The spring session in Canada’s parliament was anything but dull. But while much of the attention was on senators’ unauthorized expenses, an important bill passed under the radar.
The so-called Antiterrorism Bill, which revives controversial sections of the Combating Terrorism Act, was passed into law during session. Two sections of the bill deserve a fuller look: investigative hearings and preventative arrests.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and police forces lauded the bill, presenting it as a necessary tool to prevent the loss of life in extreme circumstances where a terrorist attack is imminent. Prominent experts also backed these measures, saying they are warranted in extreme times.
Ray Boisvert, a former assistant director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, says it’s important to have “a tool box,” especially “when events happen very fast.” He points to the very effective and quick arrest of one of the alleged masterminds of the Boston Marathon attack.
That’s all fine, critics say. But they argue that civil liberties were sacrificed in the name of the War Against Terror. They feel there was no need to bring back investigative hearings and preventative arrests—which have never been used—even in the face of imminent attacks. For example, an investigative hearing intended to force a hostile witness to implicate one of the masterminds behind the Air India Flight 182 explosion in 1985 (all 329 passengers were killed, including many Canadian) was dropped halfway through the trial. One year earlier, the Supreme Court of Canada had deemed the investigative hearing constitutional.
OTTAWA- Jim Flaherty, Canada’s finance minister, stunned Canadians when he revealed in an interview about a month ago that he had a serious skin condition but that he was still up to his high-powered job.
For months, the minister had tip-toed around questions about his health. But his changing appearance gave it away. His face was puffy and red, he looked very tired, and wasn’t his pleasant self. At times, he appeared flustered at news conferences and during the daily Question Period in the House of Commons.
As it turned out, Flaherty is suffering from a “non-life threatening but serious” skin condition called Bullous Pemphigoid, his office eventually released in a statement. He was prescribed prednisone, a powerful steroid that causes “bloating, weight gain, redness in the face and bouts of sleeplessness,” the statement said, adding his condition “was clearing up.”
Flaherty has had this condition for nearly a year and by his own account, was very reluctant to talk about it openly. In an interview at the end of January with the The Globe and Mail, the minister said it was difficult for him to share his ailment with the public.
“I don’t like talking about this,” he admitted. “But it’s necessary because I am in public office. I don’t want people to think there’s something significantly wrong with my health that affects my ability to do my job.”
Should he have been forthcoming with his dermatological condition?
There’s no clear-cut answer to that question. In Canada, there’s no legal requirement for a minister of the Crown or for the prime minister, for that matter, to reveal the nature of his sickness. Public officials have a right to privacy when it comes to health issues. But to what degree?
Since taking power in 2006, Canada’s Conservative Party has worked hard to portray itself as the party of sound fiscal practice. All of that went up in smoke earlier this month, as an independent audit confirmed that the costs of stealth fighter jets within the national defense budget had ballooned from $16 billion to nearly $46 billion.
In the House of Commons, the Conservative political class had dodged questions about the cost of these jets for about 18 months. Michael Ferguson, Canada’s Auditor General, blasted this fiscal mismanagement in a scathing spring report, blaming officials in the ministry of national defense for the spiraling costs and keeping the facts from ministers. The Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, put the price tag of the undisclosed funds at around $30 billion.
The Auditor General’s report did spark some action from the administration of Prime Minister Stephen Harper but the government never acknowledged the costs had run out of control. It froze spending on aircraft procurement and stripped the responsibility for the acquisition of these planes away from the military, handing it instead to a secretariat in the public works department. The military brass was enthralled by fifth-generation F-35 fighter planes, refusing to consider any others. The government, it would seem, never questioned the numbers nor dared to ask the hard questions.
The government could have spared itself some hardship by coming clean on the costs of the plane after a leaked audit report on December 7 hinted of a hefty price tag. But instead, a nervous Peter MacKay, Canada’s defense minister, refused to take responsibility for the bungling of the file when grilled by reporters. A week later, the full audit report was released on December 13 and put the cost and maintenance of 65 F-35 fighter jets at $46 billion over 42 years, and not $16 billion as stated by the Tories. The public was initially told it would cost $9 billion.
OTTAWA-The election landscape has changed in the predominantly-francophone province of Québec. On September 4, les Québécois elected a minority pro-independence party, le Parti québécois (PQ) with Pauline Marois at its helm.
