A Solution Without a Problem, or More Reframing the Political Discourse?
The federal Conservatives will be holding a party convention between now and Sunday to discuss direction for the majority government. While things talked about at conventions aren’t necessarily going to become policy, it does give a good indication of what the aims and priorities are likely to be. One of those, of course, is to discuss prostitution, following the ruling in Ontario that had overturned 3 laws used to criminalize sex workers. The Harper Conservatives still fail to understand the difference between willing sex work and human trafficking, and seem to want to do everything except take a harm-reduction approach.
Another curious position to be discussed is the proposed strengthening of Canada’s laws prohibiting high treason (that is, actively engaging in an act of war against the country or its armed forces). As James Morton notes, the laws as they stand are pretty clear and pretty strong already:
The penalty for high treason is life imprisonment. The penalty for treason is imprisonment up to a maximum of life, or up to 14 years for conduct under subsection (2)(b) or (e) in peacetime.
Proposals to strip those convicted of Treason of Canadian citizenship are problematic. Ignoring constitutional concerns (which can probably be addressed) removing citizenship could lead to the weird result that subsequent acts against Canadian Forces (by former citizens) are lawful.
The better response?
Prosecute for treason in those very very rare cases where appropriate
The proposed change, as mentioned at that link, would be to strip anyone convicted of high treason of their citizenship. Which seems a bit pointless, if a person convicted of high treason is going to spend their life behind bars and without the benefits of citizenship anyway.
That is, if a trial is even needed to strip someone of their citizenship. The revocation process is reportedly a long one, so the point may be moot, but the proposal, put forward by Calgary MP Jason Kenney, reads:
“The Conservative Party of Canada believes that any Canadian citizen who commits treason by taking up arms against the Canadian Forces or the Forces of Canada’s Allies automatically invalidates his or her Canadian citizenship or claim to Canadian citizenship and, if and when returned to the jurisdiction of the Canadian Legal System, should be tried for high treason under the Canadian Criminal Code.”
This all proves that the Harper Conservatives have learned nothing from the scandal surrounding Omar Khadr. The Globe and Mail notes:
In theory, such a policy – had it been enacted in law years ago – might have resulted in Canadian Omar Khadr losing his citizenship after he was caught fighting U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
Khadr was 15 years old when he was apprehended in Afghanistan, possibly at the urging of his father. His detention at Guantanamo Bay has been a source of embarrassment and frustration for the Harper Conservatives. While Khadr’s case is now more-or-less settled following a plea deal, if this proposal is any indication, the Harper Tories’ mindset is still seemingly one of preferring to abandon anyone in a similar situation rather than have to participate in a fair trial.
There is a bigger part of this that people may not think about, as well. I’d discussed earlier about how the Reform / Alliance parties that evolved into the Harper Conservatives took advice from spinmeisters Ralph Reed and Frank Luntz on how to frame debates and change the national conversation through the careful crafting of words. Several of their approaches at doing so have been noted in the press, including the decision to rebrand the Government of Canada as the “Harper Government.” Language is an important tool for rule and control. As Stephen Harper continues to try to shape Canada in such a way that the Conservatives become (in the phrase he has often used) “the natural governing party” in our country, staging and framing debates is all-important.
Part of that will be to continue shifting the conversation so far that the right seems like the centre, and leftists and progressives appear all that much more fringe and anti-Canadian. The tactic here is to coax people to defend the seemingly indefensible — to create the impression that if leftists would stand up for terrorists, then they must be terrorist sympathizers. We’ve already had a preview of this from the U.S. as it built its case for war in Afghanistan, and then further for the war in Iraq:
Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. (Applause.) From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.
That speech reached the level of legend in the emotionally-charged moments following the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11. The phrase “you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” reverberated around the world for years. If you were anywhere on the same hemisphere as the U.S., you couldn’t escape the meme that for years was used to squelch any criticism of the actions of George W. Bush and his administration.
Even halfway into the Iraq war, any criticisms of military aggression or calls for peace had to be prefaced with avowed support for the troops. Of course people supported the troops: what could possibly be more supportive than not wanting to see their lives at risk if it was possibly unnecessary? But even so, this phrase gained so much power that any criticism of this leadership risked incurring the label “anti-American.”
In Canada, it was still common enough in the collective memory for people in the general public to voice concern that if we didn’t support the U.S. war effort against Saddam Hussein, then we too would be seen as traitors on the international stage, or at least to Western society. The backlash against France (“freedom fries?”) was still very vivid. And while that has tempered under a new administration, there is still much residue of that floating around on the interwebs and, yes, also still lingering in Canada. Over the years liberalism, socialism, progressivism, pacifism and communism have all been conflated with extremism to some degree in American discourse, and “you are with us or you are with the terrorists” contributed greatly to that. 9/11 became Bush’s moment; Harper’s electoral majority is obviously a far lesser moment for him, and he wouldn’t be able to reach the same level of power from bringing terrorists into the political discussion, but he certainly intends to take advantage of it (and while coincidental, the June 9-11 convention timing is really quite freaky, in that sense). It’s certainly conceivable that someone who is politically savvy enough would try to plug into that residual sentiment and channel it in their favour.
We are not aware of any other Canadians detained at Guantanamo Bay or likely to be arrested in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor are there pressing issues surrounding treason and the citizenship of anyone charged with it. But opening that debate now does potentially create the opportunity for the Harper Conservatives — in the absence of our own 9/11 or calamity — to bring “you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists” home to Canada.
It will be an interesting four to five years.