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“Brian Mulroney was an appalling prime minister, appalling. But if I had to pick one prime minister over the other [between Harper and Mulroney], I would pick Mulroney.”
– Stevie Cameron, author of On the Take, the 1994 bestseller about corruption during the Mulroney years.
In the summer of 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and other world leaders arrived at a swanky resort located two hours north of Toronto to take part in the annual G8 Summit. As it turned out, the resort lies in the riding of then federal Industry Minister Tony Clement.
At that time, no one knew that Clement had lifted $50-million from the public purse – money originally allotted by parliament for alleviating congestion at Canada’s borders – and spent it beautifying his Parry Sound-Muskoka riding on things like parks, walkways, toilets and gazebos. He would later claim the money was dispersed for the G8 Summit.
But when Auditor General Sheila Fraser investigated what happened to the $50-million, she could find little paperwork showing how it was decided the money be spent. Documents later unearthed through the Access to Information Act showed Clement was encouraging mayors in his riding to apply for this cash prior to the 2008 election – and used federal civil servants to help dole it out. The NDP later accused Clement of using the money as a “slush fund” to better his chances of getting re-elected.
Still, when the $50-million scandal broke in 2011, Clement was not dropped from cabinet or even reprimanded. Instead, Prime Minister Stephen Harper put him in charge of the Treasury Board – the very entity designed to oversee spending, ethics and accountability in government. That same year, the Conservatives chopped 92 auditing positions from the civil service.
“On the Clement case, team Harper’s strategy appears to be to simply ride out the criticism,” wrote Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin at the time. “Stonewall the media and the opposition until fatigue with the issue has set in and everyone moves on. It has worked in the past. It will likely work now.”
In fact, unlike his predecessors, Harper has seemed Teflon-like in respect to how corruption scandals have clung to him. Even the trial of Senator Mike Duffy has not dented his veneer to any great extent – although this may soon change.
Yet corruption is among the litany of reasons why Stephen Harper might go down in history as Canada’s worst prime minister (a case we began to make here in Part 1 of this two-part series).
A more recent example of Harper’s proclivity for corruption was buried in the 2015 budget. After the government got rid of the long gun-registry in 2012, the RCMP was ordered to destroy its records. By then, however, an access to information request for this data had been made. The RCMP eviscerated the information anyway – which is a criminal offence if an access request is being processed. Suzanne Legault, Canada’s information commissioner, recommended charges be laid against the responsible RCMP members – which included high-ranking officers.
But in its most recent omnibus bill the Harper government simply rewrote the access laws retroactively to erase the RCMP's mishandling of gun registry records – in order to protect these officers from facing criminal charges.
This, of course, sets a precedent of simply arbitrarily changing laws in order to protect political allies. According to Legault: “We could, for example, with this bill, set a precedent whereby, if there were findings of electoral fraud, the government could just pass a law and say: ‘No, these provisions never applied.'”
This kind of behavior is one reason Christian Nadeau, a political philosopher at the Université de Montréal and author of a 2010 book about Harper, Rogue in Power, says the Harper government is “an unjust government and an anti-democratic government… It’s a whole enterprise of rebuilding not only the institutions but the political culture in Canada. Ten years ago [the actions of the Tories] would be seen as something very bad and very unacceptable. But now what they’re doing seems normal.”
His corruption record
When investigative journalist Stevie Cameron – who wrote two books about the Mulroney era – compares Harper and Mulroney on their corruption track records, she says: “Mulroney was a crook and corrupt [but] I don’t think Harper is corrupt financially. I think he’s corrupt in so many other ways… I don’t think he’s interested in money. I think he’s much more interested in power and secrecy.”
Take the Senate spending scandal, which has so far embroiled Tory senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau. Initially this story seemed straightforward – senators abusing the public purse by spending money on non-Senate related business and travel.
But what’s also emerged are the lengths Harper and his staff have gone to try and bury the scandal. First there was $32,000 allegedly offered by the Conservative Party’s fundraising arm to cover Duffy’s travel expenses. And then there was Nigel Wright, Harper’s chief of staff, ponying up $90,000 to do the same thing.
In 2013, the Senate hired the auditing firm Deloitte to look into the expense claims of certain senators, including Duffy. When Duffy’s audit was finished, the report on its findings was diverted to the Prime Minister’s Office where it was revised before being sent on to the Senate. Two Tory senators assisted with the alterations.
“I always felt that the most important part of the Duffy fiasco is not the dubious expenses of a cheese-eating monkey like Duffy,” says journalist Michael Harris, author of Party of One, last year’s bestseller about Harper’s reign, “but the fact that the prime minister reached into the Senate in the middle of the forensic audit and got the published report before the Senate did and got changes through controlling the committee of internal economy… What we had was the act of undermining another body of Parliament in an outrageous way that goes to the heart of this guy’s psyche.”
