As Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party seek a majority mandate, there is no shortage of speculation on either side of the map as to what a
non-progressive Conservative majority would look like in Canada. By some accounts, we’d see a new capitalist utopia of crime fighting and McJob creation. By others, we’d see a social agenda unleashed which, now completely unbridled, would rewrite Canada into a Christian Nationalist dictatorship.
But we’ve seen already how Harper is completely cognizant of Canada’s inclination for social progress, and having to tightrope in order to maintain the far-right extreme and the centrist support he needs to maintain power. Stephen Harper is gaming, and he is not going to seek only a 4-year majority. He is in it for the long haul, and that means tightroping for as long as he can.
We’ve also seen the disparate and cross-purposed groups that make up his far-right base, composed mostly of Christian Nationalist personalities but divided between Evangelical and Catholic Fundamentalist segments uneasily yoked, along with brands of Christian Zionism and a skewed form of Libertarianism in order to co-opt additional support. Although somewhat cohesive thus far, it is inevitable that some of these groups will split and diverge, and it’s already been happening on a micro-scale. Whether it will happen enough for the Harper Conservatives to find their base shifting beneath their feet remains to be seen. But it’s often felt that Harper is coming to a crossroads where he will be expected to either act in favour of his political base, or decide that he no longer needs them. While that pressure is there, I expect that he is more likely to continue providing favours and gestures rather than anything epic, to keep his highwire act in the same state of equilibrium it is now.
So what we would likely see from a Conservative government is really neither of the expected scenarios, but more of what we have seen in the past 5 years, taken as far as they feel safe without awaking the sleeping centrists. But this certainly doesn’t mean that they have no intent of meddling in the bedrooms of the nation, or undoing social progress. Or that it isn’t something to be concerned about. Instead, we need to take a closer look at the devil we know.
Brad Trost embroiled the Harper Conservatives in mid-election controversy when he bragged about “defunding” Planned Parenthood for the past 16 months, to the Saskatchewan ProLife Association. Harper responded by stating that he had no intention of reopening the debate about whether or not abortion should be legal in Canada. He also stated that Planned Parenthood had not been defunded, and that if they qualify for G8 initiative funding, then they qualify. Because, of course, they’ve never gone back on their word about things like that before and hoped that no one would notice.
Trost’s language on the issue — about defunding Planned Parenthood as a victory for anti-abortion activists — is telling if you’ve noticed the recent upswing in activity in the US. This is a major objective for them there, and as we saw in the previous part, the President of Campaign Life Coalition is not just a big player in anti-abortion activism in Canada, he is also involved on the world stage. So the Canadian counterpart is well aware of the activism happening in the US, and pushing for similar here. And most notably, many of these efforts are being done without reopening the debate about whether or not abortion should be legal.
It’s worth looking at Planned Parenthood and US anti-abortion activism specifically, for a moment. Around the time of the 2009 US federal election, a sting operation was done to discredit an organization (ACORN) which helped poor and disenfranchised (and often Democrat, although the organization never told people who to support) voters to the polls. A videographer and accomplice posed as a pimp and sex worker, went into several ACORN offices to seek assistance, made statements that implied that human trafficking was involved, and then disseminated video of instances where it seemed that ACORN employees were assisting (or at least failing to report) human traffickers. The organization had been almost completely defunded by federal and state governments, and was forced to close its doors by the time evidence surfaced that the videographer had creatively edited his footage, had made some claims that were actually false, and that the whole operation was a sting designed to create “gotcha” videos to kill the organization.
It worked so well that Live Action decided to do the same thing to Planned Parenthood. But PP employees weren’t as keen about assisting human traffickers, and several offices reported to the parent office about unusual inquiries. By the time PP head office reported human trafficking activity to the FBI, they already suspected a sting operation.
In each case, according to Planned Parenthood, the man sought to speak privately with a clinic employee and then requested information about health services for sex workers, including some who he said were minors and in the U.S. illegally.
Republican legislators there pressed ahead anyway, claiming that the videos that surfaced in later weeks were 100% unedited (later disproven) and conclusive proof of PP aiding human trafficking (also disproven). Defunding Planned Parenthood became the catch-phrase for attempts to cut all funding for womens’ reproductive health, including cancer screening, contraception and more (Title X), and also became a deflecting rallying cry for a pile of legislation (both state and national) to limit access to abortion, without actually making it illegal. While Title X funding ended up being the one and only thing that Democrats didn’t compromise in order to avoid Republican efforts to entirely shut down the federal government, anti-abortion opponents have won at driving their issues to the forefront, even ahead of the U.S. economy.
