The New Solitudes

Canada was once defined by the schism between English and French. Today, our divide is increasingly ideological. Can it be bridged?

Illustration by Barry Blitt

It was November 26, 2009, and I happened to be in Ottawa with a few hours to spare; so, on a citizen’s whim, I decided to drop in on Question Period in Canada’s House of Commons. I was a small girl the first time I sat in the historic visitors’ gallery that looms over the rows of members’ seats on both sides of the political divide. My father was determined that his children witness what he thought were essential places and events, and the House was high on his parental to-do list. I was properly impressed by the sight of grown-ups debating across the parliamentary aisle, waving sheaves of papers at one another and occasionally jabbing the air with their index fingers. I was too young to understand what they were talking about, but Dad’s lesson sank in, and I’ve been attending Question Period intermittently ever since.

In retrospect, I’m glad I visited the House that day, although I didn’t feel that way afterward. I thought I knew enough about our dysfunctional Parliament, but I wasn’t prepared for the dismay I felt as I watched Canada’s elected members challenge one another over one of the most critical issues to confront the country in a generation. The debate centred on the scandalous detainee transfer affair, which had once again exploded into public view. Richard Colvin, formerly a high-ranking diplomat in Afghanistan, had revealed that for seventeen months, starting in May 2006, he had informed his superiors in Ottawa that prisoners detained by the Canadian military, then transferred to Afghan security forces, were being tortured. His reports were consistently ignored, he charged. Worse still, he was ordered to stop putting his intelligence gathering into writing.

The implications of Colvin’s conscience-stricken revelations were potentially ruinous to the governing Conservative Party of Canada. As keeper of Canada’s vaunted commitments to human rights and the rule of law, the government stood accused of having wilfully ignored war crimes under the Geneva Conventions, which state unequivocally, “the Detaining Power is responsible for the treatment given to prisoners of war.” Equally injurious, this time to Canadians at large, the fallout from the detainee affair had the capacity to corrode our historical national values. Like all inhumane acts, torture alters and debases not only those on the receiving end, but also those who commit or facilitate it.

Colvin had been called to testify at the special committee on the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, which was hearing evidence on the allegations of detainee abuse. But the Harper government was trying to suppress the flow of documents that might contain incriminating material. The Opposition argued that the Conservatives were subverting the right of parliamentarians to carry out their duties as defined in Canada’s founding Constitution Act of 1867. Rob Walsh, the law clerk for the House of Commons, had already confirmed the parliamentary privilege of the special committee to hear the evidence, but the government disagreed with his ruling. Furthermore, Colvin had received a cautionary missive from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade: “We trust that you will conduct yourself according to the interpretation of the Government of Canada.” He had also received a letter from representatives of the minister of justice, notifying him that the Justice Department would take legal action if he dared to file documents before the House committee. In other words, he might end up in jail.

The Harper government’s actions called into question the right to free speech; to freedom from obstruction and intimidation; and to institute inquiries, call witnesses, and demand papers—all of them essential to democratic governance.

The Conservatives had the right to defend themselves against the Opposition’s charges, but no one bothered to do so. Cabinet ministers were flippant, facetious, insulting. Their strategy was diversion. John Baird, the minister of transport, told the Liberal foreign affairs critic, Bob Rae, who had asked a substantive question, that Rae’s party was “politicizing a very sensitive issue on the backs of our brave men and women in uniform.” He added that General Rick Hillier, “a great Canadian hero,” had dismissed Richard Colvin’s claims as “ludicrous.” The defence minister, Peter MacKay, quoted a second general who claimed to be “mortified” at the very suggestion of wrongdoing. “I will take his word over that of the member opposite any day!” he told Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh. “Let’s get beyond the rhetorical flourishes. Let’s get beyond those who are in partisan mode.”

In whose name was this game being played? I wondered. Regardless of where one placed oneself on the political spectrum, it was impossible to believe that this served the interests of the country or the Canadian public.

For a very long time, Canadians have spoken of shared social values as a way of bridging our traditional French-English solitudes. Now I ask myself whether we might be morphing into two Canadas, each with a distinct world view. The more familiar Canada has promoted secular, humanist values, expressing them in a welfare society it took decades to build. The newer Canada is brasher, harder, and angrier. You may have guessed that the kinder Canada is the country I cleave to: it has been my heart’s home wherever I have travelled in the world. But I recognize change. And I am beginning to question how, and if, we can find common ground.

