A complete guide to the Fair Elections Act

Two months ago today the federal Conservatives introduced their changes to the Elections Act, which they called, apparently without any irony whatsoever, the Fair Elections Act—an audacious title for something defined by its utter lack of fairness.

The bill will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters, give the Conservatives advantages over other parties, ban Elections Canada from encouraging people to vote, muzzle Elections Canada’s reports and investigations, and hold Elections Canada back from conducting proper investigations, notably of Conservative-linked election fraud. It also creates a voter fraud bogeyman, distracting from actually existing election fraud, conducted by and connected to the Conservative Party itself. Fair Election Act indeed.

Since the bill’s introduction in Parliament we’ve seen street protests, petitions, and harsh criticism from people whom we should take very seriously. The Conservatives are used to meeting resistance when introducing new bills, but rarely is that resistance so sustained and mounting. Not even the mainstream and corporate media’s interest has waned.

It’s encouraging to see that people do indeed take their democracy seriously. Canadians are proud of their democratic system. We like to think that we live in a model democracy, that we have a fair and just system, and that keeping this system fair and just is not only desirable, not only important, but fundamental. When a government attempts to erode the democratic system and twist it to their advantage, people tend to get concerned.

Over the last two months we’ve also witnessed some crass and downright juvenile politics, with the Conservatives doing everything in their power—and using every loophole in the parliamentary procedure handbook—to make sure this bill passes. If you could thrust a middle finger at democracy, it might look something like this.

Unfortunately, this bill is forging ahead, en route to becoming law well ahead of the next election. In light of this impending triumph, I thought a recap would be in order.

The Fair Elections Act

The Fair Elections Act is perhaps most seriously offensive in its removal of the vouching system and the use of voter information cards as a form of identification. This will effectively take away the right to vote of nearly half a million Canadians—something that many argue amounts to voter suppression. Currently, anyone who doesn’t have valid ID showing their address can use voter ID cards and/or be “vouched for” by someone else. In the last election, around 400,000 voters used voter election cards as proof of residence, and 120,000 of these relied on vouching—mostly students, seniors, Aboriginals, and low-income people. The vouching process is quite stringent, and there has never been a reported case of abuse, or voter fraud.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that the right of every citizen to vote is in our very own Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Have a look. It’s the third point in the Charter, making it rather hard to miss.

What else? The bill prevents Elections Canada from promoting voter participation, by banning all marketing and educational materials and programs. That’s right, the government would rather you didn’t vote. They especially don’t want young people to vote (most of the soon-to-be-banned programs are directed at young people). The bill also puts a gag order on Elections Canada, preventing it from publishing any of its research into the electoral process. So if they ever find problems with the electoral system, we’ll never know. A gag order is also placed on Elections Canada investigations, meaning we’ll never know when offences have occurred, either.

The bill also allows the incumbent party in each riding to appoint central poll supervisors, who oversee the running of voting stations during elections (currently they are appointed by Elections Canada), thus opening the door to political influence over activities and decisions made at voting stations.

The bill also changes election funding rules, creating a loophole that exempts all fundraising of past supporters (anyone who has donated $20 within the past five years) from regular spending limits. This creates a clear disadvantage to smaller parties, and especially to independents. The bill also increases the amount individuals can donate to a campaign (from $1,200 to $1,500) and the amount candidates can personally give to their own campaign (from $1,200 to $5,000), benefiting parties whose supporters have deeper pockets.

Finally, it’s notable what the bill does not do. It does not fulfill its original mandate, which was to deal with the problems resulting in the robocall scandal of the 2011 election (which involves the Conservative party itself, though perhaps this isn’t relevant?).

Elections Canada is frustrated with its inability to properly investigate the robocall fraud case, and Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has requested that Elections Canada be given the powers and resources it needs to properly investigate serious electoral offences, like this one. Elections Canada has warned that it may never get to the bottom of the robocall case if it is not given the power to compel testimony from witnesses. It has also requested the power to require political parties to provide documentation of election spending. Neither this nor the power to compel testimony were granted.

Now, on to the shenanigans

Normally I wouldn’t bore you with details of Parliamentary procedure, because normally they bore me, too. But I’m making an exception, because the Conservative’s posturing around this bill illustrates not just their obstinacy (they are determined to see this bill pass, no matter the criticism, and no matter the legitimacy of that criticism) but their disregard for democracy even in the very house of that democracy.

Shutting down debate

No sooner had the Conservatives tabled the bill then they moved for time allocation, a procedural device used for ending debate (or in this case, shutting it down). Rarely used by previous governments, the Conservatives toss time allocation around like candy at a town parade. By this point they’d used it around 50 times, far exceeding that of any other government. Of course, the irony of shutting down debate on a bill about democratic reform was not lost on critics.