This makes life a lot simpler for Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister. A referendum on the separation of Québec from the rest of Canada, a lifelong dream for Marois, is on the backburner at least for now.
Still, the worst thing for Harper would be to be too complacent, observers say.
If he doesn’t want to go down in history as the prime minister “who lost Québec” he has to “calculate his moves,” says political scientist Louis Massicotte from l’Université Laval in Québec City.
An election call in the province of Québec is making federalists in Ottawa very jumpy. The most powerful pro-independence party in Québec, le Parti Québécois (PQ), is vowing to make a comeback. And that spells trouble for Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister. Voters go to the polls on September 4, 2012.
Although short on details, Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois has vowed to “achieve sovereignty after consulting the population in a referendum that will be held at a time it deems to be appropriate.” No timetable has been set.
That ambiguous statement is meant to shore up her support among pro-independence Quebeckers while at the same time, luring federalist voters fed up with a tired government.
After nine years in power, the reigning Liberal Premier of Québec Jean Charest is seeking a fourth mandate in the midst of a corruption scandal and social unrest that has rocked the province for months. Since the spring, Charest has been battling a student upheaval over university tuition hikes. At the height of the movement, which some observers liken to the May 1968 revolt in France, more than 250,000 people—many harboring the emblematic red square on their clothing—invaded the streets of Montréal.
At times violent, the movement took on a life of its own. Families joined with protesters to attack capitalism, social inequalities, corruption and the Charest government. Protests ballooned following the implementation of Bill 78. The emergency legislation suspended the winter university and college session and forced protesters to give police forces a precise itinerary and eight hours notice for demonstrations involving 50 people or more. Things could get nasty again as classes are set to resume in mid-August.
After making concessions and with no deal in sight, Charest had hinted he would go to the polls to let the people decide between two stark choices: democracy and law and order or “the choice of Madame Marois, referendums and the street.” A strong campaigner, he set the election date for September 4, about 10 days before televised public hearings on corruption are set to resume. The Québec premier is campaigning on his economic record, promising to create 250,000 jobs in the next four to five years, and to balance the books in next year’s budget. He’s banking on his ambitious Plan Nord, a 25-year plan to create thousands of jobs by developing the province’s resource-rich north.
With all these tensions bubbling, it’s impossible to call the election. Just last year, it was unimaginable that Québec voters would toss out the separatist Bloc Québécois on the federal scene and vote en masse for the left-leaning New Democratic Party led by the deceased Jack Layton.
Most observers feel there’s no appetite for Québec independence. This is not to say les Québécois embrace the federal structure with enthusiasm, says Professor Jean-Herman Guay from the Université de Sherbrooke in Québec. Support for the PQ has been declining in the last two elections but for some, especially among francophone voters, the “dream” of an independent Québec state still has some appeal.
A recent online poll by polling firm Léger Marketing for the QMI Agency puts the Parti québécois at 33 percent, the Liberals at 31 percent and newcomer, la Coalition Avenir Québec, at 21 percent. Two smaller pro-sovereignty parties along with the Green Party could eat into Pauline Marois’ support. Voters identified health and lower taxes as their top priorities. Separation only garnered 9 percent.
One candidate running for the PQ actually acknowledged it would be political suicide to push through a referendum on secession. Support for the PQ has been declining in the last two elections. Pauline Marois initially wore the red square in support of the protesters but has since adopted a more prudent approach. One of the former student leaders, Léo Burea-Blouin, is running as a PQ candidate.
Harper’s best bet is to cross his fingers that Charest will win a majority or minority government and thus avoid a political showdown with the Parti Québécois. Unpopular in Québec, he won’t interfere in the election campaign.
Quebeckers seem to be allergic to Harper’s brand of politics and Conservative ideology. After making a number of concessions, such as recognizing les Québécois as nation within a united Canada in his first mandate, resolving a long-standing fiscal imbalance problem between Ottawa and Québec and concluding a sales tax issue, he has made no inroads in Québec. Harper is stuck at five seats out of a possibility of 75 seats.
“None of those measures have been productive,” remarks Guay. “It did not increase his number of seats or his percentage of votes. Mr. Harper has difficulty seducing the Québec electorate.”
While trying to keep a low-profile in the campaign, Harper has his ear to the ground. It was reported by the Canadian Press that he held a secret meeting in June in Montréal with former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to discuss the possibility of a Parti Québécois win and to seek his advice on how to build bridges with the predominantly francophone province of Québec.
