The State of Democracy in Canada

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


Howard Adelman

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



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.


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 With respect to the latter, for example, this country has withdrawn from certain international protocols such as the Kyoto Accord.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.


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.”

( (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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Rob Ford’s Populism Compared

Bob Ford’s Populism Compared


Howard Adelman



I have previously written on Bob Ford by asking whether he was a maggot and examining the question of stupidity. (See attached.) I now want to probe his populism. My informant on Bob Ford has been David Ryder. David was the bureau chief for the Toronto Star covering TorontoCity Hall and, more specifically, was the point man leading the paper’s coverage of the Mayor Rob Ford administration. He is the St. Clair Balfour Fellow in Journalism at Massey College this year. What I learned from David was that Bob Ford is a very hard working municipal politician dedicated to hearing the complaints of the city’s residents and getting something done about it. He has a solid base constituency of supporters comprising anywhere from 20-30% of the voters.

Bob Ford’s Approval

His supporters applaud him for stopping the gravy train and have determined that the press picks on him to degrade his image when his major accomplishment is being the cost cowboy at City Hall. The “stop the waste” mantra has been accepted even if the demonstration of waste has been marginal. He is also seen as personable, approachable, a regular down to earth guy, charming in his own way with the passions and shortcomings of the average man. He is definitely not viewed as a wealthy plutocrat.

He is clearly not a strategic thinker and operates by the seat of his pants, clinging to his short list of slogans. Unfriendly to bikers, walkers and even public transit in spite of his cheerleading for subways, he lives in the twentieth century suburban worship of the freedom of cars and their priority rather than in the twenty-first century move towards much greater investment in infrastructure, particularly mass transit. He is not a fan of mandarins or of expertise and sees civil servants as simply implementers to satisfy people’s every day needs – hence his tromping around with city officials in tow in response to taxpayers’ complaints to get potholes and sidewalks fixed. He is unable to present a long term strategic vision for the city or articulate core values whether it be a caring metropolis or an innovative one, or to understand how arts and culture as well as sports make a city liveable. One can be certain that he has never read the late Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of American Great Cities that had such an impact on thinkers and planners from this former American who settled in Toronto in the late sixties. Instead, he 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 gut-driven populist where his knowledge and political street sense comes from his very large gut. He is courageous and bold – indeed so courageous and bold that he becomes rash and pushes ahead on schemes without thinking them through. In that sense he connects with the everyday ordinary citizen who has to get by with whatever wit and wisdom he or she picks up without long spells spent on deliberation, winnowing down choices in a process of deliberative reasoning based on gathering the best available evidence to inform judgment. He may be a conservative but he is certainly no Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, or even a calculating cerebral populist like Stephen Harper.

Bob Ford Compared to Pauline Marois and Stephen Harper

What cerebral populists like Harper, sentimental populists like Pauline Marois and gut populists like Bob Ford have in common was very cleverly demarcated when Chantel Hébert in yesterday’s Toronto Star (21 September, A8, “PQ takes leaf out of Stephen Harper book”) opined that the PQ on the Québec Charter of Values was borrowing from Stephen Harper’s political recipe book. The common elements include:

1. Addressing very concrete problems in terms of abstractions and slogans:

·         Getting the government off the backs of the taxpayer

·         The obligation of government to be neutral

·         Getting rid of waste

2. Smudging the thin red line between politics and governance so that virtually all governance becomes politics:

  • The template of take no-prisoner governance becomes the mantra of governance
  • You are either a supporter of the Quebecois nation or a treasonous dissident
  • You either go along with me or you are my enemy

3. Political warfare against mandarins, even ones they appoint or even in their own office, who disagree with the party line while running the line that they are encouraging debate

  • Insisting that top civil servants are simply instruments of the governing party and punishing those, even if Conservative appointees, who dare to criticize – such as Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, and letting Nigel Wright carry the ball for the Duffy Senate scandal
  • Appointment of four new pro-Charter women to Quebec’s Council on the Status of Women to ensure that Council came out in support of the Charter
  • Appointment of a clearly incompetent and intemperate Dave Price and firing Mark Towney, his Chief of Staff, in May, not for anything he did but allegedly for offering advice Bob Ford did not like

4. Policies that smack of wedge politics to win a broader base of support rather than advance the interests of the city, province or country

  • The increase in lengths of incarceration for convicted criminals in blatant disregard to both costs, the lack of evidence for the need or the negative effects on both society and the incarcerated individuals
  • The Quebec Charter of Values sent to every household at public expense
  • Subways, Subways, Subways but no effort to even figure out how to pay for them

5. The war on evidence-based policy making

  • The muzzling of scientists
  • The absence of any evidence of how many civil servants wear ostentatious religious symbols, whether a single citizen was offended or treated in biased way  or even whether the citizen’s belief in the neutrality of the civil servant diminished
  • The wild improvised plan for Cherry Beach

6.  Indifference to the Rule of Law Combined with a Law and Order Agenda

  • The Senate scandal
  • The legal advice from provincial government constitutional experts that key sections of the Charter of Values would run afoul of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms
  • Too many incidents to list, including Bob Ford’s refusal to abide by the legal advice that he should not vote on a matter concerning his solicitation and use of funds to support his football team

7. The Extensive Use of Government Monies to Promote Political Agendas

  • The Federal campaign of up to $16.5 million for advertising to promote oil, gas and pipeline companies as well as other Canadian natural resources
  • The Provincial Government costs for promoting the Charter of Values
  • Bob Ford’s launch of his election campaign before the official January start date through sponsoring a number of events, including doubling his annual backyard barbecue now held in two city parks

