Tag Archives: Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Move over RCMP. . .there’s a new kid in town


As the Harper government openly discusses its efforts to transform this country’s civilian spy agency from a strictly intelligence-gathering organization to an effective police force – imbued with all the powers of search, seizure and, if necessary, apprehension – it steadfastly refuses to speak plainly about its plans for the nation’s fighting men and women in some of the world’s most dangerous places.

According to a report this week in the Globe and Mail, the federal government’s new “anti-terrorism legislation, which was unveiled Friday (January 30), would give CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) the right to disrupt terrorist activity, such as by pulling suspected terrorists off planes or messing with their bank accounts. A judge would have to sign off on such actions ahead of time. The legislation would also make it easier to arrest people for promoting terrorism.”

This is a fair distance down the road from the agency’s embarkation point, articulated in the early 1980s and reiterated currently on the inveterate data-miner’s official website: “The Service’s role is to investigate threats, analyze information and produce intelligence. It then reports to, and advises, the Government of Canada to protect the country and its citizens. . .CSIS’ proactive role complements law enforcement agencies such as police forces, which investigate crime and collect evidence to support prosecutions in courts of law.”

Apparently, complementing law enforcement agencies is no longer enough. CSIS must now become one among that number.

Again, according to a Globe report, the new legislation would also, “criminalize the advocacy or promotion of terrorism (fair enough); lower the threshold for preventative arrest or detention of suspected extremists (uh-oh); relax the requirements necessary to prevent suspected jihadis from boarding a plane (hmmm); grant government departments explicit authority to share private information, including passport applications, or confidential commercial data, with law enforcement agencies (do tell); make it easier for authorities to track and monitor suspects.”

All of which raises natural questions about CSIS’s 30-year role coordinating and collaborating with actual cops.

Has it, or has it not, been doing its mandated job? And if the answer is, “no, it hasn’t”, then how much more success will it enjoy when its desk-bound intelligence analysts suddenly find themselves with upgraded badges?

“Good afternoon, ma’am, I’m agent Mulder. . .This is my partner, Scully. . .We’d like to ask you some questions.”

“No, Scully, I’m Mulder, you were Mulder last week (and besides she’s a he).”

“Sorry about that. . .Let’s start over.”

“Good afternoon, sir, I’m agent Scully. . .This is my partner, Mulder. . .We’d like to ask you some questions.”

And yet, even as Harpertown seeks to equip its spooks with new powers to reveal – and act on – the ‘truth’ about the alleged bad boys and girls in our midst, it has no compunction about withholding information about its own military actions abroad.

The recent deployment in Iraq, for example, was sold to Canadian citizens as a support operation to NATO. Not even Canada’s Chief of Defence, General Tom Lawson, is wagging that tail anymore. Speaking before a House of Commons’ committee last week, he stipulated that “we’re seeing an evolution of that mission.”

The evolution’s end being: directing drone strikes on Islamic militants, engaging directly in a shooting war with combatants and. . .well, comporting themselves in a way that not even the Americans are willing to embrace.

Or, as Stephen Chase of the Globe wrote last week, “The U.S. military says Canada’s military advisers are the only coalition forces it knows of that have engaged in firefights with Islamic State militants in Iraq and that American troops have not, to date, been authorized to direct air strikes from the ground as Canadians are doing.”

If this is the necessary work of our foreign force, so be it; but, then, why hide the policy behind weasel words, coarse deflection and transparent partisanship?

“This is really what we get from our opposition,” Mr. Harper told the Commons last week. “Every time we talk about security, they suggest that somehow, our freedoms are threatened. I think Canadians understand that their freedom and their security more often than not go hand and hand. Canadians expect us to do both, we are doing both, and we do not buy the argument that every time you protect Canadians, you take away their liberties.”

Sure, Father Canada, whatever you say.

After all, you will soon know what everyone in this vast, compromised democracy thinks and does.

The truth is out there.

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In Ottawa, the times may, indeed, be ‘a changin’

One election cycle is over and another begins. All eyes in this province now turn to Ottawa to observe what will certainly be a year of such political posturing that it will make the New Brunswick election appear, by comparison, a game of whist played by courteous septuagenarians in a decorous parlour.

On the street where I live, a sign has appeared in a window of a nearby house. “Stop Harper”, it instructs. That’s it. No explication. No fancy design. No cartoonish renderings of Canada’s famously hard-arsed, fearless leader. Just stop him. Now. Forever.

