Contempt for Democracy

The reign of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives may be, at last, coming to an end in Canada.  With a federal election slated for May 2nd, the campaigns of the five major parties are in full swing.  Though the outcome may be more of the same, one can hope that Canadians will this time elect a government that actually wants parliament to work as a democracy, and not re-elect the same hypocritical, controlling and dismissive party we have had these last five years.

The conservative government fell after being found to be in contempt of parliament, but these follies are only the last in a long line of political maneuvers that have been used by Harper to manipulate the Canadian parliamentary system to maintain power and control, whilst eroding the socially-minded principles and policies that had been Canada’s raison d’être, and characterized our involvement in international politics.

Harper has achieved little that is positive as the leader of Canada’s last two governments, and it is well worth remembering the hypocritical moves he has made as leader that have undermined and eroded democracy in Canada.

Ethical and Transparent Politics?  Secrecy and control have been the name of the game

Despite promising to renew ethical conduct and bring transparency to federal politics, Stephen Harper has kept his MPs under a virtual gag-order since taking power, a move that has centralized control and restricted policy discussions to a few key issues.  Only select ministers are ever allowed to speak to the press (read MP Jason Kenny and MP Peter Mackay).  One of the most important issues in Canada is healthcare, yet I struggle to remember any meaningful discussion had about that portfolio in the last 5 years.  Transparent politics under Harper has meant discussion of issues on his terms, and his terms only.

Muzzling the Press

Harper restricted media access to the parliament and government in unprecedented ways- again from someone who pledged to increase transparency.   He declared he would no longer take questions from journalists, refused to allow the media to participate in ‘scrums’ after cabinet meetings- a time when journalists ask candid questions of politicians (questions said politicians have not been able to rehearse and censor).  It’s clear that Harper’s main priority in office has been control, and muzzling the media has been a major part of that.

Senate Reform

Recall that a major policy platform of Harper’s previous campaigns was senate reform, such that senators would no longer be appointed for political favoritism, but would rather be elected.  Doesn’t ring a bell?  Harper apparently forgot all about it too, immediately after taking office.

Here’s a quote from Harper, addressing the senate. On senate reform.

As everyone in this room knows, it has become a right of passage for aspiring leaders and prime ministers to promise Senate reform – on their way to the top. The promises are usually made in Western Canada. And these statements of intent are usually warmly received by party activists, editorial writers and ordinary people. But once they are elected, Senate reform quickly falls to the bottom of the Government’s agenda. Nothing ever gets done.  And the status quo goes on.

Senate reform didn’t happen.  The conservatives appointed a record 32 senators, all of them Tory backers there to ensure Harper’s bills were passed, and to squash those he doesn’t support.  Like Bill C-311, the climate change accountability act.  Environmental concerns are consistently discussed as important to Canadians, yet the Harper government did absolutely nothing about it during his 5 years in power.

No crossing the floor… except when we want to

This was another ‘undemocratic’ practice Harper sought to put an end to before he was elected for the first time in 2006.  Predicatbly, when it was in his government’s favour, this pledge also went by the wayside after forming government.  Elected as a Liberal, MP David Emerson made the switch to the Conservative party only seven days into the new government’s term, invited by Prime Minister Harper to take the position of Trade Minister; he remains in Harper’s cabinet as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Stephen Harper made by-elections for floor-crossers part of his campaign platform in 2006, and yet immediately proved his complete lack of integrity within the first week with his invitation to Emerson to sit as a cabinet minister.

Prorouging Parliament… Twice

Harper’s prorougation of parliament, which he did twice to avoid the fall of his minority government, was yet another dismissal of democracy and flagrant refusal to govern and work with other parties in the house.  The first time, rather than face parliament and a vote of non-confidence that might bring down the government, he suspended parliament.  Again, in a move made solely out of self-interest, Harper chose to suspend parliament for a second time from Dec 30 2009 to Mar 3 2010, when his officials were being grilled by parliamentary committees on the afghan detainee issue.  Rather than face these committees, he suspended parliament, and then took the opportunity to appoint several new conservative senators, such that when the parliamentary committees were formed anew after the ‘break’, the conservatives had decidedly more players in their court.

Coalitions are ‘undemocratic’

Harper has spent a lot of time railing against the ‘undemocratic’ nature of proposed coalitions between other parties (read the Liberals, NDP, and maybe the Bloc working together). This is shocking!  Elected members from other parties working together?  This is unheard of!