As is always the case in Québec politics, the campaign promises to be anything but dull.
The campaign is shaping up to be a three-way race between the Liberal Party of Québec, the Parti Québécois and la Coalition Avenir Québec headed by former PQ minister François Legault. Legault is running on an economic platform, focusing on integrity in government and promising to put the issue of independence on hold for 10 years.
He kicked off his campaign by saying that corruption was the Québec Liberal Party’s “trademark.” Legault has recruited anti-corruption crusader Jacques Duchesneau, the former Montréal police chief and former head of the Québec Anti-collusion Unit. Duchesneau has testified that political parties in Québec are being largely funded by “dirty money” offered by companies who expect and get government contracts and political favors in return.
Under pressure, Charest reluctantly set up a commission of inquiry last November to look into allegations of a widespread corruption and collusion scheme related to the awarding of public contracts to construction firms. He has defended his record to clean up corruption in government.
Although not immediately on the radar, the possibility of a third Québec referendum on secession would create “a lot more fear” this time, says pollster Nik Nanos from Nanos Research in view of the risky economic climate. Les Québécois voted against separation in 1980 and 1995. But the razor thin NO results in 1995 rattled then-Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who thought he had lost the country.
In the last 10 days of the 1995 referendum campaign, Chrétien increased his presence in Québec and turned to a much more nationalistic and popular figure to sell Canada to les Québécois, Jean Charest.
Huguette Young is an AQ Online contributing blogger based in Ottawa, Canada.
It’s been a long eleven months for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his fellow Conservatives. After a strong start in May 2011 following the election of his first-ever majority government, Harper has faced months of relentless attacks in the House of Commons—and the strain is showing.
Now the public is witnessing another Stephen Harper. Always in control, he now has a hard time getting his message through. Day after day during the daily Question Period in the House of Commons, the prime minister has had to defend unpopular positions about costly fighter jets, a rollback on pension eligibility (from 65 to 67 years old starting in 2023), and the suspected involvement of the Conservative Party in an alleged scheme to mislead voters on election day last May.
Not to mention that Harper is facing a court challenge from the provincial government of Québec over the dismantling of the federal long-gun registry and all the data it contains. Québec is contesting the federal decision because it wants the data collected on the identity of Québec rifle owners to set up its own provincial registry.
But the Tories’ main problem is the growing controversy over the cost of 65 F-35 stealth fighter jets it plans to buy from the U.S. firm Lockheed Martin as part of an international consortium. Other nations have scaled back their military orders as the ballooning costs became apparent. But the Harper government remained tight-lipped about its plans for months.
That all changed on April 3. A new report from Michael Ferguson, Canada’s Auditor General who acts as an independent controller with authority to comb through the expenses of federal departments and agencies, lists the cost of these fighter jets at a minimum of $25 billion rather than the roughly $15 billion that was previously anticipated. After initially saying that defense officials withheld information from ministers, Ferguson said it was likely the Harper government must have known about the true cost of the program. He faulted the government for mismanaging the F-35 program and not telling Canadians about the true cost of the country’s largest-ever military purchase.
After waiting over 10 years, a long-delayed bilateral security perimeter agreement is supposed to mitigate border delays and security fiascos at border crossings between Canada and the United States. Instead, Canadian critics of the Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness Action Plan announced last month in Washington DC contend that their personal data will be shared with U.S. officials and that Washington will dictate the harmonization of security rules and regulations.
At their December meeting, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama signed two action plans—one on security and economic competitiveness, the other on regulatory cooperation—under a “Beyond the Border” umbrella agreement designed to facilitate two-way trade and combat terrorism. The move was widely celebrated by Canadian manufacturers who complained about long delays at the border in the heightened, post-9/11 discussion of national security. Those delays have crippled trade with the U.S., Canada’s largest trading partner.
However, pressed by time and because of jurisdictional entanglements, both countries had to settle for a less ambitious accord. A global border deal is likely three years away. In the meantime, numerous pilot projects will test the will, patience and feasibility of integrating policies and procedures to speed the entry of goods, services and people at border crossings.
There are complications. The two legal systems don’t mesh perfectly; their approaches and priorities are different. For Canadians, a border deal is mostly for economic reasons, says Prof. Christian Leuprecht, an expert at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. For Americans, it’s about security.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a man in a hurry. But the pace at which he’s pushing through controversial legislation and dismissing the views of the opposition parties has even surprised Tory supporters. And he’s not making any friends in the process.
