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J.S. Woodsworth, “the conscience of parliament”

April 28, 2012 Leave a comment

It was shocking — but not surprising — to see Prime Minister Harper indulge in such a malicious distortion of history with his attack on the wartime leader of the CCF party, James Shaver Woodsworth.

Harper, followed by Foreign Affairs minister John Baird, used Woodsworth’s reluctance to enter World War II as an excuse to avoid answering the NDP on whether Canada may stay in Afghanistan  after our scheduled 2014 departure date.

“Unlike the NDP, we are not going to ideologically have a position regardless of circumstances,” Harper told the Commons. ” The leader of the NDP, in 1939, did not even want to support war against Hitler.”

Of course, Woodsworth wasn’t the leader of the NDP. It didn’t even come into existence until 1962, as opposition MPs loudly reminded the Prime Minister across the floor of the Commons. “Okay, it was the CCF, same difference,” he replied. “Parties do change their names from time to time.”

I don’t recall any single comment by Mr. Harper ever setting off such a flurry of condemnation. NDP MPs, to their credit, reacted shrewdly. They suggested it would be fair game to raise Reform party policies. I’d go back further. What about the time Conservative leader John Diefenbaker voted against Canada’s adoption of the Maple Leaf flag?

Perhaps Mr. Harper would benefit from a history lesson.J.S. Woodsworth is universally recognized as one of the great figures of Canadian public life, a man revered for his commitment to improving the lives of Canadians during the difficult 1920s and 1930, when social welfare measures such as employment insurance and pensions were virtually non existent. Mr. Harper would be well advised to read Kenneth McNaught’s biography of Mr. Woodsworth, A Prophet in Politics (University of Toronto Press).

Mr. Woodsworth was a Methodist minister, a Christian pacificist, whose moral code prevented him from supporting armed conflict. He told the CCF National Council that he could not support going to war, and offered to resign. His offer was refused, but every CCF MP but he voted to accept the government’s Throne Speech, an act tantamount to agreeing to going to war. Woodsworth’s successor, M. J. Coldwell, made it clear that the anti-war stance had been a personal view of Mr. Woodsworth, and did not reflect the position of the party. (There was no actual vote on a declaration of war.) The CCF pushed for all-out prosecution of the war effort, and supported conscription.

In his speech on the war, Mr. Woodsworth made clear his respect for democratic rights.

“I rejoice that it is possible to say these things in a Canadian parliament under British institutions. It would not be possible in Germany.”

At the time, Mr. Woodsworth was seriously ill. He had suffered a stroke and his wife had to write out his remarks for him on cards, which he could barely read. He managed to hold his seat in the 1940 election, but died in 1942.

Here is what Prime Minister Mackenzie King said of Mr. Woodsworth, when some Liberal MPs heckled the CCF leader during his speech opposing Canada’s entry into the war:

There are few men in this Parliament for whom I have greater respect than the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. I admire him in my heart, because time and again he has had the courage to say what lays on his conscience, regardless of what the world might think of him. A man of that calibre is an ornament to Parliament.

This week’s Tory attacks set off a uproar on the web. The Globe and Mail’s story drew some 4,000 comments — the vast majority highly critical of Mr. Harper. I can’t recall a single case of so much public outrage. A Twitter site, #Harperhistory, quickly sprang to life.

Is it these kinds of unprincipled attacks that are at the root of Mr. Harper’s decline in the polls? Or are they a reaction to his evident loss of public support? (Latest polls show his trustworthiness rating down from 32 to 20 per cent, and put the Tories and the NDP in a statistical tie in voter support, both in the 32-34 per cent range.)

Mr. Harper’s cheap attempt to manipulate history as a means of avoiding a straight-up answer to a matter of current public concern, is yet another example of the kind of extremist politics that has no place in  a respectful democratic dialogue. It is to be hoped Canadian voters will someday send him that message.

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Feeling good about Alberta

April 25, 2012 Leave a comment

As difficult as it is to find things in politics to feel good about, this week’s election in Alberta is something to cheer up anyone who’s despaired of the apparent rightward direction of Canadian politics in the past few years.

