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Votes of no confidence

Canadians have taken a real beating lately: first by the rest of the world at the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen, where the country was lambasted for being the single most obstructive nation to global progress.

But then – far more belittlingly – by our own Government when Prime Minister Stephen Harper single-handedly shut down Parliament on 30 December through a process known as proroguing. Ministers were to resume parliamentary proceedings on 25 January – now they will have to wait until 3 March. 

The almost indisputable reason (certainly as speculated by every single newspaper in the country): because the Government wishes to evade allegations by Canadian diplomats of a cover-up of collusion in the torture of Afghan detainees. A topic the Government has been avoiding since November – and certainly not one they want tainting Canada’s international brand image while Vancouver plays host to the Olympics in February. 

Proroguing, a constitutional measure that suspends proceedings in the House of Commons (and scuttles all bills under consideration), can be done at the whim of the Prime Minister without being put to a vote by the House (or even his own party). All that is required is that he kindly ask the Governor General for permission – and in this case, he did not even do so in person, phoning in the request instead. 

And all this when the Conservative Party of Canada holds a minority government, and by a man elected by only 34 per cent of Canadians voters. 

This strange artifact of the Canadian constitutional system has been wielded many times in the past, usually when all pending legislation has been dealt with and the Government has little to do. Harper claims to have prorogued Parliament in order to ‘focus on the economy’ and thus described his motion as a ‘fairly standard procedure’. But absolutely nobody is convinced, from all the opposition political parties, to academic theorists across the country, to every single news outlet (including the right-wing press that has traditionally supported him). 

The fact that the prorogue was announced the day before New Years Eve, while even the most media-attentive Canadians were taking a rest, and on the same day as the men’s Olympic hockey team squad was announced, has not gone unnoticed. Green Party leader Elizabeth May described it as a ‘mastery in political calculation’. The Globe and Mail has labelled this ‘an insult to Parliament’. The Economist calls it ‘little more than naked self interest’. Even the Calgary Herald – traditionally Harper’s most staunch supporter (and the site of his own riding) – calls it a ‘cynical political play’.

To add insult to a litany of injuries, this is the second time PM Harper has prorogued parliament in just over a year – the last time was in October 2008, when opposition parties were set to hold a vote of no confidence, likely forcing a new election and possibly the defeat of the Conservatives. 

Liberal Party of Canada leader Michael Ignatieff criticizes ‘the arrogance of a regime that thinks it can get away with just about anything’. The Conservatives, curiously, make no mention of the prorogue on their own website – but do ‘highlight Canada’s upcoming leadership of major international events in 2010, including the Olympic and Paralympic Games as well as the G-8 and G-20 Summits … we plan to use these two summits to continue playing a leadership role on issues of importance to Canadians’. 

In Harper’s view, clearly, the Olympics are important to Canadians. And torture is not. 

‘This is a slimy, dishonest way to avoid criticism on such an important issue – it’s also a waste of our taxpayer money and our legislative time,’ says Justin Arjoon, a Toronto university student who is co-organizing a rally to be held on the 23 January to demand that MPs return to work on 25 January. Other demonstrations will be held across the country, largely orchestrated through the main Facebook group – now with more than 150,000 members.

‘This makes me embarrassed – almost slightly ashamed to be Canadian,’ says Arlene Decker, a Canadian living in London, England, who is trying to organize a rally on the same day for Canadian ex-pats in Britain. 

Especially embarrassing, she says, after Canada was labelled the ‘Colossal Fossil’ and cleverly humiliated by the Yes Men in Copenhagen last month for coming to the negotiations with the weakest emission reduction plan of any nation.
‘By any measure the performance of our federal government compared with other governments was miserable,’ says Rick Smith, Executive Director of the Environmental Defence in Canada, who ‘felt schizophrenic’ in Copenhagen. 

Despite the failings of the Harper Government, ‘I was really proud of many of our provinces and cities,’ such as the Province of Ontario for the Green Energy Act and the City of Montreal for its public transport plans, which the Environmental Defence recognized with a gala event on 16 December in the Danish city. ‘Our point was to highlight the tremendous progress being made at the municipal level in Canada – progress that is being undermined by a federal government that is intent on doing as little as possible on the issue.’ 

‘There were over 300 protests in Canada during Copenhagen and leading up to it, including the high-profile sit-ins at Ministerial offices – this was the most impressive display I’ve seen in my 30 years as an activist,’ adds John Bennet, executive director of the Sierra Club, who was also in Copenhagen and was also ‘disappointed in a federal government that is not expending one iota of political pressure on this issue’.

But despite that show of activism, Canadians are still led by a Prime Minister (remember, elected by barely a third of the population) who can represent them at international negotiations with laughable proposals – and then shut down Parliament at whim whenever challenged.

‘The media says that Canadians don’t care about climate change, or about our democratic process, that we suffer from an ingrained apathy – but I don’t think that’s actually true,’ says Arjoon, one of the organizers of the Toronto rally. ‘It’s time we really started shaking down that assumption.’

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