8. The downgrading of the use of legislatures and councils for passing policies

  • If the federal legislation appears obstructionist to any agenda, Harper prorogues Parliament
  • The PQ went directly to the people with their Charter before it was even introduced into the House and put forth for debate
  • Bob Ford lost control of Council long ago and does whatever political mischief he can do outside the boundaries of Council

9. The Paradox of Secrecy for Such Ostensible Accountable Politicians

  • Harper is a very private and secret person while having been on record since his start in politics his belief in responding to the will of the people through referenda and recall procedures
  • Pauline Marois is totally opaque about the rationale for the Charter, so one cannot help thinking that behind it there are purely political motives
  • Bob Ford seems to be spread out before the people and is totally accessible to them while clearly having some type of underground life related to his probable addictions that leads him also to flee journalists

10. Extreme and deep-seated political partisanship

  • This is very well known of Stephen Harper and extends to members of his own party who cross him even when it is clearly an expression of the integrity of the Other, such as Tom Flanagan, his top political adviser, when Tom as an academic wrote a book about Harper and the Conservatives, and Brent Rathgeber who was forced to resign from the Conservative caucus when he insisted that his private member’s bill be given real consideration and debated
  • While saying they encourage debate, the Bloc fired Maria Mourani from its caucus when she offered a stinging criticism of the Charter of Values 
  • Bob Ford lets his city hall staffers go if they dare to cross him or question him

11. Control Freaks unable to Keep Control of the Political Agenda

  • Stephen Harper has been the exemplary control freak, insisting that MPs stay on message while ostensibly supporting open discussion and debate but he has lost control
  • Pauline Marois thought she was controlling the political agenda by introducing the Charter of Values but only two weeks into the debate it is clear that she has lost control
  • Bob Ford quickly revealed his desire to control the political agenda without discussion but quickly proved himself incapable

12. The Paradox of Personal Integrity

  • While in many countries populism is simply a cover for private corruption and unaccountability, in the case of all three levels of the government in Canada, the various expressions of different type of populism exhibit great personal integrity when it comes to personal expenditures but little integrity when it comes to a political agenda

Populism and Democracy

In the three jurisdictions where populism rather than representative democracy has become the defining benchmark, they are found in three different versions:

1) the cerebral populism of the Stephen Harper government;

2) the sentimental heartfelt populism of the Marois government;

3) the gut-led populism of Mayor Bob Ford mayor in Toronto.

But first a bit of theory. The French philosopher, Pierre Manent, a mentor of Brain Bidard, is my guide in this regard, although my interpretations of the three dimensions of populism in Canada are strictly my own. Manent made the point that democracy in Europe has become post-democratic, a jurisdiction of abstract rights divorced from its roots in history and the social contract upon which a state was founded, its national passions and sentiments. Modern liberalism does begin with the concept of the individual and rights, but it also begins with the separation of politics from religion – in secularism or what the French call their anti-theological secular religion, laicité.  For Manent, that separation is also at the root of the inability of the modern, morally neutral state to successfully dedicate itself to serving a higher moral purpose, whether that be the abstract “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine or the concrete challenge to end the mass killings of ordinary Syrians by the Syrian government’s use of sarin gas.

In Democracy without nations: The fate of self-government in Europe, Manent pointed to religion as the central element in the development of liberalism. That casting aside of one’s Christian heritage has become very widespread except, to some degree, in America. Let me give one very mundane trivial example from my own experience. When I began to teach at York University almost half a century ago, we had a meeting about developing a course on the history of modern political thought. There were five of us on the curriculum planning of this general education humanities course. I wanted to include six hours of the 78 hours of lectures on the history of Christianity, three on the role of Christianity in the roots of the development of modern political thought and three on its shifting role in the pattern that emerged. One faculty member on the committee was distinctly neutral about the idea. The other three were ardently opposed. As it happens, those three were all trained in the Christian ministry and one was a former bishop in the Anglican church. They remained committed Christians. All three were highly moral individuals. In a deep belief in the separation of church and state, they insisted that Christianity could not be taught as part of the course because it risked providing an opportunity for proselytizing. Modern history was an intellectual history in which religion had been confined to the private sphere; they argued against the futile counter-arguments of the one Jew on the committee.

Unfortunately or fortunately, it is just not true that religion has been successfully put under house arrest, though that effort has been part of the trajectory of modernism. The concept of individual responsibility and rights begins in Christianity. The concept of a community to which one is responsible and for which one is responsible and accountable remains part of modern discourse. Only it has been emptied of its meaning. Instead, we have replaced it with the idolatry of the people, an amorphous polity to which unscrupulous politicians can appeal when they want to escape responsibility for their own actions and cite a higher source without any connection to God. It is called populism.