Except that it isn’t: it happens in many, many, many democracies around the world.  It’s happened in Canada before, too. And those governments may end up being more accountable and productive, because instead of bickering all the time, they work together and negotiate to pass legislation that is in their collective interest.  Coalitions are not undemocratic, nor are they illegal, despite what conservative spin-doctors would have you believe

In our first-past-the-post system, a party can, and often does, ascend to power with only about 30-40% of the popular vote.  60-70% of us wanted something different, yet if we did not vote for the party that forms the government, our voices remain unheard.  Coalitions offer real potential to change this, so it’s no surprise that Harper, who is primarily concerned with gaining and maintaining power at any cost, is working hard during this campaign to discredit the idea.

And the list goes on…

Harper represented Canada shamefully at the Cophenhagen Convention where we were lambasted for our plans to do, well, nothing, about climate change.  Harper clearly wants to turn the clock back on women’s rights, which he has been steadily doing. Canada was denied a UN Security Council seat, unsurprising given our recent zeal for neo-conservatism.  We were a nation once known for peacekeeping and negotiation, yet now we have twice elected a government intent on increasing Canada’s military involvement in foreign wars and filling our jails.

Are we really a conservative nation?  The direction Harper has steered us doesn’t look like the Canada I thought we were, or the one I thought we used to be.

Others are taking note of the erosion of democracy that is occurring in Canada, and we cannot sit back and let it happen. Harper has more than proved his contempt for democracy, lack of ethical principles, obsession with control and secrecy, and desire to abolish the socially-minded institutions and liberal principles that Canada used to be known for.  I don’t want to see what Harper will make of Canada if given another chance to form the government; let’s keep him from getting it.

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Prostitution in Canada: Imagining Alternate Realities

Last night, I was inspired and moved by the powerful, passionate, political voices of three women:renowned legal scholar and anti-prostitution activist Gunilla Ekberg, anti-prostitution activist Trisha Baptie and Sherry Smilie of AWAN, who spoke yesterday at Prostitution and Women’s Equality, calling for the abolition of prostitution in Canada .

I’ll admit that despite the media coverage prostitution gets in Vancouver, in particular when discussing the DTES, the arguments for criminalizing the buying of sex are not something I’m thoroughly familiar with, or used to hearing. Far more time and space is given to those arguing that sex work and the activities surrounding it should be decriminalized in favor of a harm reduction approach (see this earlier post by Meghan Murphy for current legal challenges moving us towards decriminalization).

Thorough discussions of what the abolition of prostitution means are covered here, here and here, and last night’s panel discussion will be aired on the F-Word soon in case you missed it, so I will not delve into the details of this political vision here.

Instead, I am going to tackle three questions Gunilla Ekberg posed to the audience, challenging us to understand that prostitution is violence against women.

Firstly, who are the women used in prostiution?

Second, what is done by men to prostituted women?

Third, what are the effects of prostitution on women in prostiution, and society at large?

Think about these points for a moment, and consider the realities in Canada.

Who are the women used in prostitution?

We know, from collective knowledge and stats like these that women are prostituted in a context of poverty, racism, colonialism, and systemic sexual and physical abuse stemming from a patriarchal society that is tolerant of and complicit in, violence against women. In this context, can it ever be said that a woman is involved in prostitution based on her own free will? The context in which this ‘choice’ has been made cannot be ignored.

What is done by men to prostituted women?

Prostituted women’s bodies are used by men for sex, and that includes a myriad of acts that are humiliating and violent. Prostitution is synonymous with violence. We know this. It’s always lumped into that statement ‘high-risk lifestyle’ –as if it is a lifestyle choice to be at constant risk of violence and death. Prostituted women are beaten, raped, and murdered daily here in Vancouver. This is what is done by men to prostituted women.

What are the effects of prostitution on women in prostitution, and society at large?

Women in prostitution are degraded and devalued, their bodies are abused and trafficked, and they are used by men for pleasure and for profit. When we allow women’s bodies to be purchased and profited from, we perpetuate a patriarchal society that does not value women as equal citizens, a society where violence against women is systemic and alarmingly prevalent.

Examining these three questions, it is pretty clear that prostitution is violent and harmful to women who are directly involved in prostitution and to society in general; it perpetuates inequality between men and women, and contributes to a culture that normalizes violence against women.   Things aren’t going to change though, until we acknowledge that prostitution is violence against women, that men do not have an inherent right to access women’s bodies, and and it’s decriminalization will only serve to push it out of public view.

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Chipping Away at Gender Equality: Harper’s 5-year Round Up

This month marks the 5 year anniversary of the ascent to power of Canada’s exceptionally charismatic (cough*cough) and calculating Conservative PM Stephen Harper.  It’s surprising that Stephen Harper has lasted so long in a minority government, but for a minority PM, he sure has accomplished a lot- if by accomplishments, one is referring to the insidious erosion of women’s rights that has occurred in the last 5 years.  Let’s take a look back at what Harper has done to increase gender inequality, shall we?