And speaking of contraception, the Harper Conservatives initially refused to include birth control in their landmark G8 Maternal Health Initiative to improve life and health for mothers in impoverished countries. Is this an indication that “family planning” is defined as abstinence-only in the halls of Harper, and if so, how much abstinence-only education money goes to proselytization?
This is why it was so important to Brad Trost and the crowd he spoke at to “defund Planned Parenthood.” This cross-pollination of objectives (and as we’ll see, tactics) across the border is important to watch, especially in light of the massive surge in anti-abortion activity in legislative chambers in the past few months (almost all without actually “reopening the debate” about abortion being legal). Not to mention the fact that the Harper Conservatives have already been engaging in very similar but more discreet efforts here. With the US surge, Harper’s base will not tolerate lack of activity against abortion for very long here… especially if he achieves the majority government he is seeking.
(I should probably go on the record for a moment as saying that I really don’t like abortion. And although I tend to line up on the pro-choice side of the debate, I realize that neither side is perfect. That said, I do realize that the issue is far more complex than simply one of wayward women abusing the procedure as a form of contraception. I also realize that the rhetoric against abortion has been ramped up so much that it has gone beyond rational, even to the point of making God complicit in rape. It’s necessary that it be available in our society — and when it’s necessary, it is often very much so, and cannot be encumbered with monumental roadblocks designed to mandate a certain perspective about how women should live their lives, as well as ignore everything else that is at issue. A society needs to have abortion available, and also has a responsibility to promote awareness so that it becomes hopefully less necessary, including availability of contraception and reliable sex education — which are ironically things that Planned Parenthood provides, and things that anti-abortion activists very often oppose)
Long before the Planned Parenthood campaign, anti-abortion groups have lobbied for “personhood” amendments to existing legislation which would enshrine into law that a foetus is a person, and eventually re-categorize abortion as murder. These have almost overwhelmingly failed, as have similar efforts in Canada, but had accidentally led to some successes that translated into a new and more effective tactic: restricting access to the point of impossibility.
But let’s backtrack a moment and illustrate how Harper Conservatives have fought the personhood amendment fight here. This derives from the age-old question of when a foetus becomes a person, and which point it becomes entitled to human rights. There are several different possible benchmarks, such as biological life, social identity or functionally independent existence, and none of them point to a specific moment (other than, perhaps, birth), so the beginning of life is obviously a process — something that doesn’t work in law, which demands specificity. Even anti-abortionists don’t necessarily agree on a benchmark, although some consider it to be fertilization (and even that is problematic, since the body naturally ejects many fertilized eggs during menstrual processes). Currently, the law places this benchmark at birth.
Bill C-510 was the most recent and best example at personhood initiatives undertaken by Harper Conservatives like Trost, Rod Bruinooge and Maurice Vellacott.
Roxanne Fernando was murdered after her boyfriend was unable to threaten and intimidate her into having an abortion. The bill that co-opted her tragedy was said to address coercion only, but also sought to make pregnancy an aggravating circumstance during sentencing, so that there is greater weight in punishment when a foetus dies as a result of coercion, which on the surface would seem reasonable. They’re banking on the mainstream public having enough empathy for situations where wanted embryos die to establish exemptions that can then be expanded upon. The idea behind this kind of legislation is that if the foetus is encoded into law as life in an erosive manner, eventually, it becomes illogical for abortion to be treated as anything but murder.
The law was ultimately voted down, with Harper himself amongst those who voted against it. In the US, though, the Planned Parenthood campaign has sparked enough momentum to propose extreme personhood clauses that would establish the first heartbeat (18 days) as the moment life begins, ban certain kinds of contraception and all abortion without exception, and even enshrine wording which would make it technically legal to murder abortion providers. And because people get so worked up about the extreme bills, they fail to notice when the seemingly moderate bills pass. This is how one reframes the debate and causes the conversation to lurch so far to the right that even centrism looks like radical leftism.
It’s worth noting how the Harper Conservatives have been going about this. Harper can’t be seen to support socially regressive legislation without angering or losing support of centrists, so Conservative backbenchers have been introducing these as private members’ bills and feigning that there is no actual party support. Leon Benoit introduced one (C-291, which targeted “fetal homicide”) in 2006, Maurice Vellacott in 2008 (C-537, to enable religious-justified refusal of health care), and Ken Epp in 2008 (C-484, describing “unborn victims of crimes”) among others, in addition to Bruinooge’s “Roxanne’s Law.” Each uses stealthy language to shift the debate rightward slightly.
But the tactics haven’t ended there, either. There is, of course, the matter of “defunding” Planned Parenthood.