Brad Butt misleads Parliament

That same day, Conservative backbencher MP Brad Butt (not to be confused with Corner Gas star Brent Butt) stood up in Parliament and lied. He claimed to “have actually witnessed” campaign staff picking up discarded voter information cards and turning them over to party supporters, who then used them to commit voter fraud. Ergo, vouching was inherently problematic and must be stopped.

Later, Mr. Butt made the mistake of owning up to his lie, and apologized. He had misspoken. He had not personally witnessed voter fraud, as he had originally claimed. He had merely been relaying information given to him by “second and third parties.” It had never been his intention, he said, to mislead the House. The opposition disagreed, and the NDP rose on a point of order to recommend Butt be found in contempt of Parliament.

Now, being found in contempt of Parliament is a serious thing, and can result in jail time. There have only been a handful of cases in Canada, two of which were committed by the Conservatives in 2011—one of those being the entire Conservative cabinet, for refusing to hand over detailed cost estimates of its anti-crime bill. It was a “breach of privilege” that, as you may recall, triggered the 2011 federal election.

As for Brad Butt, the Speaker of the House, Andrew Scheer, agreed that Butt appeared to have misled Parliament. However, given that the point of order was an opposition motion, the matter had to first be debated in Parliament. Lo and behold, the Conservatives invoked closure (another of those once rarely used parliamentary devices) to shut down all debate on the Brad Butt affair. Brad Butt got off scot-free, and parliamentary democracy hid its face in shame.

No public consultation

Meanwhile, more trouble was brewing. Due to the lack of consultation in the writing of the Fair Elections Act, the opposition NDP called for the bill to be given public hearings. Not surprisingly, the Conservatives refused. Yet again, the irony of a bill on democratic reform not being given its democratic due.

And so the NDP rolled up their sleeves and tried their own hand at Parliamentary shenanigans. A number of other bills were up for public consultation at the same time (evidence of this being common practice), awaiting approval of their proposed travel budgets. The NDP gave the Conservatives an ultimatum: give the Fair Elections Act public hearings as well, or we won’t sign off on the travel budgets for these other bills. The Conservatives called their bluff, and refused, finding out the hard way that the NDP don’t bluff.

Next, MP David Christopherson, the Official Opposition Deputy Leader, began a filibuster in a House of Commons committee to demand public consultation. A filibuster is the most common form of protest within government. The idea is that you stand up and start talking, and you don’t stop. It’s what Jimmie Stewart’s character did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Christopherson filibustered for seven hours, finally striking a deal with Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski—not for public consultations, but to at least let Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand speak at an upcoming committee hearing.

The absurdity of this should be noted. Not only would the Chief Electoral Officer normally be among the first people invited to speak at committee, but they would already have been consulted about the bill while it was still being written. Not so with the Conservatives. Their failure to consult with Mayrand had not gone unnoticed.

More time allocation

Mayrand was scheduled to appear in committee two days later, and was given 90 minutes to speak. Now check this out. At the exact time he was to begin, the Conservatives introduced time allocation yet again—this time not just once, but twice, on two separate bills. The thing with time allocation is that all activity in Parliament must come to a stop, so that members can sit in the House to vote. Each time allocation imposes a final 30 minutes of debate, plus time for members to get to and from the House. Just like that, Mayrand’s 90-minute speaking window vanished. At most he would get 15 minutes.

But perhaps time allocations were necessary for the bills being debated, you might think. You’d be wrong. Neither were contentious bills, and all parties were in agreement on them. Debate would already have been smooth and brief. Time allocation was imposed for Mayrand’s benefit, only. Thank you very much, Harper, for treating parliamentary democracy with such respect.

Criticism from the experts

Thankfully, in the end, the Conservatives relented and let Mayrand have his 90 minutes after all. They must have regretted doing this. Mayrand proceeded to give a scathing critique of the Fair Elections Act, ripping into its voter suppression, its tilting of the level playing field in the Conservative’s direction, its muzzling of Elections Canada, its banning of programs to promote voting, and its failure to give Elections Canada sufficient investigative powers.

Mayrand also attacked the Conservative’s claims of mass “irregularities” in the vouching process, which Mayrand said were procedural, only. His exact words were: “There is no evidence tying those errors with ineligible electors being allowed to vote.”

Evidence of these irregularities came from a report by former BC Chief Electoral Officer Harry Neufeld, who was commissioned by Elections Canada to look into voting irregularities during the 2011 election. The Neufeld report has been brandished by the Conservatives (MP Pierre Poilievre, Minister of State for Democratic Reform, in particular), who cited it again and again as justification for banning vouching. How unfortunate for them, then, when Harry Neufeld himself appeared in committee and said that the government was misquoting his report.

Like Mayrand, he confirmed that irregularities were procedural, and evidence not of voter fraud, but of a lack of training of electoral officers. In fact, the only mention of fraud in Neueld’s 76-page report appears in the curious phrase “there was no evidence of fraud.” So there you have it. As NDP leader Thomas Mulcair wondered, “Is the government going to prevent hundreds of thousands of Canadians from voting because it is incapable of properly training people? Is that their policy?”

