TORONTO, Canada — On the face of it, little connects Canadian democracy with roadkill. Yet the year ends with concerns about both.
Wildlife experts raised the alarm last week about the number of grizzlies being killed by trains barreling through national parks in the Rocky Mountains. A report by Parks Canada counted 63 grizzlies killed in an eight-year period, most of them by trains and most of them females of cub-rearing age.
The slaughter is much greater, and involves all kinds of wildlife, when collisions outside the Rocky Mountain parks are included.
At about this time last year, while riding a train across Canada, a conductor told me bull moose during rutting season are particularly vulnerable. They’ve been known to charge trains head-on. The impact is hard enough to jolt the front car, but the results are predictably unfortunate.
“The last thing that went through that moose’s mind was its ass,” the conductor said of one incident he witnessed.
Canadian democracy these days is looking a bit like that moose. The force bearing down on it, according to political analysts here, is Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government.
Harper is reportedly threatening to start the New Year the way he ended the last one — with Parliament prorogued. That means the legislature that governs the country would be shut down, at Harper’s request, and reopened at a time when the prime minister finds it more convenient politically.
Last year, Harper had Parliament shut down to save his minority government from opposition parties that had banded together to throw him out of power. This time, Ottawa is buzzing with talk he’ll suspend it to prevent further delving into concerns that Canada may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan.
At issue is how the Harper government handled the transfer to Afghan authorities of suspected insurgents captured by Canadian soldiers in 2006 and 2007. The evidence suggests Canada continued transferring detainees even after receiving repeated warnings — from allies, the Red Cross and its own officials in Kabul — that they were likely to be tortured. That would contravene the Geneva Conventions.
For weeks, the Harper government shot back by questioning the patriotism of critics. Defense Minister Peter MacKay then saw his main line of defense — that not a single prisoner turned over by Canadian soldiers can be proven to have been abused — shot down by Canada’s top general.
General Walter Natynczyk, chief of the defense staff, acknowledged two weeks ago that a prisoner had in fact suffered abuse after being transferred to Afghan police in 2006. He also released a report suggested it was common knowledge among Canadian soldiers that detainees were abused.
The revelations resulted in the House of Commons voting for the release of uncensored government documents to a Parliamentary committee studying the issue. The documents would show whether the government was indeed warned of detainees being tortured.
Citing national security concerns, Harper has made clear he won’t hand over uncensored documents, even though the committee could review them in sessions closed to the public. Opposition parties smell a coverup.
Thus the showdown: Opposition parties are considering court action to seize the documents, and Harper is thinking of suspending the pesky Parliament once again.
It’s a long way from the prime minister who came to power in 2006 promising transparency and accountability. Instead, he’s become far better known for using police officers to stop reporters from asking questions, for issuing a secret handbook to Conservative Members of Parliament on how to disrupt committee meetings, for banning civil servants or Conservative election candidates from giving interviews, for treating stimulus tax dollars like Conservative party funds, and for restricting the role of government watchdogs.
A common accusation is that Harper has turned the prime minister’s office into a U.S.-style presidency, with none of the checks and balances south of the border.
Control is a top priority. Richard Colvin, the Canadian diplomat who says he repeatedly warned Ottawa that Afghans were abusing detainees, noted recently that Canadian officials in Kabul were told “they should not report information, however accurate, that conflicts with the government’s public messaging.”
The attitude seems to extend beyond Parliament. Two weeks ago, the Harper government cut off funding to KAIROS, an aid group made up of Christian churches, because of its criticisms of the Israeli government. It cut funding to the Canadian Arab Federation months earlier for the same reasons.
Concerns about democracy add to suspicions that a Harper government — already seen by many urban voters as rural-based, God-fearing, climate change-denying and anti-gun control — has worse in store if it ever forms a majority.
This time last year, analysts were writing his political obituary. Today, he’s Canada’s most formidable politician. But when the normally stern Harper forces a smile, there are still Canadians who can’t help but react instinctively — they brace for a mugging. His spin doctors tried to soften his image during the past year. They gave him woolly sweaters to wear and sat him at a piano during a gala to sing the Beatle’s tune, “With a little help from my friends.”
His support rose briefly into majority territory — helped by the startling ineptness of his main political rival, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. But Harper’s handling of the torture allegations dragged it back down.
In the next federal election, likely sometime in 2010, Canadians will decide whether democracy has been unacceptably reduced to a moose head-butting a train.