Letters

November 2004

The Calgary School
Marci McDonald (“The Man Behind Stephen Harper,” October) offers a rare and sobering look at Canadian politics. Much ink has been spilled on the ideological cabal surrounding President Bush, but little attention has been paid to the backroom operators driving both the Liberal and new Conservative party machines. As the attention Canadians are paying to the U.S. election reveals, somehow we have come to believe that American politics matters and, despite outrage over the sponsorship scandal, etc., Canadian politics is largely uninteresting and matters much less. In her thoughtful analysis of Conservative party strategist Tom Flanagan, McDonald puts the lie to such views.

After the somnolence of summer, as Parliament prepares to reconvene, I trust that Canadians will be paying attention. In her essay, McDonald raises a fascinating question: In his successful bid to grab key Ontario ridings by presenting himself as centrist during last spring’s election campaign, was Harper driven by ideology or pragmatism? Clearly, Tom Flanagan and the Calgary School are ideologues, but it is not the case (as widely reported in the press) that Harper took the summer off. Rather, he was busy striking deals with the ndp and the Bloc Québécois. This suggests that the “ideology” driving Harper is the same one driving Paul Martin: win at all costs. It further suggests a fissure with Tom Flanagan et al. Don’t bank on it. That is the value of McDonald’s investigative research.

Marlene Kraml
Kingston, Ontario

There are two traditional journalistic conceits that inspire Marci McDonald’s essay. The first is that the “man behind the man” is always more interesting than the leader himself, or herself, in any political party. The second conceit, evident in many areas of Canadian journalism, is that there is only one acceptable brand of moderate, centrist, allegedly mainstream conservatism, and that any other variety is part of some dark and narrow conspiracy worthy of careful examination.

The fact that some of Dr. Flanagan’s intellectual mentors are American should be of no surprise. The American settlement of the west in the late nineteenth century, driven by affordable grazing lands and added to more recently by the discovery and expansion of the traditional energy basin, provided the dominant inflow of people and ideas into that part of Canada. Much of the more populist, individualistic, and economically conservative tone of western public discourse comes from these roots — a discourse that is an honourable part of the Canadian political economy. Conservatism, as opposed to either liberalism or socialism, implies a consistent regard for the balance between freedom and responsibility. This balance is sustained by the constant tension between those who view order and responsibility, including social responsibility, as absolutely essential to society (which would be my bias), and those who view individual freedom and prerogative, unfettered as possible by the state, as even more essential.

As for the old shibboleth of ascribing to a party leader the views associated with any of his or her advisors, this is a journalistic alchemy simply not borne out by the facts. Mr. Harper has stated a very different view from Dr. Flanagan on aboriginal issues. To be fair to Ms. McDonald, this alchemy has been a part of journalistic analysis of political leaders and parties for years. The notion, however, that the Flanagan/Harper relationship is somehow part of a plan to sneak a narrow, doctrinaire government into power while pretending to be something else (Ms. McDonald quotes Ted Byfield as saying, “The issue now is: how do we fool the world into thinking we’re moving left when we’re not? “) sounds very much like the traditional campaign attack on any Conservative party with prospects. This may not have been her intent, but it was the result of the way her piece was crafted. Left out of this analysis is the multi-week negotiation that took place in the summer of 2003 between such extremists as Bill Davis, Don Mazankowski, and Loyola Hearn on behalf of Peter MacKay; and Gerry St. Germain, Ray Speaker, and Scott Reid on behalf of Mr. Harper. It produced a series of founding principles for the new Conservative party that speak to a broad-church Tory party, open to the full spectrum of conservatives within its ranks. The breakthrough of twenty-four Ontario federal seats would not have been possible without this approach.

Mr. Harper and Mr. MacKay have looked beyond narrow ideology and the narcissism of small differences to build something new. To the extent that Dr. Flanagan was part of that process, all Canadians, even those who would never vote Conservative and would never agree with Dr. Flanagan, owe him, and those who worked on all sides of the process, a great deal indeed. Canadian democracy must have at least two national parties able to form a government, or Canadian voters have no real choice at all.