More recently, another scathing criticism has come from Sheila Fraser, the former auditor general with near-universal respect who ferreted out the sponsorship scandal in 2004. “Elections are the base of our democracy,” she said, “and if we do not have truly a fair electoral process and one that can be managed well by a truly independent body, it really is an attack on our democracy and we should all be concerned about that.” She added that with the bill, “it’s going to be very difficult to have a fair, a truly fair, election.”

Will all this criticism result in any changes? Not likely. The committee stage used to be a place of expert analysis and amendment, but the Conservatives have turned it into a mere formality. If any amendments are made at all—even the slightest word change—it will be a rare and triumphant thing. What we have is what we’ll get.

So, why do we need a Fair Elections Act? Well, we are told it will protect Canada’s democratic system from voter fraud. But we know that this fraud does not exist, at least not in the form the Conservatives have identified.

Yet fraud does exist. In May of last year, a federal court judge ruled that election fraud had occurred during the 2011 election, in which a Conservative voter database was used to make misleading robocalls (tellingly, the Conservatives have refused to disclose the list of people who had access to that database). In 2011, Elections Canada found that election fraud occurred during the 2006 election, when the Conservatives exploited a loophole in campaign spending, referred to as the in-and-out scandal.

Yes, fraud does exist, but it has not been committed by citizens—it has been committed by the Conservative government, and they have tabled this bill as a distraction. They may get away with it, but in doing so, 400,000 Canadians will be prevented from voting. And they won’t be the only collateral: so will be the integrity of our democratic system.

Funding for Native Friendship Centres “streamlined”

Life off reserve can be tough. Increasing numbers of Aboriginal people are living in urban areas (currently 56% of the Aboriginal population), and like many who move to the city, they can find themselves cut off from community ties and support, and struggling to adapt to city life. For those of us who come from smaller centres, this is easy to relate to. Some of us succeed, some of us don’t. And some of us struggle to survive. Our fate is largely affected by the degree of community support we find.

For more than 50 years, Aboriginal people have been able to find this support at Native Friendship Centres—a network of, currently, 119 community centres found in urban areas large and small, all across the country. They provide a wide range of programs and services to assist urban Aboriginals, as well as a space in which they can come together and meet up. And like most non-profit community centres, they rely primarily on federal funding.

Unfortunately, federal funding can be fickle, especially when it comes to Aboriginal programming. On February 6, 2014, the federal Conservative government announced an overhaul of Native Friendship Centre funding. No longer will the government provide funding for cultural programming. Starting April 1, all funding will be “aligned” with government objectives, which are, solely, economic.

The government is calling it their “improved” Urban Aboriginal Strategy, which is “focused on increasing the participation of urban Aboriginal people in the economy.” The strategy eliminates four funding programs that covered all program areas—culture, language, sports, housing, health, education, employment—and replaces them with two funding programs focused only on economic programming.

Well, I call it eliminating and replacing; they call it “streamlining.”

The largest of the four funding programs being eliminated—the Aboriginal Friendship Centre Program—is regarded as core funding by Native Friendship Centres. It is funding that they have received for the last 40 years. And they were given less than two months notice that it was being cut altogether.

There is a lot that is problematic with all of this, not the least of which is the lack of a heads up. Mostly I’m concerned about the more basic and essential services that Native Friendship Centres provide to those who are already marginalized and vulnerable—people dealing with a lack of food and housing, those at risk of suicide, those suffering from alcohol and drug abuse.

I also find it distressing that the Conservatives have such a low regard for Indigenous cultural programming—apparently none whatsoever. Indigenous cultures may be vibrant and rich, but in urban centres especially they are also often in great need of nurturing and support—and, thanks to government policy over the last few hundred years, a lot of healing. The whole reason these centres exist is to support people who are at risk of being cut off from their communities and cultures. Native Friendship Centres are, primarily and fundamentally, places of community.

I, too, would like to see more urban Aboriginal people find employment, but I see no reason why this must be accompanied by cutting all support for cultural programs. In fact, I see it as just one more reason to support cultural programs. What the Conservatives can’t seem to figure out is that economic activity and community support go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Nobody in this country has ever built up a healthy work life without a support network. How the Conservatives think that cutting cultural programming will help Aboriginal peoples “participate in Canada’s economy” with any degree of success is beyond me.

This emphasis on economic activity above all else suggests that the Conservatives regard all of us, fundamentally, as economic beings—something that I find particularly offensive. But this is not about me, and it’s worse than that.

When it comes to Aboriginal peoples, all of this smacks of assimilation. Frankly, it reeks of it: integrate the natives into proper Canadian society and strip away their cultural connections while doing so. It’s a vile attitude, and it’s a vile policy.

