I remember Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first day in office. It was almost a decade ago, in what seemed to be an entirely different country than the one we live in today. It was a country where foul play could literally bring down a government; Paul Martin’s Liberals had just succumbed to the Sponsorship Scandal. Despite this, the findings of the Gomery Report were clear: neither Paul Martin himself, nor his predecessor Jean Chrétien, had any knowledge of wrongdoing regarding the sponsorship program in Quebec. This was found by an independent inquiry that had been requested by Prime Minister Martin himself to get to the bottom of the scandal, and it was enough to topple his government anyway.
Canadians made a clear statement in February 2006 that they would not stand for corruption or dishonesty, and ousted Mr. Martin for Stephen Harper. This was justly done, as there were millions missing. But it’s important to remember that in the Canada of 10 years ago, the Prime Minister of this nation acted with integrity. He dealt with the issue honestly and proactively, and then he left office.
On that cold February day in 2006, Stephen Harper dropped his children off at school on his way to assume office as Prime Minister. He shook his son’s hand in his inaugural display of inhumanity, while the whole nation watched. The media had a field day, because in that Canada they were able to report freely. Rest assured, they have learned their lesson since then. Nobody insults the Prime Minister.
A lot has changed in the last decade. Basic Canadian principles that I was able to identify with and take pride in as a child have disappeared. Honesty and integrity in the Prime Minister’s office – qualities so well exhibited by Paul Martin – have been replaced by repeated lies. Compassion for the less fortunate, once demonstrated by Canada’s strong record in peacekeeping missions, has been replaced by shutting our doors to the victims of this decade’s largest refugee crisis. A position of global environmental leadership has soured into one of world-renowned recalcitrance, while we are eclipsed by the United States and the Chinese in commitments to greenhouse gas reduction. Data-driven policy has not just been intentionally sidelined, but has become increasingly infeasible from the lack of good census data and scientific research funding resulting from Conservative cuts. A country that was once a champion of freedom of speech now blunders forward listening to a censored media. Finally, and most notably, the celebration of our differences has fallen prey to populist racism in a plea for votes from Islamophobic demographics.
As a Canadian who lives and works in the United States, I have a different perspective on Canadian political issues. I get to watch the horrifying partisan circus of American politics take place, and take solace in the fact that my country isn’t like that… is it? While things don’t tend to be as dramatic in Canada, there is an interesting parallel between the tacky niqab debate and the systematically racist populist raving of Donald Trump. Trump is an incredible entertainer – and he specializes in getting huge groups of angry, uninformed bigots stirred into a frenzy. It’s frighteningly similar to the Conservatives’ (and Bloc’s) flagrant plea for Quebec votes with the divisive and immaterial debate about what someone should be allowed to wear for their citizenship ceremony.
These wedge politics are not the only example of the Harper government taking cues from the worst parts of the American system, and none of them have any place in my Canada. I want my country back – the one that knew the difference between right and wrong, and cared enough to make the right choice. And with that, I will begin my case.
The economy is, of course, the go-to talking point for the Conservatives. They claim a fiscally responsible government and great economic stewardship, which balances the budget, navigate the recessions (like in 2008), and enriches hard-working Canadians. That all sounds great, but it is largely a mirage.
Mr. Harper pulled a $1.6 billion budget surplus out of his sleeve in the middle of an election period, but the surplus was exposed by Elizabeth May in the Maclean’s Debate to be the result of strategically timed sales of government assets. I hope it does not elude Canadians that total government spending has gone from less than $300 billion to $350 billion over the course of the Conservative’s “stewardship”.
Of course, these numbers are similar to spending increases throughout much of Canadian history. As our population and economy grows, so must our government spending. There is absolutely nothing wrong with spending money if we have room in the budget (or an appropriate capacity for additional debt), as long as it is being spent on economically productive items (infrastructure, education) or items that positively impact the quality of life of Canadians.
Make no mistake, in the developed world, the government must be spending money. But to address Mr. Harper’s lie (yes, a lie) that he has reined in spending throughout his tenure, I would like to refer readers to the first several years of Jean Chrétien’s tenure, which was the last time a Canadian government has, in actual fact, cut government spending year-on-year.
On the point of the 2008 recession, I would like to address Mr. Harper’s claims that his economic stewardship was what got us through in such good shape. It was not. I have been unable to find a single Conservative policy that positively impacted Canada’s economic performance through that time (with the almost-unrelated exception of wholesaling petroleum leases with historically low royalty fees, allowing the oil and gas companies to enjoy unrequited profits with very little to share with Canadians).