1) Scrap Universal Day-Care

One of the first moves made by the Harper government was to cancel a national child care program, which most Canadians supported.   In its place was offered the Canada Child Tax Benefit, which provides parents the paltry sum of a taxable $100/month per child- you can’t pay a 12 year old to baby-sit more than a couple times for that amount, let alone access quality day-care

According to Sharon Gregson of the Coalition of Childcare Advocates of B.C, as reported by the Tyee

“Other countries are able to provide childcare for up to 100 percent of children between the age of three and six. Other countries, like Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, England and the United States invest more per capita in early childhood development services than Canada does.”

This move was supported, however, by right-wing group REAL Women- a truly terrifying conservative, anti-feminist, anti-choice, homophobic, judeo-christian group hell-bent on turning back the clock on women’s rights.

2)    Drastically Cut Status of Women Canada

Next up, Harper dramatically cut the funding of what was Canada’s most important body for promoting gender equity, Status of Women Canada.  Status of Women Canada provided advocacy, research and lobbying on behalf of women’s groups.  The government closed 12 out of 16 regional offices of SWC and their operating budget was cut by 38%. Changes were imposed to the criteria for funding for the Status of Women Canada’s Women’s Program that essentially barred advocacy and lobbying groups from receiving funding.   Many women-run NGOs no longer receive funding because they combine advocacy with other services — like women’s rape crisis centres advocating for an end to violence against women.  The icing on the cake?  The word equality was removed from the Status of Women Canada mandate.

With Status of Women gutted and many women’s advocacy groups silenced, who do you think the government takes its cues from when it wants ‘women’s opinions’?  That’s right.  REAL Women, who had this to say about the $5- million budget cut handed to SWC.

“This is a good start, and we hope that the Status of Women will eventually be eliminated entirely since it does not represent ‘women’, but only represents the ideology of feminists.”  (emphasis theirs)

3)    Cancel the Court Challenges Program

Up next on the docket- the court program that provided funding to women’s and minority groups to challenge court rulings that violated equality rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Sounds like a good program, doesn’t it?  And it was- it changed the way sexual assault complaints were reported in the media, when in 1988 the Supreme Court ruled that publishing victim’s names discourages reporting of sexual assault and does not allow privacy for victims.  And, in 1995, when a gay couple from BC challenged the definition of spouse in the Old Age Security Act, during which the the Supreme Court of Canada for the first time ruled that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited, leading the way for future cases against discrimination.

There have been many, many other important cases brought forth with the court challenges program to further equality and human rights.  It seems only fitting that a government that seeks to reduce women’s rights would want to stifle it.

4)    Axe Women’s Right to Pay Equity

It’s well known that across the board, women do not earn as much money as men.  Harper has taken steps to make sure it stays that way.

5)    Leave Abortion out of Canada’s G8 Maternal Health funding

Let’s start with this fact:

“Complications due to unsafe abortion procedures account for an estimated 13% of maternal deaths worldwide, or 67,000 per year. Almost all abortion-related deaths occur in developing countries.” (WHO)

How can a government that in 2009 stated it would champion maternal and child health in developing countries now declare its funding will not be used for abortion? When it is clear women in developing countries will die as a result?

Lack of access to safe abortion services is a serious health concern, and excluding it from Canada’s G8 funding is shamefully ignorant of good public health policy and does not support the rights and equality of women. Moreover, it speaks to a government that is socially conservative in its roots, and given the opportunity, might remove women’s ability to choose abortion in Canada, too.

6)    Appoint Fewer Women to Cabinet than Previous Governments

Despite being half the population (really!) women are still under-represented in government in Canada.  Women in Harper’s cabinet come in at a woe-full 26%  down from the only-slightly –better 30% seen with the previous liberal government.  Canada lags behind a lot of the world in terms of women’s representation in government.

That’s right, Canada is a ranked a pathetic 51 out of 135 nations.  Rwanda has the highest representation of women in government, by the way.

A lot of damage has been done in the past 5 years under Harper’s conservative government, and though he has tried to silence our voices, we are still here. Still making up half of the population.  It’s pretty powerful to imagine how much impact women could have if we demanded to be heard.

Harper may try to pacify us when the next election comes around- pose with kittens, dress in sweaters, smile occasionally- but the record of the last 5-years is very clear.  Women’s equality in Canada is going backwards.  When it’s time to vote, let’s change this.

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