*

Statement from the British Columbia Aboriginal Friendship Centres

Press release from the government’s Department of Aboriginal Affairs

Vincent Li and the stigmatizing of mental illness

This last week, a psychiatric review board granted Vincent Li new freedoms during his annual assessment hearing, on the request of his psychiatric team. Li has been held at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre in Manitoba since 2008. In July of that year, Li suffered a psychotic episode while on a Greyhound bus, leading him to kill the passenger sitting beside him, a young man named Timothy McLean. It was a particularly gruesome attack: he stabbed McLean to death before beheading him. We were told that when he realized what he’d done, Li was horrified, and he begged to be killed himself.

Not surprisingly, Li was found to be not criminally responsible, and was brought to the Mental Health Centre for assessment and treatment. There he was diagnosed with schizophrenia—a condition he wasn’t even aware he had.

Apparently Li is doing well. We are told that he has responded well to treatments, and at each of his annual hearings his psychiatric team has recommended he be given more freedoms—and he is given them. This year his doctors called him “a model, non-violent patient,” and successfully recommended he be given unsupervised trips into Selkirk and reduced supervision for trips further away, and be moved from a secure area to an unlocked ward.

*

You might think this would fill us all with a sense of relief: being granted such freedoms must be a sure sign of Li’s progress. But such a response assumes a certain level of confidence in our mental health professionals.

For there was another response, and it was outrage. Conservative politicians have long branded Li a dangerous killer, and are urging the review board to reverse their decision and keep him locked up, where (they say) people like him belong.

Perhaps they’re frustrated because they recently passed a law to prevent this very thing from happening. On June 19, 2013, the Conservative government passed the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act, allowing those held not criminally responsible to be treated as if they were, well, criminally responsible. The law allows the courts to give a “high risk” designation to those held not criminally responsible for violent acts. Being “high risk” comes with several restrictions, including denial of any discharge, even a conditional one with supervision.

Despite the law being retroactive, the courts did not feel it necessary to label Vince Li “high risk,” which should come as some comfort. But despite professional opinion, the Conservatives disagree. Now I don’t know about you, but when it comes to diagnosing the severity of a mental illness, I’d take the professional opinion of a psychiatric team over a politician any day, Conservative or otherwise.

If Li was held to be not criminally responsible, then let him be not criminally responsible. Let his psychiatric team do their work. If he has responded well to treatment and has proven to function well in society, then let him. If he was dangerous, then he’d be diagnosed as such, and kept under high security. But he’s not, so he shouldn’t be.

*

I honestly feel for Timothy McLean’s family. We all do. And I can only imagine what it must be like to feel like you’re being denied justice. We are taught that justice is served through punishment, yet the McLeans have no one to punish. It must be unbelievably frustrating. But punishment is not the only way to find justice and ensure public safety. It may not even be the best way.

If we want public safety, and if we want justice, then what we desperately need to do is actually deal with the problem. We need to create a robust mental health system, and finally put an end to our collective stigmatizing of mental health. We need to stop being scared of and embarrassed by mental illness and build up an effective mental health support system—one that could help those in need before they do harm to themselves or others. If we could do that, then people like Vincent Li wouldn’t end up killing, and people like Timothy McLean wouldn’t die.

Vincent Li has schizophrenia. Big deal, so do around 300,000 other Canadians. And that’s just one condition. One in 20 of us suffer from clinical depression. In fact, one out of every five of us suffers from some sort of mental health issue. It seems like we’re all in this together. If we funded effective mental health programs, we would all be healthier and more secure.

In vilifying Vincent Li, the Conservative government has crafted the image of a violent killer and made that person the poster boy for mental illness. If anything is criminal, it is this, and it does no one any good. The longer we rely, solely, on punishment as a way of ensuring public safety, the further we get from creating a safe and equal and just and healthy society.

How income splitting boosts income inequality

  • Update: As of February 12, the Conservatives have backed away from income splitting, suggesting it “needs a long, hard, analytical look to see who it affects and to what degree.”

There’s this thing we like to talk about. It’s called the Hard-Working Canadian. They’re a very special breed of Canadian, one that doesn’t really exist outside of statistics and policy justification. It’s more of a concept, really, though it’s treated as flesh and blood.

Back in March 2011, Prime Minister Harper made the Conservative’s first campaign promise for the coming May election. They had a new scheme to reduce the tax burden on Hard-Working Canadians, called income splitting. “We understand that family budgets are stretched,” Harper said at the time, “and by making the tax system fairer for families, we will make it easier for parents to cover the day-to-day cost of raising their kids.”

In a nutshell, income splitting allows parents with children under 18 to split up to $50,000 of their income in order to artificially bump their income-level down to a lower tax bracket.

It’s a rather lovely idea, actually: giving a tax break to families raising kids, and making it easier for one of the parents to drop out of the workforce, if they so choose, to raise the kids. It’s fantastic for families with two income earners, with one in a higher tax bracket, and it gets even better when one parent leaves the workforce. Not everyone can afford to do this, of course, but for those who can, it’s great.

