The Olympics That Will Not Be Televised

Canada is basking in international attention: the impending Olympics; the G-8 presidency; the proposal for ‘tough talk’ to the good Taliban; a quicker than expected economic ‘recovery’; and of course – Haiti. Even the august Bill Clinton is in awe of Canada’s generosity, which he readily attributed to the ingenuity of the Prime Minister’s matching grants program.

The same Prime Minister, while efficiently choreographing this international gymnastics, has unilaterally shut down Canada’s parliament – as if it was his private store. He claims to have done so as a ‘routine constitutional matter’. As procedure demands, he had advised the Governor General (GG) to prorogue parliament, in order ‘to take some time to recalibrate the government’s agenda, both on the economy and on some other matters’. And she has taken her advice. Our GG is of course, formally a representative of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (who is Queen of Canada and Head of State). Lest we forget, Canada is not only a parliamentary democracy but also a constitutional monarchy. It still has quite a strong bastion of loyalists. According to them, severing ties with the monarchy will be no less than national suicide, and ‘new’ immigrants like me suggest as much only out of our utter ignorance of Canadian history and the Canadian constitution.

And so here we are, learning exciting lessons about the Canadian constitution.

As a result of Mr. Harper’s manoeuvre, Canada’s elected representatives are locked out of the parliament since the last nine days. His plan is to keep the parliament closed till March 3. At present there exists no legitimate forum where the country’s opposition could voice its opinion; no forum where elected representatives of the Canadian people can raise questions. More specifically, the prorogued parliament will make for a quicker and smoother appointment of the Harper’s Conservative senators. But some believe that the real purpose behind the prorogation is to stifle the debate on Afghan detainees. In November, Richard Colvin, the former No. 2 at the Canadian embassy in Kabul testified that ‘all detainees transferred by Canadians to Afghan prisons were likely tortured by Afghan officials and many of the prisoners were innocent’. His repeated warnings to Ottawa in 2006 and 2007 had little effect, he has claimed. What followed this testimony was a (very legitimate) public outcry and a tumult in the parliament. So the prorogation was Mr. Harper’s strategic response, critics allege.

As a global leader who presides over the G-8, surely Harper puts a very interesting face on this international body. In his own words:

“The G-8 and G-20 summits in 2010 are opportunities for Canada to contribute to discussions aimed at reaching a consensus on common global issues” … “They also provide unique opportunities for Canada to exercise its leadership on the world stage, while enabling it to promote Canadian values such as human rights, democracy and rule of law’.

Could the irony be more profound?

On the brighter side, as Harper takes international stage planning to capitalize on ‘Canadian values’, Canadians may be silently preparing to call his bluff. According to an Angus Reid poll, 61 percent Canadians disagree with the decision to prorogue parliament. His popularity continues to erode in successive polls, and about 41 percent of Canadians says their opinion of him has worsened. Canadians are no longer dismayed at the thought of having an election, and many believe it would be a welcome opportunity. A small but vibrant pro-democracy movement appears to be gaining momentum (see noprorogue.ca)

Harper’s hope is that his successful ‘recalibration’ of the ‘agenda on the economy’ will magically erase all grievances about the prorogation. What should that recalibration entail?

8.5 percent Canadians are currently unemployed. For some time now, ‘employed’ Canadians have been facing a high degree of economic insecurity. Inequality is high and growing. Canada’s Gini index currently stands at 32.6 (slightly higher than countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh). In 2008, the year the recession began, highest paid 100 Canadian CEOs each took home an average of $7.3 million. That was 173 times the average pay of a Canadian in 2008 – up from 104 times in 1998. By 1:06 pm on the first working day of the year, the Canadian CEO had already made what an average Canadian earns in the entire year.

In 2009, the Bank of Montreal reported a profit of $557 million for its third quarter, up $36 million from 2008. The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) was a close second with $434 million, up $71 million from a year ago.

Meanwhile, ordinary Canadians are visiting food banks in record numbers. Food bank usage rose by 18 percent between March 2008 and 2009, with Alberta, the oil-rich Canadian province having recorded a 61 per cent increase. Some 20 percent of food bank users are employed – but are unable to meet basic needs with their income. In Toronto, food bank visits have crossed 1 million for the first time in history. This in a city with an average household net worth of $562,000. In a survey of 49 food banks, 46 percent of the respondents said that in the past 12 months they had gone without food for a whole day. 51 percent had not eaten for a whole day in at least once a month. Even before the recession some 2.7 million Canadians were food insecure, i.e. they did not know where their next meal was going to come from.

So here we are on the eve of the Olympics and the G-8/G-20 jamboree: a shut down parliament, 8 per cent of the population food insecure, and the rapid growth of a racialized underclass which the famed Canadian ‘multiculturalism’ cannot camouflage any more. Not exactly an ethically sound position from which to ‘exercise global leadership’.

But international politics is about power, not ethics. Or so our leaders continue to hope.

ANANYA MUKHERJEE-REED teaches Political Science and Development Studies at York University Toronto, Canada

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