After ten years of abuse, Canadian democracy needs an overhaul

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

By Voices-Voix,, 24 November 2015

In the month since its election, Canada’s new government has sent many positive signals that we’re entering a new era of greater respect for debate, dissent and diversity — the cornerstones of democracy. Its tone, its cabinet, its early pronouncements, its outreach to indigenous peoples and others who have been marginalized — it’s all very encouraging.

When Parliament meets again on December 3, it will be an important opportunity for the government to build on its promise of “sunny ways”, taking full advantage of its post-election momentum to buttress respect for rights, the rule of law, transparency and accountability. The challenge is not simply to hit the reset button. It’s to move this country forward.

We have lived through a dismal decade during which critics were defamed and defunded, evidence was suppressed, protest was criminalized and Parliament was undermined. And frankly, the record of earlier federal governments isn’t as rosy as some would contend.

It’s crucial, therefore, that we seize the moment and press forward with substantive reforms.

So while the throne speech should signal the government’s clear intention to stop undermining rights and to restore Parliamentary traditions, we also need new laws, priorities and programs to promote healthy, informed debate and ensure all Canadians enjoy the protections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The muzzling and interference with ombudspersons and officers of Parliament must end immediately. The enhanced scrutiny of progressive charities by the CRA through political activities audits must end. So must the targeted surveillance of advocates like Cindy Blackstock who seek justice for those most vulnerable.

On the legislative front, a slew of hostile or punitive legislation should be repealed or amended on public safety, national security, environmental protection, citizenship, sentencing, privacy and labour unions. The reckless reforms of Bill C-51 remain top of mind. As well, the use of omnibus bills must be curtailed. There’s a need for new laws to improve access to information, strengthen oversight and better reflect the role and realities of charities in the 21st century.

For a generation of young and new Canadians, their only experience of government is that of the past ten years. Simply reversing the worst of the Harper record isn’t enough.

The creation of a commission of inquiry on murdered and missing indigenous women — one that respects the concerns of their families and addresses the systemic roots of their vulnerability — is critical. Tangible support for the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and redress for other human rights violations is equally important. Funding cut from essential women’s rights organizations must be re-established.

Restoring the integrity of Parliament, empowering committees, welcoming the expert advice of the civil service and respecting the independence of the judiciary (while ensuring appointments that reflect the true face of Canada) are essential. Department of Justice lawyers should be allowed to do their jobs and signal to Parliament when draft laws are not likely to pass Charter muster. With a new generation of MPs, there are tremendous opportunities for innovative approaches that respect traditions but respond to the growing need for greater openness and transparency.

The government must demonstrate its commitment to the principles and practices of inclusive public participation and free, prior and informed consent. This includes restoring funding for a broadly-mandated Court Challenges Program and creating an enabling environment that encourages active engagement of all Canadians in shaping our future — with special attention and funding for those whose voices are least likely to be heard.

Internationally, Canada has an opportunity at the COP21 meetings in Paris to show the world that it will act as a responsible international citizen, not as a bully or a roadblock to progress.

It’s an ambitious agenda but critically important if we are to protect ourselves — under this or a future government — from a return to arbitrary and partisan attacks on the fundamental building blocks of our peace and prosperity.

We are reminded that, even in a country such as Canada, rights are vulnerable, and respect for dialogue and diversity is fragile.

For a generation of young and new Canadians, their only experience of government is that of the past ten years. This raises the risk of a “new normal,” setting the bar so low it will be easy for the new government to improve on the performance of its predecessor.

Simply reversing the worst of the Harper record isn’t enough.

We look to the new government to move forward with a bold and ambitious agenda to strengthen respect for debate and dissent. And we encourage all Canadians to actively engage in shaping that agenda and holding the government to account for its implementation.

Voices-Voix is a non-partisan coalition of Canadians and Canadian organizations committed to defending our collective and individual rights to debate and dissent. This article was co-signed by the following activists:

Robert Fox, human rights activist
Pearl Eliadis, human rights lawyer
Alex Neve, secretary general, Amnesty International Canada
Monia Mazigh, national coordinator, International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group
Veronica Strong-Boag, professor emerita with UBC’s Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice
Ken Norman, emeritus professor of law at the University of Saskatchewan
Tim McSorley, Voices-Voix coordinator
Mary Eberts, human rights lawyer
Gregory S. Kealey, Professor Emeritus at the University of New Brunswick

Image: iPolitics/Matthew Usherwood