Canada is about to face an intense political season, with the general election slated for October 19, 2015. Polls indicate the possibility of a minority government with the ruling Conservatives showing some momentum in recent surveys.
This week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper presented his 2015-2016 budget, with a lot of goodies for seniors, families, and business. With security very much a concern, the Tories continued their discourse about making Canada safer.
Harper was first elected in 2006. Normally, nine years in office results in a tendency towards incumbent fatigue. Last summer, it seemed that the Harper government was facing the distinct possibility of losing its grip on power.
Enter the debate on the ISIS (or ISIL) resolution to join the international coalition, add two homegrown terrorist incidents, and the game changed. While the official opposition under Tom Mulcair has been effective, and the Liberals have been re-energized under new leader Justin Trudeau, it seems that the complexity of governing has given Harper a decidedly new life. Experience may be his best trump card to overcome the fatigue. Mulcair and Trudeau promise change, but will it be enough?
When the Canadian House of Commons adopted a resolution back in early October 2014 to join the coalition to combat ISIS beyond its foothold in Syria and Iraq, there was a provision for a renewal of the commitment in six months. This Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced a new motion to extend Canada’s role in the coalition for another year. A major modification, however, expanded operations to include airstrikes in Syria—a sovereign country torn by civil war with a leader who has committed his own atrocities.
This being an election year, debate in the House has predictably strong partisan overtones.
The Harper government, fully conscious of the majority support Canadian have expressed in recent polls for Canada’s participation in the coalition, has argued to extend the ISIS mission to avoid a greater security threat at home. The so-called lone-wolf terrorist acts in the autumn in both St.-Jean, Québec (where a Canadian soldier was killed), and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa (where a reserve soldier standing guard was also killed) only reinforced Canadian support.
Bill C-51, the proposed legislation to give increased powers to Canada’s intelligence-gathering agency (CSIS), also benefits from majority support, even as the debate rages on between those wanting stronger security measures and those fearful of the lack of civilian oversight for the protection of civil liberties. It is fair to say that the Harper government sees further gain for its electoral prospects.
Last week’s international summit on terrorism at the White House showed how much the issue has become a central concern around the world. Evidently, the fear of a homegrown attack has understandably pushed many nations to enact more stringent laws and preventive measures. The recent spread of terrorist attacks in Western Europe and Canada has only heightened the urgency.
In Canada, the governing Conservative government has introduced legislation aimed at giving more powers to its intelligence gathering agency (CSIS) in order to diminish a repeat of the lone-wolf attacks of last autumn in Ottawa and St. Jean, Québec. The proposed legislation has received overwhelming support in a recent poll (according to a poll by IPSOS Reid, over 60 percent of respondents support it). The highest level of support actually comes from my own home province of Québec, usually more reluctant to enhance existing security measures.
The debate in the House of Commons in Ottawa is a foregone conclusion. The Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper have the majority in the House, and the third party Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has indicated his support, along with demands for greater parliamentary accountability and oversight. Official Opposition leader Tom Mulcair of the New Democratic Party (NDP) has led the charge against the bill, arguing that increased powers for the spy agency warrant serious concerns regarding the possibility that increased powers may violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Despite this, the bill will likely pass the House of Commons within in a few days.
To many outside our country, Canada has been characterized as a stable, durable democracy with a consistently enlightened approach to matters of public policy. The political parties that have governed the country since its inception in 1867 have usually struck a balance between ideological pursuits and the general values Canadian hold dear. Canada’s Supreme Court, meanwhile, has been devoid of the ideological splits that have characterized different periods in U.S. history.
Last week best illustrates how Canada can come to grips with some crucial and potentially divisive issues. On February 2, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper tabled new anti-terrorism legislation that went further than some (including myself), who cherish basic freedoms and favor restraints on police authority in the exercise of these freedoms, would have liked. The proposed legislation, however, does strike a chord with a majority of Canadians who are willing to give some leeway to authorities in combating the scourge of terrorism and in remembering the risks of homegrown terrorist assaults (this following two such acts last autumn on Canadian soil).
The opposition parties—the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals— immediately expressed serious reservations about the new police-type powers handed to Canada’s intelligence agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS (Canada’s version of the CIA).
The NDP has chosen to use parliamentary debate to extract amendments before indicating its decision to vote for or against the proposed bill. The Liberals decided to support the bill, but proposed stronger oversight measures for the elected representatives. This being an election year, we can expect more fireworks, with the ultimate assessment of the law being made some time after the upcoming Canadian election. But the debate in itself is healthy.
The phrase “campaigning in poetry and governing in prose” was coined by the late and former New York governor, Mario Cuomo. In the interests of full disclosure, I have been an admirer of Mario Cuomo ever since he gave the keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Since he passed away on January 1, the media have been replaying this landmark speech.
Cuomo’s later address at the University of Notre Dame in September 1984 on the Catholic politician and pluralism was also a classic. It has been considered a model for governance in a diverse and pluralistic society. He was quite the orator.
The DNC speech was meant to be the Democratic response to the so-called Reagan Revolution and the conservative vision of Republican politics back then. While President Reagan spoke of the “shining city on the hill,” Governor Cuomo countered with his version of the “tale of two cities.” It was a call for greater equality and more social justice. It explored how government can help provide opportunities for jobs, fight to reduce poverty, and contribute to the overall prosperity of American society. Above all, the Cuomo speech may have been the last hurrah of the liberal, progressive vision of America.
To some, the speech may be an eloquent expression of another time in history, and that its message is no longer as relevant or as electorally viable today. To those who believe this, it may be worthwhile to give it another listen. If anything, economic inequality has risen and poverty levels remain unacceptably high in developed societies. Cuomo spoke of America then, but he might also be speaking about America today. As a Canadian, I believed his message transcended the U.S. border, with relevance for Canada then and now.