Another of the American far right’s tactics has been to restrict funding to organizations that assist abortion in any way, and even prohibit the distribution of contraception. The internationally notable President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) fund has been an example with this, experiencing increasing restrictions placed by legislators under Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations to ensure that access to this funding is not available to organizations that assist sex workers, mandates a minimum of 1/3 of funding be provided to abstinence-only education, uses abstinence-only restrictions to deny funding to LGBT organizations, and more.
In Canada, we’ve seen this same approach through the massive defunding of womens’ health organizations, both here and in Canada’s international work. From the Globe and Mail:
“We now have some concrete things to point to,” said [Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), spokeswoman Carolyn] Egan, detailing the Harper government’s controversial decision last year not to fund any groups that offered access to abortion in their global maternal health package, and a severely restricted access to abortion in New Brunswick that pro-choice advocates say violates the Canada Health Act – women have to pay out of pocket for abortions if they go to a private clinic. Then there is a succession of anti-abortion private member’s bills, one of which, Bill C-510, enjoyed support from 87 members of the Tory caucus and several cabinet ministers, even though Harper had asked his cabinet to vote against it.
If his MPs don’t listen to him in a minority situation, how will being solidly in power bring them to heel? Short answer, it won’t. Besides, depending on the outcome of the election, there is no iron-clad guarantee Mr. Harper would serve out his full term and after him, then what?
Judith Szabo and Pearl Eliadis compiled a starter list of defunded organizations reposted by Dennis Gruending. The cuts go far beyond reproductive health to just about every social issue in Canada. Without reopening the debates on them — in fact, the whole point has been to act in stealth. Here’s a tiny sample:
· National association of Women and the Law (NAWL)
· Native Women’s Association of Canada
· New Brunswick Coalition for Pay Equity
· Northwood Neighbourhood Services (Toronto: (Funding cut by CIC in December 2010).
· Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH)
· Ontario Association of Transitional Housing (OAITH)
· Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care
· Pride Toronto
· Réseau des Tables régionales de groupes de femmes du Québec
· Riverdale Women’s Centre in Toronto
· Sierra Club of BC
· Sisters in Spirit
· Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
· South Asian Women’s Centre
· Status of Women (mandate also changed to exclude “gender equality and political justice” and to ban all advocacy, policy research and lobbying
. Tropicana Community Services
· Womanspace Resource Centre (Lethbridge, Alberta)
· Women’s Innovative Justice Initiative – Nova Scotia
· Workplace Equity/Employment Equity Program …
For Charles McVety, this isn’t enough:
“Internationally the Harper government has made it very clear that they are not funding abortion overseas,” Mr. McVety said.
Domestically, though, he said his supporters would like to see the government yank funding for abortions.
“But that’s fallen on deaf ears,” he said. “This is something we continue to push on because we feel very strongly about it. But there are times when that message is more receptive than others. And frankly, when you’re in a constant campaign mode as we’ve been in for the last seven years the controversial issues are not something that politicians entertain during a campaign.”
This is all done for cost-cutting, right? It’s not like they’re cutting social justice programs but increasing the profile of social conservative agendas? Oh wait:
The Conservative Party unveiled their election platform on Friday. In it, they promise to launch an “Office of Religious Freedom” (emphasis theirs):
“DEFENDING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Around the world vulnerable religious minorities are subject to persecution, violence, and repression.
“Canada has a proud tradition of defending fundamental human rights, such as freedom of religion and freedom of conscience; and our Government recognizes that respect for religious pluralism is inextricably linked to democratic development.
“But we can and should do more to respond to the plight of those who suffer merely because of their faith. We will:
- create a special Office of Religious Freedom in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to monitor religious freedom around the world, to promote religious freedom as a key objective of Canadian foreign policy, and to advance policies and programs that support religious freedom;
- continue to ensure that Canada offers its protection to vulnerable religious minorities through our generous refugee resettlement programs; and
- ensure that the Canadian International Development Agency works with groups supporting such vulnerable minorities.”
They estimate in their platform budget that this office will cost five million dollars per year.
So how exactly are they going to promote religious freedom in other countries?
Will this affect how we’re seen as a nation on the international stage if we’re meddling in their affairs?
How are we going to ensure that this work will be done fairly, i.e. advocating for ALL religious freedoms?
Will advocating for Muslims in Israel be a part of the agenda? They’d be the religious minority, there.
How do we resolve it when advocating for one religion runs counter to the needs or wants of another?
Or are we simply going to be donating money to various religious agencies to proselytize in other countries, to the tune of $5 mil a year?
How do we determine which religion is a minority in a country and therefore a religion we wish to support?
