Canadian cynicism

Canadian cynicism

by

Howard Adelman

I slept in until 7:15 a.m. Friday morning. Writing a blog after 9:00 a.m., I have decided, is, for me, cruel and unusual punishment. I ought to never again inflict it upon myself. The phone calls, the interruptions, the need to attend to service men and my insurance agent – let alone my lovely wife. It drives you crazy. So why was I so cruel to myself Friday morning? I started the blog and never got even one-third through. This blog may explain why.

On the occasion of Shira Herzog’s tribute evening on Thursday evening, a reader of my blog greeted me and asked me to “lighten up already. War, war and more war – it’s depressing.” So today I will try – at least a little – to lighten up. A warning first. When I wrote my final exams in high school, the English composition exam assigned a piece of creative writing for half the marks. I wrote what I thought was a very funny story. I received a mark of sixty overall. My answers to grammar questions were worth half the mark. Though I do not speak with correct grammar and often do not write according to the rules, I do know the rules and usually received perfect, or close to perfect, marks in grammar tests. As a result, I figured I only received ten out of a possible fifty marks on the creative portion of the exam. Someone clearly did not like my sense of humour. Hence the warning! Also the promise – I will refer to comedians but I will not try to be one. And a second warning. Be cynical. Don’t believe me. I am as incapable as Stephen Harper of lightening up.

Many comedians, and perhaps most of the very famous ones, are contemporary cynics. They look at the follies in the world and, by satirizing behaviour, believe they play a role in correcting much of the nonsense they observe so acutely. Therefore, cynics do not have to be absolutely wedded to a pessimistic view of the world. Perhaps they are only pessimistic about those who seek and achieve power. They still may believe in their own powers of amelioration even when they deliberately choose to be outsiders to the power system. Cynicism is central to great satire, but mindblindness may also be at the core of satire, for irony and satire only work if the satirist is unaware of the contradiction between his belief in the effectiveness of his or her comic talents to question and reveal what is wrong with the world and his usually accompanying belief that any assumption of power corrupts.

Much of contemporary comedy, however, is not merely cynical; it is often cruel. Joan Rivers, who recently died, was a partisan not only of the comedy of vulgarity and put-downs, but the comedy of cruelty at its core. In a performance in March of 2011 in Wisconsin, she was on stage and said, “I hate children. The only child I would have ever loved was Helen Keller. She didn’t talk.” A heckler, who had a deaf son, interrupted her, and, in evident protection of civility and sensitivity, as well as his own feelings about what was appropriate to joke about concerning his own child – but, using heckling to make his point, in contradiction to his own position — yelled out: “That’s not funny.” Joan immediately responded with a combination of a string of invectives – “Stupid”, “Idiot,” “Stupid son-on-of-a-bitch,” “Asshole,” and referenced her mother’s deafness and her husband’s loss of his leg about which she had a whole comic routine. She then immediately slipped into a sketch asking, “How do you find Osama bin Laden.” Her answer: “There is only one plug in all of Afghanistan. Follow the cord…” as she re-enacted with her body the quest. She, of course, brought the house down.

The introduction to the sketch above, as a response to a roast evening of herself, was an observation about another comic whom Joan described as a self-pitying woman on the Howard Stern show, “shrying” that, “My father molested me. My father molested me.” Joan Rivers responded: “Take a look at yourself, honey. You should be happy he paid any attention to you at all.” Joan continued: “I saw you backstage naked. You looked like a fucking mudslide.” She told one of the other comics, “You took a shit last week and Rock Hudson came out.” To a Jewish comic she claimed he had debased himself by defiling the evening with vulgarity. “You made me a Jew-hater. You know what I am going to do now? I am going to Malibu and give Mel Gibson a blow job.”

The comedy of cruelty has no boundaries. You may be powerful. You may be absolutely unfortunate. There is no proportionality and no laws of discrimination. Everyone can be and must be a butt of a joke. As great Irish (as well as Newfie) comedy reveals, the misfortunate have often been the best masters of the comedy of cruelty as their appalling stories told with a straight face reveal that laughing at the misfortunes of others allows misfortune to become a common bond. One need only watch Martin McDonagh’s comedy, The Cripple of Inishman or John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.

The Torah even has one of the great satires of all time, at once a tall fish tale and a satire at God’s enormous power and at His expense. The greatest part of the satire is that it is included as a sacred text. Further, Jonah is read on the most solemn holiday of the year, Yom Kippur. And, to think, the vast majority of Jews with their great, and often cynical, sense of humour, most often aimed at themselves, take the book of Jonah so seriously they do not get the joke.

All cultures have their satirical streams. Early English literature is certainly replete with satire. One only has to read Chaucer to savour its scatological richness and its ability to scoff at platitudes, unveil hidden presumptions and motivations, and point out the bizarre and contradictory, if sometimes unintended, consequences of our actions. But this is not the comedy of cruelty as we have experienced it since the end of WWI.

For the essence of contemporary comedy is cruelty. The comedy of cruelty is no longer a humorous dissection of illogic and contradiction, but is, as Joan Rivers exemplified, a form of discourse that eschews argument in favour of invective, that tolerates NO argument and no half-measures in its search for the more extreme and the more shocking. The comedy of cruelty is the North American successor to pre-WWII surrealism and its negation without limitation where dream and reality become one and boundaries are dissolved. There just is no independent reality in this worship of subjectivity.

The comedy of cruelty is not subtle and despises gradualism, wit that builds a case by minor step-by-step shifts. That is, as Joan Rivers clearly stated, because the comedy of cruelty requires keeping control of your audience. That comedy is, at its essence, an exhibition of control. Comedy is Spiderman with the broad smile of Batman’s The Joker with the real power of a tarantula who works by stinging and paralyzing his victim after weaving a web of entrapment. The comedy of cruelty is not intended just to satirize power and those in power, but is egalitarian, for it regards all humans as power seekers who need to be ridiculed and laughed at. Contemporary inhumane cynicism stands in stark contrast to the altruism and humane Cynics of the classical world who valued “the natural” and “the natural” that became the ethical.

What does all this have to do with Stephen Harper’s Canada and with Stephen Harper himself? He is not exactly a laugh-a-minute guy. It is because the comedy of cruelty is the mirror reflection of those contemporaries who strive for and achieve power, but the corners of the mouths of those who have real power are turned down while the corners of the mouths of our comics are turned up to hide and disguise their core of cruelty. “Say it like it is” and “Say whatever you like without any inhibitions” is supposedly the highest expression of human freedom standing in total opposition to those in power who want to limit and control discourse. But that is only the appearance. The comedy of cruelty is the inverse mirror of a politics that insists upon controlling the message and expressing politics as control. In the politics of control, all political activity is reduced to an individual materialist striving, awarding those who maximize profits the highest pinnacle of reverence in order to deliver power to the few who ostensibly recognize and esteem this ideal when their own vision is not the acquisition of wealth ad infinitum but the acquisition and retention of power.