A group of lawyers representing Ecuadorian villagers asked Canada’s Supreme Court on Thursday to try their decades-long case against Chevron in Canadian courts. The lawyers, led by primary attorney Steven Donzinger, are seeking compensation of about $9.5 billion dollars, granted by a judge in Ecuador for environmental damages in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Whether or not Canadian courts will take on the case relies on a juridical technicality called “corporate veil.” Although Chevron has subsidiaries with billions of dollars in assets in Canada, the corporate veil principal distinguishes subsidiaries from their parent companies and establishes that they are not responsible for the actions of their parents, thus making it difficult for Canadian courts to have claims to the case.
The lawsuit was originally filed against Texaco in 1993 for environmental damages caused between 1964 and 1990 by the company’s disposal of billions of gallons of oil sludge into local tributaries, in what has been called the “worst oil-related pollution problem on the planet.” After a $40 million dollar cleanup, Ecuador and Texaco signed a contract releasing the company from further charges. Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001, and in 2003, Donzinger filed a suit against Chevron that in 2011 resulted in $19 billion dollars awarded in favor of Ecuadorian villagers. That amount was later reduced to $9.5 billion, which the oil powerhouse has refused to pay.
As the dust slowly settles on last week’s terrorist attacks in St. Jean, Québec and the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, it may be a good time to assess the fallout. Overall, Canadians did not panic, and responded with compassion and moderation. The Canadian media avoided the sensational, and stuck to a balanced and thoughtful coverage. Canadian politicians were able to stand above the partisan divide.
It was also a time to reach out to our Muslim fellow citizens. Canada is a pluralistic society that cherishes its diversity. It was a moment to reassert our values and not succumb to finger-pointing or profiling.
Our U.S. friends and partners immediately expressed their solidarity. President Obama called Prime Minister Harper at the height of the crisis. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will also visit Ottawa.
In the past few days, observers in the media have tried to make sense of what happened. The how and the why are only beginning to be scrutinized. The theory of the lone wolf terrorist acting domestically appears to be a serious by-product of the war against terrorism. After two soldiers were killed within a 48 hour period, it is now obvious to most Canadians that the homeland is facing a threat where there is no textbook defense or tested, reliable counteroffensive. Granted, the two killers were troubled individuals who apparently became Islamic extremists, but their actions seemed to be motivated by propaganda on the Internet. This is difficult to assess, much less prevent.
Yesterday, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) concluded their investigation of the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec train derailment that occurred on July 5, 2013. According to the final report, the accident was caused by a runaway train carrying crude oil that was parked at the top of a hill for the evening, but upon its brakes failing, slid down the tracks and crashed near the center of town resulting in an explosion killing 47 people. The TSB determined that eighteen factors led to the catastrophe, but emphasized a “weak safety culture” as one of the major causes.
TSB found that the rail operator, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), which has since filed for bankruptcy, had a weak safety management system and lacked effective training and maintenance procedures. Their report also criticized the transportation ministry, Transport Canada, for a lack of management and regulation. The investigation found that Transport Canada was aware that MMA carried a higher risk of accidents in recent years due to an increase in the transportation of crude oil, yet performed few audits and failed to follow up when it uncovered problems.
The report recommends more comprehensive audits and improved technology to prevent runaway trains caused by brake failure. In January, the safety boards of Canada and the U.S. collaborated on suggestions to improve safety, given that crude oil transportation by train has increased considerably in the last ten years due to advanced technology and the subsequent shale boom. New Democrat Member of Parliament Hoang Mai has attributed the accident to the fact that “conservatives have left companies to monitor themselves,” and other opposition politicians have also blamed the federal government for the disaster.
On April 7, 2014, Québec voters chose to elect a majority Liberal government, and handed the pro-independence Parti Québécois (PQ) its worst defeat ever. Since then, speculation has surfaced about the future of the Québec independence movement.
In his first post-election press conference, Québec’s new premier, Philippe Couillard, struck a positive note when he was asked whether the idea of Québec independence (separation) was over. An ardent federalist, Premier Couillard astutely responded that you could not kill an idea. And he’s right both in fact and in tone.
The dream of an independent Québec has its origins in history, from the early settlers who followed Québec’s founder, Samuel de Champlain, to the British Conquest of 1760—where the struggle for survival and identity became the central theme within French Canada’s polity for the next two centuries, and beyond.
By the early 1960s, pro-independence political parties surfaced in Québec, in line with the progressive forces dominating the political debate of the day. The so-called “Quiet Revolution,” led by the progressive Liberal Party of Premier Jean Lesage, ushered in dramatic reforms in the economic, health, cultural, and educational sectors. With it came the rise of a democratic pro-independence movement that in 1968 merged into a political party—the Parti Québécois, led by former prominent Liberal minister René Lévesque.
After just 18 months at the head of a minority government, Québec Premier Pauline Marois went down to a stunning defeat in Québec's April 7 elections. The governing Parti Québécois (PQ), hoping to form a majority government and leading in the polls in early March, dropped from 54 seats to 30, and saw its popular vote numbers decrease from 32 percent to 25 percent. Premier Marois also lost her seat and immediately resigned on election night. The Québec Liberal party will now form a majority government, and its mandate extends until October 2018.
While subscribing to the adage that “campaigns matter,” I must acknowledge that this is the most spectacular turnaround in Québec election campaign history. This marks the fifth consecutive election that the pro- independence PQ receives less than 35 percent of the popular vote, and it has suffered four defeats in the last five contests. With a leadership race now in the offing, the often fractious PQ is in for some trying times.