Frank A. Pelaschuk
What is it about the Harper Conservatives? Why is it that they appear to never question themselves or to suffer doubts? Are they not interested in what the world thinks? Or even their own people? Do they not hear the incipient groaning moans of rebellion or the slight tearing sound of Harper’s carefully woven image slowly unravelling? The tear is barely noticeable. But it’s there. And people are beginning to take notice.
Last week, Canadians were treated to the spectacle of a short-lived revolt by Conservative backbenchers wishing to reopen the abortion debate through the back door. Harper wanted none of that. On March 26, MPs Mark Warawa and Leon Benoit stood up in the House and asked the Speaker Andrew Scheer to rule that their rights to speak on certain topics were being violated by their party leadership when their names were removed from a list of speakers and they were prevented from speaking in the House prior to Question Period. Later, the dissidents emerged from a caucus meeting, all smiles but clearly reined in. All was well and Dear Leader Harper was in control again. But for how long?
The mini-revolt was not the only blow to Harper’s image within a week. On the recommendation of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and a month before they were to meet, Harper announced Canada’s withdrawal from the UN convention of scientists to fight drought in Africa. He also stopped Canadian funding, about $350,000. Canada had signed on to this UN effort in 1994 and is the only nation of 194 signatories to withdraw its support. One of the rationales offered was that it was a cost-cutting move which would save taxpayers $350,000! That’s slightly above the cost of travel expenses claimed by senator Pamela Wallin over the past few years. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a paltry sum and amounts to a miniscule fraction of what Harper and gang spend in self-promoting propaganda with its Action Plan campaign. This move is cruel window dressing; it will have no real effect on the economy and will appeal only to those who believe “charity begins at home,” and that Canada is already far too generous and free with taxpayer monies. But for those living in drought plagued nations, every lost dollar for anti-drought research is a matter of life and death; the withdrawal of any money for such an effort is catastrophic, not only for those dying from the effects of drought but also to Canada’s image. Because the sum involved is so insignificant when compared to other sums we spend, we look foolish, mean and niggardly. We are a relatively rich nation and yet Harper is willing to declare to the world that we have neither the heart nor the willingness to contribute towards finding the solution to end drought. That is one cold heart.
The anti-drought convention is a UN initiative. That may be the problem. For some reason, Harper has it in for the world body. He doesn’t like it and will poke it in the eye in every possible way. That the consequences of his acts have resulted in a tarnishing of Canada’s reputation as a good and humane nation, that such actions could result in death for some, is apparently of no concern to him and his gang. Their concern is to appeal to their base of supporters, those folks who believe the best charity is no charity and that all victims are masters of their own misfortune. They elected Harper and gang and gave him power. He intends to keep it and will do so by heeding to the worst in them.
Another blow to his image, this too self-inflicted, is equally puzzling.
Recently, seven young people wishing to draw national attention to aboriginal issues completed an arduous and dangerous 1600km trip. The journey began from a James Bay Cree community on January 15 and ended on Parliament Hill March 25. They had hoped to meet with Stephen Harper at the end of their journey. Unfortunately, it was disappointment, rather than Harper, which greeted the young trekkers. Harper had more important issues to deal with and they involved international matters calling for diplomacy, cooperation and lots and lots of cameras. He and his wife were in Toronto greeting two “ambassadors” from China. That the ambassadors were Panda bears on loan to Canada speaks volumes and sheds more light on a man that is not only unflattering but all too revealing. With a backhanded slap of contempt, Harper opted for cute and cuddly over courageous, tired, foot-sore, message-bearing, young aboriginal people. It was a photo-op to good to resist and Harper didn’t. The world noticed but, if he was hoping that Canadian love for animals would translate into something more positive, a further softening of his public image, he clearly miscalculated. Another thread snapped in that carefully crafted image. Canadians and the world saw him for what he is: aloof, disrespectful, uncaring, ungenerous, mean, small, and getting meaner and smaller every day.
His refusal to acknowledge the young people, to hear them out and to convey to them, and to the rest of us, that their efforts actually meant something to him will no doubt leave a lasting impression on them. Perhaps, still smarting from the Idle No More movement, or of the belief that his issuance of a public apology in 2008 on behalf of Canada for the brutal failures of residential schools was sufficient, Harper just could not bring himself to break away from what was important to him: the careful crafting of his image. You can never go wrong having your photo taken with pandas. But Harper might have done better meeting with those young people.
THE LAST OF THEIR KIND
Within a day of each other, Conservative Ralph Klein, and New Democrat Peter Kormos died. In both, we can see almost identical personalities, but men of absolutely different characters. Both were popular figures in politics, though, of Kormos, it can be said he was the more solitary and sadder figure in his private life though, it is true, it was Ralph Klein who, in the end, suffered the cruellest of fates when diagnosed with a lung illness and dementia.
Both were larger than life and absolutely fearless in their worldview. And both, it can safely be said, were principled but in different ways. Klein, it appears was more flexible when it came to personal beliefs, preferring, in some ways, to let those whom he represented, to lead. Both were populists, for good and ill, and both served their constituents well and were so easy to be around that voters felt they could call them by their first names. Klein was often referred to as King Ralph, a title both sincerely affectionate and ironically meant.
Of the two, Ralph Klein subscribed to a darker view of humankind than did Kormos as attested by his declaration regarding easterners moving to the east: “Any person with an honest desire to work and an honest desire to contribute to society is welcome, but people who come to rob banks, mug seniors & snatch purses are not welcome.” As if such elements did not exist in Alberta but were eastern imports. Those who supported him loved this. They saw him as a man “who told it like it is.” On the surface, that declaration may sound reasonable. Unfortunately, the sentiment reeks of suspicion and judgement creating an unpleasant image by tarring with a rather large brush a segment of society.
“He’s a straight shooter,” is the consensus regarding both men. Perhaps Klein was, but most of his targets were easy not to like for they are the targets and scapegoats of like-minded people the world over, those naysayers who always look for those less fortunate and weaker than themselves. Perhaps it makes them feel better to know that, as low and mean as their lives are, there are others worse off, the “leeches” of society: the unemployed, the homeless, the mentally ill. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, it just makes you feel so damn good to be the one giving the shit-kicking rather than taking it. These are the kind of people who love the cruelty of American Idol when the self-deluding, truly untalented perform on stage to be subjected to loud mockery and ridicule. It doesn’t concern the viewers that these folk are often there at the encouragement of friends and family who should have known better and cared more: what better sport than to be among the mockers, to witness the fall of others no matter how weak and defenceless. I don’t know if Ralph Klein was a mean man; I think not. But he should have known better. He fed off that kind of thinking and he used it publicly as when he threw money at a panhandler telling him to get a job, and became much loved as a result by those who saw vindication of themselves in that act, saw that they were not of that ilk, that they were indeed contributors, “hardworking independent men and women who didn’t whine, who succeeded on their own, who neither sought nor took help from others.” That the “self-made man” is largely a figure of myth troubled neither Klein nor those who really want to believe they were that person: “I work, I contribute; those who don’t are bums.”
Kormos was a different type of populist. He, too, had strong opinions and he was equally colourful, but there was less judgement and meanness in how he looked upon others. He stuck to his socialist beliefs and appeared to have little patience with those pragmatists who were more concerned with getting re-elected than in doing the right thing. Why couldn’t you do both, he likely thought.
Both men will be missed. They were cut of the same cloth yet worlds apart. Of both, it has been said, “we shall not see their like again.”
Perhaps. But I do believe, of the two, we need more like Peter Kormos.