In yesterday’s Globe and Mail, there was a story on a former Finance Minister from Nova Scotia, Graham Steele, who had just written a new book, What I Learned About Politics. Steele was a Rhodes scholar who chose to go into politics with a view to changing the world for the better. He did it as a member of the NDP, which may explain why The Globe saw it as worthy of a front section news story instead of a review in the more specialist and less widely read Arts section. He resigned office when Darrell Dexter, the premier of the province at the time when he was Finance Minister, made a deal with health workers without consulting either him or the caucus. His view of politics, according to the story (I have not read the book), is that public policy gets twisted and distorted and eventually you get taken over by the desire to win, to be re-elected. Further, he contended that there was no real difference whether you sat on one side of the house or the other since no legislator deals with the real issues. For him, the contemporary political culture of cynicism is deep, tenacious and pervasive.

In his section on “Rules of the Game,” the first and number one rule is do what you have to do to get re-elected. Since there are no electors in the legislature, spend as little time there as possible; for policy debates are for losers. A second rule, of which Stephen Harper is a past master and Rob Ford was but a buffoonish imitation, is “Keep it simple”. The electorate is too preoccupied and distracted, so communicate with them with slogans, scandals, personalities, pictures and images. “Find whatever works, then repeat it endlessly.” There is no necessity for any slogan to have even the slightest truth value.  Another rule is seek to get credit and seek even harder to avoid blame. Politics is the art of covering your ass. And the final of his ten rules is deny that any of the above are the rules of the game.

I have not read a better summation of contemporary cynicism. It could be and should be funny if it were not so destructive. I was in Ottawa this past week meeting with top governmental officials about implementing a new humanitarian policy, a policy proposal a few of us had written and that the officials had read, absorbed and even reconfigured. In a lunch beforehand of the three authors of the proposal, we asked each other what was the best we could expect. “That they would say that they would implement the proposal.”

They did more than did that. They were much more ambitious. They thought the proposal should be expanded. Further, they had taken its core of business/NGO partnerships in the local community and converted it from a grass roots into a business elite proposal in a program that highlighted “badges of honour” and “branding of businesses” as exemplifications of humanitarianism to enable those businesses to maximize their profits while undertaking a humanitarian mission. What is even more astounding is that we walked away enormously pleased with ourselves because: a) they heard and listened to our criticism of the differences; b) and we were overjoyed at our success.  For all of this is to be done by a government that has squeezed the independent information and knowledge foundation out of our mandarins by closing its libraries and department think tanks, a political regime that has not permitted mandarins to make independent decisions of any significance, and forced them to avoid areas that are politically sensitive. Whereas a decade ago, mandarins were entitled to make policy decisions that were not overarching, today ALL policies, big and small, all budget changes, big and small, have to be processed at the highest political level. The real rationale is to inculcate into the mandarin culture that they are merely the servants of the political class in power and serve that power and not the people of Canada.

We should have cried rather than congratulated ourselves when we left the offices where we had our two meetings. Public servants have been reduced to political servants. How humiliating for such a talented groups of people to have to spend time figuring out how to be devious in order to be innovative. Machiavellianism in its worst sense now permeates the civil service. How impoverishing! How immobilizing to decision-making! The government in power has put a stopper on innovation in the public sector to prove its own mantra that innovation is a virtue of the private sector. So creativity grounds to a stop in the micromanagement of the delivery of public goods and services. It should be no surprise, as an Environics poll showed in June, that trust in the federal government to do a good job has declined by 13% since 2002, from almost half the population to 36%, much lower than the decline in faith in the abilities of either provincial or municipal governments.

Do not get me wrong. I favour business-humanitarian partnerships. But I do not favour confusing and even identifying the two as one and the same. Further, I definitely object to the evisceration of the mandarin class in Ottawa and resent even more the hoops and twists that intellectuals have to go through who work with and try to influence the mandarins and politicians, with excisions and modifications of proposals just to converse with those in power and, worst of all, then congratulate ourselves that our public servants have listened to us at all after we have taken out all the parts that might elicit a negative response.

The Harper government is not like Preston Manning’s vision of a smaller government sensitive and responsive to the words, feelings and thoughts of its citizens. It is a government with a vision of controlling those words, feelings and thoughts, not primarily by draconian measures, but by its deafness. As in Joan River’s comedy, they have made deafness both the butt of the joke and the exemplification of its most essential characteristic. And it is done straight-faced without cracking a smile.

The long form census that is needed to produce the knowledge on which policy could be based was eliminated. So the government has deliberately blinded itself without the excuse of Oedipus that he had unknowingly had sex with his own mother. Decisions which should take two days, take two months. And decisions which should take two months, take six months and a year if they are ever made at all. It is a government in control of discourse that cannot control action and implementation. On its core platform and supposed strength, its strong belief that the primary purpose of the state is to protect its citizens from external threats, the government has been exemplary in its rhetoric and totally porous in its incapacity to deliver.

In July 2007, over seven years ago, based on Conservative policies first unveiled in 2005 in the Conservative Party’s Canada First Plan for Arctic Defence, the Harper government released its defence policy. The government planned to procure six to eight Arctic patrol ships to demonstrate as a state that Canada controls its Arctic waters and the government’s supposed belief in sovereign enforcement. What has the government done? It is engaged in symbolism and indulging Harper’s misuse of and sentimental view of history. The government has found one of the ships from the nineteenth century Franklin expedition. The Harper government has demonstrated it can find sunken ships while, symbolically, it reveals it has a mindset more appropriate to the nineteenth than the twenty-first century, but its citizens still cannot get a glimpse of those six to eight Arctic patrol boats that were promised so many years ago to be operational by 2010, a date revised and then re-revised promising delivery this year, but which we may not see in 2016 or 2018. And when they appear out of the mists of promises and re-promises, as a report critical of the procurement demonstrated, the ships will lack the speed, strength, stamina or scale to cover the territory assigned and will be unable to deliver any effective defence.

What about the deep-water docking facilities on Baffin Island in Nunavut for these ships that have been lost in the Arctic fog? These have not sunken without a trace, but the existing wharf in Iqaluit in Nunavut, which could allow the new ghost ships to dock, has already sunk two meters since it was built and the government has been unable to find a way to stop the sinking without sinking more funds in the effort to have an Arctic defence port.

Why does the Harper government not form an expedition to locate deep–water docking facilities and the ships to dock at them? And what about the proposed “Arctic National Sensor System”?  One can go on and on – about our attempt to acquire fighter aircraft to replace our aging F-18s, an effort the Harper government muffed even more than the Liberals, but which, ironically, may be of some benefit as drone warfare gradually displaces the role of fighter aircraft except in close air support to ground troops, except that the government persists and has re-launched an effort once again to procure the aircraft.

The defence budget for 2014-15 is only $18.2 billion dollars, down in absolute dollars 15% from 2009-10 and 30% in constant dollars. In the face of increasing threats in the Middle East, on the eastern borders of the Ukraine, Harper can be a loudmouth, as Joan Rivers was, on defence policy, but in reducing defence spending to only 1% of GDP instead of a targeted 2% and the 1.3% we spent in 2009, the government continually displays its incapacity to put its boots on the ground where its mouth is. It is a government of words, not of action.

None of this takes into account what the government takes back on the exit side. For, according to a 2013 study by the Parliamentary Budget Office, the Department of National Defence, the Harper government since 2006 has returned $9.6 billion dollars it has been unable to spend because this is a government incapable of making timely and expeditious decisions. The reality today – Canada is unable to mount a sustained deployment of troops and all it can do in Iraq is send a few advisers so no one need worry that we will have significant troops on the ground in Iraq or Syria to combat ISIS.