Hugh Segal, President
Institute for Research on Public Policy
Montreal, Quebec

Help for Darfur
Gerry Caplan’s article (“The Genocide Problem,” October) is intelligent, moving, and superbly written. It does not simplify a complex reality; it relates a profoundly human dilemma to the author’s own lived experience. Social ideas and social practices, whose extremes can result in genocide, are slow to change on their own. The challenge lies in making them change faster. The ongoing work of many ngos is to intervene in that long-term process, while also pressing the international community to act when atrocities occur.

The Canadian government also has a role to play. It can support the United Nations and the African Union to help deal with instances of crisis, like those in Burundi, Sudan, and Liberia, building on recent commitments of African leaders to accept responsibility for their individual and collective role in creating an “enabling environment.” Our government can back up that encouragement with money for logistics, civilian protection, disarming, or peacekeeping, in addition to food, water, and shelter for refugees.

Our government ought to make Caplan’s trenchant observations central to its thinking about Canada’s role in the world — not only the “what,” but the “how.” Silence and apathy have built a world in which genocides can still happen. We can and must change that.

Rieky Stuart, Executive Director
Oxfam Canada
Ottawa, Ontario


Frontlines of Terror

I read Stephen Handelman’s article (“The First Responders,” Field Notes, October) with bemusement and concern. Even after 9/11, the image of a “cloak and dagger” confab has a comic ring to it. However, public safety is almost always a moral cause of the highest order. And such causes are often as perilous to pursue obsessively as to blithely ignore.

If one starts from the premise that there is likely a terrorist in every town, it’s hard to picture many safety-driven professionals achieving significant success at operating from within the “state of relaxed tension” called for by Russian special forces’ Major Komarov. As a civil rights lawyer, I for one would feel a little more relaxed in this all-too-interesting age if North Americans banded together and pressured our governments to provide us with regular and credible information about the ongoing multi-billion-dollar deployment of vast and, in many cases, new security powers. What are the authorities doing to both prevent terrorism and protect fundamental freedoms? The recent Independent Commission Report on 9 /11 and the secrecy-stalled Arar Inquiry hint at how sorely the public continues to be served on either count. Therein, I dare say, lies the premise for a walrus-sized “Colorado” conference. Sign me up.

Stephen McCammon
Canadian Civil Liberties Association
Toronto, Ontario

Ice Cream with the President
Linda McQuaig paints an amusing picture of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (“Sundaes with Chavez,” Field Notes, October) as someone who sings love songs, enjoys chocolate sundaes, and still finds time to produce a psychological analysis (“invaded by madness”) of the Bush administration. What is missing, however, is any explanation of why the number of Venezuelans living in poverty has doubled during the first five years of Chavez’s presidency, or why — as reported by the Catholic University of Caracas — some 75 percent of Venezuelans now live below the poverty line.

In August, Chavez survived the world’s first-ever public referendum on a presidency. More than two-thirds of eligible voters waited in endless line-ups to cast their “ ” or “no” on new computerized voting machines. Despite the chaos that frequently accompanies such events, no fraud or illegitimacy was observed. While Chavez emerged with a stronger mandate, and the opposition was left fractured and defeated, Venezuela’s poor are left wondering whether anyone really understands how desperate their situation is. As a longtime observer — most recently during the referendum itself— I can only hope that, finally, someone will seriously address the challenges confronting Venezuela.

Don Mackay, Executive Director
Canadian Foundation for the Americas
Ottawa, Ontario

Investigating Hate
Just as Grant Bristow (“Front Man,” September) was signing his memorandum of agreement with csis to continue “Operation Governor,” I was signing my contract as National Director of the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada. I spent the next several years monitoring, documenting, and countering the activities of the Heritage Front. Although Bristow gathered extensive intelligence for csis that enabled various arrests, it is also clear that he actually aided and abetted the hate-mongers’ activities, instilling fear into many law-abiding Canadians. At what point does keeping one’s cover push one across the line from observer to participant? Bristow embraced his role with such gusto that he both encouraged and enabled the growth of the Heritage Front, and the harassment of anti-racism activists. Bristow says he wanted to make the world “a less hateful place,” but in his zeal to do so, he did cross the line from time to time. We owe Bristow a debt of gratitude for what he was able to pass on to us about the far right during a particularly virulent period, but let us hope that the lessons learned will not have been in vain, and that in the future, csis will find more effective ways to gather intelligence to counter racism and hate.

