This Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced his new cabinet, took a few questions from reporters, and then left the podium.
Moments later his office sent round an email announcing the appointment of three new senators. Actually, two of them are not exactly new; they were senators before the federal election, quit to run for Commons, lost, and are now returning to those plush red seats. The move has drawn fire from left and right, the angriest comment coming from disgruntled Conservatives, most of whom appear to have just woken up from a six-year nap.
Gerry Nichols, formerly of the National Citizens Coalition, called the appointments “a real slap in the face to Reform tradition and to those Reformers out there who wanted a reformed Senate, an elected Senate, an accountable government, who wanted more democracy in Ottawa,”- as if anybody who gave a hoot about democracy voted for the Pro Rogue of Parliament. Scott Stinson of the National Post declared that Harper had “played Canadians for sucker.” Well actually, Scott, only the 39 per cent who voted for him, out of the 60 per cent who voted at all. So roughly 24 per cent of eligible voters were suckers – if this number comes as a surprise at all it is only insofar as it’s surprisingly low.
One Conservative MP, who chose to remain nameless, told the Globe and Mail that the Conservatives, rather than destroying the Liberals, had decided to become them. Brad Wall, the premier of Saskatchewan, said of the move, “I think it takes away momentum for change.” Well, duh, Brad. Harper has been busy stacking the Senate since he got into office. He uses it as a place to store future candidates and bagmen, and he doesn’t ask for the resignation of senators up on criminal charges for election fraud. You were expecting to see momentum for change?
Now that the wails have been wailed and the teeth gnashed over the federal election, there’s a lot of talk, as there always is at this time, of how “undemocratic” the Canadian system is. About a quarter of eligible voters, four our of 10 of those who bothered to show up, marked an X for Conservatives, and now Stephen Harper has near absolute power for the next four years. He will stack the Supreme Court with right-wing judges and stuff the Senate with unelectable Conservatives and generally make his mark on the path of Canada’s future for years to come.
But is this so far from what was intended by the framers of the Canadian Constitution? What was the meaning of democracy in 1867, when the British North America Act joined the two British colonies of Upper and Lower Canada into One Dominion? At the time, the principal project of democracy was the theft of land. The great vast continent, or such of it as had not already been stolen by the Americans, was up for grabs from sea to shining sea. Democracy was the path to getting rid of the original inhabitants and replacing them with displaced Highlanders and Irish. The success of the project was dependent on the one-white-man-one-vote system of government.
But those Highlanders and Irish were not exactly the creme de la creme of society, so democracy had to be held in check. Among other mechanisms built into the system to prevent the great unwashed from achieving real power was the creation of the Senate. No one can be appointed to that institution, even today, who doesn’t own land. And if you happened to be a settler who owned a quarter section of prairie, forget it, the king was not going to hear your name any time soon. The office of the Governor General was similarly created to keep untrammeled democracy from taking hold in the colonies.
Those who cry that democracy is malfunctioning in Canada simply don’t understand what its intended function was. It has actually worked very well. The vast majority of aboriginal people have lost all control over their land, and the common herd of settlers feel utterly powerless over what goes on in Ottawa: success on both fronts. As for whether the results of the election reflect the will of the people, they were never intended to.
Elect is an interesting word. It doesn’t actually carry any connotation of democracy about it; it simply means to pick out. It doesn’t imply the choice was that of the majority. Harper could be said to have “elected” his new senators. On Saturday, when the world ends, those who rise to heaven will be the “elect,” chosen (or elected) by God, though who elected Him is hard to say. How does the tribal deity of a warlike race of desert nomads reach such a pinnacle that His are the only pronouns that get capitalized?
The answer is that it happened by chance, like most things. God was elected by history, Stephen Harper was elected by suckers, and the new senators were elected by Stephen Harper. If you wonder why Harper chooses to fly in the face of all that he once claimed to hold dear, the answer is plain to see. He does it for the same reason that a dog licks its nether regions. Because he can.
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.