Barely two months after the start of the September parliamentary session, Harper has managed to anger the province of Québec for vowing to destroy data compiled in the federal long-gun registry.
For years, the Conservatives have argued that the long-gun registry, which collects data on duck and big game hunters, was costly, ineffective and useless at preventing crime. Start-up costs ballooned to about $2 billion. Set up by the previous Liberal government in 1995, the registry was meant as a tool to help police officers check if there were guns in the house when responding to calls. The names of hunters and the types and number of hunting rifles and shotguns on their premises were compiled in a national databank.
Hunters objected furiously, saying it branded them as criminals. Gun owners had to register their guns for a fee and submit to a background check. (A registry for prohibited firearms and assault weapons remains in effect.)
Supporters of the gun registry argued it saved lives. In the province of Québec, the opposition to dismantling the registry was fierce. This is a result of the still-lingering emotional reaction to a killing spree at the Montréal Polytechnique School in 1989 that took the lives of 14 women—an event that prompted the establishment of the gun registry.
With the tragic death last month of Jack Layton, Canada’s charismatic leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP), Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper now holds all the cards in the House of Commons.
Harper is now dealing with three weakened parties in the House of Commons, which will begin its fall session on Monday, September 19. The prime minister is leading his first-ever majority government since taking power in 2006. The NDP is the official opposition in the House of Commons, but the party finds its voice waning after Layton died at age 61 after a short battle with cancer. The Liberal Party of Canada is now down to 34 seats after losing more than half its seats in the May 2 election referendum. With a mere four seats, the separatist Bloc québécois party, which only runs candidates in the province of Québec, has been effectively wiped out.
All three opposition parties are looking to hold a leadership convention in 2012—leaving Harper a lot of room to maneuver. Up until the May election campaign, the Bloc québécois, the Liberal Party and the NDP made life difficult for Harper’s minority government. Now, with a comfortable majority, he can easily push through his “tough-on-crime agenda” as well as the Conservative Party’s economic policies and deficit-fighting plan. Now all three parties are vulnerable.
Layton’s temporary, hand-picked successor, the 68-year-old Nycole Turmel is the first to admit that it will be difficult to fill Layton’s “big shoes.”
Layton made a historic breakthrough in Québec in May, collecting 59 of the province’s 75 seats and guided the NDP through its best national showing ever—winning 103 of the 308 seats in the Commons.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s management of Canada’s foreign policy has been widely criticized in recent months—particularly after the embarrassing loss of its seat on the UN Security Council in October 2010. Yet, having recently secured a comfortable parliamentary majority in Canada’s May 2 elections, Mr. Harper and his Conservative Party colleagues appear poised to take a more assertive stance on global affairs.
The first substantial indicator of this departure from its foreign policy status-quo was Canada’s June 14 announcement that the Harper administration had formally decided to side with the Libyan rebel forces instead of the embattled Qadhafi government.
As part of an “enhanced engagement strategy,” Canada has chosen to recognize the National Transitional Council of Libya (NTC) as the “legitimate representative of the Libyan people going forward,” said newly appointed Foreign Minister John Baird in an announcement to the House of Commons. Baird also promised that he would meet NTC representatives in their stronghold city of Benghazi (a promise he fulfilled on Monday) and that Canada’s response against Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s regime would be robust.
“After three months of energetic diplomatic, military and humanitarian engagement, the world’s resolve to protect the civilians of Libya against attacks and threats of attacks from the Qadhafi regime has not faded,” Baird continued in his address. “It is gaining momentum. But our work is far from over. And so we must look at doing more in terms of humanitarian aid. We must continue our military assault on Qadhafi’s command and control centers.”
Calling for a “full and impartial investigation,” Baird also said he was disgusted by reports that the Libyan regime was using torture and sexual violence against the Libyan population.
Mr. Baird’s nomination to lead the foreign ministry came as a surprise when it was announced. Known as the “pit bull” of Parliament due to his scrappy and aggressive tone, Baird replaced then-Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, who was defeated in the Conservative Party’s parliamentary sweep in May. Thus far, Baird has been deft in addressing difficult questions during the daily question-and-answer sessions in Parliament and appears to be sticking to his promise to “fight hard for what I believe in.”