Most Canadians can recite our traditional values by heart, even if we no longer embrace them in identical ways. They are, in a nutshell: moderation in civil discourse; toleration of dissent; support for human rights and the institutions of civil society; respect for the rule of law; a commitment to multilateralism abroad and pluralism at home; and a dedication to the public good, which includes a sensitivity to our uniqueness as one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries. Canada’s expansive social legislation, the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, our internationalist stance in the world—all these were put in place during the decades after the Second World War. They derived largely from successive Liberal governments, although when the electorate favoured the Progressive Conservatives they in turn carried the ball. Now this vision of Canada is being dismantled.

My Canada began to lose its lustre after the attacks on New York’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. As the United States restricted the civil liberties of its citizens in the aftermath, arrested many, and “rendered” them to lawless places that practised torture; as it built offshore prisons to evade its domestic laws in defiance of the Geneva Conventions, so too did our country begin to change. Imported rhetoric touting the “clash of civilizations,” “Islamofascism,” and the supposed superiority of Western culture gained credence. Maher Arar, an innocent man, was transferred from New York to Syria, where he was tortured and held for a year in a windowless cell—a “grave,” he called it. The Canadian fact-finding commission that was formed following his release concluded not only that senior officials had failed to prevent his deportation, but that they had been openly interested in the results of the interrogations he endured under torture.

We joined NATO in Afghanistan largely for political reasons; our national interests there were uncertain. But battling the Taliban insurgency has changed us, and not for the better. The day Conservative MPs called NDP leader Jack Layton “Taliban Jack,” because he had suggested that negotiations might help to end the war, my Canada slipped another notch. The day General Rick Hillier dehumanized Afghans as “terrorists,” “scumbags,” and “detestable murderers,” my Canada slipped again.

I do not mean that we are innocent, or too good for the battlefield when the cause is clear and just. I mean that the choices we make as individuals often propel us in new directions, and that the same is true for a country whose culture may be more fragile than we think.

The philosophy that characterizes the “other Canada” I saw evidence of that day in Parliament approximates an outlook more familiar to Americans than to Canadians, at least since the Reagan revolution of the 1980s. Its organizing principles are a powerful commitment to individualism, and to maximum freedom in every sector. Governments should be small, their powers limited, their taxing capacity curtailed. The market must be free and unfettered. Individuals are uniquely responsible for their failures, as well as their successes, and they cannot expect assistance from the “nanny state.” The critical distinguishing trait of this alternate lens on the world is a lessening attachment to the welfare state, which historically aimed at enhancing the common good—a sine qua non of the Canadian social contract for more than half a century.

For a long time, the incremental makeover of Canada’s centrist culture puzzled me, and I suspect I am not alone. Information warning that the country was undergoing a major transformation arrived piecemeal, as transitory jolts, as shorthand for a more elusive story: in ten-second sound bites from cabinet ministers; in newspaper articles that disappeared the next day; in uninhibited “anti-liberal” (and anti-Liberal) rants on the Internet and on private radio. It has been easy to dismiss the ranters as isolated cranks, although the news that the Conservative Party was offering its followers scripted messages for call-in radio shows gave me particular pause. (All one had to do was access the party’s website and type in a postal code, and shazam—up came the phone numbers of local talk shows and a list of smart things to say. Just “state-of-the-art politicking,” a Conservative spokesman explained.)

Perhaps there are psychological reasons that prevent some of us from fully grasping transformative change when it happens before our eyes. In societies undergoing ideological shifts, one finds evidence of a commonly experienced gap between the way people see change, and their ability to comprehend its meaning. For example, during the Middle Ages, a remarkable Muslim society governed Andalusia in southern Spain. While northern Europe was arming for the Crusades and attacking its Jewish minorities for “poisoning the wells,” a succession of religiously moderate caliphs who valued learning and understood the bases of good governance ruled over a unique multicultural civilization of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Remarkably, this open society endured from the ninth century to the end of the twelfth, after which a tribe of religiously fanatic Muslims invaded from the south, and the equally fanatic Catholic Reconquest pushed in from the north. Over time, the ambience changed. Religious pluralism became anathema, and both the Jews and the Muslims were expelled from the country.