I am not talking about cuts to the Arts, Culture and Research programs at universities or within government. I am not talking about the excision of the Rights and Democracy Institute in Montreal or to Kairos as a humanitarian agency. I am writing about programs supposedly at the core of the Tory agenda, The reality is, and exactly contrary to its discourse, Harper’s government is not a conservative government; it is a demolition government.

In Simone de Beauvoir’s ninety-fifties self-indulgent roman-à-clef, The Mandarins, she depicts the role that she and Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and Jean Genet played in trying to forge the intellectual foundations of post-war post-Vichy France in the shadow of Hegel’s great misinterpreter, Alexandre Kojève. The latter gave that French intellectual generation its theoretical foundation by displacing Jean Wahl’s focus on the unhappy consciousness in Hegel, the point of view of the comic of cruelty as pure negativity, a vanishing particular who will fight to the very end to celebrate finite and transitory existence without meaning in a world in which God has forsaken humanity altogether. In Jean Wahl, the unhappy consciousness was viewed as the highest achievement of persons who have no sense of historical development. When man truly recognizes his nothingness, he can be raised up to the higher levels of deformed Reason and reformed Spirit as the core of The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Kojève insisted instead that the political structures had to be totally rebuilt. With his shift to and emphasis on Lordship and Bondage as the core turning point of Hegel’s great classic, he propounded his misbegotten version that the section was primarily about Masters and Slaves, about those who wielded external power and control over others. The French thinkers à la Marx began to view the structure of society as reflected in individual thought rather than the quest for spiritual freedom in individual thought itself as the source of the problem with the structure of society.

So Arthur Koestler (see David Caesarani’s book on Koestler The Homeless Mind) is represented in de Beauvoir’s book as a fossilized classical Cynic. Nelson Alger (Lewis Brogan in her book), the Chicago writer and love of her life – Sartre was more a matter of  idol worship than a true lover – becomes the romantic ideal that has to be bracketed and sacrificed for her career. Albert Camus, the only really likeable character in Simone de Beauvoir’s volume, is portrayed as a person, not of moral purity concerned with acute personal decision-making, but as an individual who lies about the lead actress in his play (presumably Caligula), either to save the career of the actress or to save the production, or both, we are not sure.

Controlling the message is at the heart of the book and was at the heart of Sartre’s reverence for Stalin implied in his play, Les Mouches, and de Beauvoir’s 1947 ruminations in Pour une morale de l’ambiguité on the necessity and utility of using violence presumably to achieve the freedom which that violence inherently denied. For history, as they all believed, was a slaughter bench upon which the freedom of individuals as well as the happiness of peoples are sacrificed. In de Beauvoir, as in Sartre, freedom is reduced to the proposition that, in the end, each of us is fundamentally alone and singular and there is no self integrally related to community. Perhaps that is why Simone de Beauvoir is rarely if ever seen with a smile on her face in most of her photographs.

Given her portrait of the intellectual mandarin class as the kissing cousins of the civil service and of contemporary Canadian politicians now in power, it should be no surprise that France, since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958 when Charles de Gaulle came to power, has produced such an impoverished series of leaders, especially in the last forty years since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing from the centre-right and François Mitterrand, the fascist posing as a socialist, came to power, only to be succeeded by the three stooges, each more comical than the previous one — Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and, the most hilarious of all, François Hollande.

The problem is ubiquitous. In Israel, the Netanyahu government tries to equate Hamas with ISIS, but, as Ha’aretz noted this morning, the Prime Minister of Israel comes off as a used car salesman. The impression is particularly sharpened when a long list of Israeli elite intel unit veterans this past week denounced the use of that intel to persecute innocent Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. I formerly saw Obama as one of my few heroes. It was hard to listen to his message, full of superb rhetoric, to Americans this past week. If Netanyahu (as well as Harper) is to Obama a used-car salesman, Obama increasingly comes across as a carnival barker without any real bite.

So I am not suggesting that the Stephen Harper government’s cynicism is unique or extraordinary. It is only special in its grimness for it allows none of the comic relief of the Rob Ford farcical attempt at governance. I believe the Mandarin intellectual class of France that reached such stellar heights in the post-WWII period and spread their message of post-war disillusion to their successors and to the rest of the world, has served as an intellectual Ebola virus that now permeates all governing classes and those who try to influence public policy. Unfortunately, I recognize now how infected I am. I now comprehend the meaning of a question I avoided for years, the one Iris Murdoch asked in the philosophical journal, Mind, a long time ago, “How is the Liberal (or Christian) spirit of individualism to survive a long era of ideological warfare?”

In the contemporary world, we are condemned to walk around with intellectual oxygen breathing machines. If I were truly an idealist and a visionary, I would be able to communicate how you can choose optimism over despair, faith in peace against the reality of the incompatibility of the warring or even peaceful belligerents, to love humanity as my friend Sister Jo Leddy manages to do in the face of terrorism and the inhumanity of man especially to women. Further, if I were a contemporary cynic, I would have been able to make this blog funny.

My apologies, but only after you have read my older blog on apologetics.

The State of Democracy in Canada

A Philosopher Reflects on Governance in Canada: Is Democracy in Decline 

by

Howard Adelman

 [delivered at Massey College at lunch on Monday, 23 September 2013]

 

Introduction

I am far from the best person to offer an assessment of the state of Canadian democracy. Most of my work has been spent on issues of international ethics such as refugees, genocide, just war, humanitarian intervention, though, as you shall see, I have written on minority rights as well as good governance but mainly applied to foreign countries. Overseas, the democracy deficit can be very severe.

For example, in Foreign Policy on 13 September 2013, Maikel Nabi Sanad, an Egyptian human rights activist, offered four benchmarks on different dimensions of liberty to measure Egypt’s progress towards democracy.

 (http://transitions.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/09/13/what_egypt_needs_to_do):

1. Ensuring freedom of expression denied in Sections 11 and 14 of the Egyptian Penal Code which makes the following criminal offences — publishing erotic literature, insulting the president, a foreign leader, members of the armed forces or a civil servant, committing blasphemy or even detracting from the reputation of Egypt;

2. Strengthening civil society by guaranteeing the right to assemble, in particular, to form non-government organizations;

3. Ensuring fair elections by eliminating fraudulent names and repeated names and making provision for foreign monitors;

4. Accept international legal norms with respect to civil and political rights.

These are all standards of freedom, a precondition of democracy. If the same benchmarks were applied to Canada, this country would pass with flying colours. 

However, Canada has entered a period where, relative to its own history, it has slipped when it comes to the freedom of expression for civil servants and professional scientists, in the respect, latitude and support provided to non-government organizations (especially if those organizations are involved in environmental advocacy), in illegal activities during elections and with respect to supporting and being guided by international norms. With respect to the latter, for example, this country has withdrawn from certain international protocols such as the Kyoto Accord. But in all examples of the above four criteria, as we shall see, from an international perspective, these are tiny peccadilloes.  

Before I offer examples of these shortcomings, let me place the issue in a theoretical context.

