Is this really a Canadian election campaign?

The Canadian Press

By Josh Scheinert

When I told my West African law students that individuals had been asked to leave some of Prime Minister Harper’s campaign events because of Facebook pictures or bumper stickers they all laughed. “That’s supposed to be happening here in Africa,” one of them said. I answered that I knew that, but now it was happening in Canada.

I am spending the year teaching law at the University of The Gambia in West Africa, on a continent where elections are often far from free and fair and the democratic process is a fig leaf strongmen. Just down the road in Ivory Coast a country lay in ruins because a past president refused to relinquish power four months after losing an election. Voting in Africa is too often a formality.

Canada is supposed to be different. Elections are meant to be an opportunity for each of us to exercise his or her civic duty and play a role in shaping the direction of our country. They are a fundamental pillar of our democratic foundation.

Unfortunately, this election campaign has revealed some disturbing occurrences, which taken on their own might not appear all that serious. Yet, when taken together they reveal a serious problem.

Prime Minister Harper has apologized to those who were ejected from his campaign events. But he did so when it became politically expedient and not when first questioned about the matter. In the first instance the Prime Minister did not offer a sincere apology or pretend to be disturbed. No one has since been fired for having the gall to think they could stymie democratic debate.

On the contrary.

It has now been reported that a growing number of Conservative candidates turned down or refused to respond to invitations to debates in their ridings with the other candidates.

In the fall semester I taught Introduction to Constitutional Law to 80 Gambian law students. A large portion of the case law that we studied was from the Supreme Court of Canada. The case I was most proud to teach is called Figueroa v. Canada, about interpreting the right to vote guaranteed by section 3 of Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Court wrote that section 3 is more than just the formality of being allowed to cast a ballot. Instead, the right to vote is about being able to “play a meaningful role in the electoral process,” which is referred to as “the primary means by which the average citizen participates in the open debate.”

It goes on to address the role of political parties and says, “Political parties ensure that the ideas and opinions of their members and supporters are effectively represented in the open debate occasioned by the electoral process and presented to the electorate as a viable option.”

If candidates of political parties refuse to even show up for a debate, how then are potential constituents expected to play a meaningful role in the electoral process, how are they to be properly informed? It might be suggested that frontrunner candidates do not wish to debate their challengers as it might detract from their support. Tough luck.

When staffers, candidates and their leader, allow for a culture of contempt towards those who may have interest in what other parties are saying then they have failed to properly understand what the electoral process is all about.

To those candidates refusing to debate, get out from your cocoons. Go and meet your challengers. Do what is expected of candidates for public office in a democracy such as ours. Allow for a free exchange of ideas so that the public can play its rightful role.

To Prime Minister Harper, change your campaign’s attitude. The media, the unscreened public and even those who support your opponents are not to be treated with hostility unless you feel it is politically expedient to do otherwise. Without healthy interaction with the media, the unscreened public and yes, supporters of the other parties, you are preventing the citizens of Canada from fully realizing our right to vote under section 3 of the Charter. Statements that you welcome interaction with all Canadians are a just a start. You must put yourself in a Tim Hortons and talk to whoever comes your way.

It is understandable that a frontrunner party might want to ‘play it safe’ to secure victory, but at the expense of what? Ideas and principles are bigger than all of us.

I had hoped that this election would serve as further evidence to my students that our country has much to teach the world about how the democratic system works. Instead, at times I have found myself here in West Africa, surrounded by law students watching the election from afar, and none of us can believe what we’re seeing.

Josh Scheinert, a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, is a visiting lecturer with the Faculty of Law at the University of The Gambia.


Photo: Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press