Canada’s recognition of the NTC certainly reflects Baird’s position, as has his endorsement of a 90-day extension of Canada’s participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led military campaign in Libya. And Parliament appears to agree with the Harper administration position—with the only dissenting voice coming from Member of Parliament Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party.
With Canadian forces retreating from Afghanistan in July, the Libyan conflict now tops Canada’s foreign affairs agenda. Last year’s humiliating defeat at the United Nations Security Council was a blow to Canada’s international standing. It now seems Harper is taking steps to turn things around.
*Huguette Young is an AQ Online contributing blogger based in Ottawa, Canada.
The federal election in Canada this month changed the political landscape beyond recognition.
After two successive minority governments, conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper won his long-sought majority on a low-tax deficit-cutting plan and crime agenda, winning 166 seats out of a total of 308.
That in itself was quite a feat but the jaw-dropping results on election night provoked a seismic shift in the representation at the House of Commons, Canada’s lower chamber.
For the first time in history, the New Democratic Party (NDP), a social-democratic left-leaning party, became the official opposition in the House of Commons, replacing the Liberal Party of Canada which scored its worst political performance in history. The NDP grabbed 103 seats, up from 36, beating their own 1988 historic breakthrough of 43 seats. The Liberals dropped to 34 seats from 77, and the Conservatives gained 23 seats, dominating every region except Québec.
Now, two weeks later, we can reflect on what to make of all this.
It seems Canada was due for a change.
By all accounts, 2010 was a challenging time for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the foreign policy front.
The low point came when Canada failed to win a non-permanent seat in a secret vote at the United Nations Security Council in October, the first time since 1948. Canada had held the prestigious two-year position virtually nonstop every 10 years or so since the early days of the United Nations.
As expected, Germany easily one of two Western Bloc regional seats but most observers had not seen the duel shaping up between Canada and Portugal for the second seat. To avoid a humiliating defeat, Canada withdrew from the race after the second ballot.
The outcome sent shockwaves across the nation.
Opposition parties labelled the loss a blow to Canada’s international reputation. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff attributed the rebuke to the Harper government’s ideological positions, incompetence and neglect of African issues. He reminded the government 80 percent of the Security Council’s work is focused on Africa.
It was a sad day for the rule of law in the United States. Sunday, Omar Khadr became the first child to be prosecuted by a Western nation for war crimes since the Second World War. After an intense week, a U. S. military panel returned its verdict, condemning Khadr to a 40-year prison sentence.
But that sentence was largely symbolic. As part of a pre-hearing plea deal, unbeknownst to the panel of jurors, Khadr had already agreed to an extra eight years in jail. He has already served eight at the U.S. Guantánamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba. The jury went even farther than the 25-year sentence recommended by the prosecution.
Now 24, Khadr pleaded guilty last week to five war crimes charges including killing an American soldier in Afghanistan in 2002 during a war fight. He was 15 years old at the time. Badly wounded, he was sent to an U.S. army hospital then incarcerated at the Gitmo prison.
Before his sentencing, he told the widow of the soldier he killed that he was “really, really sorry.”
After eight long years of internment at the United States’ Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, the so-called Gitmo prison, Omar Khadr’s military trial is scheduled to resume on October 18, 2010. This comes nearly two months after his trial was suspended on August 13—the first day of arguments.
There is no more room for delays. Since being interned at Guantánamo, Khadr has faced delays after delays, he has fired his lawyers and has seen his trial postponed while the Obama Administration reviewed the functioning of military commissions. Then, on the first day of Khadr’s trial, his freshly-appointed military lawyer, Army Lt.-Col. Jon Jackson collapsed in the courtroom, and was air-lifted from the base to the United States for medical treatment. It is thought his malaise might be linked to a previous gallbladder surgery.
On top of that, Khadr has turned down a plea bargain, which would have limited his prison term to five years instead of the 30 years he faces.
Either way, the trial is off to a bad start
The military judge presiding over the 23-year-old Canadian citizen’s trial, Army Col. Pat Parrish, ruled that evidence obtained through interrogations while Khadr was 15 years old was admissible. His lawyers maintained those confessions were extracted under duress and torture. The Supreme Court of Canada, Canada’s highest court, had reached the same conclusion in its January ruling but stopped short of ordering Canada to ask for Khadr’s repatriation to Canada.
“The whole thing was a disgrace in terms of the rule of law,” says Allan Hutchinson from the University of Toronto’s prestigious Osgoode Hall.