Part I – The Framework
The Intellectual Context

Left-wing intellectuals in the heritage of Karl Marx think critically about society in terms of an analysis of the presumed failure of modern bourgeois society. For Marxists and neo-Marxists of the critical school, bourgeois society is inherently repressive. I think critically about society, not in the tradition of Marx, but in the tradition of a bourgeois philosopher, G. W. Hegel. Like Marx, Hegel argued that philosophy was NOT primarily concerned with eternal questions but about the HERE and NOW. Philosophy has a responsibility to be diagnostic without abstracting philosophy from its historical context. In fact, one of the best places to undertake critical philosophy is by dealing with the HERE and NOW as a diagnostic and critical task.

Immanuel Kant had asked about the presumptions informing our thought in the Critique of Pure Reason and about the presumptions informing our actions in the Critique of Practical Reason. Hegel argued against abstract eternal assumptions and insisted on two premises, both of which I accept:

1. We can only think and do in the context of possibilism and not in the context of eternal verities and necessities; all thought is an expression of its own time;

2. All deeds and actions of humans in our own time can only be understood if we try to comprehend our own time in thought.

Thus, reciprocity prevails between the world of thought and the world of action. Thought divorced from action is impotent. Action divorced from critical self-reflection is blind. Marx, in contrast, imposed an essentialism on the HERE and NOW arguing that it was irredeemable and that history was governed by laws of necessity rooted in the distribution of power and the exploitation of one class by another. I make no such presumption. Redemption is always possible. Democracy is now the best tool to ensure that societies are able to be redeemed and for citizens to ensure that the redemptive process continues. 

These are the premises that inform this inquiry into the state of democracy in Canada. What is the state of democracy in Canada? Since my inquiry is a philosophical one, this talk focuses on actions examined within the context of thought on the premise that rationality is not an abstract exercise primarily, but an inter-subjective and publicly shared facility and faculty which must inherently always be self-critical as it proceeds. Though I work on theory, I also relied on an informant, Brian Bitar, a Senior Resident in Massey College this year visiting from the Program on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and, more particularly, one of his long time mentors, Pierre Manent.

In general, liberty and equality, defined as equality of opportunity, are usually taken for granted compared to equality of distribution or justice which I take up under the responsibility for the distribution of risk. The French 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man stressed both liberty and equality. “Men are born and always continue, free and equal, in respect of their rights.” The American constitution echoes a similar sentiment, that a self-evident truth is that “all men are created equal”. But we know that for most of the existence of either state, equality served as mere rhetoric to a far greater degree than liberty. And conservative democrats like Lord Acton belittled the stress on equality on the unarguable natural fact that men and women are born inherently unequal – in physical attributes, in genetic possibilities, in family circumstances and certainly into the political state which may have promised them little but authoritarian repression if not outright persecution. For these conservatives, liberty, as the right to be free as much as possible from government restrictions and edicts, was far more important than equality.

In Canada, however, liberty and equality were joined at the hip. Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms reads:

15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

(2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Equality did not mean equality of endowments but equality of opportunities. That, of course, only muddies the water rather than clarifying the matter for it only moves the issue a short distance downstream. For in slipping from equality of endowments to equality of opportunity, we try to sidestep the undeniable fact that inequality in endowments is the principle barrier to equality of opportunities. The only way in which equality can act as a counterweight to liberty is by stressing equality of results and not simply of opportunities, what I refer here as the distribution of risks and the most basic principle of justice and fairness. Further, the removal of class, creed and belief as barriers can, in fact, be used to suppress liberty in the name of liberty as when, in the name of secular equality or what the French call laicité, a concept imported into Québec, political representatives appealing to majority sentiments legislate against the wearing of religious symbols by public officials – Sikh turbans and kippas, headscarves and large crosses. This does not mean that equality should trump liberty — that the equal distribution of resources is a precondition of democracy as a socialist or Marxist might argue. Rather, I suggest that equality in the sense of equalizing risk is a measure of the degree of success of a democracy rather than a precondition of its attainment.

How we deal with risk and responsibility is a measure of whether a democracy is healthy. After all, we presume political equality in the very nature of the principle and practice of one man and one woman one vote. We also accept that all people must be treated equally before the law. But we also generally accept the argument that, if the difference in incomes between classes grows too large, a society becomes stressed and its democratic character is threatened. Social and economic equality may not be essential conditions of a healthy democracy, but growing social and economic inequalities can be measures of a democracy under strain.

We may distribute risk through state medical schemes, an essential democratic premise in the Canadian distribution of risk, and in paying for natural disasters. But most other risks are subject to private insurance schemes and are not the subject matter of democratic legislatures. Further, when it comes to making money and accumulating wealth, risk is heralded as an individual virtue rather than a public responsibility. So the issue of risk is where responsibility is located. I, however, argue that risk and where it is located is always a public responsibility, for without allocating that risk, democratic regimes as a whole ignore basic responsibilities and put democracy itself at risk.

Methodology

Philosophy needs material upon which to reflect. I am no longer limber of limb and eager to live in refugee camps and wander around in war zones so I am happy to stay at home and reflect on the state of democracy here rather than deliberating on the effects of power in producing refugees, genocides, crimes against humanity and the horrors of war. I love the relative tranquility of my home turf.

However, I am now also a lazy gardener. Though, in some cases, I relied on my own collection of information, mostly I gathered my samples from others rather than doing my own home work. What better way to do that than to interview the journalists who are fellows of Massey College this year. In any case, they are trained and far better observers of the Canadian scene than I will ever be. So my cases are mostly drawn from their work. The political and moral issues which I examined include:

a) liberty of expression in the last election;

b) liberty of expression in the governance of Canada, particularly for scientists; my informant was Véronique Morin, the Webster McConnell Fellow at Massey College this year;

c) equality of opportunity for First Nations; my informant was Jody Porter, the CBC/Radio-Canada Fellow in journalism at Massey College this year;

d) equality of distribution with respect to health services under the theme of risk management with the recognition that a very large majority of Canadians view our health care system as the most important and central characteristic of the Canadian polity and the best measure of Canada’s commitment to democracy; my informant, but in this case, only in part, was Kelly Crowe, the Kierans Janigan Fellow here at Massey who covered the health beat at CBC;

e) minority rights and, in this case, I will be my own informant and focus of the new proposed Charter of Quebec values introduced by the Minister Responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, Bernard Drainville;

f) representative democracy as expressed on the municipal level; my informant on this issue was David Rider, the St. Clair Balfour Fellow in journalism in Massey College.

I have to apologize to José Perlata because I have not written on pipelines as I planned. In any case, I learned a great deal about Uruguay, Chile and Argentina from him and for that I am grateful.

Now, clearly, one cannot deal adequately with any one of those topics in itself let alone in relationship to the state of democracy in Canada in a 25 minute talk. I dealt with five of the above issues separately in a more extended fashion in five blogs and provide only summaries of those results here. Although my selection of cases was determined by a combination of my personal knowledge and the expertise of this year’s Massey journalist fellows to provide as random a cross section of issues and connecting themes as any other approach to offer a barometer into the state of democracy in Canada, I hope six case studies selected relatively at random is sufficient to get some sense of the state of democracy in Canada.