I’m not the first pundit to notice a palpable loathing of our Prime Minister among both the hoi polloi and the elites of this country. A couple of weeks ago, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente penned this:

“Something alarming happened over the summer – several of my friends came down with Harper Derangement Syndrome. ‘He’s gotta go!’ fumed one middle-aged man who had voted for him three times in a row. ‘I just can’t stand him any more,” said another. Both are independent voters who pride themselves on their rational, non-partisan approach to politics.”

What happened? Ms. Wente theorizes: “Is it the Duffy affair? The militant foreign policy? The highly dubious tough-on-crime agenda? No, not really. It’s just. . .him. He’s too controlling, too snarly, too mean. He picked a fight with Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. He sounded callous about murdered native women. It’s not the policies or even the scandals – it’s the tone. They just don’t like the guy.”

I think that’s just about right.

The irony, of course, is that Mr. Harper cruised into power on a platform of substance over style; yet it would be his style that largely upends him next fall.

He’s been a durable, if unimaginative, steward of the economy. His social policies have not been completely disastrous. His track record on the environment has been no worse, and oftentimes better, than those of either of his Liberal predecessors, Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien. His appreciation of Canadian history, while selective and even fetishistic, has, at least, confirmed his true patriot love.

Still, it’s his dour, sour-faced demeanour (even, astonishingly, when he’s smiling) that people notice first.

He seems to loathe journalists almost as much as he does his own backbenchers who, like gadflies, periodically swarm him in Parliament. He appears to brook no dissent, let alone discussion or compromise.

He comes across like the uber control freak, the natural Alpha male in a high school dominated by members of the computer and chess clubs. He kicks sand in the face of both jocks and nerds, equally and democratically. And woe betide anyone belonging to “glee”.

All of which may explain why the Prime Minster’s Office has become so bloated with able bodies over the past six years. A man who promised Canadians that he would consult with his Cabinet as no other chief elected official has in the nation’s history has, instead, left many of those lieutenants to twist in the wind, thanks to decisions his burgeoning ranks of professionally ambitious, personally calculating, mostly young supplicants have made on Big Daddy’s behest.

That the anti-Harper campaign has found purchase in the youth produces more exquisite ironies.

The first is that more young people than ever before — those who are unaligned with the PMO — may actually vote this year (because they despise the political process that installed the current prime minister).

The second us that, by voting, the aspiring progressives in the under-30 set of this nation might actually grab the opportunity and wherewithal to set the political agenda for the first time in a very long time.

And so the sign on my neighbour’s window stands not so much as a indictment of politics as usual, but as a rejection of those who practice it, in high office, with obvious disdain for the people — some of whom elected them; some of whom merely tolerate them.

It stands as a reminder of the transience of election cycles, which come and go with the  autumn winds, and the counter-cultural permanence of disappointment breeding in the bones of every sentient voter everywhere in the world.

It is the sign of our times.


The Franklin find: genuine history turned political theatre


Since 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has authorized Parks Canada to spend millions of dollars on six polar searches for the wrecks of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus – the two British, Hecla class bomb vessels that ferried the expedition of Captain Sir John Franklin to its watery grave 169 years ago.

On Tuesday, having heard that one of those ships (no word yet on which one)  had been found resting under barely 11 meters of the Victoria Straight, off the coast of King William Island, far from the fabled Northwest Passage it and its sister ship had been commissioned to sail, Mr. Harper might have body-checked his own mother had she been blocking his access to a microphone.

“For more than a century this has been a great Canadian story, a mystery; it’s been the subject of scientists and historians, writers and singers,” he fairly giggled before a hastily arranged press conference in Ottawa. “So, I think we have a really important day in mapping together the history of our country.”

Indeed, as he reminded his fellow Canadians last month at the height of one of Parks Canada’s annual hunts for all things Franklin-rated, this “ultimately isn’t just about the story of discovery and mystery and all these things. It’s also really is laying the basis for what’s, in the longer term, Canadian sovereignty.”

In fact, on the face of it, Mr. Harper’s enthusiasm is both endearing and justified; amateur and professional historians owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. The find does, indeed, solve many mysteries, even as it will almost certainly raise tantalizing questions to vex and titillate scholars for years to come.