In Manent’s analysis, democracy is only possible when it is rooted in the nation. Liberals who forget this create a vacuum that leaves a wide gap for an appeal to populist manipulation, sentiment and gut responses. Liberalism forgot its roots in nationalism and set out on a pursuit as mad as the attempt to build the Tower of Babel. The worship of cosmopolitanism abstracted from the state became its mission. (See Howard Adelman, “The Doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect: A Failed Expression of Cosmopolitanism,” in W. Kymlicka (2013) Rooted Cosmopolitanism: Canada and the World, UBC Press)

Democracy requires liberty. Democracy requires equality, not just an equality of rights but a quest for greater equality of outcomes, particularly in areas where the management of risk is crucial to preventing individuals suffering in ways unrelated to their talents and efforts. And democracy needs roots. It must be based in the history of a nation, not because those national roots are found to have been rooted in values beyond question, but precisely because, mixed up with individualism and equality, were other values that sabotaged individualism and equality. Each nation must know and understand the roots of its own national calculations, sentiments and driving forces both for evil and for good and celebrate the process of national overcoming and transformation rather than presuming that new inputs pose a danger or that subsequent developments – such as the vision of the state as the neutral adjudicator and administrator divorced from those roots – can offer a standard divorced from those roots. The whole of modern history and the efforts to effect such divorces yields, not democracy, but anti-democratic propensities and, in the extreme, authoritarianism.

The reality is that equality and liberty and fairness and justice in the management of risk require roots and require a sovereign state connected to those roots to defend and uphold those values. Neither the neo-liberal or neo-conservative tendencies, which are neither liberal nor conservative, to deprecate the state and minimize its role, nor the neo-Marxist and neo socialist efforts to exalt the bureaucracy of the state and turn that bureaucracy into arbiters of core values, recognizes the character of responsible government and the fundamental successful core values of a liberal democratic state rooted in its sense of the nation without idolizing either the nation or the state. These trends have forgotten the religious injunctions against idolatry 

We need institutions that protect liberty, equality, justice and the management of risk. We need a mandarin class employed by the state dedicated to those principles. We need to have that state supported by a respect for, indeed love of, common values which unite us as a nation. But these common values are not threatened by modes of dress or adornment whether associated with religion or with the Hells Angels. They are threatened when those values, because of the particular history of a nation, are viewed as antithetical to the religious roots of liberty, equality and social justice and the principle of fairness in managing risk. All religions are made to suffer in failing to recognize that the anti-movements – whether against the sovereign state (the neo-cons), against the nation (the cosmopolitan liberals) or against the very religious roots from which these values emerged – separatist opportunistic nationalists.

Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit in the section on Reason exposed reason as an irrational force when divorced from its spiritual roots and when reason became obsessed with appearances as the explanation for underlying tensions and problems instead of noting the way common sense deals with those problems. The focus on appearances and symbolic politics blinds us to those problems. Small “l” liberals who engage in this battle form the high ground of cosmopolitanism lose their foothold in dealing with the wave of passions and zealotry released by these idolotrous appeals and are in no position to combat them for they refuse to root their beliefs in the real trajectory of that nation, to understand and appreciate that trajectory and to recognize that without those roots and that pattern, the values which we esteem would and could not have been sustained.

Pierre Manent was correct in stressing the nation as the only viable form of a political community and its critical importance in remaining married to the institution of the modern sovereign state.  Pierre Manent has been correct to warn us that the efforts of Krojeve to build a post-Maastrcht Europe based on a neo-Marxist cosmopolitan mis-reading of Hegel and the efforts of the neo-cons to create a new Rome based in America that can be the imperial leader of the new world. These are mad delusions and a betrayal of the democratic roots of both regions. Canada with its head in France and the worship of laicité as well as possessing a contradictory love for a Kojeviam cosmopolitanism on an international scale and a belief that mandarins can be the state instead of servants of the nation through the state, has a propensity to forget where its feet are – in the ground and territory of Canada with a unique history and its own complex set of demands. When efforts are made to displace and replace – note the stress on displace and replace – democratic governments rooted in the nation and the sovereign state with governing structures abstracted from those roots in regional bodies – most successfully in Europe – or international bodies as with the efforts of Canadian pre-Harper Liberal and Tory governments – then we get rhetorical gestures and empty abstractions without political calculation, emotional attachments or the guts to put one’s body on the line to sacrifice for those values.

To accept religion as the roots of the modern nation-state does not mean jettisoning the state and the nation in service to a mediaeval religious vision as in Iran or in the vision of Al Qaeda. Rather, it means remembering and keeping in touch with those religious roots even as the nation and the state become the main outlets and expression of those religious origins. Fundamentalism, whether Islamic, Christian or Jewish – or its mirror opposite, secularism turned into a religious quest without roots – are the twin notorious dangers to the nation and the state and their marriage as the foundation stones for the democratic values of liberty, equality and fairness as social justice dealing with the management of risk. We require a passionate attachment to our histories. We require political structures to ensure that liberty, equality and social justice are pursued with vigour and with enterprise. And we require a recognition that populism is not democratic but is a multi-faceted threat to what democracy is and can truly be.

Democracies must recognize that power comes from the people. Democracies must recognize that that power has been vested in governmental institutions and representatives who have the responsibility to interpret what the nation needs and how the state can serve those aspirations. But democracy does not mean appealing to that power as if the state is not there and as if those institutions as forged over time do not matter. They are there to protect us from the very power that is the source of our strength but also the source of destructive behaviour. Democracy is both the demos, the people, and kratos, the strength and power that comes from the people. But modern democracy is built on the notion that the sovereign nation through the representatives of the people acting through a constituted legislative assembly enacts the laws on behalf of and for the people. Modern democracy is representative not populist.