Canada survived the recession because the Canadian banking system is one of the strongest in the world – ranked the soundest for six years in a row by the World Economic Forum. American banks were literally going out of business during the recession, and the Obama administration was busy spending $700 billion in bailout packages to try to save the world from the economic ruin that their loose regulations had caused. But Canada? Canada was plugging along, our money safe, much like any other year. Of all the G7 countries, Canada was the least affected by the recession, due to the banking system and the strong demand for our resources. But that there was responsible economic policymaking by our government is not apparent to me at this time.
The more notable economic decisions and policies, throughout Mr. Harper’s tenure, have been an alarming pattern of dismantling our economic engine to greedily sell off the parts. A crippling lack of investment in infrastructure and R&D has beaten down Canada’s manufacturing industry… we are only just arriving back at $50 billion this year from a low of about $38 billion in 2009, from the $50 billion it was making when Mr. Harper took office. Is this 6-year rally to mediocrity a result of responsible economic policy? Certainly not; the manufacturing industry has been buoyed by historically low commodity prices and a global economic recovery. But if Mr. Harper can’t take credit for $100/barrel oil ($49 at the time of writing), he can certainly try to take credit for the success in secondary industry it has caused.
The divestitures are possibly more alarming. Addax Petroleum and Nexen – two strong Canadian oil producers – are now both in the hands of the Chinese. Stelco and Alcan are now foreign owned as well, bringing the wholesale of Canadian companies to the mining and metals industry. ATI (once well-regarded as the best graphics chip maker in the world) fell to AMD early in Harper’s tenure – in July 2006.
In summation, the Conservative economic policies are poorly guided, short sighted, and selfish. Our impotence is imminent and inevitable on this path. But whether you believe that the dismantling of Canada’s economic engine for short term gain is responsible policy or not, one needs to only look at the results of Harper’s policies to know that they aren’t doing it right. We are in a recession, job creation is down (when adjusted for population growth), and consumer debt levels have gone unchecked to a fever pitch.
It’s pretty bad situation when a developed country has a petroleum industry so dirty that the European Union doesn’t want buy the oil. The irony is palpable as the entire European continent sucks at the teat of Vladimir Putin to heat their houses in the winter. The Canadian Petroleum Industry laughed it off, saying that the joke was really on the E.U. because we never sold them oil in the first place. This is an immature copout, to cover a bruised ego. The insult was multiplied when the Americans started taking a stand, by their stubborn refusal to accept the Keystone Pipeline deal.
The environment is a topic fraught with misconceptions on both sides of the fence. The damage that is being done in Canada is unlikely to be as serious as some people believe. But the Conservative government has crossed the line by such a wide margin that it cannot be explained away by any possible means. We are officially the last ones on the bus, and we still have one foot off.
Nobody can argue that the oil sands in Fort McMurray aren’t dirty. They are carbon-intensive and they poison the groundwater. This was researched before Mr. Harper took office and defunded the scientific projects trying to assess the damage. Furthermore, no one can argue that the damage Canadian (and foreign-owned) industry is doing to the Boreal Forest is massive. Nobody can argue with the negative consequences of gold mines, asbestos mines, coal-fired power plants, and any of the other participants in the broad environmental destruction that we as Canadians partake in.
What can be argued is how serious the damage is, against the economic benefits of these activities. The Conservative mindset that environmental concerns can be wholly laid down to extract every last possible penny of revenue is reminiscent of decades-old American industrial policy. The world has moved forward, and as Canadians we should too.
The truth behind the environmental science could be the subject of an entirely separate paper. It would be difficult to write, with the lack of good data that Harper’s research cost-cutting has plagued us with. Interestingly, the truth is actually irrelevant from an economic perspective. The beauty of the free-market is that if people don’t like what they see, they won’t buy the product! It’s all perception. And now here we are, ready to begin exporting 860,000 additional barrels of oil per day ($15 billion per year), and the United States has shaken their head at the Keystone XL Pipeline. This is not because they don’t like pipelines. It’s because they don’t like our oil.
Perhaps Mr. Harper’s economic degrees missed out on some basic business principles. You can’t force your customer to buy anything. The things that are important to your customer must drive your business. And in this case, it is environmental responsibility. The conservatives can argue until they are blue in the face about pipeline safety, carbon emissions, and economic benefits. There are probably a number of good points they would be making. Pipelines are safer than the alternatives, and there are oilfields in the United States that are more carbon intensive than the oil sands. But the fact is that nobody is buying these arguments. So will we clean up our act like our customers want, or will we continue to beat our heads against the wall and try to force them to change?
