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Pierre Trudeau and the Charter – with us still

September 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Today is the 10th anniversary of the death of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whom I and many Canadians consider our country’s greatest Prime Minister.

The tributes being paid to him today — along with some critical memorials — all make mention of what may be his greatest contribution to Canadian life – the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

To mark the anniversary of Mr. Trudeau’s death, Wiley & Sons have published Trudeau, a collection of black and white photos taken by photographers of The Canadian Press.

Author Christine Newman summed up Trudeau’s effect on us all in a book she published many years after he left office in 1984:

“He haunts us still.”

So he does. Never more, ironically, than on this anniversary of his death.

Canada’s prostitution laws, a Ontario court  ruled today, are a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As a consequence, Madame Justice Susan Himel has struck down the three main statutes controlling prostitution in Canada. She has allowed a 30-day discussion period to consider ways in which brothels can operate without offending the public interest.

The decision comes as an almost exquisite coincidence on this day, remembering Mr. Trudeau’s famous declaration that  “there is no room for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”

It was under Mr. Trudeau’s governance that abortion was legalized and laws against homosexuality were abandoned. The law on abortion was later allowed to lapse entirely when Parliament was unable to agree on new legislation.

Today’s Ontario Superior Court ruling applies only to the one province. If  it is upheld on appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, it will mean the end of current prostitution laws right across the country.

At the heart of today’s ruling is Madame Justice Himel’s finding that the present law subjects women to the likelihood of violence and therefore deprives them of the protection of the Charter. She cited the Picton serial killings as irrefutable evidence of this.

The court ruling will be embarrassing to some and distasteful to others. One email to the CBC said Canadians need to decide whether prostitution is morally right or wrong.

No, we need to decide whether our laws are going to victimize people, or protect them.

I was impressed, when I heard lawyer Alan Young declare in a televised news conference this afternoon, that on this issue at last, “rationality has triumphed over hypocrisy and hysteria.” Let us hope this is the case.

The federal justice minister, Rob Nicholson, has said the government is concerned and will appeal the decision. No surprise there.

The right-wing in Canada has long demonized judges who, in its opinion, usurp the rights of parliamentarians to make and uphold law.

You can expect to hear a lot of this nonsense in the months ahead. After passions have cooled, and Madame Justice Himel’s decision has been carefully reflected on, it is sure to be upheld.

Now, if we can only get some rationality in our drug laws and end the senseless and costly “war on drugs,” we’ll all be a lot better off.

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The gun registry lives – do Tory hopes?

September 22, 2010 Leave a comment

 The vote to sustain the Canadian Long Gun Registry — by 153 to 151 —  puts an end to current Tory hopes to abolish the forced registration of shotguns and rifles in Canada. What does it do to Tory hopes for a majority in the next election?

Amid all the clamor, Conservative strategists think it’s a win-win  situation for them. So the gun registry lives. So the gift that keeps on giving will last another season.

But I’m not so sure. The Conservatives are playing largely to the converted, the rural voters who resent having to register their weapons.

Prime Minister Harper vows his government will continue to the fight to abolish the registry. “Abolition is closer than ever,” he claimed after the vote. He said “people in the regions will never accept to be treated as criminals.” The rural voters who support him will be strengthened in their commitment. But by and large, he’s playing to the converted. Shoring up the base.

Yet that’s not what the Conservatives have to do if they ever hope to win a majority, or even another election. They have to reach out to new supporters. Fighting to keep the gun registry is not going to help them do that.

The Long Gun registry arose from the tragedy of the Montreal shooting, when Marc Lepine walked into the Ecole Polytechnique on December 6, 1989 and shot to death fourteen women.

That event led to the formation of the Coalition for Gun Control. The key mover for that initiative was Heidi Rathjen, a student who survived that day.

She later authored, along with Charles Montpetit,  December 6, From the Montreal Massacre to Gun Control (McClelland & Stewart, 1999). Rather than just grieve, she decided to do something. The book describes the fight to raise public awareness, gain public support, and then force not just one, but two gun-control bills through Parliament. Ms. Rathgen was in the public gallery as Parliament voted.

Arguments about the Long Gun Registry will never end. The federal government fumbled the launch of the registry. Costs skyrocketed to a billion dollars. Yet now, police, social agencies and women’s groups argue that the Registry serves a useful purpose.

Hunters and gun enthusiasts don’t agree. It’s not easy to legally acquire a gun in Canada. You have to disclose a lot of personal information to get the necessary Possession and Acquisition licence. So why bother with registration?

Look at another lethal weapon: the automobile. You have to have a driver’s licence. You also have to register the ownership of your car. What’s so awful about having to register your rifle?

Opponents claim that once the government knows you have a gun, they can take it away from you. And it’s been happening, apparently. In cases where there are known cases of mental problems, or criminal records pointing to gun abuse. That’s when guns should be seized. And if the registry helps toward that end, it means the registry is working.