But does it really have anything to do with Canadian sovereignty, as Mr, Harper claims? According to at least one authority, that’s stretching the truth almost to breaking.

“The discovery of two historical wrecks from the 1840s that sailed under the authority of Britain before Canada was even a state doesn’t really extend our claims of control over the waters of the Northwest Passage,” Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, told the National Post. “This myth just had another chapter added,” he further commented for the Globe and Mail.

What it does do, however, is send another message to the international community – notably Russia and the U.S. – that Canada’s claims to Arctic region are historically valid, if that was ever in doubt.

It also ensures, as Mr. Huebert points out, that “the Arctic is going to be one of his (Mr. Harper’s) major legacies when people look back on his leadership period.”

In the broader sense, the Prime Minister’s interest in, and willingness to support, ventures like the search for Franklin repudiates some of the harsher criticism of him as a by-the-books politician with little or no interest in research and science. It all depends on what research and which science we’re talking about.

The Globe and Mail’s lead editorial yesterday congratulated the Harper regime for demonstrating both leadership and collaboration – qualities that, at least, helped searchers find the wreck – even as it castigated certain government members for cracking down on researchers who go off message.

Remember, the piece instructed readers, “The government that allowed journalists open access to the scientists looking for the Franklin ships is the same one that has routinely gagged government scientists since taking power. It is now impossible in Canada for a reporter to speak with a federal scientist without going through media relations officers, a lengthy and often fruitless process. The policy has been condemned  by the British scientific journal Nature and the American Association for the Advancement of Science”

How, one wonders, has that worked out for them?

Nope, unless some crafty spin doctor with a soft spot for unfettered free speech, environmental stewardship, and basic research for the sake of basic research can figure out a way to dramatize all science to good Conservative Party effect, this prime minister’s interest in science, while genuine, will remain politically discriminating.

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The true grit of political battle


To appreciate just how rattled federal Conservatives are about the prospect of facing an invigorated Justin Trudeau clad in the full metal jacket of his pre-election campaign armour, consider the strange plight of retired Canadian Forces lieutenant-general Andrew Brooke Leslie.

He’s the army officer who led the country’s mission in Afghanistan in 2006. Earlier in his career, he served as Winnipeg Area Chief of Staff during that city’s spring floods in 1997. Later that year, he commanded the 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, providing disaster relief in the storm-lashed south shore of Montreal.

More recently, General Leslie hitched his political star to Mr. Trudeau and company, becoming the co-chair of the Liberal International Affairs Council of Advisors as well as a possible candidate for office.

And for that, apparently, the military leader, patriot and, some might even say, hero cannot be forgiven – at least not within the ranks of his former Tory bosses.

Earlier this week, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson described a recent moving bill, for $72,000, the general charged the taxpayers thusly: “grossly excessive”. Specifically, he questioned “how an in-city move could possibly total over $72,000. In the meantime, it is important for Andrew Leslie to explain why he believes this is a reasonable expense for hard working Canadians to absorb. This is a matter of judgment and the responsible use of taxpayers dollars.”

Sure, it is, except for one thing: It’s all perfectly legal.

The amount might seem extraordinary, especially in light of the ongoing toothache that is the Senate expense scandal. But, in fact, the payout is standard operating procedure for senior military personnel; they get one final move, on the public dime, to anywhere they’d like in Canada.

Besides, as General Leslie explained in his own statement on Facebook, “Each step of the process is overseen by a third-party supplier, and independent approvals for every expenditure are required, as directed by the Treasury Board of Canada. Costs are paid directly to the suppliers (real estate agents, movers etc.) by the Department of National Defence.”

If we’re apt to blame anyone for such largess, then blame the rules-makers and keepers in Ottawa who are master adepts in the fine art of separating the taxpayer from his wallet, for all manner of “legitimate” exercises. After all, what’s a few million bucks for a water park, replete with gazebo, en route to a billion-dollar economic summit in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression?

In fact, it is General Leslie’s outspoken support for “a change in how politics is conducted” in this country that has unnerved the Tories and inspired their partisan barbs.

A former top-ranked military officer with a distinguished service record, a chest full of medals and a vocally Liberal perspective on current affairs is the sort of nightmarish figure that keeps Conservative strategists up into the wee hours, popping handfuls of no-doze.