Part II – Case Studies

a) The Principle of Liberty and Fair Elections

One example of the “small potatoes” of such offences with respect to fair elections was the pattern of misleading robocalls allegedly placed by one or more officials of the Conservative Party in the last election. Elections Canada determined that the Conservative Party national voter database, known as CIMS, was used by someone to systematically target non-conservative voters and misdirect them by telling them that the location of the polling station had changed so they would not vote. Evidently, 7,760 voters were contacted. This took place mostly in a Guelph Riding but also in 246 other ridings of the 308 total. The caller used a prepaid credit card to buy a prepaid cell phone registered under the fake name of Pierre Poutine at a phony address in Joliette Quebec.  In several ridings where robocalls were made, the election was won by less than a 1000 votes – Nipissing-Timiskaming, Mississauga East-Cooksville, Winnipeg South Centre and Willowdale  – Yukon

The largest effort took place in a Guelph riding won by the Liberal candidate. Nevertheless, Michael Sona, an ex-Conservative staffer, was charged by Elections Canada for placing the calls, though he insists on his innocence and denies any fault, even though he admitted that he called Conservative headquarters to learn how to place untraceable calls. Soma was charged under section 491(3)d of the Canada Elections Act for preventing or trying to prevent a voter from casting a ballot. The maximum penalty is a $5,000 fine and five years in prison. It has never been determined whether he allegedly acted alone or under the direction of a higher official in the party; Ken Morgan, the campaign manager for the Conservative candidate in Guelph, Marty Burke, moved to Kuwait, changed his email and refused to speak to Elections Canada.

On the other hand, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) determined that the Liberal riding association in Guelph had used a robocall to tell voters that Conservative candidate Marty Burke opposed abortion. The violation of the Elections Act came because the call failed to disclose that the call originated from the local campaign of Liberal candidate Frank Valeriote and thereby violated the CRTC’s Unsolicited Telecommunications Rules.

In Etobicoke Centre, where 53,000 votes were cast, the Conservative candidate, Ted Opitz, won by only 26 votes. The addresses of two voters were outside the riding and 32 other voters were listed in another riding; five voters illegally voted twice. Further, 5 registration certificates from three polling stations were missing. Justice Thomas Lederer set aside a total of 79 ballots and ordered a by-election, but that order was overturned on appeal by the Supreme Court of Canada in a split 4-3 decision. The Supreme Court agreed with the test Lederer applied, “that an election should be annulled if the number of invalid votes is equal to or greater than the successful candidate’s plurality.” But it also determined that the degree of misdirection was insufficient to affect the results of the election. The Supreme Court by a majority decision also determined that Lederer was wrong on at least 59 of those ballots and may have been wrong on the 20 others. More to the point, Conservatives, while offering full cooperation in some areas, fought strenuously against the investigation and put up extended delays in others even though the original problem stemmed from Elections Canada and not a political party.

There were other instances. For example, calls were placed ostensibly by the Liberal party to Orthodox Jewish voters on the Sabbath, calls which the Liberal Party denied making. The evidence is overwhelming that significant intentional efforts were made at voter suppression in highly contested and close-call ridings, especially by the Conservative Party. Further, noted Conservative academics signed affidavits that the Conservative campaign school, borrowing from the dirty tricks campaigns of the Republican Party in the USA, instructed attendees that misleading robocalls to misdirect or be rude in the name of an opposition party were legal. They are not. Third, and possibly most importantly in what seems in the overall scheme of things to have been relatively minor infractions of the principle of free elections, the Conservative Party often took an obstreperous stand to the legal proceedings rather than always cooperating to ensure the principle of fair elections was upheld. The delicate line separating political partisanship from ensuring legal processes were observed was clearly crossed.

Relative to Egypt, Canada is a paragon of virtue. Relative to its own history, Canada has slipped, in at least one benchmark of liberty, the conduct of fair elections.

b) The Principle of Liberty and the Suppression of Scientific Voices

Following interviews with the science journalist, Véronique Morin, the Webster McConnell Fellow in Journalism at Massey College this year, in my blog on the topic, I surveyed the various efforts of the Harper government to limit the output of and access to scientific data produced by government scientists, particularly related to environmental issues. The government redacts much of the data given out after delay, delay and delay. This is part of an even larger operation to undermine the professionalism of the civil service and its critical role in ensuring a strong and responsive democracy.

I was out of touch with the media when scientists demonstrated last summer on Parliament Hill decrying the “Death of Evidence” and asserted “no science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy”. I had also missed the early April news that The University of Victoria Environmental Law Center and non-partisan Democracy Watch had requested that Canada’s Information Commissioner conduct a probe into “systematic efforts by the government of Canada to obstruct the right of the media — and through them, the Canadian public — to timely access to government scientists.” Calvin Sandborn, the legal director from the University of Victoria’s Law Centre, noted that, “the topics that require the highest level of ministerial control are topics related to the tar sands, climate change, polar bears, caribou and the oil and gas industry.”

(http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2013/04/02/Canada-to-probe-muzzling-of-scientists/UPI-87461364941159/#ixzz2f828QlBs (Science News “Canada to probe ‘muzzling’ of scientists,” 2 April 2013)

Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly protects freedom of expression. According to rulings of Canadian courts, governments can restrict a person’s freedom of opinion and expression only for important overriding purposes. There are three tests of such seriousness: 1) is the override rationally connected to the purpose it is intended to achieve? 2) is the impairment as little as possible? 3) do the beneficial effects of any restriction outweigh the deleterious effects? The pattern of muzzling government scientists passes none of these tests and seriously undermines the three underlying values of freedom of expression: participation in social and democratic decision-making, attainment of truth and individual self-fulfillment.

The evidence of muzzling contained in the over one hundred pages of appendices to the 26-page joint petition and complaint filed on February 20th by The University of Victoria Environmental Law Center and non-partisan Democracy Watch seems overwhelming. (For a summary, see Carol Linnit’s May 2013 article, “Harper attack on science: No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy,” in Academic Matters: The Journal of Higher Education.) Not only have government scientists been muzzled, but important research programs and mechanisms for collecting information, such as the Long Form Census, have been cancelled. Sometimes, as Linnit wrote, the suppression is ludicrous as when Mark Tushingham was prohibited from attending the launch of his own novel exploring a future world destroyed by global warming. Federal scientists in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are required to obtain high level permission to meet with the media to discuss peer-reviewed research.