What’s also been lost in the Senate scandal was the fact that senators like Duffy and Wallin were using their taxpayer-funded positions to bankroll their jobs as fundraisers for the Conservative Party. Duffy, in particular, was the star speaker at fundraising events and Tory riding associations across Canada. For example, in the summer of 2009, he hosted a $100,000 town-hall event for Harper in Cambridge, Ontario. He hosted a telethon hall for Julian Fantino in 2010 during the by-election that sent the former Toronto police chief to Ottawa.
Michael Bate, editor of gossip magazine Frank, has compiled a list of Tories charged with one crime or another since 2006, which includes Michael Sona, Bruce Carson, Arthur Porter, Devinder Shory, Peter Penashue, Saulie Zajdel, Rahim Jaffer, Dean Del Mastro, James Bezan and Nathan Jacobson.
“Comparing the Harperites to the [Chretien Liberals], I’d say they’re probably equal in appetite,” says Bate. “The Liberals had better table manners, a sense of how much they could get away with. The Tories just dig in with both hooves, like there’s no tomorrow.”
Other scandals of note during Harper’s tenure include:
The F-35 jet fighter contract. The plan was to buy 65 of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighters with the Tories claiming the price tag would be $9-billion to purchase and $7-billion to maintain. Yet the contract was never put out to tender – even though Canadian law requires this must happen for major defense purchases. A 2012 Auditor General’s report said the government did not conduct a fair competition or proper due diligence. Moreover, when the government signed an agreement with Lockheed Martin in the fall of 2006, unlike previous agreements, this one did not guarantee a minimum amount of production be done in Canada.
Soon the price tag became wishful thinking. The Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page estimated the fighter would actually cost nearly $30-billion over 30 years. The Harper government condemned Page, even though he was vindicated by estimates drawn up by the Auditor General. Page even said the Harper government appeared to be keeping two sets of books on the F-35 - one in secret, and another for the public. One other estimate suggested the total cost could be as high as $126 billion – or $110-billion more than the Tories originally said. Yet the Tories refused to answer questions about these estimates, and religiously stuck to the story the planes would cost less. Only after years of denial did the government shelve the order for the time being.
The in and out scandal. During the 2006 election, the Tories were accused of getting around spending limits by transferring money between the party and its riding offices. Having reached their $18.3-million spending limit, the Conservatives transferred $1.3-million to 67 ridings, which then funneled it back to the national party to spend on advertising. An investigation of this laundering was stymied by Tories sitting on the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. In 2011, four members of the party (including two senators) were charged for their involvement in the scheme – and the party forced to repay $230,198. Nigel Wright, Harper’s former chief of staff, was listed among those involved.
Bruce Carson influence-peddling scandal. A former senior adviser in Harper’s PMO, Carson was a disbarred lawyer who had gone to jail for numerous charges of fraud prior to joining Harper’s inner circle. In 2012, Carson was charged with influence-peddling following allegations he’d lobbied ministerial staff at the Department of Aboriginal and Northern Development on behalf of his then fiancée (and former escort), Michele McPherson, who acted as an intermediary for an Ottawa-based water purification company H20 Pros. McPherson stood to earn commissions from any sales to First Nations reserves. Last year, the RCMP hit Carson with more charges of illegal lobbying.
His foreign policy record
Brian Mulroney gave an interview with CTV’s Power Play last summer where, among other things, he lambasted the Harper government for its record on foreign affairs.
“When Canada, for the first time in our history, loses a vote at the United Nations to become a member of the Security Council . . . to Portugal, which was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time, you should look in the mirror and say: ‘Houston, I think we have a problem,’” said Mulroney. “We’re in the big leagues... so we have to conduct ourselves in that way. We can’t be out-riders.”
Mulroney also chastised Harper for his poor relations with U.S. President Barack Obama, suggesting the prime minister doesn’t have the kind of close ties that allow him to call the Oval Office and ask for bilateral back-up. “If you can’t do that, you don’t have much clout internationally.”
Indeed, back in 2010, when Canada sought a seat on the UN’s Security Council and lost to Portugal – the first time in 50 years Canada had never gained a seat – it reflected how other nations had become appalled with Harper’s foreign policy.
First off, there was his move away from giving aid to Africa. In fact, under Harper, aid was increasingly doled out based less on need as much as economic opportunity for Canadian companies. In 2013, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was dissolved. Last year, Harper also announced he would prohibit Canadian funding for safe, legal abortions in poor countries.