Dr. Karen Mock, Executive Director
Canadian Race Relations Foundation
Toronto, Ontario

With Grant Bristow’s encouragement, the Heritage Front targeted my son, who received constant threats by telephone and in person, and was often followed by skinheads. He was threatened at work, making other tenants in the building feel unsafe, and eventually he had to give up his office. When he continued to work from home, the Heritage Front obtained his phone number and called hundreds of times each day, tying up phone lines so clients could not reach him. My son was told they knew where he lived, and that he could be attacked at any time. The Heritage Front also had a telephone line which its members could call for information. I called the line (from a pay phone) and heard the message encouraging members to target my son. These activities go far beyond what Bristow describes as “an annoyance campaign.”

My daughter, mother of a small son, had also spoken out against the Heritage Front and was targeted. She received phone calls telling her, “We know where you live,” and threatening her so that she wouldn’t testify in an upcoming court case. This harassment continued for months, during which time our family lived in constant fear. Surely the acquisition of information about the Heritage Front did not need to include the incitement to violence. That Bristow continues to justify it is offensive. That the Canadian government condoned it is disturbing. Bristow’s acts were appalling, and to insist that they were the “right thing to do” is an insult to those who suffered by them.

Elda Thomas
Toronto, Ontario

Saving Democracy
While Allan Gregg’s recommendations are all sound (“How to Save Democracy,” September), I would like to make some observations on the subject of compulsory voting, a system we accept naturally in Australia. Compulsory voting does not, as Mr. Gregg intimates, necessarily mean that electors have a good understanding of the candidates. In Australia voter apathy is manifest, not in low turnouts, but in low recognition of individual candidates. This has tended to strengthen the incumbency advantage of the two major political groupings in Australia, and also ensure that candidates (with the exception of local government) do not have policies of their own, but adhere strictly to the party platform. As voters have low levels of awareness and interest, voting tends to focus on “brand recognition,” with the exception of the odd rock star or business leader recruited into the parties. Party dominance and low salience of individual candidates reduces the influence of individual members of parliament in Australia, strengthening each party’s role in selecting and directing MPs, but also virtually eliminating the “free vote.”

Secondly, an unfortunate side-effect of compulsory voting is the absence of dialogue in Australia over democratic renewal. Because voting tends to be compulsory, keeping turnout high, we are seldom reminded of our declining levels of civic participation in Australia. Governments can easily ignore the erosion of that participation, and certainly there has been no generalized discussion of the health of democracy in my country.

Gregg is right: we need to think about our democracy from the bottom up, by looking to instill political interest and action in local communities and communities of interest. Our representatives and their institutions need to demonstrate greater regard for parliamentary deliberation and consultation by reaching into our local communities and political associations, looking for genuine participation and taking the time to inform and include citizens in policy deliberation. I’m not sure that this will mean a return to a new localism, but certainly it does require party machines to recognize that political legitimacy can be shared without zero-sum outcomes.

Dr. Peter Chen, Visiting Fellow
Centre for Public Policy
University of Melbourne, Australia

Allan Gregg is concerned that reforms such as proportional representation, “introduced piecemeal, could undermine the entire structure.” It used to be that only male landowners could vote. Allowing tenants to vote didn’t bring down the system, nor did allowing women to vote. Proportional representation has not been introduced because it’s not in the interests of the ruling party/parties.

H. Rae Aston
Montreal, Quebec

Allan Gregg claims that proportional representation would “reward small and regional parties.” This is a common misconception of proportional representation. It is, in fact, our current “first past the post” electoral system that rewards regional parties such as the Bloc Québécois. In the June federal election, the Bloc received fifty-four, or 18 percent, of the seats in parliament, with 12 percent of the vote. Under a proportional system the Bloc would have received thirty-seven or 12 percent of the seats in parliament. Our “first past the post” system also encourages a two-party election by suppressing smaller nation-wide parties. Proportional representation does not “reward” small parties, but rather it accurately represents voters’ wishes in parliament.With these two misconceptions, Gregg dismisses proportional representation. In light of this, and in light of Gregg’s conclusion that we need to put politicians and voters into closer dialogue, perhaps Gregg would agree that holding an assembly of citizens to review various electoral systems, including proportional representation, would be beneficial to Canadian democracy.

