One of the many challenges of Canadian democracy is our geography – especially the fact that we have so much of it. Rural and remote regions tend to have large riding boundaries, and that causes its own share of problems, particularly when you have a number or ridings larger than countries like France, and no, that’s not an exaggeration. Ontario has been in the process of redrawing their riding boundaries after the federal government did in advance of the last election – notable because Ontario largely follows the federal riding boundaries, but in the past, they split one of the giant Northern Ontario ridings into two for practical purposes. Under this new redistribution, it looks like they want to split it into four instead. Where this becomes problematic is not only the fact that it far exceeds the usual 25 percent variance in rep-by-pop weighting that the courts usually allow, but it’s being justified in giving votes to francophone and Indigenous communities in the area.
In the National Post, Chris Selley takes on this particular proposition, and makes a very good point in that we don’t have any particular basis in this country for awarding “superballots” to traditionally underserved communities as a means of reconciliation or redress. Add to that fact, that while the commission may talk a good game about better enfranchising these Indigenous communities, they traditionally have lower turnouts not only for lack of access by elections officials, but because in some of those communities, they resist taking part because they don’t see themselves as part of Canada, but as a sovereign nation within Canadian boundaries, and participating in Canadian elections would undermine that sovereignty. I’m not sure that “superballots” would change that particular consideration for them either, which could make the commission’s excuse for naught. Would that mean that in these newly created ridings that the non-Indigenous voters who do participate have their votes count that much more? Quite possibly. And while one does understand the frustration and challenges of an immense Northern riding, there are other ways to mitigate those issues, with greater allowances for offices, staff and travel considerations that the government should be ponying up for. I’m not sure that this new proposal is going to pass the Supreme Court of Canada’s smell test.
A story out of Brockville yesterday is a bit disconcerting, where local Conservative MP Gord Brown held a town hall in the community about the Omar Khadr settlement, saying that he wanted to get people’s views because everywhere he went, it was all people would ask about. He also claimed that it “wasn’t a partisan issue,” but I would be willing to bet actual money that the way in which Brown presented the case was through a deeply partisan lens, regurgitating the party’s disingenuous talking points and legal prevarications that distort the crux of the matter. And what disturbs me the most is that listening to the reactions in the write-up of the event, it starts sounding an awful lot like a Two Mintues Hate than anything, where people recited the completely wrong tropes about Khadr’s situation and situation as it regards the rule of law. It was at least heartening that a local lawyer turned up at the event, brandishing a copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and laying down the law about why there was a settlement, and it’s quite the photo that ran with the piece – but I doubt that it would change very many minds, considering the distortions that are continually spread by the partisans (on all sides, to be completely fair, given that many a Liberal partisan conveniently forgets the roles that Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin played in this). Nevertheless, the fact remains that holding a town hall on this issue is deeply creepy.
This wailing and gnashing of teeth going on about whether or not the Conservatives may have damaged NAFTA renegotiations by going to the American media to bellyache about the Omar Khadr settlement is kind of tiresome, but I have to wonder if some of the angst or even analysis on this isn’t misplaced. While sure, there are points to be made about how going there is a bit of hypocrisy going on, where Andrew Scheer insists that it’s totally different for the Conservatives to go down about Khadr while at the same time saying it was “treasonous” for Thomas Mulcair to go to Washington to decry pipelines doesn’t pass the credibility test, I also don’t think that Scheer can credibly claim that If the Khadr payment hurts NAFTA that it’s Trudeau’s fault because it comes off as petulant.
There was an additional comment (that I can’t find to cite) that what’s more suspicious is the fact that the Conservatives had to go to the States to drum up outrage over Khadr because they weren’t getting much traction on it in Canada, as they were already preaching to the converted. I think that’s a fairly trenchant observation, and I have to wonder if it’s also because they chose particular American outlets that won’t offer pushback to their points that are factually wrong, which they wouldn’t get in Canada. Certainly Rosemary Barton wouldn’t abet the same kind of disingenuous commentary that Michelle Rempel pushed, and I think that’s also part of what we should take away from the exercise, beyond the fact that this performative outrage could backfire and cause problems with NAFTA in the age of the Uncertainty Engine taking more cues from Fox & Friends than he does with his officials.
Meanwhile, Paul Wells sees little trouble for Liberals in the polls post-Khadr settlement, so it seems like there’s little backlash (as those who were against Khadr seem unlikely to change their votes). Kady O’Malley meanwhile wonders if dragging the Americans into the Khadr file isn’t going too far.