Ok, that’s the middle class. Now let’s examine the equivalent tax-relief policy for other families, those to whom income splitting won’t apply: parents already in the lowest tax bracket, and single-parent families.

Ah, now this is where things start getting interesting.

You see, there is no equivalent tax relief coming for lower-income and single-parent families. Tax relief for higher-income families is the beginning and the end of the new policy. That’s all she wrote (well, that’s all Finance Minister Flaherty wrote, anyway).

*

Talk of income splitting is back in the news because the Conservative government is releasing their budget on Tuesday (February 11), and is expected to reach, or come very close, to a balanced budget—the Conservative’s self-imposed prerequisite for bringing in income splitting. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) released a critical report on income splitting just two weeks ago, on January 28, likely in anticipation of the government launching the policy.

Critics of income splitting argue that it doesn’t work for the families most in need of tax relief. The problem with this argument, however, is the assumption that the policy was designed with all Canadians in mind, including lower-income families. Clearly that wasn’t the case.

So who was it designed for? Was it designed for Hard-Working Canadians, the HWCs? It looks that way on the surface: even though HWCs are statistical, they’re also cultural: among other things they are assumed to be fiscally conservative, middle-class, and from traditional families.

And they are treated as the majority. So when you find out that 86% of Canadian families would not receive any benefit whatsoever from income splitting—a policy supposedly designed with those hard-working, fiscally conservative, middle-class families in mind—you know something went wrong.

The CCPA report (which came up with the 86%) points out that under income splitting, the bottom 60% of families would receive an average of $50, while the top 5% would receive an average of $1,100, with one in ten receiving more than $5,000. This top 5% would receive more than the bottom 60% combined, the majority of whom wouldn’t receive any benefit of all.

It turns out the real beneficiary of income splitting is not the middle class, but rather the wealthiest of Canadian families. Meanwhile, the poorest families get pennies, if any pennies at all. This, apparently, is what Harper meant by “making the tax system fairer.”

The result will be increased income inequality: the well-off becoming wealthier, and the low-income becoming poorer. And the average—the Hard-Working Canadian—becoming an increasingly meaningless statistic.

Harper thinks I’m anti-Semitic

Today Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. The news media is calling it “historic.” I’d like to call it a few other things, but I’ll try to remain polite.

First, here is part of Harper’s speech, in which he addresses what he sees as the changing face of anti-Semitism:

And so we have witnessed in recent years, the mutation of the old disease of anti-Semitism and the emergence of a new strain. We all know about the old anti-Semitism. It was crude and ignorant, and it led to the horrors of the death camps. Of course, in many dark corners, it is still with us.

But, in much of the western world, the old hatred has been translated into more sophisticated language for use in polite society. People who would never say they hate and blame the Jews for their own failings or the problems of the world, instead declare their hatred of Israel and blame the only Jewish state for the problems of the Middle East.

As once Jewish businesses were boycotted, some civil-society leaders today call for a boycott of Israel. On some campuses, intellectualized arguments against Israeli policies thinly mask underlying realities … Most disgracefully of all, some openly call Israel an apartheid state. … Friends, that is nothing short of sickening. But, this is the face of the new anti-Semitism. It targets the Jewish people by targeting Israel and attempts to make the old bigotry acceptable to a new generation.

Now, I have some concerns about the way Israel is dealing with its Palestinian neighbours. I have criticized the state of Israel privately, and I have criticized it publicly. Many of my friends have done the same, as have a vast number of people I respect and admire.

I’ve always known that the Conservative government considered our stance to be, in some absurd, convoluted way, anti-Semitic, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard it stated explicitly.

“This is the face of the new anti-Semitism.”

So my Prime Minister thinks I’m an anti-Semite. Officially. This should make me angry, and it does. I should take offense, and I do. But mostly it just scares the hell out of me. This groups me in with all sorts of stomach-turning ugliness: Holocaust deniers. Holocaust supporters. Neo-Nazis. And me, apparently.

Ok, maybe I am a little angry.

But this isn’t personal. I don’t know the Prime Minister and he doesn’t know me, and I plan to keep it that way. I don’t care so much that he has me all wrong. What I care about is his underhanded attack on the discussion about Israeli-Palestinian relations. And how he’s making that discussion unnecessarily combative, making it difficult for those of us who are equally interested in and supportive of Jewish culture and Palestinian culture. But it’s an underhanded attack—not just on debate, and not just on democratic debate, but on democratic debate regarding a people who are oppressed.

Terrible things are being done right now, today, in the state of Israel. There is misery and poverty and fear and death, and there is, on both sides, a turning to hatred and vengeance. (There is also a commitment to peace and reconciliation, but the odds are so often against it.) But don’t just take my word for it. Israel’s settlements and colonization of occupied Palestinian land are recognized internationally as illegal. The human rights violations that are birthed by Israel’s state policy are illegal. The last time I checked, Israel had violated at least 28 UN Security Council resolutions, and upwards of 100 General Assembly resolutions (and held a record at the UN for doing so). Democracy or no, when it comes to Palestine, the state of Israel is a menace. Most of the world recognizes this.