Alexander Goss
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Islam and “the West”
Tariq Ali’s (“Tortured Civilizations,” September) knowledge of the Arab Street is, I presume, considerable, but I wish he would spend a little more time on the diverse Main Streets of “the West.” Ali’s conflation of the West with America and Mr. Bush is offensive. To the extent that mutual understanding might breed mutual goodwill, writers of Ali’s knowledge, and elegance, should show the way to a better understanding of the West and its peoples. In case he hasn’t noticed, most of the countries of Europe and in the Western hemisphere told Mr. Bush, along with his adventure in Iraq, to take a hike. In all Western countries, even those with “willing” leaders, the people in the street were adamantly opposed to Bush’s Iraq war from the beginning. France, Germany, Russia, China, Mexico, Brazil, and Canada all actively rejected the U.S. invasion of Iraq. So, Mr. Ali, please take note: other countries in the so-called West do count, and have the courage and wisdom to stand for values different than those of the American president.

Peter Brown
Goderich, Ontario

After I’d watched the Republican convention, it was illuminating to read Tariq Ali’s essay for some real perspective on the effects of U.S. imperial aspirations. Aspects of the convention were wholly predictable. Big Brother Dick Cheney played the fear card by warning of “evil terrorists at our door itching to destroy us with weapons of mass destruction.” President Bush offered up safe bromides in an attempt to grab the compassionate conservative middle vote. True Lies macho-man Arnold Schwarzenegger was given the job of rallying the troops and delivering content on the domestic front. To Bush’s skyrocketing deficit critics, he thundered, “Don’t be economic girlie-men!” It was less show than sideshow, but what was striking about it was the ahistorical thrust of the speeches. Ali describes this condition as a profound “historical amnesia, and a sense of denial bordering on the delusional.” The value of his essay — and I commend The Walrus for publishing views not often heard in North America — is that it is rooted in history and direct observation. This approach (as opposed to the reductio ad absurdum of both U.S. conventions) demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that in Iraq, the Middle East, and elsewhere, the vast majority of Muslims do indeed want exactly what America demands for itself: freedom, self-determination, and control over valuable resources. For this reason, a U.S. foreign policy still based on “might is right” is destined to fail, to produce more radical recruits, and to result in a broad and avoidable anti-American resistance.

Pedro Sanchez
Rexdale, Ontario

The Hunt
Your story by Gail Singer (“Killing Dinner,” September) about her visit to Loch Choire took me back to the year 1943, when, as a lad working in the kitchen of the Lodge, I had to hike to the end of the loch to deliver to the Duke of Sutherland, who was with a deer – hunting party, the telegram reporting his wife’s sudden death. I echo Singer’s feelings about the wild, boggy, wet terrain. Although I hiked back to the Lodge feeling like a drowned rat, the Duke and his party arrived back later, via boat.

Ellis Brayham
North Vancouver, BC

That’s Entertainment
I beg to differ with letter writer Barry Peterson (“Letters,” September) who, at sixty-five, says he’s “too old to be interested in being titillated by [your] articles” and that you should “have a profound agenda.” It so happens I’m a tad older, eighty-one, and rather enjoy the variety of your articles, though I have neither the intellect nor the patience to deal with your crosswords and “Brain Teasers.” In fact, The Walrus is the only magazine other than the National Geographic to which I subscribe, and I suggest Mr. Peterson read the latter if he wants articles on “the health (or otherwise) of the natural world.” I think there are already enough profound publications trying “dead seriously to capture the world’s attention” about our planet’s destruction. Indeed, you’ve hit a good balance of entertaining and informative articles aimed at a Canadian audience.

Dick Momsen
Sooke, BC

Request
I recently purchased a subscription to The Walrus. Imagine my disappointment when my first edition arrived and was consumed within the same day. In the future, please ensure that each edition is at least 700 pages long.

Jennifer Zickerman
Vancouver, BC

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