Last Tuesday morning, April 17, I listened to The Current – a news show on CBC Radio. Much of the show was devoted to the 30th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – thus demonstrating how out of touch my CBC Radio is with my Harper Guvmint.
The Strong Stable National Majority Harper Government chose not to mark the 30th anniversary with much official fanfare. Rather than a parade or fireworks, they celebrated with a press release. Par-Tay.
The press release referred to the Charter as “an important step in the development of Canada’s human rights policy” and noted that the Charter was built on the Diefenbaker Bill of Rights of 1960. There was nothing in the press release to indicate that it was intended to be funny. If these guys had a sense of humour, I expect it would be “dry”.
April 17th, thirty years ago, in a ceremony in the rain on Parliament Hill, the Queen launched the Charter era. [Imagine the Tories not just loving a story with THE Queen in it.] The constitutional entrenchment of fundamental rights and freedoms is not a “step”. It is a fundamental change in the relationship between Canadians and their governments. April 17, 1982 launched the replacement of Parliamentary supremacy with judicial review on Charter grounds. It’s a big deal. The Queen’s signature also entrenched the recognition and affirmation of “existing aboriginal rights”. That has also turned out to be sort of a big deal, hasn’t it?
And then, there’s the “patriation” thing. Small detail. Up till April 17th, 1982, our written constitution was a British statute – The British North America Act – and could be altered only by the British Parliament. Patriation was the culmination of eighty years of efforts by federal and provincial politicians – of all political stripes, spots, shades and hues – to address our symbolic national infancy. Finally, a practical manifestation of Canada’s independent nationhood that did not require the deaths of scores of young Canadian men in the mud in Europe.
So, break out the champagne and issue a press release!
The government also issued a press release that day announcing the investment of $42000 to Hinterland Wine Company Ltd. towards the purchase and installation of new sparkling wine processing equipment at their facility in Hillier, Ontario. There was no effort to tie this development to the Diefenbaker Bill of Rights.
So, it was a busy day for our Government.
When the Prime Minister was asked about the decision not to mark the anniversary in any substantive way, he said that the coming into force of the Charter in 1982 “was an interesting and important step, but I would point out that the charter remains inextricably linked to the patriation of the Constitution and the divisions around that matter, which as you know are still very real in some parts of the country.”
What a sensitive, thoughtful guy. He doesn’t want to make a big fuss about the Charter because it might hurt the feelings of those who didn’t like the patriation process. I assume he’s speaking of Quebec. Rene Levesque and the separatist Quebec government did not sign on to the new constitution – them being separatists and all. Harper doesn’t want to rub salt in the wounds of that exclusion. He’s got a light touch, our PM.
Okay – here’s an obvious point. The Charter is very popular in Quebec. Always has been. So is patriation. The Queen? No. And yet, she’s popping up all over the place since the Reform-a-Tories took power. Everything Royal is new again. These guys hate an unelected Senate and distrust unelected judges, worried as they are about democratic legitimacy, but they like a hereditary monarchy? You can call her the “Queen of Canada” all you want; it’s not selling in Quebec. Why no respectful silence there?
And, let’s not forget His government’s initial enthusiasm for a re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham – right there in the middle of Quebec City – to celebrate the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the defeat of New France and the triumph of the British over current Quebecers’ ancestors. Sort of “in your face”, I think. Where was Harper’s famous “sensitivity” then? He dismissed objections to this event as divisive rhetoric from separatistes trying to play politics with Canda’s proud heritage. Apparently, the idea of being conquered isn’t anywhere near as humiliating as being left off the patriation document.
At some point, someone in the governmental brain trust had a “what the fuck were we thinking” moment and the reenactment was cancelled. I assume they lost the deposit on the muskets.
And, then there was the “Reckless Coalition” business. Recall when the three opposition parties threatened to defeat Harper’s minority government and attempt form a coalition of sorts that could sustain the confidence of the House. He and his fellow Tories had no qualms about dismissing the Bloc Québécois, the party that represented the majority of the people of Quebec, as essentially illegitimate. Sensitive?
I think the more likely explanation for official indifference to the thirtieth anniversary is that our Tories don’t find the Charter to be something to celebrate. The Prime Minister has repeatedly expressed his fear of activist judges who thwart the democratic will of Parliament. He appears to long for the days of parliamentary supremacy and the common law. And the Queen, of course.
It was the Charter, after all, that helped give us gay rights, same sex marriage, abortion on demand, a right to collective bargaining. It also jetissoned the Lord’s Day Act [so much for the Fourth Commandment – can graven images and coveting be far behind?]. It also enforced all kinds of legal rights for bad guys, stifling the efforts of police, courts, jailers and Parliamentarians to get “tough” on crime. It even led to prison inmates getting the right to vote. This is hardly a wish list of Tory policy goals.