By suspending Parliament on December 30, 2009, the second December in a row, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was hoping to get some breathing space away from the glare of the House of Commons where his minority government’s every move has been scrutinized.
But it hasn’t exactly been a restful time. Harper’s decision to suspend the parliamentary session has been highly criticized by opposition parties and political observers alike. It has even earned him a strong rebuke in The Economist, which called the prime minister’s reasons to prorogue unconvincing.
Parliament was set to return on January 25 but will now resume on March 3. The first order of business will be the customary Throne speech to open the session, and will outline the Conservative government’s main priorities. Next up, a new deficit-fighting budget. The hope, observers say, is that the firestorm over the calls by a House of Commons parliamentary committee to establish an inquiry into the so-called Afghan detainee affair will have lost steam. Allegations that the government knew that Afghan prisoners transferred by Canadian soldiers were being abused in Afghan jails have proven embarrassing.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the Prime Minister dismissed his critics. He described his decision as a “routine” prorogation that was necessary to “recalibrate the government’s agenda” in order to focus on the economy. He even hinted in a later interview that prorogation could become a regular annual occurrence, noting that two- to three-year sessions were a bad idea.
Trained as a criminologist and a sociologist, Maria Mourani, a Montreal Member of Parliament (MP) with a special interest in street gangs in
But when she delved into the universe of the
Through contacts, Mourani was able to meet with members of two rival gangs in
She calls these gangs “by far the most violent and most dangerous gangs in the world.”
In her newly-published book released in French, Gangs de rue Inc. (Street Gangs Inc), Mourani describes her foray in 2008 into
She was shocked by what she found: cruel and violent initiation rites, young pregnant women proudly displaying the MS13 tattoos, children learning hand signals and a drive by gangs to “export” their “sub-culture” of violence wherever it gains a foothold.
Don’t adjust your set. Just when things were settling down on the Canadian election front, things are heating up again...
Under Michael Ignatieff’s leadership, the Liberal Party of Canada seems more determined than ever to defeat Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government.
Three weeks ago, Harper survived a Liberal ways and means motion in the House of Commons with the pro-independence, Québec-based Bloc Québécois and the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) as unlikely allies.
The vote not only kept the Conservatives in power but it also saved the Liberals from a likely bad showing at the polls. Undaunted, they signalled last week that they would try again to topple the Conservatives, saying the government doesn’t have the confidence of the House. But a non-confidence motion introduced in the House of Commons last week failed to win enough support.
But the trump card is in NDP Leader Jack Layton’s hands. After repeatedly calling for an election to shake out the Conservatives and after opposing their every move, Layton indicated that his party will support the government—at least until a more generous benefits package for the unemployed is passed into law.
Members of Parliament returned to work this week in pre-campaign mode. In just a few weeks—by the end of this month or early October—legislators and voters will know the fate of a possible fall vote. This would be Canadians’ fourth vote in five years.
Fuelled by election speculation, federal parties have reserved buses and planes and booked meeting halls. Discussions with television networks to organize leaders’ debates are already underway.
The man behind this frenzy: Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. At a Liberal caucus meeting in northern Ontario two weeks ago, he vowed to bring down Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government at the first opportunity.
But the timing couldn’t be worse. Polls show Canadians are suffering from election fatigue. On October 14, 2008, they were thrown into yet another unwanted election, showing their discontent at the voting booths and with voter turnout at just 58 percent.
Last year’s election returned Harper’s minority Conservative government to power, winning 143 of 308 seats. Under Stéphane Dion at the time, the Liberal Party won a dismal 77 seats. The left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) won 37 seats while the pro-independence Bloc Québécois, which only runs candidates in the province of Québec, elected 49 Members of Parliament (MP).
A year later, the political landscape has hardly changed. Polls show the gap is widening between the governing Tories and the Liberal Party with the Liberals losing support in vote-rich Québec and Ontario. The Bloc Québécois remains consistently on top in Québec followed by the Liberals. A recent Harris-Decima/Canadian Press survey reports that the Conservatives are at 34 percent voter approval and the Liberals are at 31 percent with the NDP hovering at 15 percent. A recent Ekos /Canadian Broadcasting Corporation poll also shows Liberal support is softening and Harper is increasing his lead with 34 percent support versus 31 percent for the Liberals.