The greatest repression is connected with environmental research:

  • The Harper government new rules on media contact led to an 80% reduction in department engagement on issues of climate change
  • In 2008, the position of National Science Adviser was eliminated
  • Scott Dallimore of Natural Resources Canada required the permission of Natural Resources Minister, Christian Paradis, to comment on his research on a northern Canadian flood 13,000 years ago
  • Postmedia journalist Margaret Munro was denied access to information or government personnel regarding Canada’s radiation detectors (She subsequently won an honourable mention from the World Press Freedom Award for her story on muzzling scientists; the Canadian Science Writers Association as a collective won the 14th annual Press Freedom Award for their work on exposing government restrictions on federal scientists and deliberate delaying tactics.)
  • Scientists in Environmental Canada were not permitted to discuss their paper published in Geophysical Research on the projected estimate of a 2 degree celcius rise in global temperatures
  • David Tarasick of Environmental Canada was not permitted to discuss his research on the ozone layer over the Arctic
  • Environmental Canada research scientists were not permitted to discuss the petroleum-based pollutants in snowfall near the Alberta tar sands except if their comments were restricted to scripted statements provided to them
  • Media liaison personnel had to accompany all government scientists at the International Polar Year Conference in Montreal
  • The Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2013 announced a policy that all scientific research undertaken by the department was confidential unless released by high level officials in the department
  • In August 2011, 700 Environmental Canada positions were eliminated in the name of fiscal restraint
  • By February 2012, the number of light detection and ranging stations to monitor ozone loss and fossil fuel pollution had been reduced from ten to five
  • Funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmosphere Studies was not renewed in 2012 forcing the closure in Nunavut of PEARL, the Polar Environment Aerospace Research Laboratory
  • Funding for the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy was cut in 2013 and it was restricted from making its information publicly available
  • Peter Ross, Canada’s only marine animal toxicologist, along with 1,074 other Department of Fisheries and Ocean employees, lost his job
  • The Harper government cut $3 million from the Experimental Lakes Area in an effort to shut down this natural laboratory for studying the effects of industrial and chemical pollutants on waterways and aquatic life

Year after year, the Harper government has received a failing grade from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression for policies which deliberately delay and prevent access to information. Canada was ranked 40th out of 89 countries in last year’s Global Right to Information Rating. Further, as Véronique made clear, the attack on evidence and on access to information goes far beyond environmental or even natural science issues. In my own areas of expertise, library resources and policy units have been closed down in departments like immigration and foreign affairs. The effort is not merely to protect and defend policies promoting resource development in the face of environmental criticism, but to make policy independent of any science-based foundation whether applied to incarceration of more people or with respect to immigration and refugee policy. Stephen Harper may have been the smartest kid in his high school class, but he has led a government dead set again evidence-based policies and in favour of policies which have a populist appeal. The mugging of scientists and the destruction of Canada’s esteemed mandarin class, the wrapping up of research sources and reporting mechanisms, are all part of one vast enormous but largely understated political scandal undermining representative democracy and responsible government.

c) Equality of Opportunity: Treatment of First Nations

In addition to the four benchmarks of liberty enunciated with respect to the Egyptian situation, there are also benchmarks of equality, most basically, equality before the law and equality of opportunity. There is an undisputed difference between the French and American assertion of rights and the “Johnny come lately” – in fact, very lately – Canadian version. Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms quoted above guarantees equality rights and prohibits specific types of discrimination by governments, but notably exempts affirmative action programs and denominational schools. These equal rights are not guaranteed to corporations which cannot argue that they have equal rights to freedom of expression in the use of their money and the support of political candidates and causes of their choice. Those equal rights accrue to natural individuals and apply to racial and gender issues, physical and mental disabilities and could be said to mirror the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in the US Constitution except equality was expanded from equality before the law to equality under the law thereby referring to outcomes and not just opportunities, to equal benefits and not just equal access.

Laws against advocating hatred could then be enacted without citing freedom of expression as a trump. The measure was not just abstract but dealt with practices if, in fact, discrimination can be shown to result for one group compared to another group in an analogous context related to a group’s actual needs, circumstances and capacities.  

In my blog on First Nations, I attempted to show that the law of real property inherently discriminates against aboriginal cultures. Nothing in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms redresses that inequality. Where the Charter does have effect – in the education of First Nations children – recent government fiscal policies have increased the discrimination against First Nations children and allowed them to fall further behind the situation of other Canadians as increased costs for education for First Nations children has been frozen for years at 2% when costs everywhere have gone up at the rate of 6% per year. As a result, aboriginal children have 25% less spent on them for their education, and, given the fact that many if not most live in remote communities where costs are much higher, that discrepancy is even greater. It is no surprise to learn that First Nations children are on average two years behind and have a significantly higher drop out rate than other Canadians. Given the above two pieces of evidence and the exceptional cases when exemptions were made to provide equal funding but only when First Nations agreed to merge their school boards with local non-First Nations boards, it is not too far fetched to suggest that, in spite of the apologies for the Residential School system, the underling trend of official cultural genocide or genocide by attrition against First Nations continues to be the pattern.

I say this with trepidation because cultural genocide or genocide by attrition is not recognized in the Geneva Convention even though Raphael Lemkin tried to include it. However, when side deals are made to equalize support when First Nations School Board agree to integrate with local school boards, then we can detect that something is amiss and that the doctrine of assimilation continues to be the prevailing doctrine when approaching aboriginal issues. This is the greatest scandal in Canada as far as I am concerned.

d) Access to Health Services – The Management of and Responsibility for Risk

Access to health care has undeniably become a defining Canadian value and, in election after election, in one commission after another, equal access as the core defining feature of the Canadian health system has been a dominant public policy issue. Even the Supreme Court’s interpretation evolved from its 1990 Stoffman v. Vancouver General Hospital in which health delivery was considered a private matter to 1997 Eldridge v. British Columbia in which Justice Laforest on behalf of a unanimous court ruled that governments are required to take special measures to ensure that disadvantaged groups are able to benefit equally from the delivery of health services.

The key variable in guaranteeing equality of access has been the distribution of human professional resources. The law may guarantee anything, but unless there are enough doctors, nurses and medical facilities in an area, the guarantee is empty. This was not adequately applied to aboriginal peoples. I, however, will focus first on taking away access to health care for uninsured immigrants and refugee claimants and then deal with the impact of Canadian policy on exacerbating inequalities around the world before I take up the issue of how the issue of equal access and the principle of managing the responsibility of risk is being downloaded onto the provinces and, likely through the provinces, back onto individuals. 

In my blog and study of health care policy, I argued that the Harper government has developed a gingerly approach to what is considered by most Canadians to be a sacred right as they are very proud of the system they have developed whatever its relatively minor flaws. The Harper Conservatives, in the pursuit of reducing the federal government, tackled costs only on the margins and demonstrated a Hobbesian liberal approach to the management of risk in this area by denying benefits to refugee claimants for relatively very minor savings of $20 million dollars per year. However, their major effort has been an anti-Hobbesian approach. The government downloaded future increases in health costs to the provinces thereby undermining the social contract as Canadian citizens of a sovereign state. The federal government has fractured even further the sense of sovereign and shared membership in this one crucial area as they continue to insist on preserving a unified sovereignty when it comes to aboriginal affairs.

Until 2016-17, the federal government will increase federal health care transfers by 6%. After that, increases will be tied to economic growth including inflation, but with a floor of 3%. Harper is simply obeying the “first law of cost containment” by opting for the easiest way to control costs through shifting those costs to others, in this case, the provincial governments and, likely down the line, increasingly to individual citizens. Given this trajectory, access, universality and comprehensiveness — as principles underlying the system to ensure the fair distribution of risk — will inevitably be undermined. The likelihood of expanding the provision of care to include pharmaceuticals, dental care or chronic care is unlikely.