I find this ancient story of failed multiculturalism interesting in itself, but the psychology behind it even more so. Although the Spanish Jews were subjected to escalating anti-Semitic propaganda for the entire fifteenth century, most were unable to see what was happening to them. In 1492, when their community leaders were presented with the Expulsion Edict, they expressed bewildered disbelief. They were unable to understand that incremental changes to what had long been a supportive culture had been staring them in the face for decades.

I believe the Richard Colvin affair finally concentrated my attention for one outstanding reason: the breaches of international law, the partisan conduct of the federal public service, and the unconscionable smearing of Colvin’s name were not ruinous to the Harper Conservatives, as such acts would have been less than a decade ago. This is why the Colvin episode may be seen by future historians as a marker moment when the thin underpinnings of Canadian identity began to unravel, or were seen to unravel. For nothing more clearly exposed the disconnect between the Harper Conservatives and the liberal ideals Canadians have held than the standoff between the government and its loyal servant in the field.

When I left Question Period that November day in 2009, I asked myself what it meant to be Canadian in these early years of the twenty-first century. I don’t have a clear answer, perhaps because we are still in transition. What is possible to observe is a snapshot of year five in the reign of our present prime minister: an altered Canadian landscape that Globe and Mail writer Lawrence Martin has called “Harperland” in his book of the same title.

Martin’s “march of audacities” exposes the new norms of Canadian political life, and it is no exaggeration to observe that the most egregious among his chosen examples point to bold changes that are shaking the pillars of Canada’s democracy. These include appointing an unelected party worker, Michael Fortier, to the federal cabinet to secure representation from Montreal; eliminating the Access to Information database; reducing and controlling government contact with the media; obliging cabinet ministers and public service officials to speak from scripts approved by the Prime Minister’s Office, thereby increasing the executive power of the PMO in new ways; twice proroguing the House of Commons, narrowly averting a constitutional crisis; wrongly identifying the proposed Opposition coalition as “undemocratic”; and axing financial support to dozens of NGOs whose messages run counter to conservative ideology.

Two of these NGOs merit special mention for their symbolic character. In its even-handed support of both Palestinians and Israelis, Kairos, an ecumenical church aid group that had received federal funding since 1974, once fit seamlessly into the web of Canada’s political culture. Under the new regime, it became an outlier. During a visit to Israel in December 2009, Conservative MP Jason Kenney slurred the organization (and other liberal NGOs) as “anti-Semitic.” In the same vein, the government replaced the chairman of Rights and Democracy—a non-partisan organization created by Parliament in 1988 to support universal human rights and the promotion of international democratic practices—with an individual whose insistence on favouring Israel and eliminating support for Palestinians eventually destroyed the board.

Each of these examples will have a long-term impact on Canada’s democratic culture. However, in terms of this country’s historical social contract, the Harper government’s decision last summer to cancel the mandatory long-form census stands alone. Its disappearance will eliminate the evidence required to make policy in health, education, and dozens of other sectors across all regions. Without census data, fewer groups will have the capacity to request federal assistance. Without census data, the government will be unable to fulfill many of its traditional funding obligations. This is the heart of it. The census decision may seem irrational—until one understands it within the larger ideological framework of diminishing the traditional welfare state.

Seen together, these cumulative assaults paint a picture of a country house whose familiar furniture is being rearranged to suit a new master, a “living room” in which the historical role of government in caring for its citizens has shrivelled; where citizenship is no longer an unambiguous indicator of rights; where inequality has gained a surer footing; and where only the strongest will breathe the air at the top.

In 1976, after assuming the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party, Joe Clark advocated that Canada evolve into “a community of communities.” He hoped the federal government might enhance national unity by sharing jurisdiction in such areas as foreign policy and communications, a move that would have pleased Quebec nationalists. Stephen Harper has picked up on Clark’s idea, but expanded it into areas that would have been anathema to Clark. These would include social programs funded by the federal government, which the Conservatives have attempted to shift to the provinces.

“Harper is incrementally putting into place this ‘community of communities,’ because he thinks it will enable Quebec to obtain greater autonomy without formally separating from Canada, while allowing Alberta to acquire ever greater independence and taxing powers,” argues University of Ottawa historian Michael Behiels. “On the full range of related constitutional powers—health, social welfare, you name it—the provinces will go their own way. It’s a fine balance between maintaining unity in Canada and losing it. We’re fragile.”