Puzzling, mystifying. There’s no clear explanation why Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is sticking to his guns by refusing to repatriate Omar Khadr—the only Westerner still imprisoned at the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo, Cuba, under terrorism-related charges.
Khadr was only 15 years old when arrested in Afghanistan in July 2002 for allegedly throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier during a firefight. Khadr maintains that he did not. After being treated for wounds at the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, he was transferred to Guantánamo where he alleges he was subjected to various kinds of torture.
Is it personal? Is it ideological? Are there political calculations that come into play? Is he playing it safe with his electoral base in western Canada by refusing to appear soft on terror?
Whatever his reasons, Harper will now get his chance. The Supreme Court of Canada announced last week that it would expedite the government's appeal of orders to seek the return of 22-year-old Omar Khadr and set a hearing for November 13. Last month, the Federal Court of Appeal of Canada upheld a lower-court decision calling on Ottawa to press for Khadr’s return to Canada. In a statement released by Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, the government repeated that it was referring the case to the Supreme Court of Canada because Khadr was facing serious charges, including murder.
The Canadian government stated its case before the Federal Court of Appeal in April. It argued the repatriation of Khadr was a foreign policy issue and that the courts had no business “telling the government of Canada how to conduct its foreign affairs.” It added there was just “a remote possibility that the United States would comply” with the repatriation order.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has steadfastly refused to press Washington for the transfer of Omar Khadr from the infamous U.S. detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Canada.
And he’s not about to give in.
On May 7, he announced he would be appealing a Canadian court ruling calling for the return of Omar Khadr to Canada. The case is to be heard before the Federal Court of Appeal on June 23 in Ottawa.
In a compelling ruling released on April 23, Justice James O’Reilly of the Federal Court of Canada granted Khadr’s request to be tried on Canadian soil. He wrote that the prisoner’s constitutional rights to a fair trial had been violated and that Canada had ignored international child rights laws, especially those of child soldiers. And he called on Ottawa to press Washington for Khadr’s return to Canada “as soon as practical.”
While the U.S. is bolstering its presence in Afghanistan, Canada is having second thoughts about its very presence.
The issue is on everyone’s mind. The Canadian government had called in Afghanistan’s ambassador to deliver a stern rebuke to a controversial law that some say legalizes the rape of Shia Muslim women. It included a provision making it illegal for a Shia Muslim woman to refuse to have sex with her husband, to leave the house without his permission or have custody of children.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper had expressed strong concerns about the legislation, saying Canada was “deeply troubled” by it. As he pointed out, making progress on human rights for women “is a significant component of the international engagement in Afghanistan.” Harper even hinted that allied support for Afghanistan would weaken should this law stay on the books.
But amid mounting international pressure—from Canada, the U.S., Great Britain, and numerous other countries—Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that the law will be amended so that it "will not have any concerns on any account of human rights and especially the rights of the Afghan people.” According to a Kabul lawmaker, Karzai said that he didn’t read the law before signing it and his advisors never saw a version with the articles in question.
This about-face should lay to rest some of the most pressing concerns for Canadian human rights groups about the country’s Afghanistan mission. Back home and abroad, Canada’s work in Afghanistan could hardly be seen as credible if a piece of legislation reminiscent of the repressive Taliban regime, was allowed to become law. In the eyes of many combat-weary Canadians, the enactment of the controversial family law would be viewed as a slap in the face and a good excuse to exit the war-torn country.
Canada has vowed to stay on in Afghanistan until 2011 but is increasingly shifting its focus to the reconstruction effort and democratic governance. Along with security, basic services, humanitarian aid, border protection, strong national institutions and reconciliation, one of its priorities is to strengthen judicial institutions, train judges and support the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
The view, now, is that Taliban insurgents are unbeatable. Harper made that clear in a candid interview on CNN in March: “Quite frankly, we are never going to defeat the insurgency... My reading of Afghanistan history is that it’s probably had an insurgency forever of some kind. What has to happen in Afghanistan is we have to have an Afghan government that is capable of managing that insurgency.”
If that’s the case, many are wondering why Canadian soldiers are risking their lives in a war that is not winnable. The sacrifice seems very high indeed. And the payoff very far off in the distance although, clearly, some progress has been made. Some 12,000 Afghans, mostly women, have signed up for basic literacy courses set up by Canada, schools have been built and police have undergone training.
The ball is now in Afghanistan’s court. It’s a chance it cannot afford to miss.