Harper’s Cerebral Populism

One form of populism is cerebral. Stephen Harper was a Reformer dedicated to bringing a “purer” sense of democracy to Parliament Hill. Beware of politicians who stand on the mount of purity. The mantra was referenda and plebiscites, recall rather than responsible representation, a Tripe-E Senate – elected, equal and effective – that became more than ever a receptacle for patronage appointments to strengthen the neo-con ideology, limited government. But most of all, government was about the exercise of power, not to enhance liberty, equality and social justice as was the goals of the Red Tories, but to enhance discipline and control. The Conservatives alienated the separatists because of the underling contradiction between the neo-con ideology and that of the sovereigntists. The Harper government is in the process of alienating the 905 Tories because the belief in traditional values have proven to be a shill game sacrificed to preserve control as the state became more and more dedicated to preserving Harper in power rather than serving the nation. That government is even on the brink of alienating the Alberta nation rooted in the wealth produced by the Tar Sands because their champion is unable to engineer the pipelines needed to ship that bitumen to ports in BC for destination in Asia, or across the border to the United States still eager to consume fossil fuels. The government may be successful in getting that dirty oil to refineries in Quebec and New Brunswick.

The worst part is not the failures but the betrayal as the government spends millions flouting its successful championing of free enterprise as it fails to deliver a major free trade pact or an oil pipeline dedicated to international trade and as it was forced to retreat to the battlefield of cowards as it began to defend ordinary people with their own money against the predations of communication companies, airlines and banks. Even the defence of neo-con free enterprise core values would be sacrificed to championing populism if that was the calculation that staying in power required. In this case, the power vested in the state by the nation was not being used to distribute risk and enshrine fairness and foster equality, but for a misguided ideological definition of entrepreneurial enterprise.

Marois’ Sentimental Populism

Then there is the sentimental populism of Pauline Marois with its war on “ostentatious’ religious symbols that emerges as an assault on religious rights and freedoms. Its selective application to include “small” crosses hung around the neck or the big cross hanging in the national assembly since the time of Maurice Duplessis is revealing.  The exceptions betray the bias of that secularism. Secularism as a truly visionary enterprise allows everyone to practice their own faith while defending liberty and equality of opportunity. The Bouchard-Taylor Report concluded that this was indeed the overwhelming practice of Quebecers and the so-called clash of cultures that occurred were mostly stirred up by the media and political agitators.

Secularism is simply an ideological construct built on the lie that it is dedicated to preserving core values when it is, in fact, a betrayal of those core values which built democracy on the back of religion even as it rejected religion’s authoritarian propensities. Democracy is the respect for differences not the abolition of differences as the face of the state.

The key question of modernity is how to preserve the classical republican respect for public speech and mutual regard—what Hegel called “recognition” – in contemporary institutional forms that are also sensitive to the communal roots of a particular society.  In the Scottish liberal tradition, Adam Ferguson envisioned the adjudication of conflicts through political state institutions that set a primary value on social and political pluralism. (Cf. Andreas Kalynos and Ira Katznelson (2008) Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns, Cambridge University Press where they tried to show how civic republicans set the stage for the development of representative democracy that put a positive value of pluralism.) In the modern period, republic traditions espousing a common good required state institutional mechanisms, an educated and informed civil service that could defend liberalism and the emphasis on liberty, equality and fairness in dealing with differences while remaining sensitive to a particular history and social context. Representative and responsible government, not populist and ideological appeals, are the answer. The liberal idea of rights and the conservative idea of the importance of the rule of law, respect for the mandarin tradition but suspicious of the unboundaried growth of bureaucracy, genuinely suspicious of interest politics but also recognizing that the bashing of the state undermined the whole enterprise, aspiring towards service of the public good but also rooted in context and history – these are the benchmarks of representative and responsible government.

Minority Religious Rights in Québec

Minority Religious Rights in Québec


Howard Adelman


Minority Religious Rights in Québec

Against the backdrop of incidents of inter-cultural conflict that were examined in the Bouchard-Taylor Report (B-T) that recommended against the banning of the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols by personnel working for the state, this examination finds the effort to institute a Québec Charter of Values by the Parti Québecois to have virtually no empirical foundation, to be inconsistent with the history of Québec`s Quiet Revolution, to be contradictory in its rationale and in its theory of state neutrality, that the proposal is indeed incompatible with respect for religious minorities, to have itself stirred up a hornets nest of intolerance, to be unsupported by even most Francophone Québeckers even though the proposal was initially supported by a very large majority. In the guise of the `neutrality`of the state, it is a misguided populist effort to save the fortunes of the Parti Québecois.


I received the following response to my blog on Science, Information and Democracy

“OK, I need to blow some steam out about an unrelated issue.

I thought the piece sent by Cornelia was an excellent piece, but I was surprised about the note on Quebec at the end: “Democracy depends on the protection of minorities (in contrast to the policies of the minority government in Quebec).”

I wonder why some absolutely unrelated Quebec bashing seemed in order at this point of the text. In democratic terms, the anglo minorities in Quebec have way more rights than any franco minority in other Canadian provinces. Maybe the author had in mind the discussion over the Charter of values (about which I do have disagreements). Let me remind him that other countries, like France or Turkey, have embraced the idea that public institutions, as embodied in their employees, must keep a secular face. The reason for this secular face is to have public institutions that are more inclusive when acting with minority groups. One might disagree with this policy and argument (I do). But to call the Quebec government non-democratic because he opens the debate on the issue is unsubstantiated gratuitous Quebec Bashing. For me, it means that the person should learn about Quebec through other sources than the National Post.