 

The trajectory in this case is downward though it has been postponed somewhat.

e) Treatment of Religion in Quebec

Against the backdrop of incidents of inter-cultural conflict that were examined in the Bouchard-Taylor Report (B-T) that recommended against the banning the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols by personnel working for the state, my blog on that topic examined the effort to institute a Québec Charter of Values by the Parti Québecois that insisted on such a ban. I found that the initiative had virtually no empirical foundation, was inconsistent with the history of Québec`s Quiet Revolution, and was contradictory in its rationale and in its theory of state neutrality. The proposal is incompatible with respect for religious minorities and has stirred up a hornets nest of intolerance even though the general conduct of Quebeckers towards religious minority on the ground level has been very tolerant. Practice contradicts the preaching. The proposal is no longer supported by most Québeckers even though the proposal was initially supported by a very large majority. In the guise of the `neutrality` of the state, the initiative has been a misguided populist effort to save the fortunes of the Parti Québecois.

f) Democracy on the Municipal Level – Bob Ford and Populism

Whether he stopped the “gravy train”, whether he eliminated waste in municipal spending – a highly dubious proposition but with some evidential support — Bob Ford is perceived as a personable, approachable, regular average guy. He is not a strategic thinker nor will he work well in partnership with mandarins; civil servants are just servants, implementers of the will of their political bosses. Ford is tied to immediate gratification – excellence in service, cost savings, cleanliness – all very positive values but not helpful to the stuff that visions and strategic plans and tough choices and cost allocations require. Bob Ford is a rash, gut-driven populist where his knowledge and political street sense comes from his very large gut. His support, indeed his energy, comes from the Ford Nation who adore him and the name is its own revelation about the politics of Bob Ford. Populism is anti-democratic and I will write a subsequent blog to expand upon and elaborate this thesis further.

Part III – Conclusion

My message is simple. The record of democracy at the federal level, at the Quebec provincial level and at the municipal level in Canada’s largest city is a record of the revival of populism in three different forms to the detriment of representative and responsible government. Populism is inherently anti-democratic. Part of the fault can be laid at the feet of politicians of the left – whether Tory, Liberal or NDP – who have lost touch with the reality that Canada is a nation-state. In fact, it is a multi-nation state formed by the English-speaking nation originally constituted of a medley of Scots, Irish and English that made that Canadian Anglophone nation inherently multicultural, a Francophone – not Quebecois – nation and, most importantly, the First Nations. Because the nationalism of the latter was not only suppressed but crushed by a deliberate policy of cultural genocide put in place that continues to this day in more subtle forms of low educational and health support, denial of ownership of basic resources, in part because, for the last five decades, Quebec rather than Franco-Canadian nationalism has occupied centre stage in the political life of Canada, and because liberal ideological Canadians have sold out to the false god of cosmopolitanism and turned their backs on their roots as they pursued an unholy alliance of interest politics married to abstract values, we are in serious trouble. We gradually slide downward even as we celebrate our good fortune that Canadian traditional prudence has given us as a reward. But it comes with a complacency that is devastating in the long run.

Where is the vision? Where is the program to work towards making Canada a constellation of great nations? Where are the proposed structures – such as a revised Senate that can represent the First Nations, the Canadian Anglophone nation and the Francophone nation – to provide leadership and legislation to deal with these serious undercurrents and not be continually entertained by the follies and foibles of various forms of populist politics? For that is what populism is. Populism is entertainment and diversion for the masses while the politicians exercise power behind our backs.

More of this on populism versus representative and responsible government later in another piece.

 

 

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Science, Information and Democracy

Science, Information and Democracy 

An empirical case analysis as background for my talk: “A Philosopher Reflects on Governance in Canada: Is Democracy in Decline?” to be presented to the noon hour series for Senior Fellows at Massey College on September 23rd.

by

Howard Adelman

 

Abstract

Following interviews with the science journalist, Véronique Morin, the Webster McConnell Fellow in Journalism at Massey College this year, this blog surveys the various efforts of the Harper government to limit the output of scientific data, particularly that related to environmental issues, and access to data. The government redacts much of the data given out after delay, delay and delay. The article concludes that this is part of an even larger operation to undermine the professionalism of the civil service and its critical role in ensuring a strong and responsive democracy. 

Introduction 

Véronique Morin is the Webster McConnell Fellow in Journalism at Massey College this year who works the science beat, with an emphasis on research, for a science magazine program, Le Code Chastenay, on Télé-Québec. She had the idea and undertook the research for the documentary, Time Bombs, which exposed the horrific use by government officials of 40 ordinary soldiers in order to study the effects of the use of atomic bombs on the military in combat. The bombs were sometimes as much as four times more powerful than the bomb used on Hiroshima and at times the soldiers were only half a mile from the explosion. The soldiers were not told that they were being used as guinea pigs. They obeyed because they were members of the Queen’s Own Rifles and saw themselves as serving Queen and Country in following orders. Of course, the soldiers later developed cancer in extraordinary proportions and this fact was kept a secret from them initially and from the Canadian public. Even worse, some of their children were born with deformities or handicaps. Time Bombs follows the Atomic Veterans in their quest for recognition from the Government. The documentary won a Gold Ribbon award from the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, and a Best Documentary award from the New York International Independent Film and Video festival. Excerpts can be seen on http://productionsdelaruelle.com/PDLRweb/en/our-productions/trailers-and-excerpts/.

“Why did we go there?” the veterans ask. Why won’t the government acknowledge what was done to these veterans in Operation Plumbbob when Jim Huntley, the only veteran still in good health, confronts the politicians as the quest for justice is juxtaposed with never-before-screened film records of American nuclear tests involving soldiers. I asked Véronique why the officials in 1957 sent them since they knew by then the effects of atomic radiation. She thought they were driven by a combination of scientific curiousity and a desire to be part of the Big Boys Club with America and Great Britain.

Linked with my last topic on indigenous peoples, Véronique organized a panel of science journalists on “Science coverage of indigenous people” who are confronted with very high rates of diabetes, obesity and exceptional rates of suicide, particularly among the youth. How should science reporters deal with these issues when indigenous people may not share the epistemological assumptions of modern scientific inquiry? How does one reconcile journalistic integrity with scientific objectivity and cultural sensitivity? Véronique, a former President of the Canadian Science Writers Association, was also a key catalyst behind moves to investigate the Canadian government muzzling of government scientists. 

The Harper Government and Access to Scientific Information

I was out of touch with the media when scientists demonstrated last summer on Parliament Hill decrying the “Death of Evidence” and asserting “no science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy”. I had also missed the early April news that The University of Victoria Environmental Law Center and non-partisan Democracy Watch had requested that Canada’s Information Commissioner conduct a probe into “systematic efforts by the government of Canada to obstruct the right of the media — and through them, the Canadian public — to timely access to government scientists.” Calvin Sandborn, the legal director from the University of Victoria’s Law Centre noted that, “the topics that require the highest level of ministerial control are topics related to the tar sands, climate change, polar bears, caribou and the oil and gas industry.”(http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2013/04/02/Canada-to-probe-muzzling-of-scientists/UPI-87461364941159/#ixzz2f828QlBs (Science News “Canada to probe ‘muzzling’ of scientists,” 2 April 2013)

A press release said that Canada’s Information Minister, Suzanne Legualt, announced an investigation into six government departments over the so-called muzzling of government scientists. In actuality, Madame Legault simply confirmed that the decision to investigate fell within the mandate of Canada’s information commissioner for the federal Access to Information Act requires the Office of the Information Commissioner to investigate “any matter related to obtaining or requesting access to records” from federal institutions. Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, boasted that, “Environment Canada participated in more than 1,300 media interviews, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada issued nearly 1,000 scientific publications, and Natural Resources Canada published nearly 500 studies.” This, of course, said nothing about whether scientists were or were not muzzled. 