With the Council of the Federation meeting today in Edmonton, they had a pre-meeting yesterday with some Indigenous leaders – others having opted not to join because they objected to it being “segregated” from broader Council meeting. While I can certainly see their point that they want to be full partners at the table, I have to wonder if this isn’t problematic considering some of the issues that the Council has to deal with – NAFTA renegotiations, inter-provincial trade, marijuana regulations – things that don’t really concern First Nations but that premiers need to hammer out. Two groups did meet – the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (which generally deals with off-reserve and urban Indigenous Canadians) and the Native Women’s Association of Canada, citing successful talks, while the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and Métis National Council stayed out of it.
While I’m sympathetic to these Indigenous groups’ desire to have full-fledged meetings with premiers, I’m not sure that the Council is the best place to do it, because they’re not an order of government so much as they’re sovereign organisations that have treaty relationships. While some of their concerns overlap, they don’t have the same constitutional division of powers as the provinces, so a meeting to work on those areas of governance can quickly be sidelined when meetings stay on the topics where areas do overlap with Indigenous groups, like health or child welfare, while issues like interprovincial trade or harmonizing regulations would get left at the sidelines as they’re not areas in which Indigenous governments have any particular constitutional stake. And yes, we need more formalized meetings between Indigenous leaders and premiers, I’m not sure that simply adding them to the Council achieves that, whereas having separate meetings – as was supposed to happen yesterday – would seem to be the ideal forum where they can focus on issues that concern them. Of course, I could be entirely wrong on this and missing something important, but right now, I’m struggling to see how the division of powers aligns in a meaningful way.
Oh, and BC won’t be at the Council table as NDP leader John Horgan is being sworn in as premier today, even though he could have scheduled that date earlier so that he could attend (seeing as this meeting has been planned for months).
The government announced yesterday that they have begun the process for searching for the next Supreme Court of Canada justice, which it should be noted is almost record-breaking in how fast they got this particular process started, as normally it takes them six months to a year to get a process even started, by which time the vacancy has happened and terms need to be extended (which isn’t possible in this case). And while this is notable in and of itself, there was something else notable – that they are explicitly looking for a justice from either the West or the North.
Why this is important is because it seems to demonstrate that they learned their lesson from the previous SCC appointment process, when they toyed with finding a justice who was not from Atlantic Canada despite it being a traditionally Atlantic Canadian seat that was vacant, and there was some pretty big uproar which they tried to pooh-pooh with talking points about how some of those federalist notions were perhaps a bit archaic and they were trying to find a bilingual justice (which was difficult for that region, even more so if they were trying to find someone Indigenous or a person of colour). That will be less of a problem in the West, but the fact that they also mentioned the North is a bit curious.
As it stands, some territorial cases, particularly at the appeal level, are heard in courts in provinces like BC or sometimes Ontario, because there simply aren’t enough judges and infrastructure in place to do the job up North. And while it’s not necessary that one be a judge to get a Supreme Court nomination (they must be a member of the bar, but can come from private practice or even a law school), it is a bit peculiar that they have expanded their search in such a way. It is the first time that such a consideration has been made, which is no doubt part of this government’s constant attempts to pat themselves on the back, and their language about the “custom of regional representation” still sounds a bit like they’re making it out to be less of an important deal than it is, which is a problem because the principles of federalism are a pretty big deal given how this country works. I would say that it also raises the possibility of raising hackles in the West because it could open them up to accusations that they’re depriving the West of representation on the Court (the West typically has two seats, one of which is currently held by Justice Brown from Alberta, so no, Alberta has no room to raise a fuss), but one could imagine that BC would very well make an issue of it if they felt like it. Granted, if they do find someone from the North, it could provide some greater perspective on the Court – or it could simply be yet another reason for back-patting. We’ll find out in a few months’ time when the decision is made. (And for the record, the plan is to name the new Chief Justice after the vacancy is filled).
While again noting that I don’t often write about provincial matters, sometimes they can be a microcosm or a vanguard of broader themes happening in different legislatures across the country, including the federal parliament, and this item out of Queen’s Park raises alarm bells because it is a telling sign. The province’s Financial Accountability Office – the provincial equivalent of the Parliamentary Budget Officer – tabled his annual report that essentially states that there’s not enough scrutiny happening within the legislature. And yes, that’s a very big problem.
Ontario's budget watchdog suggests the legislature might wish to do its job of monitoring the actions of the executive branch. pic.twitter.com/PkgWx2W3yt
While I am a bit surprised that his office is being underutilized, the fact that backbenchers aren’t doing the work of scrutinizing the actions of Cabinet – particularly on budget matters – is not unique to the province. Here in Ottawa, we see too many instances of MPs passing the Estimates with the barest of glances, and when ministers appear before committee to discuss them, they are generally bombarded with questions about issues of the day rather than what’s in the Estimates. That most of the scrutiny of the Estimates now happens in the Senate is Ottawa’s saving grace – something that provinces like Ontario can’t claim.