In Alison Redford, the bright, forty-something human rights lawyer who grappled first with retrogressives in her own Progressive Conservative party, and then went on to defeat the Tea Party-ish Wildrose Alliance, dramatically confounding the pollsters, Canadians may have found a model of statesmanship for the next decade of the 21st century.

Ms. Redford, most will remember, won the leadership of her party and became premier of Alberta last October, in a voting marathon that put her on top despite having the support of only one fellow MLA, little or no name recognition outside her hometown Calgary, and being a first-term MLA.

She promptly set to work to recreate the dynastic right of centre PCs (in power since 1971) and brought in a budget that included, among other dramatic steps, a multi-billion dollar fund to improve R&D (and reduce environmental damage) in the oil sands industry.

Her policies flew head on against the Wildrose Alliance, representing the most right-wing elements of the PC party. They’d broken away, just as the die-hard free enterprise, hang ’em high, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage zealots of Brian Mulroney’s federal Conservatives had done twenty-five years ago, when they split to form the Reform party. That led to ten years of one-party Liberal rule before both sides were brought back together by the skilful management of Stephen Harper, aided and abetted by then PC leader Peter McKay.

Until a week before the Alberta election, it seemed as if the province was in for a Wildrose government. The polls predicted a majority for a party led by the attractive, articulate Danielle Smith, who was cleverly cashing in on voter animosity toward the too-long in power PCs.

A funny thing happened on the way to the polling booth.

Alberta discovered its place in Canada, and in the 21st century. Whether it was due to the “bozo” comments of a couple of Wildrosers which were never repudiated by Ms. Smith, or to the fact that Alberta’s economic surge has brought several hundred thousand new voters in the past decade, the old image of a redneck, Eastern-hating province no longer rang true.

The result: a massive shift in voter sentiment in the weekend before the vote. Albertans were not about to accept an unproven party that harbored religious fanatics and racists, and was prepared to face off against the rest of Canada on the environment, fiscal policy, and “conscience” issues (code language for socially regressive views on abortion and gay marriage).

My first newspaper job was in Alberta, and I can tell you it was one of the most conservative places in Canada. But my sharpest memory is of the optimism of Albertans for the future. I remember meeting a construction worker who told me: “With all the oil and other resources we’ve got, Alberta is going to be the richest province in the world.”

The new PC majority, 61 seats to 17 for Wildrose (5 Liberals and 4 New Democrats) gives Alison Redford firm control of a province that she describes as wanting a government that is “socially progressive and fiscally conservative.”

Her description aptly fits the definition of a Red Tory, a species Stephen Harper has spent the past ten years doing his best to kill off. Few Canadians will quarrel with a party dedicated to socially progressive and fiscally conservative policies. Even Tommy Douglas, the revered founder of the NDP, would have to agree. He told the cabinet of his first government in Saskatchewan that he didn’t intend to run deficits – he had no desire to “pay interest to the bankers.”

Ms. Smith, to her credit, accepted her party’s defeat stoically. She concedes Wildrose will have to re-think its policies, especially on the toxic issues of  “conscience’ and climate change that contributed to its defeat. One can expect Wildrose to become a more disciplined, more focused party once its members get to the Legislature. It will have the chance to do what all good opposition parties do: hold the government to account. And thereby perhaps become the government itself some day.

Ironically, just as Canadians were absorbing the Alberta results, there came evidence from Ottawa that not everyone in the federal Conservative party has learned the lesson of Wildrose. Stephen Woodworth, a Conservative MP from Ontario, introduced a private member’s bill to set up a committee to study when life begins in the womb. The objective, obviously, is to make abortion illegal. The Prime Minister says the cabinet will be “whipped” to vote against the bill, but backbench Tory members will be allowed to vote as they wish.

Alison Redford won’t be worrying about her backbenchers coming up with measures like this. She is dedicated to working with Ottawa and the other provinces on ways to make oil sands development environmentally more acceptable, and to strengthen the economic union that is Canada. Look for her to be the Newsmaker of 2012.