Whatever collective identity we have, he contends, is being diluted in the process. “There’s no question that Harper is shifting our identification with the national government to other institutions,” he says. “Away from social programs. Away from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. To the armed forces. To the development and protection of the North. Unfortunately, it’s thin gruel for a unified Canada. Unity has been difficult to build, and can be lost in a nanosecond.”

The history of how this came to be is by now familiar to Canadians. Preston Manning’s Alberta Reform Party, after its founding in 1987, won significant support in the West by espousing principles that diverged significantly from those of the traditional centrist parties. Reform believed that more federal powers should be devolved to the provinces, and that all provinces should be treated equally; in other words, that Quebec should be denied special status, a subject much in the air at the time. Policies on other issues were libertarian: for example, both official bilingualism and multiculturalism were rejected as impositions upon personal freedom.

In 2000, the party was reborn as the Canadian Alliance. In 2001, Stephen Harper (then president of the National Citizens Coalition) clarified his views about Canadian unity in a famous letter to Alberta’s Ralph Klein, in which he called on the premier to “build firewalls” to limit the extent to which an “aggressive and hostile federal government” could encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction. In 2003, Harper took over the helm of the Canadian Alliance, joining forces with Peter MacKay, the last leader of the Progressive Conservatives. Before long, Preston Manning—softer and more thoughtful than Harper, and certainly less ruthless—was out. Fortunately for Harper, the evangelical Christians and fiscal conservatives Manning had brought into the fold as early as 1985 were willing to shift their allegiance to the new leadership, creating a solid base of support for the merged party.

Perhaps hoping to diminish the gaping differences between itself and the former Progressive Conservatives, the new political entity strategically adopted the name “Conservative.” Soon party affiliates were being called Tories, the moniker of their centrist predecessors. The new Conservatives were not conservative in a manner familiar to Canadians, but that hardly mattered. Having disposed of the Progressive Conservatives, they could now represent themselves as the only actors on the right side of Canada’s political spectrum.

Stephen Harper’s decentralizing project was on display in October 2010, when Quebec Conservative MP Maxime Bernier made a resonant, libertarian speech calling for an end to all “federal intrusion into areas of provincial jurisdiction.” He said there would no longer be any ambiguity “if each province… raised the amount of money necessary to manage its own problems.” It was Harper’s firewall theory, expanded to the country at large. Indeed, just weeks later, provincial officials worried aloud to a Globe and Mail reporter that Ottawa appeared to be in no hurry to renew its health care funding transfer obligations.

Errol Mendes, a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Ottawa, thinks that what drives the prime minister is not traditional libertarianism, which may be socially progressive because of its core commitment to unfettered personal freedom, but rather a version of hard-right, US-style Republican politics that might be termed the modern “Night Watchman.” The Night Watchman is a nineteenth-century theoretical construct in which government assumes only minimal responsibility for the citizenry. Its role is limited to protecting individuals from crime, and the country from foreign aggression: in other words, it is responsible only for the police, the judiciary, prisons, and the military.

Mendes sees Stephen Harper’s law and order program, with its mandatory minimum sentences and warehouse prisons, as key features of Night Watchman governance on this side of the border. “These policies may seem irrational, given that Canada’s crime rate has fallen and everyone knows that warehouse prisons become schools for crime,” he says. “But they are not irrational if you understand them in this context.” Mendes also cites the Harper government’s huge discretionary expenditures on prisons; its awarding of a huge, untendered fighter jet contract; and the massive police presence at the G20 conference last June. “A philosophy of minimalist government and broad discretionary spending is what allows Mr. Harper to remain so tightly in control as he reaches for an electoral majority.”

Political theories do not translate intact (look at what happened to Karl Marx’s ideas after being taken up by the Soviet Union), so the Night Watchman analogy cannot be taken as literal. All the same, other acts of the Harper government, such as the prorogations of the House of Commons, and the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census, whose collected data rationalized the transfers and payments of Canada’s welfare state, quite easily fit the pattern. The “community of communites” has travelled a long road.