Perhaps I was remiss in adding this comment quoted to adumbrate the analysis I would take on minority rights in Québec. In any case, here is the blog to offer the full argument.  For a full discussion of the French system of laicité, see my chapter entitled, “Monoculturalism versus Interculturalism in a Multicultural World,” Ch. 2, in Religion, Culture and the State: Reflections on the Bouchard-Taylor Report, Howard Adelman and Pierre Anctil eds., University of Toronto Press, 2011. The precedent of the French government in its actions on banning the ostentatious display of religious symbols by school children offers an important backdrop to the proposed Québec Charter of Values as was the longer term policy of laicité that served as the foundation for secularism in France over the twentieth century. Further, to cap the Quiet Revolution against the Catholic Church, Québec passed legislation that required new immigrants to be assimilated into the language of the French majority. While there had been a need to protect the French language in Québec, there were few cases of intercultural conflict, but the number of reported cases increased in what was dubbed the Time of Turmoil where 40 incidents were reported in contrast to the 12 cases over the previous four years and 13 cases over the 12 years prior to that. The forty cases led to the creation of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission to make recommendations on how to deal with these issues.

However, the biggest impetus was probably the initiative of the town of Hérouxville with no immigrants but the town nevertheless adopted a set of ‘core’ values, really bans on specific forms of conduct, to which immigrants had to accommodate to join Québec society, values that few Canadians would take exception to except for the context. That code forbade women from being stoned alive or burned with acid. Further, as the Globe and Mail concluded in a 20th September report following a visit to Hérouxville this month, surprisingly most residents interviewed did not appear to support the Charter of Values:

·         Marie Vaugeoi, a clerk in a busy convenience store on the way into town, the Dépanneur Vaugeois, said, “If a woman wants to wear a veil, that’s her business. People should have freedom.”

·         While Town councillor Jean-Claude Mailloux insisted that newcomers respect “our” rules, he nevertheless saw no reason to ban headscarves or turbans. “If you’re a good nurse, that’s what counts. It’s not a turban or veil that says whether you’re competent, it’s what’s underneath.”

·         A camp director, Gilles Brûlé, who receives many Muslim tourists, said, “Why do I care what they wear on their heads?…Whether it’s an army cadet with a beret, a Muslim with a veil or a cancer patient with a wig, it doesn’t matter, as long as I can see their face and talk to them….I don’t want a law that hurts some citizens…In the end, laws should be there to unite, not divide nationalities.”

Generally, the citizens of Hérouxville seemed to demonstrate the same tolerance for religious differences that Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor documented in their report.

The Findings of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission

In 2006, the Superior Court in Québec ruled that a Sikh student could wear a kirpan in a Québec school. In conflict with the rest of Canada, a Muslim referee insisted a female soccer player could not wear a hijab, a position publicly supported by Premier Jean Charest. Politically, in January 2007, the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) denounced the Québequois surrender to minorities. ‘Reasonable accommodation’ began to accrue negative connotations and Mario Dumont’s ADQ leapt from a marginal party to come in ahead of the PQ, in part by attacking the application of reasonable accommodation for visible minorities. Charest created the Bouchard-Taylor Commission Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d’accommodement reliées aux differences culturelles (B-T) in response.

Its mandate was to examine the wearing of conspicuous symbols of religious and the more general practices of handling diversity given the core values of Québec as a pluralisticdemocratic and egalitarian society. In “reasonable accommodation”, the term accommodement refers to an agreement arrived at by parties to resolve an issue of dispute entailing compromise, good will and good faith between them. In this specific context, it meant respecting everyone’s cultural and religious sensitivities. This did not happen in many of the pubic hearings and there have been many incidents where it has not happened in the aftermath of the introduction of the Charter on Québec values.

B-T documented that 15 of the 21 cases they examined were widely distorted in the press coverage and in the political reactions, distortions that were correlated with negative public perceptions. Ironically, one of the cases cited implied a dress code was required of nurses providing home care to the Boisbriand Hasidic community in CLSC Thérèse-de-Blainville; in reality, only 1.7% of the clients served by CLSC TdeB & home care services were Hasidic and services to that community constituted only 0.1% of all home health care; the health care workers were never subjected to a dress code.

Given the absence of any evidence of situations requiring restrictive dress codes and given that reasonable accommodation was working excellently on the grass roots level by most Québequois, the B-T Report did not agree with the French initiative in excluding certain forms of religious expression in the public sphere (B-T abridged, 45), including the prohibition against state civil servants wearing religious signs in public, even though the Commission did not know that in France, the charge that led to the ban – that girls wore a hijab for political purposes – had been proven false with the exception of a single case of two girls called Levy with a Jewish father and a Muslim mother.

Further, neutrality of the state in France had become, not simply a mechanism, but an ultimate purpose; secularism was an essential component of the republic’s identity, B-T found that the state prohibition was incompatible with both state neutrality and interculturalism. B-T explicitly linked secularism to institutional mechanisms in civil society and not just in the state institutions.  B-T concluded that, while French laicité was founded in opposition to the organized Catholic Church, Québec did not articulate its emancipatory mission to be directed against any religion. Finally, B-T found that, in contrast to the idea of assimilation dominating French society, interculturalism as the integration in a diverse society was to be accomplished through exchanges between and among citizens who learn to know and understand each other’s culture. 

What made the report even more important was that Gérard Bouchard was the separatist brother of one of Quebec’s most popular separatist leaders, Lucien Bouchard who had been a minister in the Mulroney government and a leader of the Bloc Québecois.  Gérard Bouchard belonged to the “civic nation” rather than the “ethnic nation” view of Québec society. He was trained at the Université Laval and the Université de Paris at Nanterre and had a distinguished career based on solid, deeply empirical and historical studies rooted Québec history and an analysis of the Québec imaginary.

