Cross-Canada Townhall Road Trip

Since my last article in Island Tides, I have spoken almost from coast to coast to coast: from Victoria to Halifax and Fredericton, and to our north—Whitehorse and Dawson City. As we drove by Lake Labarge on the Dawson Trail, I felt a great nostalgia for my grandfather’s recitation of Robert Service’s poem.

Unbelievably, I managed to speak in Dawson City, drive the five hours back to Whitehorse (arriving at 3am) to sleep a few hours and get to the airport before 6am for the flight to Vancouver to join the inspiring March for Residential School Reconciliation in Vancouver. That march, 70,000 strong in the pouring rain, was not to be missed.

From there on to Montreal and Ottawa.

As I write, I am about halfway through the tour, with Calgary, Winnipeg, Brandon, Toronto and Vancouver yet to go. Having discovered that there is a real thirst for opportunities to discuss the threats to our democracy, I will keep trying to reach all parts of Canada, with a Saskatoon event in November and hoping to reach Edmonton, Newfoundland and Labrador as well.

What is striking is that in most locations the Town Halls On Democracy are standing room only. In Whitehorse, as the Old Fire Hall filled up, the mayor told me that he usually invites his family to make sure the hall looks less empty. As it was people were turned away.

In Halifax, my daughter was told she couldn’t get in, as the hall was full. She had to plead her way in to sit on the stairs explaining she promised her mother she’d be there! Fredericton also was a capacity crowd, and what was supposed to be a ‘meet and greet’ at noon in Moncton, turned into a town hall as 60 people showed up with questions.

Some of the same questions are asked everywhere. Here are the top 5 Democracy Questions on the National Tour:

1. Why do Members of Parliament stand for being told how to vote and what to say? Those of us who move in and out of the ‘Ottawa bubble’ take for granted that the daily reality of all the MPs in the major political parties being required to maintain a slavish adherence to the leader’s instructions (celebrated in the media as ‘message discipline’). Yet, Canadians are shocked and that shock leads to asking ‘why?’ I explain that MPs do what they are told, with rare exceptions like former NDP MP Bruce Hyer and former Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber, who chose to sit as independents. If they don’t, they are punished.

2. How are they punished? What could happen to an MP who stands up for what they believe? The range of punishments go from refusing to allow that MP to speak in the House, ask (or answer) questions, or travel outside the route of Ottawa to riding and back, all the way to demotions (losing a committee chairmanship as did Mark Warawa, Conservative MP from Langley BC, when he complained about the Whip not allowing him to make a Members Statement), to the ultimate in complete character assassination and career annihilation. Which Stephen Harper did to his one-time Cabinet minister Helena Guergis; telling the public that the Ethics Commissioner and the RCMP had been called in about crimes hinted at only darkly and never explained—neither orgainzation found anything. Thrown from Cabinet and her party and not allowed to run again, when Guergis went to court to clear her name, she receiving a court ruling that the relationship between the Prime minister and his cabinet was covered by Royal Prerogative and the court cannot intervene.

3. How can a treaty as important as the Canada-China Investment Treaty be signed by the Prime minister without Parliament debating it? Concern about this treaty has reached many Canadians. The fact that it has not yet been ratified should give us all greater resolve to keep pressing Cabinet (the body that has the power to ratify) to refuse it in its current form. And to support the Hupacasath First Nation court challenge.

How this can be done without consulting Parliament? Previous prime ministers would have taken it to the House for debate and a vote. However, that was only a tradition of courtesy. Nothing required it. Treaty making falls under (you guessed it) Royal Prerogative. Harper has taken to tabling all treaties for 21 sitting days, something his administration advertises as a step toward greater parliamentary review. So while previous administrations voluntarily submitted treaties to a debate and a vote, Harper requires the tabling—but with no debate or vote.

4. Where are the checks and balances? How is it that the powers of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) can keep growing without any controls? Our Westminster Democracy was premised on respect for traditions, and principles. Such principles as we are governed by are only by consent of the governed. It was established on the fields of Runnymede in 1215, that even a king has to consult the commoners. South of the border, after a revolution, the government structure built in checks and balances between Congress and the president.

In our Constitution, the Prime Ministers Office does not exist. Parliament is supreme; a prime minister reports to Parliament, not the other way around. Canadian checks and balances are unwritten; they depend on respect for Parliament. MPs need to uphold this respect and stand up to abuse of Parliament, but don’t. So the checks and balances are only going to come from public debate and pressure on all parties to dismantle the power structure called PMO.

5. What do we need to do? Electoral reform—get rid of First Past the Post (go to to join the conversation). Doing so will reduce the hyper-partisanship driving many of the threats to democracy. Remove requirement in the Elections Act for leaders of parties to sign candidates’ nomination form (the only real threat wielded by a leader). Cut the budget to PMO. Restore functioning of parliamentary committees to review legislation. Return control of the public purse to Parliament. Return to evidence-based decisionmaking. Rebuild our historic and respected non-partisan professional civil service and bar the illegitimate interference in its work by partisan PMO operatives. This is a short list, but a good place to start!