Under Harper, Canada’s peacekeeping force has been almost eradicated. Once the world’s number-one provider of peacekeeping personnel, Canada now ranks 67th on the UN’s peacekeeping contributors’ list, or a grand total of 122 people. “We’ve gone from being a major contributor to a situation today where we’re an insignificant contributor at a time when UN peacekeeping is at an all-time high,” says Peggy Mason, president of the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa-based foreign policy and defense advocacy group.
“Every indication of the Harper government is they have no interest in peacekeeping – which is part and parcel of their hostile attitude towards the UN.”
Harper has also displayed hypocrisy when it comes to China. When first elected prime minister in 2006, he routinely condemned China’s human-rights record and promised to not trade “Canadian values” for the “almighty dollar.” By 2010, Harper had changed his tune, allowing Sinopec, the Chinese petroleum giant, to buy a stake in Syncrude that permits it to decide whether its bitumen is refined in Canada or shipped abroad. Two years later, Harper did not stop the Chinese state-owned oil company CNOOC from buying the Calgary-based resource company Nexen for $15.1-billion.
Moreover, there are pipelines that will send bitumen from the oil sands to China – including Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan – which the Harper government has wholeheartedly endorsed.
Even more alarmingly, Harper secretly signed the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) with China while attending an APEC summit in Vladivostok, Russia in 2012. What’s the problem with this agreement?
China has invested over $30-billion in the Canadian energy sector alone, and its companies are significant investors in the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. Yet the FIPA agreement would allow China to sue Canada if the pipeline was not built.
"Chinese investors can sue Canada for any actions by the federal government or the B.C. government (or legislature or courts) relating to Chinese assets connected to the [Enbridge] Northern Gateway pipeline," Osgoode Hall law professor and investment treaty expert Gus Van Harten told The Vancouver Observer last September. Van Harten argued that the deal was not only disadvantageous to Canada, but also potentially unconstitutional.
"More troubling, there is no requirement in the treaty for the federal government to make public the fact of a Chinese investor's lawsuit against Canada until an award has been issued by a tribunal. This means that the federal government could settle the lawsuit by paying out public money before an award is issued, and we would never know."
One small B.C. First Nation, the Hupacasath, issued a legal challenge in 2012 against FIPA, arguing that the deal threatened constitutionally protected Indigenous land rights, and that it was signed without any consultation. The Federal Court and Federal Court of appeal dismissed the case, claiming any claims of FIPA’s impact were “speculative.”
Despite widespread public opposition in Canada from citizens, First Nations and businesses, FIPA was quietly ratified in September 2014, locking Canadians into the deal with China until 2045.
Meanwhile, one of Harper’s most polarizing foreign policy causes has been Israel. As Israel has grown increasingly isolated due to its treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories – as well as building illegal settlements on this land – the Harper government has become one of the country’s most zealous supporters.
Since Harper became prime minister, Israel has invaded Lebanon – killing up to 1,125 Lebanese (as compared to 159 Israelis) and launched two invasions of the Gaza strip, the first in 2008-’09 that led to 1,434 Palestinian casualties (as compared to 13 Israelis) and then last year, leading to 2,139 Palestinian deaths and 11,000 wounded (as compared to 73 Israeli deaths and 556 wounded).
In 2010, when six Turkish ships set sail for Gaza to deliver 10,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid to relieve Israel’s blockade, Israeli commandos stormed the boats in international waters and killed 10 activists.
Despite international condemnation over what was seen as Israel’s overkill in these instances, the Harper government has consistently rushed to Israel’s defense and been quick to brand Palestinians and their organizations as “terrorists.”
“From my personal point of view, I would have a great deal of respect for Mr. Harper if he had taken a more balanced view in that sphere,” says Bernie Farber, former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress. “To drive wedge issues between the [Jewish and Palestinian] communities is not in my view the way to do politics in this country… We have to find things that bring us together as opposed to driving us apart.”
Harper has a close affinity with the current government of Israel, led by the hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu, although Netanyahu’s party won only 23 per cent of the vote in the most recent election. Moreover, during that campaign, Netanyahu pledged to never negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians and made thinly racist comments on the eve of the vote, saying “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves” as a warning to voters to back his Likud party.
In fact, Canada has sided with Israel to thwart Palestinians efforts to have their own state: in 2012, Canada was only one of nine countries in the UN that voted against Palestinians achieving statehood. Since 2007, it has cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, voted against all UN resolutions recognizing the rights of Palestinians and complained bitterly when Palestine was admitted as a full member state to UNESCO.
Not surprisingly, Harper’s foreign policy has alienated Canada’s Arab and Muslim communities. The government doggedly fought to keep Omar Khadr behind bars, although he was only 15 when involved in a firefight in Afghanistan that led to the death of a US soldier. In 2009, the federal government cut its $1-million annual funding for the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF) due to the organization’s criticisms of Israel.