Given the gap between watching change occur and understanding its import, it is possible that other countries became aware of alterations to Canada’s political culture before many of us did. (That’s the job of foreign embassies and their ambassadors, as the WikiLeaks scandal last November proved beyond a doubt.) The hammering we received from the world community in October 2010, when we failed to obtain a seat on the United Nations Security Council, told its own story. This was no minor event. Canada has occupied a chair at the world’s most powerful table six times since 1948. We participated in the founding of the UN in 1945, and helped to draft the UN Charter. John Humphrey was the principal author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1948. Lester Pearson more or less invented the idea of peacekeeping, for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1957. Maurice Strong was the founding executive director of the United Nations Environment Program back in 1973. In January 1998, Louise Fréchette became the first UN deputy secretary-general.

These commitments were bellwethers of Canadian values, and the underpinnings of our foreign policy up to and including Liberal foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy’s promotion of a “human security” agenda focused on the protection and well-being of civilians. On Axworthy’s watch, Canada spearheaded an international effort to ban land mines around the world, and led a community of like-minded states to create the International Criminal Court in 1998, at a conference chaired by Philippe Kirsch, a Canadian. In 2000, it was Canada that answered UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s call to establish guidelines for humanitarian intervention when crimes against humanity threatened a population and its government refused to respond.

Initiatives such as these used to be our face to the world. Stephen Harper, by contrast, apparently believed the fifty-three African countries with Security Council votes would not notice when he shifted the focus of our international aid away from the world’s neediest continent. (In its 2009 global generosity ranking, based on the percentage of national income countries devote to international development, the OECD placed Canada in the bottom half of those surveyed.) Harper seemed to think no one would notice that his vaunted maternal health plan lacked the critical centrepiece—the right to abortion—that would enable women in developing countries to determine their futures. As for Canada’s unbalanced Middle East policies, either he imagined the world wouldn’t notice, or he didn’t care.

“The Harperites like to intone variations on Groucho Marx,” Robert Fowler, one of this country’s most experienced and respected diplomats, told me with a laugh when we talked on the telephone last October. “‘We are a country of principles. We wouldn’t join a club that would have us as a member.’ Or vice versa.” During his thirty-eight-year career in public service, Fowler was the foreign policy adviser to three prime ministers: Pierre Trudeau, John Turner, and Brian Mulroney. He was also deputy minister of defence, and Canada’s longest-serving ambassador to the UN, where he represented Canada on the Security Council in 1999 and 2000.

“The truth,” he said, “is that it will be twenty years before Canada serves again on the council, which means we will have collectively lost all direct knowledge of what takes place at that important table. We have been able to keep that knowledge alive in the past. That’s gone. Now we will get most of our information indirectly from US sources, and the US hates the UN.

“We’re more comfortably into ‘little Canada’ now: out of the picture, and stridently happy to be so.”

A silence slipped between us. “You seem to see darkness ahead,” I said. “This is a darkness of our own making,” he replied, laughing again. “It’s not dark outside. We’ve pulled the curtain.”

During the lead-up to the vote in the UN General Assembly, Paul Dewar, the NDP’s foreign affairs critic, said something that triggered a personal memory from my own childhood. When he said, “Canada must have a seat on the Security Council. It’s in our dna,” I recalled that the principal of my Toronto elementary school had papered the corridor walls with the entire Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I saw myself standing on my tiptoes, reading avidly, a young Jewish girl who knew nothing about the Holocaust except that something terrible had happened to my people, and that this document promised hope and protection. Yes, I thought, the United Nations has been in my DNA for a lifetime—as a hope, as an institution that would always be better than nothing at all, even when it appeared to fail and needed reform. I have never considered abandoning my support of the UN, because the alternative would be unspeakably worse. The UN is the repository of international law, without which the global order would collapse into anarchy.

The UN is also the repository of the Geneva Conventions—the laws of war that were designed, debated, and finally agreed to by the international community—and they include an absolute prohibition against torture. It is possible that the Harper government’s refusal to hand over documents to the committee studying Richard Colvin’s allegations also played a part in our failure to win a Security Council seat.

For decades, Canada elicited admiration for policies that advanced the cause of peace and justice abroad, and equality at home. Now we are observed with puzzlement on many fronts, including our apparent abandonment of the core citizenship rights that define all democracies. Without an inalienable commitment to shared equality, the democratic centre of any country will soon fall into jeopardy. To the world outside our borders, our shabby treatment of Omar Khadr has exposed a crack in Canada’s foundations.

I suspect that before September 11, 2001, few Canadians would have countenanced the trial of a child who was fifteen years old at the time of his offence. But with the tacit permission offered to us by those in high places when they defy the very laws they pledged to uphold, large numbers of people have been willing to ignore Khadr’s citizenship rights because they dislike his pro–al Qaeda family.