The Canadian Commission for UNESCO has also taken up the issue. It is ironic that in the same year those 40 soldiers were sent on a mission to be exposed to deadly radiation in 1957, both the Canada Council and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO within the Canada Council were founded following a petition of 16 national cultural organizations in Toronto in December 1945 and the inclusion of that proposal in the mandate of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts co-chaired by Vincent Massey. This explains the irony of a Commission within the Canada Council investigating the issue of access to government scientists.

Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly protects freedom of expression. According to rulings of Canadian courts, governments can restrict a person’s freedom of opinion and expression only for important overriding purposes. There are three tests of such seriousness: 1) is the override rationally connected to the purpose it is intended to achieve; 2) is the impairment as little as possible? 3) do the beneficial effects of any restriction outweigh the deleterious effects? The pattern of muzzling government scientists passes none of these tests and seriously undermines the three underlying values of freedom of expression: participation in social and democratic decision-making, attainment of truth, and individual self-fulfillment.

The initial probe is restricted to the following departments:

·                 Environment Canada

·                 Department of Fisheries and Oceans

·                 Natural Resources Canada

·                 National Research Council of Canada

·                 Canadian Food Inspection Agency

·                 Department of National Defence

·                 The Treasury Board Secretariat

 

The evidence of muzzling contained in the over one hundred pages of appendices to the 26-page joint petition and complaint filed on February 20th seems overwhelming. For a summary see Carol Linnit’s May 2013 article, “Harper attack on science: No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy,” in Academic Matters: The Journal of Higher Education. Not only have government scientists been muzzled, but important research programs and mechanisms for collecting information, such as the Long Form Census, have been cancelled. Sometimes, as Linnit wrote, the suppression is ludicrous as when Mark Tushingham was prohibited from attending the launch of his own novel exploring a future world destroyed by global warming. Federal scientists in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are required to obtain high level permission to meet with the media to discuss peer-reviewed research.

 

The greatest repression is connected with environmental research:

  • The Harper government new rules on media contact led to an 80% reduction in department engagement on issues of climate change
  • In 2008, the position of National Science Adviser was eliminated
  • Scott Dallimore of Natural Resources Canada required the permission of Natural Resources Minister, Christian Paradis, to comment on his research on a northern Canadian flood 13,000 years ago
  • Postmedia journalist Margaret Munro was denied access to information or government personnel regarding Canada’s radiation detectors (She subsequently won an honourable mention from the World Press Freedom Award for her story on muzzling scientists; the Canadian Science Writers Association as a collective won the 14th annual Press Freedom Award for their work on exposing government restrictions on federal scientists and deliberate delaying tactics.)
  • Scientists in Environmental Canada were not permitted to discuss their paper published in Geophysical Research on the projected estimate of a 2 degree celcius rise in global temperatures
  • David Tarasick of Environmental Canada was not permitted to discuss his research on the ozone layer over the Arctic
  • Environmental Canada research scientists were not permitted to discuss the petroleum-based pollutants in snowfall near the Alberta tar sands except if their comments were restricted to scripted statements provided to them
  • Media liaison personnel had to accompany all government scientists at the International Polar Year Conference in Montreal
  • The Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2013 announced a policy that all scientific research undertaken by the department was confidential unless released by high level officials in the department
  • In August 2011, 700 Environmental Canada positions were eliminated in the name of fiscal restraint
  • By February 2012, the number of light detection and ranging stations to monitor ozone loss and fossil fuel pollution had been reduced from ten to five
  • Funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmosphere Studies was not renewed in 2012 forcing the closure in Nunavut of PEARL, the Polar Environment Aerospace Research Laboratory
  • Funding for the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy was cut in 2013 and it was restricted from making its information publicly available
  • Peter Ross, Canada’s only marine animal toxicologist, along with 1,074 other Department of Fisheries and Ocean employees, lost his job
  • The Harper government cut $3 million from the Experimental Lakes Area in an effort to shut down this natural laboratory for studying the effects of industrial and chemical pollutants on waterways and aquatic life

Year after year, the Harper government has received a failing grade from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression for policies which deliberately delay and prevent access to information. Canada was ranked 40th out of 89 countries in last year’s Global Right to Information Rating. Further, as Véronique made clear, the attack on evidence and on access to information goes far beyond environmental or even natural science issues. In my own areas of expertise, library resources and policy units have been closed down in departments like immigration and foreign affairs. The effort is not merely to protect and defend policies promoting resource development in the face of environmental criticism, but to make policy independent of any science-based foundation whether applied to incarceration of more people or with respect to immigration and refugee policy. Stephen Harper may have been the smartest kid in his high school class, but he has led a government dead set again evidence-based policies and in favour of policies which have a populist appeal.

Populism is not democracy. Democracy is not equivalent to politicians claiming to express the will of the people. Democracy depends on the protection of minorities (in contrast to the policies of the minority government in Quebec). Democracy depends on free expression and access to and dissemination of accurate information so that civil society can be as well-informed as possible. Importantly, good governance depends on incorporating those values in developing an independent mandarin professional class of civil servants who can advise government on various options based on the best knowledge available to them. A mandarin class is not the antithesis of democracy but a requisite condition of its highest democratic aspirations.  The public interest is not and cannot be equated with private interests even as the worthy goal is pursued of preventing ostensible efforts at protecting the public interest from being used to squelch and restrict entrepreneurial efforts needlessly. When civil servants to keep their positions or rise in the hierarchy simply become toadies to the party in power and lose their independence, then the professionalism of a mandarin class is undermined and democracy is weakened.

Civil servants with impressive reservoirs of technical expertise are prerequisites for both formulating and implementing policies decided by government. That does not mean that the delegation going downwards can be badly executed or that the civil servants may not overreach and undermine the government’s ability to make decisions or that governments often will ignore sound advice and the knowledge based on experience and studies at their peril even when a quality mandarin class is available to them. However, the basic premise in a quality democracy is that mandarins propose but do not decide and mandarins execute but do not simply obey blindly. This premise has stood the test of time. Regimes which ignore this lesson out of conspiracy theories that the mandarin class is simply an ideological tool of an opposition party or the simplistic mantra that elected officials and not unelected civil servants must make policy in a democracy simply misrepresent how representative democracies work. They do not work by converting mandarins into lackeys trotted out for elected representatives to hide behind when convenient or kept behind the curtain when it is politically expedient.

Mandarins have the following responsibilities with respect to a democratically elected government:

·         To prepare professional quality options to facilitate rational decisions

·         To facilitate access to government from a wide variety of competing interest groups

·         To especially accommodate disadvantaged groups in the process thereby strengthening goals of social justice and equality

·         To insulate as much as possible the process of decision-making by those with exploitive, manipulative and/or repressive agendas by fostering broad participation and dialogue.

Accurate information and acute analyses that are widely disseminated are crucial to the process of fostering evidence-based discourse, the very foundation of the democratic cause and the foundations for an informed public.