More than 4,000 individuals and 185 organizations have signed the petition.
Others are looking for different routes to redress. In the wake of the excesses of the G20, when 40,000 people were effectively stripped of their basic rights by 20,000 armed police who roamed the streets of Toronto, some without their badges, a number of groups mounted challenges to this questionable exercise of authority. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, for its part, sent a report requesting a public inquiry to Vic Toews, the federal minister of public safety, who failed to reply. It then sent the report to the Ontario government, the Ontario Provincial Police, and the Toronto Police Service; to the Security Intelligence Review Committee that oversees CSIS
(the Canadian Security Intelligence Service); and to the RCMP
oversight body. Some did respond: the Special Investigative Unit dealt with six complaints; however, in its November 2010 report it declined to lay criminal charges in two apparent cases of excess force, because the police officers could not be properly identified. Throughout, the main player, the government of Canada, remained silent. “We don’t know whether what happened was planned and purposeful, or simple incompetence and bad training,” says Nathalie Des Rosiers, CCLA
’s general counsel. “Unless the federal government creates a public inquiry, we will never have a complete picture of what took place in Toronto last June.”
held public hearings in Toronto and Montreal, during which it emerged that among the 1,100 people who were arrested during the protests many were beaten and warehoused for twenty-four hours in a makeshift prison, without charges, without lawyers, and sometimes without access to drinking water. Lacking toilets, women and men urinated in their clothing; several men reported that they were ordered to lift their testicles for “inspection.” Last June, the organization recommended legislative changes to ensure that no future suspension of civil liberties occurs in Canada unless it is mandated under the War Measures Act. “We are at a disjuncture where the federal government congratulates the police, although their acts may have been unconstitutional,” says Des Rosiers.
Peter Russell, a distinguished constitutional scholar and emeritus professor of political science at the University of Toronto, has been working on another kind of initiative. This February, with colleagues at U of T’s David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights, he convened a workshop in Toronto in hopes of averting a constitutional crisis should the next federal election result in another hung Parliament. The problem, he says, is that Westminster parliaments such as ours do not have written rules on such fundamental issues as the formation of governments after an election, nor on the dissolution and prorogation of Parliament. “These matters are supposedly governed by unwritten constitutional conventions based on a political consensus — a consensus that has broken down in Canada. I don’t think Canadians are aware that our parliamentary system is governed by unwritten conventions, and that worries me.”
The workshop included constitutional scholars, individuals connected to Canada’s political leaders, distinguished retired members of Canada’s public service, and foreign citizens who have helped their own countries avoid constitutional crises when elections resulted in minority governments. Russell concludes that some of the agreements that have guided Westminster parliaments over the centuries now need to be written down in Canada (New Zealand, for example, has benefited from having done just that). “If they are formalized,” he says, “it will become possible to hold leaders to account, should they reject recognized conventions and plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.”
re we inching
toward two Canadas, each with its own foundational principles? And if we are, can we find common ground? Across our history, Canadians have endeavoured to resolve problems by negotiating compromises. We’ve become known for these efforts, even when they have fallen short. We have, in other words, a tradition of trying to bridge our differences: promoting unity is as Canadian as backyard hockey and Tim Hortons.
The underlying question is what constitutes a good society. Across millennia of human history, philosophers, political leaders, artists, and ordinary people have debated the social order of their respective eras. What matters is public engagement. We need a vigorous debate about where we are headed and whether we wish to go there. We need a reasoned and, above all, courteous discussion about what we want Canadian society to look like in ten or twenty years. The language of insult is intended to intimidate and silence. Without courtesy, we cannot talk to one another.
One year after my own awakening to the unprecedented transformation of Canadian society, I have few answers, except to suggest that if we are facing a future of minority governments, as many believe, we’d be wise to think creatively, as other countries have done. With the Progressive Conservative Party wiped off the map, moderate conservatives have nowhere to place their votes. The formerly powerful Liberal Party flails about, lunging to the right, then retreating back to its historic home just left of centre. And when the Liberals and the NDP
battle one another, as they often do, a smile arises among the Conservative ranks.
“The only way Canadians are going to get some control over the current political dysfunction is by demanding that the centre-left forces unite: the Liberals, the NDP
, and the Greens,” suggests Michael Behiels. This is a bold proposition, but the likelihood of such a merger remains remote as long as political leaders continue to hope for majorities.
A more promising option would be a formal coalition of the centre-left (exclusive of the Bloc Québécois) after the next federal election, should the Conservatives win another minority. Coalitions are democratic, legal, and commonplace. Among the fifty-one parliamentary democracies in the world, nearly 90 percent do not ordinarily govern with a majority, meaning that the parties must co-operate closely or work in coalitions. Last November, a Nanos Research survey indicated that the prime minister’s scare tactics regarding coalitions weren’t working; just 30 percent of respondents thought a coalition would destabilize the economy (fewer than the 36 percent who elected Harper in 2008). The survey also revealed that the Canadian electorate is increasingly volatile, suggesting that the time may be ripe for democratic redress.
We need a renewed national conversation about proportional representation. The system isn’t complicated: the percentage of seats a party wins is proportional to the vote it receives. And it is fair: the 2008 election results would have given the Liberals and the NDP
approximately thirty-five seats in Western Canada, for example, compared with the twenty-one they actually received. Elizabeth May’s Green Party would have earned five or six seats in the region. A federal parliament created by proportional representation would be a clear improvement over the juvenile shouting matches in the House of Commons, since co-operation would serve as the arbiter of success. Representing voters’ choices more equitably might even lower the anger index in the country. It would also demonstrate that no region is monolithic in its choices.
We do need remedy, and these are but suggestions. What is certain is that Canada has always been a willed, fragile construct — and that we are charged to protect this loved, frail country in ways we must decide together.