Canadian human rights organizations began to lobby for Khadr’s repatriation on grounds of citizenship in 2007. Between 2009 and 2010, three high courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, ruled that the Harper government had breached his constitutional rights under the Charter. Essentially, the prime minister ignored these legal decisions. Canada became the only country to refuse to repatriate a citizen from the US prison at Guantanamo Bay.

There were three seminal issues in the Khadr saga. The first was the question of his citizenship. The second was his trial in October 2010 by a US military commission, in courts established by President George W. Bush in late 2006, precisely to avoid the higher standards of due process required by the US domestic justice system. The third issue was international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forbids the involvement of children under the age of eighteen in military conflicts. Khadr’s family was criminally responsible for introducing a fifteen-year-old into a war zone, but the United States and Canada were responsible, respectively, for the torture of that child, and for the violation of his human and citizenship rights.

“Canada’s reputation as a global human rights leader has taken a big hit,” says Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada. “Right up to the very end, the determination of the Canadian government to appear unconcerned and disinterested was stunning. Last-minute interventions from two UN human rights experts, including the secretary-general’s special representative on children and armed conflict, calling for Canada to intervene on Omar Khadr’s behalf, went unheeded or outright ignored.”

On the other side of this moral and legal divide, conservative pundits wrote vitriolic critiques of the Harper government for agreeing to bring Khadr home in 2011 to serve the remainder of his sentence in Canada (a demand of the Obama administration). An Ipsos Reid survey in the immediate aftermath of the trial quantified our disagreement on the Khadr question: 49 percent of the population wanted him kept out.

In June 2010, an ad hoc group of individuals and small organizations assembled out of desperation. Naming themselves Voices, they created an exceptional document: a petition for democracy that they planned to present to the government. Here is an excerpt from their preamble:

Since 2006 the Government of Canada has systematically undermined democratic institutions and practices, and has eroded the protection of free speech, and other fundamental human rights. It has deliberately set out to silence the voices of organizations or individuals who raise concerns about government policies or disagree with government positions. It has weakened Canada’s international standing as a leader in human rights. The impact and consequences for the health of democracy, freedom of expression, and the state of human rights protection in Canada are unparalleled…

An unprecedented level of secrecy now shrouds a long list of government activities and decisions, making it increasingly difficult for the public to hold the government accountable across a range of fundamentally important issues…

In this context, Canadian democratic institutions, civil society organizations, and human rights defenders have been weakened, marginalized and silenced. Their capacity to monitor and safeguard the respect for democracy, free speech, and other rights is in jeopardy. The quality and health of democratic life in Canada is under serious threat.

More than 4,000 individuals and 185 organizations have signed the petition.

Others are looking for different routes to redress. In the wake of the excesses of the G20, when 40,000 people were effectively stripped of their basic rights by 20,000 armed police who roamed the streets of Toronto, some without their badges, a number of groups mounted challenges to this questionable exercise of authority. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, for its part, sent a report requesting a public inquiry to Vic Toews, the federal minister of public safety, who failed to reply. It then sent the report to the Ontario government, the Ontario Provincial Police, and the Toronto Police Service; to the Security Intelligence Review Committee that oversees CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service); and to the RCMP oversight body. Some did respond: the Special Investigative Unit dealt with six complaints; however, in its November 2010 report it declined to lay criminal charges in two apparent cases of excess force, because the police officers could not be properly identified. Throughout, the main player, the government of Canada, remained silent. “We don’t know whether what happened was planned and purposeful, or simple incompetence and bad training,” says Nathalie Des Rosiers, CCLA’s general counsel. “Unless the federal government creates a public inquiry, we will never have a complete picture of what took place in Toronto last June.”

CCLA held public hearings in Toronto and Montreal, during which it emerged that among the 1,100 people who were arrested during the protests many were beaten and warehoused for twenty-four hours in a makeshift prison, without charges, without lawyers, and sometimes without access to drinking water. Lacking toilets, women and men urinated in their clothing; several men reported that they were ordered to lift their testicles for “inspection.” Last June, the organization recommended legislative changes to ensure that no future suspension of civil liberties occurs in Canada unless it is mandated under the War Measures Act. “We are at a disjuncture where the federal government congratulates the police, although their acts may have been unconstitutional,” says Des Rosiers.