Cleaning up our environmental record should not be a scary idea. Our peers in the developed world aren’t afraid to regulate the petroleum industry. The State of Alaska, for instance, is the most prolific oil-producing region on the continent. It also has the most stringent environmental regulations, a necessity they learned the hard way after the Exxon Valdez disaster. Ironically, the biggest environmental controversy in Alaska is the potentially negative effects of the proposed Pebble Mine extraction facility on the local salmon fisheries. It does not escape the Alaskans that Pebble Mine is owned by Northern Dynasty Partnership – a Canadian company.
Regulation, if executed prudently, does not need to equal economic hardship. With the appropriate combinations of phased in environmental directives, incentives, more effective environmental assessment process, and competitive research grants, industry can be encouraged to clean itself up to the financial gain of all Canadians (industry included).
Some parts of Canada have a strong history of strong environmental leadership (notably never under Conservative rule). Decades ago, Quebec swore off of fossil fuels altogether, and now delivers the lowest cost electricity in the country from hydroelectric dams. This cheap electricity powers foundries, electric arc furnaces, and many other manufacturing activities at low cost (and low environmental impact) to create a district extremely attractive to industry (despite having some of the highest provincial taxes in the nation). Ontario’s feed-in-tariff program was successful in causing a flurry of small scale solar and wind installments, following a model that has cemented Germany’s position as an environmental and economic powerhouse. Forward looking economic policies like these will never make their way into the federal agenda until the Harper Conservatives are removed.
One thing I’ll say for the Conservatives is if they don’t plan on walking the walk, they certainly don’t talk the talk. With China and the United States’ recent carbon reduction commitments, Canada is left as the lone soldier who justifies environmental destruction with economic benefits. We chronically under-promise, and then we under-deliver on those promises. It’s unfortunate, embarrassing, and harmful to the continued success of our energy industry.
If we can’t have a self-sufficient economy, and we can’t be environmentally responsible, then the least we can do is be good human beings, right? That is what it is to be Canadian and it’s how we are viewed on the global stage. But cracks in our moral structure as a nation have become evident over the course of the last decade – in a number of areas which I will touch on. We all must take responsibility for this and change it together – the Harper administration may exemplify these problems and fan the flames, but it is up to every single Canadian to stand up for what is right. We need to stop empowering the politics of fear and xenophobia. We need to elect a Prime Minister who will stand up for Canadian values and support them, in a way that we haven’t seen in a decade.
To frame the discussion on integrity, it’s important to point out the “unhealthy growth of power in the Prime Minister’s office”- a growth that Elizabeth May put another fine point on in the Maclean’s Debate. Things have been different from the moment Stephen Harper took the reins. The media was immediately squashed, press-conference questions were vetted, and anti-conservative articles were punished. MP’s were put on an unprecedented short leash, under pain of being released from the party if they didn’t fall in line. Next in line were Senators, who were being told how to vote for the first time in Canadian history. Over the course of the last decade, Harper has very successfully cemented his grasp on the information available to Canadians.
Along the same lines, the Conservative government has assaulted the sources of sound information. Academics agree that the termination of the long-form census would become a permanent and serious impediment to data-driven policymaking in this country, at a cost to the taxpayers of $22 million. The Harper government has dismissed over 2000 scientists, and shut down hundreds of research programs and facilities. Attempting to defund the CBC pulls the smokescreen further over our eyes, while stealing directly from the guardians of Canadian culture.
In this way, the Government of Canada has been able to tell us the difference between right and wrong in a way that has never been seen in our history. Sensationalist tactics take the stage in front of hard facts on almost every topic. It is these tactics that have allowed the Harper regime to morally bankrupt this country, and to keep us in the dark about the true nature of the issues.
The first example starts all the way back at Omar Khadr. Somehow the discussion was spun into whether he was a war criminal and Canada should accept war criminals. That discussion is both ludicrous and irrelevant; there is no doubt that Omar Khadr was a war criminal and needed to be tried. But he should have been tried for him crimes and sentenced in a Canadian court, because he is a Canadian citizen. This was the outcome for all of the American and British war criminals in his position. Nobody ever said he should walk free. But he was in fact the last Western citizen and the youngest person being held at Guantanamo Bay, and his sentence was handed down not by his country, but by a United States military commission. Somehow we all missed the point, and we let a Canadian citizen rot in a military prison instead of giving him the Canadian legal process that we would all expect, had we been in his shoes by mistake.