Still, he’s the only Prime Minister who has launched his own Charter challenge. About ten years ago, Mr. Harper went looking for one of those activist judges willing to thwart the democratic will of Parliament. He wanted the Court to nix legislated limits on third-party campaign spending – because those limits violate the precious freedom of rich people to express themselves by spending unlimited amounts of money in support of a political party (we’re not sure which one): [http://csc.lexum.org/en/2004/2004scc33/2004scc33.html]
He was the President of the National Citizens Coalition at the time. Check out the website of this group: http://nationalcitizens.ca/. These are folks who do not like government. And they want to convince all of us that we should also not like government. Perhaps Mr. Harper thought the NCC’s goal of widespread dislike of government would be best served if he became Prime Minister.
Sadly for NCC President Harper and all of those unfortunate rich people who so want their money to express itself politically, they lost. The Supreme Court did not exercise its dangerous judicial activism to nullify the legislation – though not out of any great reverence for parliamentary supremacy. The Court found that the limit on excessive expressive political spending was proven to be justified in a “free and democratic society” because, among other things, the legislation would “preclude the voices of the wealthy from dominating the political discourse”. Some Charter.
The NCC has pursued other Charter litigation as well and has succeeded in having legislation overridden – in spite of that “democratic will” thing.
So, it is somewhat a surprise that Mr. Harper doesn’t more enthusiastically celebrate the Charter and it’s potential. Perhaps he’s a hypocrite.
As I was saying at the beginning, I was enjoying The Current. I love CBC Radio. Many people I know use the word “love” when they talk about CBC Radio. It connects me to this country. It connects me with other Canadians. I feel part of something unique and worthy when I listen to CBC Radio, which I do much of the day, most days, and have done since I was a child. And it is not just because other Canadians, all across the country, are also listening to it. Other Canadians are probably, like me, drinking Starbucks coffee, checking out the NBA scores and watching Law and Order reruns. That doesn’t make me feel connected to them nor does it give me a sense of participating in something Canadian the way that CBC Radio does. Cross Country Checkup is not just another dumb phone in. The World at Six is not slick and does not lead with that which “bleeds”. As It Happens, The Current, Ideas, The Sunday Edition. I am not treated like an idiot when I listen to these. Q, Tapestry, Writers and Company, Spark, Wiretap, The Irrelevant Show, Day Six, DNTO… and on and on. It is a rich source of engagement and entertainment not available elsewhere and upon which I am happy to spend my tax money. I’m happy to spend other people’s tax money on it too, I guess – with my thanks, of course.
Oh, but what a surprise, the residents of Harperville value my CBC radio as much as they do my Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The CBC will have its budget cut by ten percent. There are cuts everywhere, of course, and pink slips are going out to public servants across the country as I write this. The Tories will cut over five billion dollars of spending over the next three years, they tell us. Few areas of government are spared. I suppose the CBC, including my CBC Radio, must carry its share of the austerity burden.
But I worry.
I worry because I just don’t think the Tories value the things I do about Canada and its culture. This is true across a broad range of issues, but I’m focussed right now on the Charter and my CBC Radio.
These guys make cuts not just to be fiscally responsible. They do it for ideological reasons – because they want to reduce the “size” of government, reduce the presence of the federal government in our lives, give us more “freedom”. The fact that there is a budget deficit to slash is just a happy coincidence. This is not a secret and, I guess, democratically speaking, they are entitled to pursue their New Canada project – because of that “majority government” thing.
I assume the cuts to CBC, which are more substantial than cuts elsewhere, are similarly a step towards an ideological goal – to reduce the presence of CBC in our lives, to be replaced, I suppose, by private broadcasters and their commercial sponsors. More freedom.
During the last election, several successful Tory candidates, including Rob Anders, invited web-surfers to sign an on-line petition on their official Tory websites, requesting Parliament to not just cut the CBC, but eliminate it entirely. Mr. Anders conducted a poll of his Calgary West constituents and found that eighty percent supported the defunding of the CBC. Mr. Anders is famous for being removed from the Veterans Affairs Committee because he fell asleep during a committee hearing, probably because he was tired from lying awake at night, fussing about the damn CBC.
And what does the PM think?
Well, let’s look back at the National Citizens Coalition website. Read its Agenda For Canada. Mr. Harper has carried many of the NCC’s goals into office with him – like “smaller government”, lower taxes, the elimination of the Canadian Wheat Board… And, you guessed it, the NCC calls for the end of the CBC.
The Charter will stay. It’s the constitution. You can’t just starve it. The amending formula is designed to make changes almost impossible to accomplish.
But my CBC radio is not so secure. Nor is it loved by many Canadians the way I love it. So I worry.
Maybe if we changed its name to The Royal Canadian Broadcasting Corporation…