The search for heroes

Elizabeth May

On Wednesday, June 13th, just after Question Period and before the tabling of amendments to the Omnibus Budget Bill C-38, a rally took place outside Parliament. The on-line advocacy group had called for people, at the very last minute, to support the opposition amendments. Taking their theme from the YouTube of Conservative MP David Wilks speaking candidly with his constituents, the rally called for Conservative MPs to step forward and be heroes. In the video, Wilks, MP for Kootenay-Columbia, told his voters that he did not like the Omnibus Budget Bill. He explained that Conservative MPs (outside of Cabinet) had no more idea than the voters themselves what would be in the bill  -- or any bill. And he said that as one MP, he could not make a difference.  It would take 13 Conservatives to vote against the bill to make a difference, he explained. Once the video was on YouTube, and, as a result discussed on every TV news show, Wilks’s website posted a statement of complete support for C-38.

The rally, amazingly well attended, was a boost to us as we went back into the House.  It was the last time I saw daylight until Friday morning. The rally’s placards called for “13 heroes.”

If the search for heroes is defined by Conservative MPs voting for C-38 amendments, then there are none in Ottawa, but that is not the case.

David Wilks was attacked in the media for caving -- for failing to challenge the Prime Minister directly, despite his clear integrity and unhappiness with the “system.” His statements, despite capitulation and retraction, constituted a kind of heroism in a system where everyone seems to be afraid of earning the Prime Minister’s wrath. My experience of current Ottawa is of a place in the throes of oppression. Scientists are muzzled, but why do they not defy bosses and speak out anyway? They are afraid of losing their jobs. Some in industry have told me they avoid any public criticism of the Prime Minister because they have children working in the civil service. They are afraid for their children’s jobs. Reporters have been cowed by higher ups in their media corporations telling them to lay off criticizing the PM. They are afraid for their jobs (and several reporters have lost their jobs for offending the PMO). Little wonder the members of Mr. Harper’s caucus are silent.  They know from the experience of Helena Guergis just how painful and complete banishment can be. 

In this column, I want to celebrate people of integrity who lost much by refusing to be silenced. Conservative MPs who stood up to the Prime Minister constitute a short list, and only one is still in the Conservative Caucus. Conservative Ontario MP Michael Chong was Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs until the PM moved a motion calling Quebecers “a nation.”  Since that was Chong’s portfolio and since he was never consulted, he graciously left Cabinet for the backbenches. There he remains.

Former Nova Scotia MP Bill Casey stood on principle and voted against the budget due to the fact it violated the oil revenue-sharing contract called the Atlantic Accord. He was thrown from caucus. Casey is a man of integrity. He paid a big price, but he is not the only one. MP Garth Turner was also thrown from the Conservative Party when he refused to stop blogging on issues that concerned him back in 2006.

Sometimes bravery in the Conservative ranks comes from refusing to vote at all. Albertan James Rajotte, and Ontario MPs Royal Galipeau and Pat Davidson refused to join their colleagues standing to vote that asbestos is safe. Braver to be in the room and refuse to vote than manage to avoid voting by not being in the House at all  -- as a number of Conservatives did. 

Speaking out against Harper’s agenda is difficult even for retired MPs. Full marks to the two Progressive Conservative Fisheries Ministers, Tom Siddon and John Fraser, for signing the joint letter with Liberal former ministers Herb Dhaliwahl and David Anderson condemning the gutting of the Fisheries Act  in C-38.  Former Conservative MP, Bob Mills of Red Deer, was heroic agreeing to speak out to denounce the loss of the National Round Table on Environment and Economy in a press conference I organized against C-38.

The very brave are those who stood on principle to support good public policy only to be fired, forced to quit or have careers stall. The following is a partial list, a brief reminder of people who continue to live without the jobs and careers they deserve.

  • The former Deputy Minister of Statistics Canada Munir Sheikh who resigned on principle one year ago when his Minister; Tony Clement, claimed that no one in the bureaucracy had warned him that cancelling the Long Form Census would be a huge mistake.  He had warned the minister and he could not live with the lie;
  • Linda Keen, former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, fired for insisting on nuclear safety upgrades at Chalk River;
  • Richard Colvin, the diplomat who testified to the violations of international law in the transfer of Afghan detainees. He was berated as a Taliban stooge by the Conservatives;
  • Kevin Page, Parliamentary Budget Officer, who has found that merely doing his job, providing fiscal updates to Parliamentarians has earned the PM’s wrath. He has announced he will not stay on beyond his first term. Meanwhile, he has warned the Prime Minister that he will go to court to force release of budgetary information he believes Parliamentarians need, unless it is released before the House resumes.

So many people in Saanich-Gulf Islands are active and engaged. With what remains of the summer, can you contact a friend or relative living in Conservative-held riding? Stephen Harper is planning a second omnibus bill to implement Budget 2012 for the fall. We need to urge Conservative MPs to push back and refuse to support a repeat version of C-38.

We need more heroes. 

Originally published in the Island Tides.