Will this be accompanied by a similar fostering of religious minorities here in Canada? Muslims? Sikhs? Buddhists? Scientologists? Moonies? What about the Mormons in B.C. who are currently defending their polygamous marriages partly on the basis of their religious freedoms?
Can such an office even possibly be directed without a bias of any kind? And if it’s biased, then how can we truly say that the guiding principle is religious freedom?
If we have such a great record defending human rights, why did the Conservative party (with a few exceptions) vote nearly overwhelmingly against human rights for trans people?
And if we continue to have gaps in our own human rights legislation, do we really have a right to be telling other nations how to do democracy?
AUDITING THE STATUS QUO
So would the Harper Conservatives manage to go to the same extreme as American Republicans? It’s very doubtful. But Conservatives will keep pushing, and with the massive surge that the Planned Parenthood “debate” has caused in the U.S. it’s unlikely that the base will tolerate token gestures for long, and Harper will need to do something.
But in the meantime, assume he gets his way and continues to tightrope exactly as he has so far. Abortion, contraception and womens’ health covers only one group of issues, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of that. NOW Magazine catalogues several instances of political deceit since 2008 and there are, of course, the wild conflicts over the price tag on engine-less (Gilles Duceppe: “Did we buy kites, or what?”) F-35 fighter jets that Harper wanted to buy and was found in contempt of Parliament for lying about. Harper has openly declared that one of his objectives if he gains a majority will be to eliminate funding-by-popular-vote so that parties are almost exclusively dependent on the corporate sector.
If Stephen Harper vs. Canada [a 2004 Supreme Court case Harper initiated as President of the National Citizen’s Coalition that sought to eliminate limits on what corporations and wealthy interest groups could donate to political parties] had succeeded, we might be looking at a similar situation [to the U.S. after the Citizens United ruling] during this election, and a very different country.
Stephen Harper has shown remarkable interest in campaign financing. His first prorogation of Parliament was triggered by his announcement after the 2008 election that he would eliminate taxpayer subsidies to political parties — a move that Harper’s own former top advisor Tom Flanagan termed “a death sentence for the Liberals,” because Conservatives draw from a much deeper reservoir of private and corporate donations.
There will undoubtedly be more social issues that will have to be addressed in Canada during the upcoming administration. The disqualification of tourist draw events like Toronto Pride and Divers/Cité from tourism and culture-related funding continues to be a debate, and the law banning polygamy and polyamory in Canada is winding its way through the courts. The abolition of the long-form census has eliminated one of the most important ways that we gained information and understanding about issues like poverty and housing issues in our country, and if left to stand, hamstrings many social and support initiatives both within government and without. And certainly the controversial goings-on at the G8 / G20 Conference raises serious questions about how far the Stephen Harper government is willing to go and what freedoms it is willing to suspend, in order to control its citizens.
Most folks by now have heard about the Ontario court ruling that found that the three laws used to criminalize sex work were unconstitutional and endangered women. I’ve discussed this previously on this blog, including an in-depth examination in four parts: the ruling and how not all sex workers are victims, the forces that drive sex work, including poverty and opportunity and how that gets conflated with human trafficking, personal observations and insights such as how the ban on communication negatively affects trans sex workers, and how (and why) to separate the issue of trafficking from the equation and approach sex work from a harm reduction model. Stuff that any responsible government would want to be aware of, since this complex issue will be addressed in the Supreme Court in the next few years and remedies will need to be implemented. The government, meanwhile, sees things from a far more black-and-white perspective:
[Justice Minister Rob] Nicholson had signalled Tuesday night that the Conservatives were considering an appeal, saying Ottawa would “fight to ensure that the criminal law continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution to both communities and the prostitutes themselves.”
The government has argued that striking down the provisions of the prostitution laws without enacting something else in their place would “pose a danger to the public.”
Which is not to mention what Steven Harper appointments are doing to our judiciary:
A Canadian judge is facing calls to resign after sparing a convicted rapist from prison because his victim had sent out signals that ‘sex was in the air’.
Protesters marched on the court where Justice Robert Dewar presided after his controversial comments appeared to blame the rape victim for the assault.
And that crime-fighting obsession Harper has? The idea of addressing crime sounds great in principle, but the Harper application constantly sprints away from addressing the causes — things like poverty and addictions and effective rehabilitation — into a rigid lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mantra:
Conservatives want federal inmates to undergo mandatory drug testing at least once per year. Those found in possession of illicit substances would face new criminal charges, and those who fail drug tests would be denied parole.
No additional commitments are made for drug rehabilitation in prisons, and in the 2009/2010 budget year, the Conservatives diverted funds intended for drug treatment in prisons, sniffer dogs, ion scanners and the like.