Surely we need to be able to discuss this. And surely it does no one any good—least of all the state of Israel—not to hold Israel to account.

I can’t believe I feel obligated to say this, but suddenly I feel obligated to say this: anti-Semitism is an awful, appalling, sickening thing. But I also have to say this: we do not tolerate anti-Semitism for the same reason we should not tolerate any racism directed against anyone. No one—no race, no group, no community, no person—is inferior to any other. No one has the right to oppress anyone else. All racism is intolerable.

I also have to say this—and this is very important, so please listen carefully—criticism of a state is in no way an expression of racism against its people. It just isn’t, plain and simple.

And you, Prime Minister Harper, you cannot shut down criticism and debate through underhanded means. You cannot shut down our voice and our concern, our right and our need to speak out, by calling it something it is not, by calling us something we are not. You cannot be a bully. It will not work.

A critical voice of opposition and dissent is too important, too urgent.

Canadian libricide: The destruction of Canada’s aquatic science libraries

There’s little I can say about the culling of the DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) library collection that isn’t already covered in recent excellent reporting by Andrew Nikiforuk at the Tyee (here, and here), except to say that it alone should be enough to have the federal Conservatives removed from power. Forget the Senate scandal: the destruction of valuable scientific research and data is far more abhorrent, and unforgivable.

There’s nothing like a modern day book-burning (in some cases, literally) to support the accusation that the Conservatives are waging war on science—and environmental and climate science in particular.

On April 15 of last year, the Conservatives announced they were closing seven out of the eleven DFO science libraries across the country by autumn. The libraries were used for aquatic science research, and represented one of the world’s most comprehensive collections in the field, including 600,000 volumes, rare books, and hundreds-year-old data. But have no fear: the library collections were merely being “consolidated” and the information digitized, resulting in a more efficient system and annual savings of $443,000.

Those kinds of savings, however, barely register on government budgets. Besides, any discussion of savings becomes moot when you consider that the Conservatives just finished spending 100 times that, or $44.8 million, modernizing one of libraries they’ve now closed: the refurbished St. Andrews Biological Station (where Rachel Carson researched much of her book Silent Spring), which only re-opened last year.

But this is not, and never should be, about money.

The government originally suggested that all library material would remain available, either digitally or through inter-library loan. Then “all” got downgraded to “most.” Now it seems that “some” is something of an overstatement: it’s been suggested only 5% of the collection was digitized before the cull.

According to the Tyee report (with comments from scientists who remained anonymous out of fear they’d lose their funding), the culling of library collections was rushed and chaotic, with massive amounts of materials thrown into dumpsters bound for landfills, and others burned. Just how many volumes, and which research and data, were destroyed may never be known: no records were kept of what was being destroyed.

These libraries were used for science research—research that falls under the realm of environmental and climate science. The same kind of research done at such world-renowned research stations as the high-arctic Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory and the Experimental Lakes Area, both of which are on life support after attempts by the Conservatives to shut them down. The kind of research done by federal scientists who’ve been pressured not to speak to the media directly, and to modify their conclusions to fit government policy.

It’s either complete ignorance about the sheer importance of science research (a generous conclusion) or a shutting down, a muzzling, a vicious attack on any science that might stand in the way of natural resource extraction.

Or as retired research scientist Burt Ayles told the Tyee: “The government is either incompetent or malevolent or both.”

All you tell are lies!: Elsipogtog and the failure of the media

(This post originally an entry to the 2013 Dalton Camp Award, on democracy and the media.)

On October 19 in Rexton, New Brunswick, five men—all from the Elsipogtog First Nation—approached several reporters and photographers who had gathered around the charred remains of six police vehicles, burned by anti-fracking protesters two days earlier during a confrontation with police. According to Sun News reporter Kris Sims, one particularly aggressive man threatened them, shouting, “Get the fuck out of here or I’ll break your fucking cameras! All you tell are lies!”  Sims got into her vehicle and left. When two other reporters from Global TV and CTV News attempted to do the same, the men seized their vehicles and camera equipment.

Officially, the situation was quickly rectified: vehicles and equipment returned, apologies made. Everyone agreed that it was the actions of a small group who didn’t speak for the larger community. But for one moment, for a few protestors, the struggle wasn’t against the industry or the government or the police, but against the media itself. It was a momentary, but significant, shift in the focus of protester anger.

What happens when citizens lose faith in their media? And how is that faith lost? How was it lost for the group of men from Elsipogtog?

*

Several issues had brought the protestors, a mix of native and non-native, together. The most obvious was environmental—over the potential dangers of shale gas extraction, known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Another issue was democracy—large numbers of people (some polls suggested the majority) opposed the province’s push to exploit its shale gas.  For the Elsipogtog First Nation, one of New Brunswick’s Mi’kmaq nations, there was also the issue of sovereignty—government and industry were ignoring their constitutional duty to consult with First Nations.