But in the bigger picture, the Long Gun registry represents an attitude, a point of view. Long guns are involved in most spousal attacks and the majority of suicides, according to the statistics.

Those who want to see fewer guns in the hands of Canadians support measures like the Long Gun Registry. Do they represent a majority of voters? I think they do.

We need to save Fish Lake

September 14, 2010 Leave a comment

 The Harper cabinet is facing a decision that will go a long way toward revealing how serious the government is about balancing environmental protection with economic growth.

It is about to make a decision on an application by Taseko Mines Ltd. to mine a copper-gold find near Fish Lake in British Columbia’s Chilcotin district.

The good news is the mine would create several hundred jobs over the next 20 years. The bad news is the company’s plan to use Fish Lake as a toxic dump for mine wastes. The company promises to dig another, smaller lake nearby for the trout that would be doomed by the mine’s operation. The story’s here. 

I’ve been enchanted by the Chilcotin district most of my life. I first learned about this magnificent inland empire when I read Rich Hobson’s book, Grass Beyond the Mountains. It chronicles the ranch life in this B.C. outback of Hobson, son of a wealthy American, and his sidekick Pan Phillips. They found their way up to the Chilcotin, which is part of the Cariboo region, in the 1930s.

That book set off a series of titles, some by Hobson and some by his daughter, as well as by other writers. The latest volume, Beyond the Chilcotin by Pan’s youngest daughter Diane, is coming out in paperback this month.

The proposed mine at Fish Lake is bitterly opposed by the Tsilhqot’in Nation Government, representing six bands in the area. Their opposition – they’re ready to “fight to the death” to prevent the mine — recalls the blood-spilling of the Chilcotin War back in 1864.

That was fought over a roughshod attempt by whites to push a road through native lands to feed the gold mines of the Cariboo.

The B.C. government approved the Taseko mine project after carrying out an environmental assessment.

A federal panel has since found that the mine would have “significant adverse environmental effects” on the area. Hence, a decision has been handed over to the Harper cabinet.

I have fished Fish Lake and I know of no other place where the sublime beauty of nature is so grand. I don’t want to see it corrupted with mine tailings.

But I also see the benefit of the jobs that would be created, many of which would hopefully go to First Nations residents.

So instead of building a new lake for the fish, why not a new lake for the mine tailings?

Unless some innovative thinking is done here, there’s going to be big trouble in the Chilcotin before the snow flies.

Why I won’t be reading Blair’s book

September 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Former British prime minister Tony Blair is getting a lot of press — much of it favourable — for his newly-published memoir, A Journey (Knopf Canada).

I’ve decided not to read it. I’m tired of self-serving, predictable, and highly selective accounts of the supposed ordeals and triumphs of political leaders.

As I’ve not read the book, this piece is not a review. Rather, it is a commentary based in part on media extracts (see the link to The Guardian above) and in part on watching the arc of Blair’s career since the 1990s.

For Tony Blair to say, as he does in   A Journey, that he and George Bush had simply “failed to anticipate” the nightmare that unfolded after the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq, is a colossal dodging of responsibility for the war crimes and crimes against humanity that followed their attack on that poor country.

Strange, millions of us knew — and said — what would happen back in 2003. We knew that the Anglo-American invasion would, in the long run, take more lives by far that would have been victims of the detestable Saddam Hussein regime. 

We also recognized, as did Barack Obama, that the attack on Iraq (while virtually ignoring Afghanistan) would destabilize the Middle East, give rise to a more  powerful and threatening Iran , and ensure the resurgence of the Taliban.

Canadians will find it surprising that Blair expresses such admiration for the Canadian prime minister of that time, John Chretien. It was Chretien who steadfastly resisted the Blair-Bush blandishments, and courageously kept Canada out of that pointless conflict.

(Stephen Harper, meanwhile, was all for backing up the U.S. with arm, and men.)

It’s historic fact that Iraq never had weapons of mass destruction, and that Hussein had no connection with al-Qaeda. In fact, the dictator was one of the main targets of the terrorist groups. 

Tony Blair’s parade of myths and distortions is highly reminiscent of the memoir of the Vietnam-era U.S. Secretary of Defense, James McNamara. Years after, he told us how Vietnam was so wrong, and how he was trapped in the inevitable chain of misdeeds that led to 50,000 American deaths in that sorry nation.

The revulsion I and many others feel for the Bush-Blair policies and Blair’s blind self-justification and rationalization stems not from idealistic pacificism but from a realistic understanding of the limits of power and a desire to see the West avoid foreign policies that come back to harm us.

Blair and Bush have left us with a legacy which ensures we are less secure and less safe, more subject to terrorist attack, and more hated in more parts of the world than ever before. No contribution of Blair’s royalties to veterans’ causes will cha nge that.

A Journey? We’ve already been there.