Lest we forget: Harper’s war on Canadian rights and freedoms

Today is Remembrance Day, a day we remember the men and women who have served and continue to serve our country during times of war, conflict and peace; men and women who sacrificed their lives “for their homes and families and friends, for a collection of traditions they cherished and a future they believed in.”

We often take for granted the values and freedoms we enjoy as Canadians: the freedom of speech, the freedom to dissent, the right to privacy, the right to choose our government. Canadians who went off to war, did so in the belief that those values were being threatened. And so they went to fight in distant lands to defend those values.

Ironically, the biggest threat to these values does not lie in distant lands. It does not take the shape of religious extremists or communists or weapons of mass destruction. The biggest threat to Canadian rights and freedoms lies at home. While we take time to honour the service and sacrifice of men and women who have fought to preserve our values, our own government is systematically dismantling the very rights and freedoms that make us Canadian.

The Right to Vote

The right to choose our government lies at the heart of Canadian democracy. It is so significant it is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Despite its importance, the Harper Government has recently taken steps to take the fundamental right to vote away from certain Canadians.

The so-called “Fair Elections Act” strengthens voting identification requirements by banning the use of Voter Information Cards as corroborating documentation. It also eliminates the practice of vouching, by which a qualified elector may prove her identity by taking an oath and being vouched for by another qualified elector. In the last election, this process was relied on by 100,000 Canadians who did not have sufficient ID to meet the voter identification rules.

The alleged purpose of the Fair Elections Act is to cut down on voter fraud. That seems like a legitimate purpose, except that there was no evidence that voter fraud by vouching was a problem. A recent Elections Canada report found that just 0.4 per cent of ballots cast in 2011 had irregularities due to vouching – of which the vast majority were cases of misfiled paperwork, not misidentified voters.   This has led critics to conclude that the real goal is to supress the votes of citizens who are less likely to vote Conservative.

Evidence from the United States indicates that stricter identification requirements do in fact keep qualified voters from voting. In particular, elderly, minority, low-income and homeless citizens are more likely to lack the required identity documents. Without vouching, these citizens’ right to vote may effectively evaporate.

Freedom to Dissent

Another extremely important right in a democracy is the freedom to disagree with the government and to freely communicate that dissent. In Canada, we have many non-profit organizations on both sides of the political spectrum who advocate for changes to law and policy. But lately, something has gone awry.

The supposedly non-political Canada Revenue Agency (“CRA”) has used special funds provided by the government to investigate organizations with tax-free charitable status to ensure they are not devoting more than the legal limit of 10 per cent of their resources to advocacy activities. But that’s not the problem. What is, is the fact that virtually all of the organizations that have been investigated, from the Suzuki Foundation to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, have been on the “progressive” end of the political spectrum.

There are plenty of charitable entities on the right- from the Fraser Institute to the Canadian Constitution Foundation- but so far none of them have attracted the interest of the CRA.

The Broadbent Institute recently issued a study of ten of these right-leaning charities. The study found that all ten claim they devote zero per cent of their resources to political activity. The published work of the organizations would suggest otherwise. Has the CRA been interested in these inconsistencies? Nope.

NPD’s Murray Rankin asked Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Finlay about this apparently unequal treatment:

“We have seen the Conservatives go after environmentalists, human rights groups, international development groups and yes, even bird-watchers — pretty well anyone who may disagree with them. However, a new report suggests that right-wing charities get a different ride. Annual filings from 10 right-wing charities showed no political activities on their part; none, in spite of the fact that their websites are full of advocacy. Can the minister explain this double standard?”

In response, the Minister simply denied a political motive and then tried to obfuscate the issue by randomly scolding Rankin for asking the question.

The Right to Privacy

Quick on the heels of the high-profile deaths of Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, the Harper Government introduced a bill to address cyber-bullying and online crime. Women’s organizations, including West Coast LEAF, have identified cyber misogyny as a serious problem and have made recommendations for ways in which Canadian law and policy can be strengthened to better protect the equality rights of women, girls and other vulnerable communities online.