Parti Québecois leader, Pauline Marois, criticized B-T for not enshrining the “common values” of Québeckers in legislation as her proposed Québec Identity Act would have done and her proposed Québec Charter of Values proposes to do. Critics argued that the state and the laws of the land in Québec had not protected the history and the majority culture of French Canada even though all the empirical evidence seemed to contradict such a conclusion. When the B-T Report emerged, Premier Jean Charest on 22 May 2008 dismissed the Report’s recommendation to remove the cross from the legislative chamber. Pauline Marois adopted his words and sentiments: “We cannot erase our history.” The harbinger of the Charter of Values had been laid down and the empirical research and philosophical analysis were ignored. 

The Restrictions of the Proposed Charter of Values

The proposed Québec Charter of Values by the Parti Québecois (PQ) government says it will prohibit the wearing of kippas, turbans, kirpans, hijabs and large crosses (but not small ones) in government offices, schools, daycares and hospitals to ensure the neutrality of the state towards organized religions. It dos not explain why small crosses are acceptable but small kippas are not, but the implication is there in the defense of the large Christian cross hanging in the legislature. The Québec Charter of Values does not impinge on religious practices outside government facilities or state employees when they are off work or if they do not display their religious symbols. The proposed charter does not even infringe on religious freedom to hold different beliefs and by and large engage in different practices. Except for wearing small Christian symbols, the Charter does propose to limit religious expression through the garments or jewellery or hats they wear when and if they are public employees during work This blog focuses only on this controversial provision of banning the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols when employed by the state during the time when one is working and ignores most of the remainder of the document. It does not take seriously the contention that the Charter will infringe on religious freedom, except to the extent that religion obligates the adherent to wear such appurtenances at all times. The blog insists only that the Charter will impinge on the self-identity of an individual and possibly make that individual uncomfortable with his or her faith and with his or her religious identity.

First, the ostensible motivation for introducing this provision is to avoid conflicts in institutions supported by the state over the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols even though the Bouchard-Taylor Report found that almost all of the incidents of confrontation over religious values occurred in the private sector. The one incident that occurred that took place in a Jewish supported hospital was over a request to two visitors not to eat the ham sandwiches they brought with them within the Jewish hospital which operated according to kosher principles. It was not an issue of wearing an ostentatious religious symbol. Further, unlike Bill 101, formally known as the Charter of the French Language, which Pauline Marois repeatedly compares to the Québec Charter of Values and which the PQ uses to compare the criticisms of both Charters on its website using an online quiz called Charte vs Charte, unlike that period in 1977 when there was a clear empirical demonstration showing that the French language was under threat and immigrants were assimilating en masse into the anglophone community that justified an exception from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there is no empirical evidence of any pressing need for the ban on ostentatious religious symbols. Bernard Drainville has not been able to cite any. He has only pointed to the esprit of the people, an ostensible “malaise” in the air. This Charter is mainly defended on the abstraction of ostensible neutrality.

However, the clear evidence is that the Charter is not neutral. The majority of Québeckers will not be affected by the ban. Further, learning a language reinforced an identity. Suppressing the wearing of religious garments and signs represses various minority identities. Bernard Drainville insists that the PQ is open to hearing criticisms but at the same time insists that changes will be minor. Jean-François Lisée, a PQ member from Montreal, said that any changes would be improvements — such as dropping the opting out clause allowing hospitals, municipalities and universities five years to implement the ban, a clause included ostensibly to allow institutions to gradually adjust to these newly imposed strictures, but now seen by PQ members as a gaping escape clause.  

Though the majority of PQ supporters support the proposed new Charter, support among Francophones has dropped dramatically in a very short time. On 23-24 August, a poll found 57 per cent of Québeckers thought the Québec Charter of Values was a good idea.  In a new poll conducted by Léger Marketing on 23-24 September, the support had dropped to 43% (49% of Francophones in general and 55% on the island of Montreal) and 42% were opposed. Msgr. Pierre-Andre Fournier, head of the Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops, criticized this provision of the Charter and warned that it could have unintended detrimental consequences, creating ghettos and isolating Muslim women in their homes. The Charter had to respect religion, not define it as an enemy in the halls of the state. On Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper criticized Québec’s controversial proposed Charter and suggested that it would not survive a court challenge.


Against this opposition to wearing ostentatious religious symbols (but not small crosses but definitely small kippas), Québec lost 45,400 jobs since the beginning of the year while the ROC gained 146,400 jobs, lost $1 billion in anticipated revenues preventing the achievement of a balanced budget, buried a report on the future bankruptcy of the Québec pension plan, witnessed dried up investments for developing natural resources in the province. Ontario used the occasion to attract brains away from Québec by advertising that Ontario does not care what is on your head, only what is in it.


The dominant values of Québec do indeed uphold pluralism, democracy and egalitarian values. But the exclusion of the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols does not. It is an appeal to the fears of pure laine francophones that they will become a minority in their own society, a fear without any empirical foundation and, in any case, not really addressed in the proposed Charter. The Charter has been opposed by a cross section of federal politicians – Employment Minister Jason Kenney who has echoed Stephen Harper`s vow to challenge the charter in the courts, New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair, who has dubbed the proposed charter as an appeal to “base politics” and as fostering “state-sanctioned discrimination”, and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau who accused Marois of playing “divisive identity politics”.  The political foundation for the charter is a populist appeal not based on history or any empirical evidence that it will address any real problems. It is riven with inconsistency. It is also strongly opposed by sovereignists like Gérard Bouchasrd who are champions of a civic nation of Québec; he saw only harm and divisiveness emerging from the Charter. When a Québec mother objects to having her child taken care of by a woman wearing a hijab, the problem is not in the woman wearing the hijab but in that Québec woman. When a patient in an American hospital objects to a black doctor taking care of him or a patient in a Canadian hospital objects to a Sikh doctor offering medical care or a Jewish man on a gurney in an Israeli hospital in the film Attack objects to a Palestinian doctor offering emergency services, the fault is in the objector not in the one offering neutral and professional services. 

