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?

Stephen Harper is gone, a weight is lifted

Justice Murray Sinclair (centre right) hopes the Trudeau government will act on TRC recommendations
Justice Murray Sinclair (centre right) hopes the Trudeau government will act on TRC recommendations

The recent Canadian federal election which thrust Justin Trudeau and the Liberals into power was, depending upon your point of view, either a happy day or an exercise in the politics of resentment. For many people who I have encountered since October 19 it is as if a dark cloud has passed or a weight has been lifted from their shoulders. Continue reading Stephen Harper is gone, a weight is lifted

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.