Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a fighter and he and the Conservative party won a majority in the recent federal election. So where does that leave the human rights community? Many of us share the belief that true democracy is only active when minority voices are given room to express themselves and an opportunity to participate in the national dialogue. We also believe vulnerable and underprivileged populations need publicly funded services and programs to provide special help for those who cannot benefit or take full advantage of the health, education, and economic systems that support most of us.
The human rights community witnessed massive de-funding of these minority voices by the Harper government, as well as the chilling effect this de-funding had on others who do not share the Harper government’s views on subjects such as the protection of the human rights of Palestinian peoples, right to safe abortions for African women, and the analysis of the connection between trade and negative impacts on human rights in developing countries.
Some fear that the next four years will be a gruesome attack on availability of abortion services, the right to gay marriage, and the protection of civil liberties.
So where do you go when your government refuses to provide funding support for minority voices that disagree with its philosophy, and has even less interest in listening to these voices? To be fair, I imagine this is the same question many Conservative supporters asked themselves over the years with political power being wielded from the East — how can you participate when you feel alienated? The day after the election, that same sentiment was echoed by friends living in Quebec: ”I have never felt so different from Canadians.”
Nevertheless, it is important to remember while the results of the recent election may have turned over a leaf in Canadian politics, it is the same leaf. The core beliefs of Canadians have not changed. The numbers of those who lean centre-left and those who lean centre-right remain the same. And most Canadians are not on the right on social issues. Most Canadians believe women should have the right to abortion, gay marriage is acceptable, and the death penalty is not an acceptable form of punishment. We believe in our social safety net including medicare, employment insurance, and the Canada Pension Plan and we are willing to pay taxes to benefit from these programs.
The push and pull between “right” and “left” has been around for a long time. The terms themselves first appeared during the French Revolution in 1789 when the press used them to describe the seating arrangement of the National Assembly. Supporters of the king and absolute monarchy sat to his right and those who wished to limit the king’s powers and were seeking change sat to his left.
In Canada today, those of the political left favour equality of opportunity through progressive taxation, income redistribution, and social programs. They believe in social justice, secularism, and dialogue rather than strong personal political leadership to bring about social cohesion. Those on the right defend private property and capitalism. They believe in personal liberty, established religion, and strong personal political leadership as instruments of social cohesion.
Since the Conservatives will want to remain in power and become the dominant political party in Canada, my guess is Harper will avoid sharply polarizing issues that will reinvigorate socially progressive but financially conservative voters. While they will move forward with some law-and-order agenda items to please social conservatives, I believe the active subject areas of dispute between the right and the left will be around shrinking the federal government and trade and economic issues.
In order to continue to have continued public support for action on these issues, the Harper government, like the George W. Bush government, will continue to burden the public purse by spending a lot of our money on prisons and war. The Harper government will take steps to cut corporate tax rates, allow the growth of private health services, promote trade liberalization, and promote the exploitation of our natural resources. The domestic and international human rights issues engaged by these actions will include poverty alleviation, development aid, the rights of states to control their own resources and protect their environments, the right to health, the right to water, and food security.
While I feel somewhat dispirited and alienated from my government, life goes on and continues to present us with new opportunities, responsibilities, and moments to celebrate.
We now have 76 women in Parliament, an increase of three per cent. We have a long way to go but at least it is an improvement. One of those women, Elizabeth May, is a party leader. The new Parliament will also have greater racial and age diversity, including important members of the aboriginal community. I am hopeful that these changes will offer parliamentarians an opportunity to improve the level of discourse and debate that was so appalling in the previous Parliament.
With the NDP as the official Opposition, equality-seeking civil society organizations now have the opportunity and responsibility to find ways to project their voice onto the national stage, into the national press, and into the national discussion in a way that was not possible with the Liberal party. It’s time to focus and strategize and see what we can achieve.