Conservative fundraising letters in recent months have disparaged Muslim women wearing niqabs at citizenship oath ceremonies, saying “they should embrace our culture” and “that’s not the way we do things,” and even referencing Al-Shabaab threats against Canada in their ads.
“For years the Canadian government had charted a reasonable, unbiased or not strongly biased attitude towards Muslims,” says Atif Kubursi, former president of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations and emeritus professor of economics at McMaster University. “But when Mr. Harper came there was a major shift.”
And then there is Harper’s decision to send fighter jets to Iraq to do battle with ISIS, costing $360-million this year. The Chrétien government refused to send troops to Iraq in 2003, recognizing it was a foolhardy venture. Moreover, evidence has since emerged that the American invasion so destabilized Iraq it helped give birth to ISIS and other jihadist groups. “I think [Harper’s bombing of ISIS] is a completely wrongheaded strategy that is ineffective, counter-productive and possibly playing into the hands of ISIS,” says Peggy Mason of the Rideau Institute. “Number one – the bombing campaign doesn’t work. And ISIS uses it to recruit people from all over the region – not just foreign fighters.”
In fact, the war on ISIS has also been used by the Harper government to whip up support for its draconian Bill C-51 anti-terrorism legislation, stoking fears about terrorist attacks on Canadian soil on the eve of the October election.
His cultural record
Stephen Harper has never hidden his contempt for the cultural sector. During the 2008 election he claimed that “ordinary people” don't care about arts funding and have no sympathy for “rich” artists who gather at galas to whine about their grants. By then he’d cut $45-million to arts and culture programs.
So it’s no surprise that the one main cultural institution Harper seems determined to destroy is the CBC. When Ian Morrison, the long-time spokesperson of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, is asked to characterize the Harper government’s attitude towards the CBC, he replies: “Number one – subterfuge. If there is a hidden agenda and there are 50 items on that hidden agenda, CBC is near the top.”
Morrison says during the 2011 election Tory candidates professed support for the CBC but promptly began “sabotaging” it once the election was over. Indeed, in his 2012 budget, finance minister Jim Flaherty immediately cut $115-million from the CBC’s budget.
Even before Harper became prime minister, the CBC was one of the most poorly-funded public broadcasters in the world. Canada’s level of government support for the CBC ranks near the bottom compared with that of other Western industrialized nations: A 2006 report showed that Canada stood 16th out of 18 nations in per-capita funding of public broadcasters, at $33 per citizen, compared with an average of $80.
At the time Harper became prime minister, the CBC’s operating budget was down to $1.1-billion (all figures in 2014 dollars) and peaked at $1.15-billion in 2007. Since then, it’s steadily declined and now stands at $929-million and is set to continue to fall. The CBC says it will cut 25 percent of its workforce by 2020 – or up to 1,500 jobs.
In 2013, the federal government surreptitiously placed the CBC under the Financial Administration Act, making it subject to review by the Treasury Board. This means the board can scrutinize how the CBC spends its money, in particular on labour. “The impact of that was to give the Treasury Board a supervisory role over management,” says Morrison.
Harper also stacked the CBC’s board with his political supporters. Since 2007, the CBC has been presided over by Tory donor and lawyer Hubert T. Lacroix, who used to work at the Canada’s most powerful corporate law firm, McCarthy Tétrault, as a business attorney. Lacroix has embraced, without complaint, every effort by the Harper government to downsize the CBC. Meanwhile, nine of the CBC board’s 11 members are Tory donors, most of whom have business or corporate law backgrounds.
The ideological shift at the CBC under Harper has been noticeable too, where pro-business shows have proliferated while investigative programs have been cut.
Harper has also attacked Canada’s historical institutions. In 2012, Harper chopped the budget of the national library and archives, making it more difficult for historians to research the country’s past. “The library and archives have almost been destroyed by this government,” says Ian McKay, a professor of history at Queen’s University. “The cuts to the archives were breathtaking – not cuts to some people but cancelation of whole programs. The things that got saved were anything to do with military history.”
Moreover, McKay says the Harper government has also changed our citizenship guide to reflect a narrow, pro-military and pro-business view of Canadian history, “very much emphasizing Canada’s role in war and [showing that] true Canadian heroes are warriors.”
Harper also changed the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa to the Museum of Canadian History, which emphasizes Canada’s role in military engagements. “They have taken a world-class museum facility and focused on a particular martial aspect,” says McKay.
When asked about Harper’s overall legacy, McKay replies:
“I would say it has been an unmitigated disaster. I don’t think we’ve ever had a prime minister who’s failed to articulate, to the extent this one has, a vision of the country. He’s essentially ruled the country as a CEO and given Canadians zero inspiration. I would be hard-pressed to find one moment where Harper has made us feel proud of Canada.”