Rebellion: Parashat Korah, Numbers 16:1 – 18:32 – 08.06.13

Rebellion: Parashat Korah, Numbers 16:1 18:32                                                 08.06.13


Howard Adelman


On Wednesday 5 June 2013, MP Brent Rathgeber, who represents the riding of Edmonton-St. Albert in the Canadian legislature, resigned from the Conservative caucus and will now sit as an independent. The catalyst for his resignation was the gutting of his private member’s bill on transparency in the public sector, the proposed CBC and Public Service Disclosure and Transparency Act, and its provision that all civil service salaries above $188,000 be disclosed. The committee raised the level for disclosure to the maximum amount payable to a deputy minister, about $444,000, so that even the vast majority of deputy ministers will not have to have their salaries disclosed. Seven conservative members present voted for the change without arguing for it.

I say that the gutting of the bill was only the catalyst because Brent Rathgeber has long chafed under the system of following orders issued by the PMO. So have other Conservative MPs such as Mark Warawa, the outspoken anti-abortion MP. Further, only three of the seven Conservatives who pushed through the change in committee were regular members. One member from BC and three members from southern Ontario — Chris Warkentin (Peace River), Ted Opitz (Etobicoke Centre) who was allowed to keep his seat in spite of voting irregularities in the last election, Dave MacKenzie (Woodstock) and Costas Menegakis (Richmond Hill) — substituted for Dean Del Mastro (Peterborough), Colin Mayes (Okanagan), Blaine Calkins (Wetaskiwin) and Earl Dreeshen (Red Deer) who did not attend. The latter two MPs from Alberta did not respond to media requests to explain why they did not attend, suggesting possibly that they were sympathetic to the position of Brent Rathgeber but were unwilling to join Rathgeber’s open protest.

Brent Rathgeber said: “I’m obviously very, very disappointed both with the government position and certainly with the [committee’s Conservative] colleagues, many of whom philosophically support this legislation unequivocally, but seemed powerless to resist the instructions that were given to them by the [Prime Minister’s Office], by the whip or wherever the final instructions came from.”

Let us examine the so-called Korah rebellion against the background of Brent Rathgeber’s resignation. Korah’s actions against Moses and Aaron can be compared to Rathgeber’s in the following ways:

1. Korah was a cousin of Moses; Rathgeber had no family relationship to Harper.

2. Korah was a Levite, a member of the priestly class; Rathgeber had no special status.

3. Korah sought out 250 men of renown to join the protest; Rathgeber acted alone.

4. Korach combined religious leaders (Levites) and political leaders, Datham and Abiram, from the tribe of Reuben in a united front; Rathgeber’s action was strictly political but rooted in an ethical concern with transparency and accountability.

5. Korah’s rebellion was not an armed insurrection; neither was Rathgeber’s.

6. Korah’s rebellion was not a refusal to obey orders; Rathgeber explicitly resigned because he was fed up with belonging to a caucus that took orders from unelected young guys working in the PMO.

7. Korah’s rebellion was not even a challenge to the leadership of Moses and Aaron but simply a request that power be shared to a greater extent; Rathgeber’s resignation was explicitly a challenge to the way Stephen Harper acted as a control freak.

8. Finally, in the rationale for Korah’s action, he argued that God’s spirit was in all the people and not only in the elite leadership. “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3) After all, the Torah does say that the whole community is holy (Kulam Kedushim) and God resides in their midst. As God said at Sinai, “You [the nation of Israel] shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) This was precisely the same point that Rathgeber made when he protested that the requirement to follow orders betrayed the Conservative Party pledges and its mandate.

There are a number of other interesting observations that can be made. According to the account, Korah’s rebellion seemed to have wide public appeal. I suspect Rathgeber’s action did as well. Rathgeber’s action was not called a rebellion but a protest made by walking with his feet. Korah’s action is virtually universally referred to as a rebellion even though the protesters were unarmed, never stated that they would no longer follow Moses or Aaron or was in any way an effort to destroy either Moses’ political or Aaron’s religious leadership or to remove them from positions of authority, though they clearly wanted to diminish that authority. It is puzzling altogether why Korah’s actions should be seen as a rebellion.

However, that is how virtually all commentators view it. Further, though many if not most might be sympathetic to Rathgeber, virtually all condemn Korah. Why?

First, many contend the protest aimed to challenge Moses’ political and Aaron’s religious leadership. After all, this is clearly how Moses saw the actions citing the principle of divine right. The rebellion was against the Lord and not against Aaron for Aaron was chosen by God to serve as the leader of the priesthood. The rebellion of Dathan and Abiram was against him and they subsequently did refuse to obey Moses’ orders to face him fearing that Moses would kill them. “Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, except thou make thyself altogether a prince over us?” (Numbers 16:13) Moses self-righteously defended his leadership arguing that he has been perfectly honest and a just ruler, not hurting one of them or depriving any one of their property.