Protesters had peacefully opposed shale gas exploration throughout the summer of 2013, and again in the fall when Texas-based SWN Resources moved in for another wave of seismic testing. The national media swooped in when things turned violent on October 17, when heavily armed police moved in to disrupt the three-week old protest, triggering a chaotic confrontation.

The intimidation of the media two days later by a small group of protestors inevitably left many Canadians suspecting that perhaps the Elsipogtog community didn’t want the truth about what everyone now assumed was the violent nature of their protest to come out. The community, it seemed, was barely tolerating the media.

This view is problematic, however, considering that several media outlets had been reporting closely on the protest since it had begun, without intimidation. These included the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) and the Media Co-op, through its Halifax representative, journalist Miles Howe.

“I have been camping at the current blockade along highway 134 since the inception of the encampment, filing almost daily reports for the Media Coop,” Howe begins his comprehensive report on the events of October 17. “During June and July of this year, when protests against shale gas exploration in New Brunswick were of far less national interest, I was doing the same.”

Howe filed 29 stories between June 9 and July 30, and another 22 between Sept 28 and Oct 24. He did not hide his sympathies, but made sure they never affected his journalistic integrity—Howe’s reporting remains the most detailed and comprehensive coverage of any media outlet, and is invaluable for understanding the protest.

You could argue that no journalist knew as much about the protest as Howe, and yet he remained off the radar of all major media sources. His arrest on October 17 also passed them by. There were, in fact, not 40 protestors arrested that day but 39 and one journalist—a worrying event about which PEN Canada expressed concern. (PEN also expressed concern over the later intimidation of the media.)

Whether or not the mainstream media took notice of him, there’s no arguing Howe put in the hours, gained the acceptance of the community, and produced a detailed catalogue of events that together provide the necessary background for understanding the protest—no small feat. None of the reporters who descended onto Rexton and Elsipogtog after October 17 had a similar wealth of knowledge and depth of perspective.

*

These reporters stayed professionally distant, filing functional, efficient, and religiously balanced news stories. The writing they produced was relentlessly and obsessively passive. Take this sentence, from Melanie Patten of the Canadian Press (CP): “The Mounties said six police vehicles including an unmarked van were burned and Molotov cocktails were tossed at them before they fired non-lethal sock rounds—beanbag type bullets—and pepper spray to defuse the situation.”

Who threw Molotov cocktails? At whom did the police fire non-lethal sock rounds? Who is assumed to be involved in “the situation,” and who is not? When journalists are this careful to avoid blame and fault, they end up avoiding motivation and context as well, let alone simple causality. This may seem the criticism of a cranky copyeditor, but it affects a reader’s comprehension at a fundamental level. By establishing—rather than avoiding—causality and fact, journalists equip readers for moving on to larger matters and more pressing questions. By confronting the who, we are then compelled to confront the why. A passive approach can also infect the structure of an article, the choice of information included, and the way that information is presented. Passive writing leaves gaps that readers must then fill with their own assumptions.

Stories written by Patten for CP on October 17 and the days that followed made their way into the Globe and Mail, all Postmedia newspapers (the National Post and its accompanying metropolitan papers, as well as Canada.com), the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, Macleans, Huffington Post, and Global News.com—nearly every major Canadian publication.

This illustrates another major problem: that of corporate media concentration. What sort of breadth and diversity of observations and perceptions, let alone interpretation and analysis, is available to readers if one article by one reporter can theoretically—if not literally—appear in every publication in the country with any notable circulation or readership?

Of course, newspapers do have their own journalists to whom they assign their own stories, and a survey of relevant content can shed light on certain editorial preferences. In the days following the police crackdown, for example, the National Post published a surprising number of articles on the economic merits of shale gas extraction (see, for example, “Fracking code aims to quell fears; Sector under attack,” from October 31, 2013).

The debate around fracking is, obviously, a major element of the story, and one worth exploring. But it is just one element. The issue of democracy, as already mentioned, is also at play. Another issue was excessive police force—200 RCMP arrived that day, many in riot gear, others in full-camo who approached from the woods, pointing sniper rifles at a group that included young children and the elderly. Hours before any police vehicles were set on fire—by far the most reported event of the day—protesters had faced mass arrests, police dogs, pepper spray, tear gas, sock rounds, semi-automatic weapons, and, allegedly, rubber bullets.

*

Perhaps the most fundamental issue, however, is aboriginal treaty rights—something that, as far as I can tell, never made it into the National Post’s staff-written news and editorial pieces in the two weeks following the police crackdown. “At the end of the day, the real question is the title of the land,” said Elsipogtog Chief Arren Sock on October 24. “Once we can distinguish who actually is the rightful owner, then we can start talking about extracting natural resources.”

