Stephen Harper shifts bedrock of Canada

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Carol Goar Carol Goar is a na­tional af­fairs writer for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices

It is a mark of how much Canada has changed un­der Stephen Harper that the Lib­er­als are of­fer­ing to im­prove Ot­tawa's frosty re­la­tion­ship with Washington. "Our re­la­tion­ship with the U.S. is worse than it was a decade ago," Justin Trudeau told a lun­cheon au­di­ence in Ot­tawa last week "This has to change if we want to en­sure pros­per­ity for all Cana­di­ans."

This is not what vot­ers nor­mally hear from as­pir­ing prime min­is­ters - cer­tainly not Lib­eral con­tenders. They typ­i­cally prom­ise a re­spect­ful - but not sub­servient - re­la­tion­ship with Canada's gi­ant neigh­bour. They pledge not to sac­ri­fice the na­tion's sovereignty for fi­nan­cial gain.

Over the last half-cen­tury, the per­sonal chem­istry be­tween Cana­dian prime min­is­ters and Amer­i­can pres­i­dents has ranged from friendly to func­tional. (Trudeau's fa­ther had a no­to­ri­ously prickly re­la­tion­ship with Richard Nixon.) It is hard to re­mem­ber the last time things got so bad that restor­ing cross-bor­der ci­vil­ity be­came a cam­paign is­sue.

That is only one yard­stick of change:

Who would have be­lieved a decade ago that the cen­sus - the gold stan­dard of na­tional fact gath­er­ing - would be­come an elec­tion is­sue? Be­fore Harper tossed it on the scrap heap in 2010, it was in­con­ceiv­able that any gov­ern­ment would touch the in­for­ma­tion-loaded quin­quen­nial por­trait of the pop­u­la­tion on which busi­nesses, aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions, de­vel­op­ers, ur­ban plan­ners and other lev­els of gov­ern­ment de­pend.

Who could have imag­ined the Canada Rev­enue Agency go­ing on a witch hunt for char­i­ties that op­pose the poli­cies of the gov­ern­ing party? Not only is this a skew­ing of the tax depart­ment's pri­or­i­ties; it is an un­prece­dented de­par­ture from its tra­di­tion of po­lit­i­cal im­par­tial­ity.

Who would have con­ceived of Ot­tawa sub­con­tract­ing the de­liv­ery of for­eign aid to Cana­dian min­ing com­pa­nies, long crit­i­cized for vi­o­lat­ing hu­man rights abuses and foul­ing the en­vi­ron­ment of de­vel­op­ing coun­tries? Not only does this com­pro­mise the pur­pose of over­seas de­vel­op­ment; it puts Cana­di­ans' tax dol­lars un­der the con­trol of em­ploy­ers who are mis­trusted - in some cases feared - by the peo­ple they're sup­posed to help.

Who would have fore­seen the Law Re­form Com­mis­sion of Canada, the In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for Hu­man Rights and Demo­cratic De­vel­op­ment (Rights and Democ­racy), the Health Coun­cil of Canada, the Na­tional Anti- Poverty Or­ga­ni­za­tion and the Na­tional Round­table on the En­vi­ron­ment and the Econ­omy would all be scrapped? These agen­cies brought Cana­di­ans to­gether to tackle com­mon prob­lems, fo­cused on ar­eas of public con­cern and pro­duced well-re­searched non-par­ti­san pol­icy re­ports.

This is not a com­pre­hen­sive list, but even if it were it would not cap­ture the whole pic­ture.

Canada has meta­mor­phosed from a mid­dle power that cham­pi­oned in­ter­na­tional co-op­er­a­tion and led the world in the cam­paign to elim­i­nate deadly land­mines into a coun­try that seeks to be known for its mil­i­tary might. The Tories equate diplo­macy with weak­ness, ne­go­ti­a­tion with naiveté. Canada's prime min­is­ter is the most bel­li­cose mem­ber of the Group of Seven (the club of rich na­tions that meets an­nu­ally to set global pri­or­i­ties).

Fed­eral sci­en­tists, ac­cus­tomed to shar­ing their find­ings with their global col­leagues and the public, are no longer al­lowed to re­lease their re­search or talk about their work. The gag or­der demon­strates how far Harper has gone to sup­press in­for­ma­tion about the dam­age global warm­ing is do­ing; blur the link be­tween rapid de­vel­op­ment of the oil­sands and the in­creas­ingly vi­o­lent weather swings Cana­di­ans are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing; and deny his crit­ics ir­refutable proof that his push to make Canada an energy su­per­power is de­grad­ing the Earth's at­mos­phere. De­spite his ef­forts Canada has ac­quired a world­wide rep­u­ta­tion as the world's most in­tran­si­gent de­fender of "dirty oil."

A na­tion that once took pride in its abil­ity to in­te­grate peo­ple of all ori­gins into a peace­ful, plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety now glo­ri­fies pre-Con­fed­er­a­tion wars, el­e­vates fallen sol­diers to hero sta­tus and repa­tri­ates their bod­ies with tear­ful pageantry.

A coun­try long con­sid­ered a role model for its fair ad­ju­di­ca­tion of refugee claims now treats peo­ple flee­ing per­se­cu­tion as poseurs seek­ing to ex­ploit the gen­eros­ity of Cana­di­ans. It de­nies them life-sav­ing med­i­cal treat­ment and holds them in max­i­mum se­cu­rity pris­ons to pre­vent them from slip­ping out of reach be­fore they can be de­ported.

Some of Harper's changes - the muz­zling of fed­eral em­ploy­ees, the with­hold­ing of public doc­u­ments, the sti­fling of dis­sent, the marginal­iza­tion of Par­lia­ment - can be un­done.

Oth­ers such as the dis­man­tling of na­tional in­sti­tu­tions will be dif­fi­cult and ex­pen­sive to re­verse.

The prime min­is­ter never made any se­cret of his mis­sion to wipe out the legacy of the Lib­eral party and make his Con­ser­va­tives Canada's "nat­u­ral gov­ern­ing party." He has made sub­stan­tial progress on his first goal. Vot­ers will de­cide on the sec­ond.

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