In the 2008 federal election, only 37 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 24 voted. The problem is so severe Elections Canada is running programs in 2,750 high schools across the country to teach young people about the importance of participating in the political process.
Awish Aslam is a university student in London, Ontario, and a first-time voter. Aslam breaks the mould of the apathetic youth. She set out to inform herself about the issues, in part by attending campaign rallies.
She started out with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, because he came to town first. She was so proud to be taking part, she had her picture taken with the leader and posted it on her Facebook page. She has since posted a similar picture with Jack Layton.
When Stephen Harper came to town, she signed up to attend his rally. She went with a friend whose father is a member of the Conservative party. The two young women lined up, got their nametags and were going to take their seats when they were apprehended by a staffer who accused Aslam of being a Liberal sympathizer, ripped the name tags off, tore them up, and threw the women out.
Aslam later described the experience as “humiliating”, and who can doubt it?
According to Harper, the incident, like every other nasty, overbearing, or incompetent thing his government has ever done, was the independent action of a staffer. Note that he does not say “the fault of a staffer,” as he acknowledges no fault. Here are Harper’s words. “The staff runs our campaigns and I can’t comment on individual matters like that.”
He went on to say, “I think we get more people coming to our events… than all the other parties combined.”
It’s hard to say what about this remark is most offensive. The claim is beyond dubious, the syntax is absurd, and the arrogance with which he brushes off the young woman’s humiliation is disgusting.
But it gets worse.
Jim Lowther is an advocate for homeless veterans. Yes, even in the 21st century, soldiers who have served their country end up on the streets. Even a prime minister who does not hesitate to trot out the military for photo-ops, who, when accused of turning a blind eye to torture, pretends to believe his accusers are siding with the Taliban against Canadian soldiers, has permitted returning veterans to fall so far between the cracks that they end up destitute and homeless.
Lowther tried to attend a Harper campaign rally in Halifax, and was turned away. There are those who believe that a career in politics will eventually lead anyone into hypocrisy, but even for the most cynical observer there are degrees of duplicity, and surely this is the highest. Clearly, to Harper, the troops are a political tool to be used like any other, and discarded when they don’t suit his purposes.
Like most of his actions in government and during elections, Harper’s tightly controlled rallies are a page out of the George W. Bush playbook. The frightening thing about this is that it worked for Bush, and it looks like it may work for Harper. There are reasons why leaders such as these restrict access during election campaigns – they have plenty to answer for, and little interest in answering.
Harper’s is the first Canadian government ever to be found in contempt of Parliament. Forget the Bev Oda letter – that was, after all, the action of a staffer. Harper was found in contempt because he refused to tell the truth about the disposition of billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. What will it really cost to fill the country with new prisons?
None of your business. What will his shiny new fighter jets cost? Who wants to know? How much money does he really want to give away to giant corporations? Privileged information.
The evidence shows that Harper’s Tories – or as they’re coming to be better known, the T Party – run government the same way they run a campaign: in secrecy and arrogance and with a profound disrespect for the Canadian public.
In all likelihood, Awish Aslam’s commitment to the electoral process will survive the humiliation, and so will Jim Lowther’s. We can only hope that Harper’s arrogant dismissal of these citizens will spur disaffected youth and other Canadians to get out and vote, rather than discourage them.
If you saw no reason to bother voting in the past, here is reason enough. There are a great many important tasks to be undertaken to prepare Canada for an uncertain and perhaps perilous future.
Step one is to elect a decent government.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.