How is it possible that a national newspaper can fail to mention the primary issue for the protesters? Surely anyone turning to that paper for news of the protest will come away with an incomplete and skewed understanding. And surely these same readers will produce incomplete and skewed arguments in later conversations about the protest—thought the fault is hardly theirs. For when the range of issues is narrowed, so is the national debate.

Readers of much of the mainstream media missed out on impressively bold statements made by Elsipogtog Chief Arren Sock, former chief Susan Levi-Peters, and the Signitog District Grand Council. Statements by these leaders highlight their vastly different, yet entirely valid, understanding of the balance of power in this country. Canada needs to take note.

The Signitog Grand Council issued an eviction notice to SWN Resources on July 24. Chief Sock did the same on October 1, but he also made another, more incredible, announcement: both his band and the Signitog Grand Council were reclaiming control of all unoccupied ancestral lands, effective immediately.

“For centuries, the British crown claimed to be holding the lands in trust for us, but they are being badly mismanaged by Canada, the province and corporations,” he said, as reported by the CBC. “We are now resuming stewardship of our lands to correct these problems and restore our lands and waters to good health.”

Canada and the Mi’kmaq signed Peace and Friendship Treaties in 1760 and 1761.  According to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs’ own website, under these treaties “the Mi’kmaq and the Maliseet signatories did not surrender rights to lands or resources.”  With Chief Sock’s announcement, the Mi’kmaq were assuming stewardship of all unoccupied New Brunswick—in other words, all Crown land—and they seem to have done so legally.

First Nation land claims tend to stall in the courts for decades, thanks to procedural delays exploited by federal and provincial governments, yet their success rate is through the roof. According to the CBC, aboriginal groups have won 186 lawsuits over resource development since the mid-1980s, at a 90% success rate.  If the Mi’kmaq take their claim to the courts, as they intend to do, and if they succeed, it will, inevitably, take all National Post readers by surprise.

Such surprise—based in a simple lack of awareness and understanding—breeds frustration and, all too often, anger and contempt. Is it any wonder, then, that protesters may come to not fully appreciate the media?

*

Perhaps the most informative and well-written piece on the Elsipogtog protest was Martin Lukacs’ piece, “New Brunswick fracking protests are the frontline of a democratic fight,” published in Britain’s exceptional Guardian newspaper. Lukacs weighs the power relationships between government, industry, and the people, considers the historical context of the protest, and places the protest within the wider struggles for First Nations rights and for government accountability. It was the kind of comprehensive analysis that was largely missing from the Canadian conversation.

The protest and its eventual confrontation resulted from the interplay between differing interpretations of the law and the structures of the state; of where power lies and how it may be used to support—or limit—the democratic system and the rights of citizens. This is the basic framework that any analysis of the protest must work within.

That Lukacs’ article did not appear in a Canadian publication is telling. What does it say about the state of our national media when our sharpest writers look to international sources for publication? Why are our newspapers failing to hire our best young writers? It is also worth noting that Lukacs, like Howe, is deeply involved in the Media Co-op, suggesting once again that media organizations that are both committed to a story and open to its complexities will produce the most relevant journalism.

The mainstream media does have moments of promise. The CBC published a substantial backgrounder that touched on treaty rights and tied the Elsipogtog protest to wider national struggles, and it gave a good amount of space to these issues in the weeks following October 17.  Several letters to the editor in the major papers managed to at least partially balance out the discussion and provide it with some level of depth and nuance.

But none of this amounts to a robust, vigorous conversation. The issues involved with this story are difficult and complex, and deeply relevant to the political, social, economic, and cultural fabric of Canada—to our understanding of our nation, our place in it, and our relationship to each other. As citizens, we need to have these conversations. We need to tackle these issues head on, together.

*

Just because this conversation is not happening in the mainstream media doesn’t mean it’s not happening at all. It is happening, and it’s lively and intelligent and constructive. It’s happening in the so-called alternative media—in progressive magazines and news websites—and on social media and blogs. It’s happening in teach-ins and discussion panels, in seminars and webinars, and among writers and filmmakers and activists and community organizers across the country.

You could argue that the mainstream media is missing out, but this would fail to recognize its sheer influence—the alternative media simply does not have the resources to reach the same numbers and diversity of audience. Such an argument would also fail to recognize the media’s basic obligations. For if the media is missing out on this conversation, then Canadians are missing out on this conversation. By failing to participate, the mainstream media limits Canadians’ ability to not only properly inform themselves but to think about and discuss the issues critically, and thus to act appropriately.

By failing to engage effectively and reflect critically, the media creates an environment in which stereotypes and misinformation flourish. This is, perhaps, what the five men from Elsipogtog understood, and what drove them to threaten certain members of the media. Pursuing important issues, engaging with them, asking complex questions and spending time mulling over the answers—and doing so with conviction and professionalism—this is not just media: this is relevant media.