10/15/2015 05:05 EDT | Updated 10/15/2016 05:12 EDT

Stephen Harper's Legacy Will Be a Democratic Deficit


Forget the election debate over budget deficits and tolerance of the veil. We have another deficit in Canada and it is neither looming nor veiled. We're in the midst of an incrementally created democratic deficit that after nine years of accumulated budget cuts, abuse of power, and muzzling diverse voices has now arguably put at risk our democracy's health and vigour.

Scientists, academics, and non-governmental organizations have recently demonstrated on Parliament Hill, published reports, and created websites detailing damage to national evidence-gathering and public conversations about ideas and policies.

Charges a 2015 report of the nonprofit leaders comprising Voices-Voix:

The government is dramatically impairing Canada's diverse knowledge base and eroding the ability of public servants, civil society and the general public to oppose or even simply debate government policies and hold it to account.

Democratic governance is kept honest and vital by the vigorous debate over ideas and approaches triggered by civil society groups -- charities, nonprofits, grassroots groups, minority organizations, churches, media, unions, academics, think tanks, scientists, business umbrella groups, social movements and more. As the very people immersed in these issues, the groups are experts by education, training, and real-world experience. Their vigorous participation helps ensure a healthy, wealthy, and wise future for all Canadians.

In past decades, these groups forced national conversations on issues that led seatbelt laws, smoking restrictions, national parks, an acid-rain treaty, minimum wages, paid holidays and other policies and programs that most of us see as highly beneficial. In a democracy, we've all got a stake in promoting the widest possible conversations

Several reports in the past year have critiqued accumulated government actions and their impacts. My own MA thesis, An Uncharitable Chill, triggered a national conversation in the summer of 2014. Media picked up my findings that the Harper government is abusing its power and causing an advocacy chill affecting some of Canadians' favourite charities. The government abuse was mainly through two processes: demonizing rhetoric aimed at damaging reputations rather than discussing issues, and using Canada Revenue Agency to fight the government's policy battles by harassing certain charities that favored different economic, environmental and social policies and options than the government.

The rhetoric and tax audits succeeded in diverting the attention of charities away from participating in public debate. Instead, they diverted resources to prepare for audits -- at the very time that society is immersed in pivotal and contentious issues that require their expert input.

The audits are just one in a series of federal actions since 2006 that deprived our democracy of the input of civil society organizations. Starting in 2006 organizations, including those often representing large constituencies or disempowered sectors of society, were surprised to be shut out of advance input in policy development. Input to early stages of policy had been in place through Liberal and Conservative governments since the 1970s.

Other organizations and experts have also raised their voices to warn of recent damage to democracy. Voices-Voix, a coalition of civil society organizations including charities, reviewed actions of the Harper government through the lens of human rights and the legal framework needed for a healthy democracy. Their downloadable 64-page report, Dismantling Democracy: Stifling debate and Dissent in Canada, documents "silencing" in four categories: the public sector, "knowledge" (i.e., evidence-gathering), the voices of marginalized communities, and voices through national security and foreign policy.

The Voices-Voix website boasts detailed documentation of the firing and attempted discrediting of government employees doing their jobs too effectively, layoffs and muzzling of federal scientists (particularly in environmental and fisheries departments), shuttering of research projects, and elimination of the long-form census that benefitted business and tracked social trends so that government could respond to upward-trending problems.

Dismantling Democracy itself explores shuttering of 16 government libraries and destruction of records, funding reductions that jeopardize the collection of Library and Archives Canada, and other measures that reduce government transparency and compromise the public's right to access information. The report also discusses government's actions muzzling government watchdogs, reprisals against whistleblowers, and cancelling the program that helped finance Charter challenges on behalf of upholding citizen rights.

Voices-Voix concludes:

The government's attack on knowledge appears aimed at the creation and publication of research and information that is inconsistent with, or critical of, the government's narrow political and economic agenda. Ultimately, the government is dramatically impairing Canada's diverse knowledge base and eroding the ability of public servants, civil society and the general public to oppose or even simply debate government policies and hold it to account.

We're losing our collective memory as programs and information sharing are shut down, internal experts fired, and opportunities for citizen input to policy reduced.

Other watchdogs decry threats to democratic health. The 2015 annual report of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) a major national organization of journalists is also highly critical. The review of free expression in Canada, warns that "Canadians have less access to crucial public information than ever before" before noting that on the flip side, government intrusion into our privacy has "grown exponentially" in recent years.

Sums up CJFE's report:

Years of government neglect and political interference have left our Access to Information system an antiquated, ineffective shell of what it is supposed to be. When combined with our total lack of effective protection for whistleblowers and a pervasive culture of secrecy in Ottawa, we are left with a perfect storm buffeting the strength of our democracy.

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault's 2015 report made 85 recommendations for reform. Legault found that only 21 percent of access requests resulted in information released in 2013-14, compared to 40 percent in 1999-2000, and the length of wait increased substantially.

Bill C-51 -- so-called security legislation -- was publicly dissected by renowned national security law academics Craig Forcese and Kent Roach last spring. Their well-reasoned blog entries kicked off a massive attempt to stop this bill by academics, experts, think tanks, civil-liberties and human-rights groups, unions, leading tech entrepreneurs -- an almost unprecedented cross-section of Canada's civil society. The bill eventually passed with the federal NDP strongly denouncing it and the federal Liberals voting for it.

Bill C-51 gives extraordinary powers to Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to run counter-subversion campaigns, including infiltrating and using "dirty tricks" to disrupt activist groups. In testimony before the Senate, Forcese and Roach warned of major danger ahead given the bill's empowerment of CSIS to break the law and violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms after a single, secret, one-sided judicial hearing with no possibility of appeal and no public disclosure of the event.

Spying on and disrupting peaceful Canadians exercising their Charter rights will no doubt disturb many of us. But it is demonstrably just the latest in a downward projectory of Canadian democracy, one of the many ways since 2006 that the Harper governments have defunded, prorogued, shut out, harassed, demonized, vilified, slandered, distracted, and muffled employees, watchdogs, whistleblowers, evidence-gatherers and archivists, charities, citizen groups, and opposition parties.

Is this the approach to governing that Canadians deserve? Luckily, while much of democracy is undergoing a downsizing, citizens still have the ballot box to register their opinions.


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