But despite being named the “Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act,” the bill is only tangentially about online harassment. Really, it is a surveillance bill. Most of the bill is devoted to expanding the state’s powers over the search and seizure of personal Internet data. It would give police and state access to Canadians’ data and online activities without a warrant by granting complete civil and criminal immunity to telecommunication companies that voluntarily grant police access to personal information.

Think this won’t affect you? Think again. In 2011, government agencies asked telecommunications companies to voluntarily hand over data in 1.2 million cases. Between April 2012 and March 2013, telecommunications companies received 18,849 “voluntary” requests from just one government department: the Canada Border Services Agency. Ninety-nine per cent of those requests had no judicial authorization. The companies provided information in 99.98 per cent of cases. With a no-liability guarantee, it is reasonable to expect telecommunications companies to be even less likely to say no.

This bill is likely unconstitutional, since the Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that the voluntary disclosure of subscriber information to the police violates the Charter, but the Harper Government has no intention to amend it.

With a government that has gone after environmentalists, human rights groups, international development groups and even bird-watchers, there is no knowing whose privacy will be at risk.

Freedom of Information

There are few issues more fundamental to democracy than the right of the public to access information produced by government scientists and researchers. “We as a society cannot make informed choices about critical issues if we are not fully informed about the facts.”

Unfortunately for Canadians, the attack on information has become one of the trademarks of the Harper Government. Take for example the decision in July 2010 to cut the mandatory long form census and replace it with a voluntary one. Along with the long form census, researchers and citizens alike lost important data on shifting population trends and changes in the quality of life of Canadians; data that is a vital precursor to good public policy.

In 2012, the federal budget revealed further and more drastic attacks on the right of Canadians to be informed. For instance, fifty per cent of Stats Canada employees were warned that their jobs were at risk and a number of research bodies were vaporized, including the National Roundtable on the Environment, the First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Council on Welfare and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science.

At the same time the Harper Government was cutting resources for research, it was also tightening the media protocols applied to federal scientists. Federal scientists now routinely require political approval before they can speak to the media about their scientific findings. Particularly strict rules apply to issues of climate change and oil sands.

In a recent survey of federal scientists, only ten per cent said they were allowed to speak freely without constraints about the work they do at their department or agency. By contrast, 24 per cent said they have been asked to exclude or alter technical information in government documents for non-scientific reasons.

Why should this concern us? Because, we are being denied access to information that we need to make informed decisions about how we conduct ourselves and how we act politically. And, some of this information impacts our health and safety. In the survey of federal scientists, 50 per cent of respondents said they were aware of “cases where health and safety of Canadians” or environmental sustainability has been compromised because of political interference with their scientific work. And in this climate of fear, 71 per cent agreed that “our ability to develop policy, law and programs that are based on scientific evidence and facts has been compromised by political interference.”

Lest We Forget

The Harper Government’s war on Canadian rights and freedoms has at times been sly. Laws, believed to be unconstitutional, have been slipped into omnibus budget bills or given misleading titles reminiscent of George Orwell’s doublethink in the dystopian novel 1984. But the changes have not gone unnoticed. If my newsfeed is any indication, citizens across the country are aware that their beloved institutions are changing, and not for the better. We have an election coming up, and it is my hope that these attacks on our most valued rights and freedoms will not be forgotten.

In the meantime, I plan to reflect this Remembrance Day on the values I hold dear, and what I can do to stop being complacent while the rights and freedoms of my fellow Canadians are under attack.

“We must remember. If we do not, the sacrifice of those one hundred thousand Canadian lives will be meaningless.”

-Kaity

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One thought on “Lest we forget: Harper’s war on Canadian rights and freedoms

  1. Pingback: Reflections on the Great War #2 | From guestwriters

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