Peter Russell, a distinguished constitutional scholar and emeritus professor of political science at the University of Toronto, has been working on another kind of initiative. This February, with colleagues at U of T’s David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights, he convened a workshop in Toronto in hopes of averting a constitutional crisis should the next federal election result in another hung Parliament. The problem, he says, is that Westminster parliaments such as ours do not have written rules on such fundamental issues as the formation of governments after an election, nor on the dissolution and prorogation of Parliament. “These matters are supposedly governed by unwritten constitutional conventions based on a political consensus—a consensus that has broken down in Canada. I don’t think Canadians are aware that our parliamentary system is governed by unwritten conventions, and that worries me.”

The workshop included constitutional scholars, individuals connected to Canada’s political leaders, distinguished retired members of Canada’s public service, and foreign citizens who have helped their own countries avoid constitutional crises when elections resulted in minority governments. Russell concludes that some of the agreements that have guided Westminster parliaments over the centuries now need to be written down in Canada (New Zealand, for example, has benefited from having done just that). “If they are formalized,” he says, “it will become possible to hold leaders to account, should they reject recognized conventions and plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.”

Are we inching toward two Canadas, each with its own foundational principles? And if we are, can we find common ground? Across our history, Canadians have endeavoured to resolve problems by negotiating compromises. We’ve become known for these efforts, even when they have fallen short. We have, in other words, a tradition of trying to bridge our differences: promoting unity is as Canadian as backyard hockey and Tim Hortons.

The underlying question is what constitutes a good society. Across millennia of human history, philosophers, political leaders, artists, and ordinary people have debated the social order of their respective eras. What matters is public engagement. We need a vigorous debate about where we are headed and whether we wish to go there. We need a reasoned and, above all, courteous discussion about what we want Canadian society to look like in ten or twenty years. The language of insult is intended to intimidate and silence. Without courtesy, we cannot talk to one another.

One year after my own awakening to the unprecedented transformation of Canadian society, I have few answers, except to suggest that if we are facing a future of minority governments, as many believe, we’d be wise to think creatively, as other countries have done. With the Progressive Conservative Party wiped off the map, moderate conservatives have nowhere to place their votes. The formerly powerful Liberal Party flails about, lunging to the right, then retreating back to its historic home just left of centre. And when the Liberals and the NDP battle one another, as they often do, a smile arises among the Conservative ranks.

“The only way Canadians are going to get some control over the current political dysfunction is by demanding that the centre-left forces unite: the Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens,” suggests Michael Behiels. This is a bold proposition, but the likelihood of such a merger remains remote as long as political leaders continue to hope for majorities.

A more promising option would be a formal coalition of the centre-left (exclusive of the Bloc Québécois) after the next federal election, should the Conservatives win another minority. Coalitions are democratic, legal, and commonplace. Among the fifty-one parliamentary democracies in the world, nearly 90 percent do not ordinarily govern with a majority, meaning that the parties must co-operate closely or work in coalitions. Last November, a Nanos Research survey indicated that the prime minister’s scare tactics regarding coalitions weren’t working; just 30 percent of respondents thought a coalition would destabilize the economy (fewer than the 36 percent who elected Harper in 2008). The survey also revealed that the Canadian electorate is increasingly volatile, suggesting that the time may be ripe for democratic redress.

We need a renewed national conversation about proportional representation. The system isn’t complicated: the percentage of seats a party wins is proportional to the vote it receives. And it is fair: the 2008 election results would have given the Liberals and the NDP approximately thirty-five seats in Western Canada, for example, compared with the twenty-one they actually received. Elizabeth May’s Green Party would have earned five or six seats in the region. A federal parliament created by proportional representation would be a clear improvement over the juvenile shouting matches in the House of Commons, since co-operation would serve as the arbiter of success. Representing voters’ choices more equitably might even lower the anger index in the country. It would also demonstrate that no region is monolithic in its choices.

We do need remedy, and these are but suggestions. What is certain is that Canada has always been a willed, fragile construct—and that we are charged to protect this loved, frail country in ways we must decide together.

This appeared in the March 2011 issue.

Erna Paris
Erna Paris has written seven books of literary nonfiction. Her most recent, The Sun Climbs Slow: Justice in the Age of Imperial America, inspired the documentary Prosecutor.