People and Places

Will the torch-and-pitchfork crowd start a fire?

This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of
OTTAWA Magazine

This may be one of those election campaigns that starts in a cloud of stultifying boredom and ends with the electorate surging down the street, carrying torches, pitchforks, and a length of hangin’ rope.

We’ve already seen that happen once this year.

The best minds of the most successful political dynasty in Canada — and possibly in the Western world — decided it was a good time for an early election in Alberta. After all, the opposition Wildrose Party was in a shambles after its leadership had been bought off with cabinet jobs. All that was left was the puny Alberta NDP, and who in their right mind could ever believe Alberta voters would choose them?

There was a stretch of similar election upsets a generation ago. After the 1990 recession, jobs were scarce, the standard of living was falling, and people — though sullen — seemed resigned to endure whatever wretched government was in power.

David Peterson, a popular premier of Ontario, called an early election in 1990 and had to hand over the keys of his office to the new NDP premier, Bob Rae. George H.W. Bush seemed likely to win a second term as president of the United States in 1992, having just beaten the Iraqis, but he lost to Bill Clinton. Kim Campbell went into the 1993 federal campaign with a 15 percent lead in the polls — all the pundits were sure she would win a majority — and came out with two seats.

Every election is a clean slate, and every serious candidate has a chance of winning, though that chance might be slight. It seemed as though NDP nominations in Quebec were worthless in 2011, which explains why the entire executive of the McGill Univer-sity NDP club have been members of Parliament for the past four years. A Conservative nomination in Quebec was seen to be worthless in 1984, which is why we had a very interesting collection of truck drivers in the House of Commons.

We have just come through four years of strange government. Stephen Harper’s one-man rule has been little more than political game playing. There have been no important policy decisions, no great projects such as the Constitution or free trade with the United States. We have en-dured four years of drift while the greatest control freak ever to lead this country worked long hours to gag scientists and bureaucrats, undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions and the courts, and find ways to extend the powers of the surveillance state.

There is almost nothing to show for four years of Harper majority government except laws like Bill C-51, which gives the government frightening powers to invade everyone’s privacy while doing very little to stop terrorism.

Harper seems to be offering the same thin gruel this time around. A little tax cut here, a little public spending there, a lot of fear everywhere, and we’re supposed to keep him at 24 Sussex. The man, like Jean Chrétien (whom he seems to be imitating), is fortunate that his opponents are somewhat ludicrous people who fight each other. That’s the one ace in his hand.

Meanwhile, the real problems add up. The appalling state of Aboriginal Canadians, on and off reserve, has become an international embarrassment. Only the courts have addressed Native land rights. Harper has shown an utter lack of curiosity about the fate of murdered and missing Aboriginal women. The government’s reaction to the report on residential schools released last spring is to leave the problem to the Pope and hope he apologizes.

Young people have been utterly ignored. High school grads have two choices: get a job and be underemployed, with an income so low that it’s impossible to get started in adult life, or go to college, pile on tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, and then be underemployed with an income so low that it’s impossible to get started in adult life.

And Harper won’t fix the Senate because that would mean opening negotiations with the provinces — and this government doesn’t negotiate.

The government won’t work with the provinces to build a sustainable health-care system for those of us who will be seniors soon. Research and development?

Nothing there either.

Even defence has drifted. We still have Sea King helicopters built in the 1960s, and the government is shopping for freighters. Veterans are rightly angry as the government has eroded their benefits and hornswoggled soldiers wounded in Afghanistan into taking lump-sum, one-off payments.

The government did nothing as manufacturing jobs in Ontario and Quebec were exported. Harper hasn’t shown the slightest interest in the real-estate bubble, which threatens to take middle-class equity with it when it pops. Resource industries have been ignored unless they’re in Alberta.

There’s one problem with papering over the country’s problems. It’s pretty easy for that torch-and-pitchfork crowd to start a serious fire. This could well be the year it happens. As in Alberta, this may be the year everything changes.