How Trudeau and the Charter made today’s Canada

April 17, 2012 Leave a comment

The thirtieth anniversary of the enactment of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms — ‘les trente glorieuses” as the French would put it — offers an opportune moment to recall how the concept for this nation-changing statute first developed in the mind of Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

The process is explored in the second volume of the three-part biography of Trudeau, Trudeau Transformed, by Max and Monique Nemni. This volume builds on the revealing details of their first book, in which Trudeau is shown as the willing prisoner of an orthodox Catholic upbringing, reared in a society dominated by the most reactionary elements of his church. The result is a cloistered personality nourished by fascist-like sensibilities, grounded in a survivalist philosophy that saw Quebec as the only “pure” society in North America, in need of constant defense from Protestant godlessness.

That Pierre Trudeau broke free of this stultifying environment is well-known. He left his comfortable upper class home in Montreal to study law at Harvard, went on to take political science and law in Paris, and worshiped at the feet of Harold Laski, the Jewish Marxist who influenced a generation of future leaders by his teachings at the London School of Economics.

After London, Trudeau traipsed around the world — to Israel, India, China, Cuba et al — traveling not in the first class comfort he could well afford, but with a rucksack and just enough cash to get him from  point to point. In writing of this period of his life, the Nemnis point to it as experiences as evidence of a desire to absorb lessons from cultures other than his own. He was not an idle dilletente, they argue, but a dedicated student of the politics and economics of the lands through which he journeyed.

In 1950, Trudeau found himself back in Montreal with the firmly fixed idea that he would become a “statesman” who would  liberate his people from the subjugation he now realized they had suffered under reactionary leadership. It was not a matter of his abandoning Catholicism; he no intention of doing so and never did leave the church. He remained so faithful, in fact, that while working in Ottawa, now a man past his thirtieth birthday,  he applied to Church authorities for permission to read certain social and political works from the Church’s index of forbidden books.

Trudeau was surely transformed by his education and world travel. He chose to take a job with the Privy Council (the secretariat to the Cabinet) in Ottawa because he wanted practical experience in the working of Canadian federalism. He had by now rejected narrow nationalism as the preferred route for Quebec and saw in federalism the opportunity for his people to grow to heights beyond what might be achieved in their home province.

Trudeau’s first public appearance in support of the idea of a charter of individual rights came on May 8, 1951, when he went before Prime Minister St. Laurent and other government leaders as secretary of a committee urging  such a measure. Their effort was in support of a Senate recommendation that Canada adopt a declaration of human rights modeled on the declaration recently proclaimed by the United Nations. That didn’t happen, because no one at that point had figured out how to get agreement of both the federal government and the provinces to make a change to Canada’s constitution, then embedded in the British North America Act. As the Nemnis write:

 Nine years later, on August 10, 1960, the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker adopted a bill of rights. But this was only a federal law, which could easily be amended. It was not until thirty-one years later, in Ottawa on April 17, 1982, that a beaming Pierre Trudeau looked on as Queen Elizabeth ratified the repatriated Constitution, enshrining the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As he dutifully took the minutes at the meeting in 1951, could Trudeau have imagined that the Charter would one day be his most important contribution to Canadian history?

The thirty years of the Charter have seen a historic shift in the weight of individual rights vs government mandates. Innumerable cases have been argued before the courts on Charter issues, and repressive laws have been struck down or modified as a result. The Charter has far from unanimous support; there are those who see it as an invitation to social anarchy, benefiting only those who would abuse convention to pursue reckless behaviour. Hardly convincing arguments.

The Charter was not, of course, the only act of statesmanship of Pierre Trudeau’s career. He brought in the Official Languages Act, worked for a Just Society, promoted multiculturalism as a foundation stone of modern Canada, and in repatriating the Constitution made Canada a fully independent nation.

As Max and Monique Nemni conclude, “Whether we revere him or revile him, the fact remains that today’s Canada is the Canada of Pierre Elliot Trudeau.”