The virtually universal condemnation of Korah by commentators accuse Korah of ambition in seeking a piece of the action, of seeking positions as judges and priests and being dissatisfied with the holy roles assigned them of physically taking care of the tabernacle, of mischief making, of being shit disturbers, of sewing dividiveness among the people, of challenging the need for strong leadership, of pride, arrogance and self-exaltation which they are doubly sinful of for they project those qualities on Moses and Aaron, of jealousy and envy that they were not chosen, of populism for they appealed to the will of the people that had so recently been “polluted with sin”, of injustice for they accused Moses and Aaron of usurping power when that authority was assigned to Moses and Aaron by the Lord, of usurping power themselves by engaging in the burning of incense that was a priestly duty, of projecting their own sins on Moses and Aaron for it was Korah, Dathan and Abiram who tried to supersede their authority, of speaking evil against the leadership, of being traitors for they had exalted Egypt as the land of milk and honey in contrast to the wilderness they were now in (see Numbers 16:13 quoted above), of falsely accusing Moses of betraying the promise of delivering the people to the land of milk and honey, and, most of all, of rebellion against the will of God. “For which cause both thou and all thy company are gathered together against the Lord: and what is Aaron, that ye murmur against him?” (Numbers 16:11) God worked in mysterious ways and whether it was His mysterious ways or the ways of the invisible hand of nature or the cunning of reason, the rebels were challenging the laws of the universe.

However, most of these accusations are really repetitions of what Moses said or implied and not representations of what Korah and the other protesters did and said. For the 250 notables only said that you, Moses, have gathered too much power in the PMO, and have removed yourself from the people and taken upon yourselves power that should be returned to the people. There is absolutely NO evidence that they were asking for positions, were unhappy with their positions, or were stirring up the people. They were certainly giving voice to a sense of disquiet. Why is protest regarded as arrogance, pride and self-aggrandizement? Why is a different interpretation of their political condition and the flow of history regarded as sedition? Is it not the responsibility of everyone to speak their mind, stand up and be counted?

Evidently not if you are not echoing the party line, what is seen as the word of the Lord. Then speaking your mind is a sin. Then calling for sharing of power is a usurpation of power. Then such a challenge is a message for the leadership answering back and asserting that you are either for me or agin me. Make a choice. And God will choose those who are on the side of the Lord and the flow of history. Rathgeber, you owe it to the people who elected you as a Conservative candidate to resign and go back to seek a mandate from the people for being independent and an iconoclast. That was the response of the PMO. That is the response of Moses. Let us test your challenge.

Further, the terms of the test are set by the leader. It is not the protesters on their own who light the fires of incense against priestly regulations. Moses instructs them to do so in the true savvy of a Lenin who cunningly tricks the protesters into usurping the rules of the game.  Korah is a naïve Levite, but Dathan and Abriham are too politically astute to be sucked into the schemes of Moses even as they mistakenly interpreted the history of the people as a path of despair rather than hope. They played on the fact that Moses had come from being raised as a prince in the court of the Pharaoh and was not raised among the people. Thus, he had been conditioned to raise himself above everyone else. And Moses puts forth his integrity and self-sacrifice as a defence when there never was any accusation that Moses was in business to line his own pockets.

The congregation backed away. They witnessed the unbelievable event of the rebel leaders being swallowed by the earth and/or being consumed by fire, presumably from the own vessels of incense, and disappearing from history. What we have is an image of a sinkhole rather than an earthquake. For there is no shaking and trembling – just an opening up into what appears as a bottomless pit. The protesters were treated as all protesters are by totalitarian leaders. They join the disappeared.

However, the retreat of the people is only temporary. They stir up their courage and return to Tahrir Square in Cairo or Taksim Square in Istanbul, and show up in even larger numbers to accuse Moses of killing God’s people when he used such drastic and violent methods for suppressing the protest. Infuriated, God mows the people down inflicting them with the plague. “Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment.” (Numbers 16:45) If you think the casualties in Tahrir or Taksim Squares or even in the slaughters in Syria were bad, 14,700 unarmed civilians were instantly wiped out simply for wanting a Voice. Aaron intervenes and serves once again as the mediator and moderator against the wrath of both Moses and God. Aaron and Moses once again play the game of good cop, bad cop. As Moses said, as the Turkish Prime Minister, Racep Tawip Erdogan, said, the protesters are all agitators, extremists and terrorists. They are not interested in environmentalism or the well-being of the people. We will stick to our plans. We will not get off message.

Therefore, how can Korah’s protests be considered a sin? Korah’s failure is not his arrogance or his pride or ambition, not his dissatisfaction nor his trouble-making, not his divisiveness nor his envy, not treason nor usurpation of power. Yeshayahu Leibowitz in a lecture at HebrewUniversity years ago said that the sin was not in Korah’s protests, but in his assumption and interpretation that the Israelites were holy instead of understanding that holiness was a task and an aspiration God granted to the Israelites. It was not an essential given. The protesters were not wrong in seeking a greater distribution of power, but wrong on why that power should be distributed and, therefore, how. The Israelites are chosen not because they are holy but because their task is to become a holy people. Tzitzit are not holy because they are made of blue threads but because there is one blue thread sewn into the fringes. The whole is not made holy by the actions of everyone but by the actions of the singular one. Korah was a populist. The failure to recognize the fallacy of populism was Korah’s sin, not his challenge to priests or rabbis that they alone are divinely sanctioned to interpret, teach and instruct nor his challenge to the chain of command. In seeing himself as the embodiment of the people’s holy will, he was far guiltier of the usurpation of authority than the Israelite leadership.