Related to letting people into our country, the paltry 10,000 refugees that Harper has agreed to accept in response to the recent refugee crisis is an embarrassment. Almost every European country has already taken more than 10,000, and Canada still sits at less than 2000 of the 10,000 promised. Mr. Harper assures us that he is addressing the root cause of the problem by participating in bombing campaigns with the United States. This does not seem to be the focus of Germany, who have relocated 100,000 refugees with (mostly) open arms.
This is not to say that the Conservative regime has no friends in the Middle East. In fact, Harper’s absolutely unwavering support for the state of Israel has even nauseated many of the Jewish communities in Canada, as was reported by The Globe and Mail.
Our international clout is so reduced that we no longer have a seat at the UN Security Council. Nobody would be taking us seriously, even with a brand new fleet of overpriced F-35s. But none of our actions on the international stage are as dishonest or egregious as our inactions at home. Social programs have been slashed, to the detriment of impoverished families. Women’s health has been neglected. The UN Human Rights Committee continues to criticize Canada for its lack of progress on First Nations issues. Over 1000 aboriginal women are missing, without so much as an inquiry. Robocall scandals and Elections Canada restructuring attempt to dissuade people from voting. And, of course, coming full circle on the corruption problem: the Canadian Senate expenses scandal happened. Unlike Paul Martin’s behavior during the Sponsorship Scandal, Harper didn’t take a single measure to address the problem. It went straight from the Auditor General to the RCMP.
According to Mr. Harper, all of this bad press is irrelevant in the face of a real problem – whether someone should be allowed to wear a niqab while they become a Canadian citizen. I implore all Canadians to see through this ghastly vote-buying tactic, and not hand an election to this man because he holds a partisan, racism-fueled publicity contest. I watch this happen every day in the United States, and it is not what we do in my country.
The Way Forward
I love both Thomas Mulcair and Elizabeth May. They are both prolific Canadian political figures, with immense experience and qualification. I would be happy with either one of them as the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, I can’t get behind either of their parties’ platforms. While the Green Party would take too radical of a departure from our current economic structure, I was disappointed to find the NDP falling into the same publicity trap as the Conservatives, touting the “balance-the-budget” catchphrase. It screamed, “not ready to govern”. Furthermore, both parties are in a deficit of experience in Parliament.
The Liberals appear to be the only ones who have got it right, economically. I have been impressed with their bravery, talking about running a deficit to increase infrastructure investment. Despite the assault of conservative sounds bites regarding tightening our belt, when the cost of capital is this low and our debt level is the lowest amongst our peers, it is the perfect opportunity to borrow money and invest in Canada. By the results of the polls, I would say that Canadians agree with me. Furthermore, the Liberals’ attention to the environment and social conscience resonates with me, as I hope it would with all Canadians. I was entertained to find that even Conrad Black agrees, in his October 2nd editorial in the National Post.
As for Trudeau himself, it took me a long time to make a decision about him. I’ll confess that, in the beginning, I thought he wasn’t ready. He was going to get squashed by the Harper war machine like his predecessors. However, we have had the opportunity to watch his remarkable coming-of-age as a political figure – to a maturity that was never reached by Stéphane Dion or Michael Ignatieff.
Now, I don’t just back the Liberal platform, but the Liberal leader as well. Most importantly (and this is an incredibly important thing to remember), I back my local Liberal candidate. Canada has a parliamentary system – so really I didn’t vote for Trudeau at all. I voted for a strong candidate who is part of a party with a strong platform that I understand and agree with. Their Canadian political experience stretches back hundreds of years. And it so happens that I have full confidence in the integrity of the leader of that party.
I implore all Canadians to send the same message on October 19th that we did in 2006: we will not stand for dishonesty. It doesn’t matter where on the political spectrum you lie, the actions of Stephen Harper are deceitful, ineffective, and anti-Canadian. We must stop this madness now.
Firstly though, we must vote. We must vote like we have never voted before. Change in this country happens when voter turnout increases, and there has never in my life been such an imperative for change. Vote because there are people in Ottawa representing you, spending your money, speaking to the world on your behalf, writing laws that you must live under, and acting with a conscience that you can impact. Vote because we are Canadians, and we know the difference between right and wrong. Vote because our great grandparents died for that right.
I will not tell you who to vote for; I’ll be happy just seeing record turnout this time. But I know that I supported (yes, I already voted) someone who stands for the Canada I grew up in. What does Canada mean to you?
This post was contributed to The Tête-à-Tête as part of our discussion on who to vote for in the Canadian federal election. The author has chosen to publish their endorsement under the pen name ‘The Expat’, in accordance with our Anonymity Policy.