Combine that with a charismatic, telegenic and increasingly shrewd Grit leader, and the Tory Party’s road ahead to 2015 does seem suddenly long, winding and rough. At the very least, it’s clear that Mr. Trudeau is no longer the lightweight (if he ever was) his detractors have portrayed. Indeed, coming into Thursday’s Liberal policy convention, even his vaguer pronouncements sound formidable.

“The challenge and the responsibility for this year and over the next year and a half is to pick the team and build the plan,” he told the Globe and Mail last week. “And always get the big things right.”

The big things like, presumably, education, infrastructure, and the economy. To date, Mr Trudeau has avoided cornering himself with specific policy objectives and procedures. He is wisely keeping his powder dry. After all, a lot can happen in 15 months. Why make promises which might well prove untenable to keep?

In the meantime, the signs and portents in the body politic suggest that the tide of opinion in the country is shifting ever so slightly to the left. When establishmentarians such as Andrew Leslie publicly declare their allegiance to the Liberals, every true, blue Tory knows what that means.

It means war.

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The Red Chamber’s not so red anymore


In question period on Wednesday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau needn’t have uttered a word; the self-satisfied and supremely amused look on his face spoke volumes. It was the sort of expression one adopts when one has eaten somebody else’s lunch and gotten away with it.

The lunch, in this case, was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s who has been dancing around the complex and thorny issue of Senate reform for years; one tends to forget that overhauling the Red Chamber, making it more representative and democratic, was a signature plank in the Tory leader’s campaign for federal office.

But it was Mr. Trudeau who pounced, instead.

“As of this morning,” he said in a statement, “only elected Members of the House of Commons will serve as members of the Liberal Caucus. The 32 formerly Liberal Senators are now independent of the national Liberal Caucus. They are no longer part of our parliamentary team. . . .Let me be clear, the only way to be a part of the Liberal caucus is to be put there by the voters of Canada.”

Furthermore, he said, “I challenge the Prime Minster to match this action. As the majority party in the Senate, immediate and comprehensive change is in Conservative hands. I’m calling on the Prime Minister to do the right thing. To join us in making Senators independent of political parties and end partisanship in the Senate.”

Later, speaking with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, he said his timing had nothing to do with an auditor-general’s investigation of Senate expenses, which could embarrass some federal Liberals, calling that a “separate problem from the excessive partisanship and patronage. . .which is what I have moved to eliminate today. . . It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.”

All of which left Ottawa reeling, including Grit senators.

“We are the Senate Liberal caucus and I will remain the leader of the opposition and we will remain the official opposition in the Senate,” the former Liberal Leader of the  Senate James Cowan said.

“I’m still and Liberal senator, not an independent,” Senator Mobina Jaffer piped up. “I’ve always been a Liberal.”

Meanwhile New Brunswick Senator Pierrette Ringuette called the move surprising, but not shocking, and a “giant step in the right direction. . .If we want to reform the Senate, senators need to be independent of groups and parties, and that’s what the leader has done today.”

In fact, with this move, the leader has done quite a few things.

For one, he’s grabbed the initiative and stamped the future of Senate reform with the Liberal brand. Even if the momentum shifts back to the Tories, they can never again claim that they lead the charge.

Paul Poilievre, the Minister for Democratic Reform, questions the wisdom of freeing unelected senators from the influence and control of elected Members of Parliament (specifically, the prime minister and opposition leaders).That, however, is a point of process; how, exactly, the selection process will work is not yet clear.

What is clear is widespread, even overwhelming, public support for dramatic Senate reform, without which most Canadians would rather bid the institution a long overdue fare-thee-well.

Mr. Trudeau’s initiative, they will say, may not be perfect. In the long run, it may not even be workable. But at least he’s doing something. And that, alone, stands him head and shoulders above the rest on the Hill.

The move has also upended the Prime Minister’s Office’s strategy of keeping the Senate, with all of its attendant scandals, out of the news as much as possible. According to polls, the Mike Duffy-Nigel Wright affair has seriously damaged the government’s credibility.

“What the Liberal Party doesn’t understand is that Canadians are not looking for a better unelected Senate,” Mr. Harper told the House of Commons.  “Canadians believe that for the Senate to be meaningful in the 21st century it must be elected. . .I gather the change announced by the Liberal Leader today is that unelected Liberal senators will become unelected senators who happen to be Liberal.”

It was a good line. It’s too bad lunch was over when he delivered it.

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