent weather and rising sea levels as a result. Scientists never talk about absolute certainties, but clearly, they are as confident in their predictions about climate change as they are that cigarettes cause cancer.

The cigarette analogy is appropriate here. For years, some people insisted that there was no proof that cigarettes caused cancer. But as it turned out, some self-proclaimed experts and front groups were financed by the tobacco industry, itself, just as some of the climate change deniers are financed by the carbon industry today.

As for the rest of the climate skeptics, they simply won’t believe the scientists no matter how much proof of global warming they provide.

In Canada, as Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson writes, the government is part of the problem. The Conservative caucus contains a “disproportionate number” of individuals who believe that climate change is not occurring, or if it is, that the causes are natural events and not human behaviour. Those MPs are representative of their political base — many of whom also deny climate change and its effects on our cities, towns, farms and oceans.

As Simpson points out, the government made no effort to provide a reasoned response to the IPCC report. Rather, it issued a brief news release praising its own efforts and making partisan attacks on other political parties. The government’s own figures, however, indicate that Canada is far behind in its promise to reduce greenhouse gases by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The Conservatives are also committed to rapid development of the carbon-polluting oil sands in Alberta, which will make it impossible for Canada to keep even the modest environmental promises it has made.

The complex issue of climate change is an especially challenging one for our political and economic system. Politicians think in terms of years — usually four — rather than in centuries or millennia. Similarly, corporate executives tend to think of the next quarterly or annual report to shareholders.

In October 2011, more than 60 faith community leaders signed a document called the Canadian Interfaith Call for Leadership and Action on Climate Change.  Those leaders called on Ottawa to support an international agreement aimed at limiting global warming. But unfortunately, we walked away from that (Kyoto) agreement later in 2011. The leaders also called for national carbon emission targets, a national renewable energy strategy and the provision of public funds to assist the poorest countries in adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Indeed, people of religious faith have a chance to influence the global warming debate in a way that respects creation and its inhabitants, especially the poor; and in a manner that takes the long-term view of our existence. After all, it’s something that our politicians have seemed incapable of doing.

This article appeared in the United Church Observer on October, 10, 2013.