Part of the problem is that our civic literacy has so degraded that most MPs or their provincial counterparts (MPPs, MLAs, MNAs – style them how you will) don’t understand that their actual constitutionally mandated job is to hold the government to account by means of controlling the public purse. That, by definition, means scrutinizing budgets, the Estimates, and the Public Accounts. That MPs and their provincial counterparts don’t want to do that job – or at the very least are ignorant that it’s their responsibility – has meant the creation of more Officers of Parliament like the PBO, and the FAO in Ontario, to do that homework for them, and that’s a huge problem for the health of our democracy. But so long as MPs and their counterparts opt to stick their heads in the sand and play American lawmaker, spending all of their time and energy on private members’ business (when they’re not cheerleading for their particular leader), then our system suffers for it as governments aren’t held to account properly.
Despite some MPs are agitating for the next Governor General to be Indigenous, it looks like it’s going to be Julie Payette, former astronaut. Payette is a woman and francophone, which fulfils the Anglophone/Francophone alternation that has been the pattern since we started naming our own Governors General, and the government’s desire to have more women in top spots. That she’s not Indigenous will be criticised by some, but I suspect that it may actually avoid other headaches because I do wonder if an Indigenous GG may not find themselves in an inherent conflict of interest given the relationship with the Crown that Indigenous people have which is as sovereign people in a treaty relationship, and being the Queen’s representative has the possibility of being far more complicated once you dig into it. As well, there would likely be pressure on an Indigenous GG from other Indigenous communities to exert influence on the government, given that the understanding of Responsible Government and heeding the advice of the government of the day isn’t all that well understood, and would lead to a lot of disappointment. Meanwhile, here’s Philippe Lagassé on some other aspects of the GG that are worth thinking about.
The Queen holds the powers of command in chief, and the Commander-in-Chief is a rank bestowed on the GG by the Sovereign.
The CBC has a video segment released today talking to Commons Speaker Geoff Regan about the countdown clock in the Commons when it comes to things like Question Period, and how he enforces the 35-second rule for questions and answers.
While it’s a nice video explanation, and demonstrates that Regan will allow a few seconds’ grace when necessary, it does go to demonstrate part of what isn’t functioning with the way we’re doing things like Question Period – or even regular debate, for that matter. By enforcing strict clocks, we’ve incentivised a culture of filling that space rather than it being an upper limit. Even in QP, where it’s a simple yes-of-no question, the temptation to fill all 35 seconds with canned talking points usually wins out (though the three-word yes-or-no Mr. Speaker replies do occasionally happen and make my day). Also, the 35 second clock encourages ministers to read replies in order to ensure that they stay within the limit rather than going over – and that tends to lead to a greater reliance on talking points than substantive answers.
As I’ve written about several times, I think this video is a demonstration as to why we need to loosen the clock. I’ve also witnessed in Senate QP where there is no defined clock, where you can get far more substantive questions and answers (though the Senate Speaker does need to reign them in a bit – some senators will speechify during a question, and sometimes the visiting minister will ramble). But loosening the clock and empowering the Speaker to better manage that time – along with a ban on scripts – will go a long way to improving the flow of debate in the Commons, rather than the farce that we have today.
The situation in BC, where there is an emergency situation of wildfires and evacuations in the midst of a change of government, can be pretty instructive as to how our system of government works. Right now, as with during an election period, the machinery of government goes into “caretaker” mode, and because Christy Clark remains the premier until the moment John Horgan is sworn in, she is able to respond to the situation as she is doing now.
Why is this important? Because the Crown must always have someone to advise them, especially in circumstances like this. Add to that, we have a professional, non-partisan civil service means that they are already in place, and don’t need to have a massive new appointment spree to fill the upper layers like they do in the US. That means that they can respond to these kinds of situations, and while the caretaker government gives the orders, the incoming government’s transition team is being briefed so that they can handoff the files when they form government. It’s an elegant system that we’re lucky to have.
After a weekend of yet more wailing and gnashing of teeth about the Omar Khadr settlement, and despite detailed explanations from the ministers of justice and public safety, and Justin Trudeau reminding everyone that this is not about the individual circumstances of Khadr himself but rather the price of successive governments who have ignored the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we’re still seeing a number of disingenuous talking points and facile legal analysis from players who know better. Here is some of the better commentary from the weekend.
I want a Venn diagram of people who believe right to free speech must be absolute and people who believe Omar Khadr's rights are negotiable.
A number of people over social media have insisted that treatment of Khadr, including the “frequent flier” sleep deprivation technique used to “soften him up” before CSIS agents arrived to question him, or the fact that he was strung up for hours to the point of urinating himself (and then used as a human mop to wipe it up) or being threatened with gang rape didn’t constitute torture.
Broader context: “frequent flyer” program used soften up for Cdn interrogation, fruits of which shared in a patently flawed US trial process