By Stuart Parker
I was glued to my television on June 22, 1990. I sat in front of my TV and wept because something truly extraordinary was unfolding, an act of individual courage that changed the course of Canadian history.
Elijah Harper had risen in the Manitoba legislature holding an eagle feather and refused to grant his consent to the emergency legislation that all three parties had sponsored to sign the Meech Lake Accord amendments to the Canadian Constitution.
For emergency legislation to be introduced, every MLA present had to consent. And every MLA had, except one: Elijah Harper, one of a tiny handful of Indigenous people to sit in a Canadian legislature. That man defied his party’s whip, its leader, the premier of his province, the prime minister of Canada, and the leader of his national party, all of whom were exerting all the pressure they could, through the media, through party members and donors, through threats and promises of reward.
More importantly, already isolated by his status under the Indian Act, by racism, by the remoteness and poverty of the people he represented, he was also isolated among his colleagues, the “team” of NDP legislators among whom he sat and with whom he was expected to work every day.
But he did not waver. He drew upon a profound inner strength. And he also drew upon us, the ragtag band of dissenters who opposed Brian Mulroney’s mercurial constitutional dealing and his exclusion of Canada’s Indigenous peoples from his new constitutional order. One man, Elijah Harper, defeated the Meech Lake Accord; following that one courageous act that we all watched, the premier of Newfoundland withdrew the emergency legislation in his province and the accord was dead.
That was a rare moment that changed our nation. But I fear that because of changes in our laws and culture, it is the kind of moment that may never come again.
The moment was rare, first and foremost, because the vote of a single backbencher mattered in a Canadian legislature. It would not be until the 2005 confidence vote on Paul Martin’s government that a solitary vote would swing an important question in a legislature again, when terminally ill Chuck Cadman, who had gone to Ottawa as a Reformer, would unexpectedly save the government he had come to destroy. So, mathematically, numerically speaking, Elijah Harper moments are rare.
Today we mistakenly think that an MP or MLA who votes against their party leader is the stuff of fiction or from legends of a murky, distant past. That is because our political and media establishment are at work all the time to make us forget that acts of defiance within major political parties were part of our system of parliamentary democracy, not some force from outside.
B.C.’s Svend Robinson also defied his party’s leader and whip and refused to vote for Meech Lake in Parliament. Robinson’s independence was loved by his local constituents in North Burnaby, who sent him back to Parliament four more times after that vote. And Robinson was not the only parliamentarian in those days who would denounce and defy his party’s bad decisions. The Tories had Garth Turner, for instance.
Dissent was not just the prerogative of MPs and MLAs who had already won, either. In 1989, Susan Brice, the mayor of Oak Bay, sought the nomination of the B.C. Social Credit party in the Oak Bay–Gordon Head by-election on a mandate to place a vote of nonconfidence in premier Bill Vander Zalm before the other members of the Social Credit caucus. Kathleen Toth, a supporter of the premier, ran against her at the nomination meeting and, despite the premier’s endorsement, lost. Vander Zalm signed Brice’s nomination papers and she ran for a seat in the legislature on a mandate to end her leader’s religious fanaticism, alleged corruption, and erratic behaviour.
Until recently, Canadian political parties were what U.S. political parties still are: a place where the direction of the country is debated in public view, where different factions within parties make their case to the party’s members and to the public at large.
But all that has changed. Someone recently asked me, “Where is our Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?”
And my answer was simple: “If Ocasio-Cortez had sought an NDP nomination in a safe NDP seat held by a well-liked party patriarch like Charlie Angus, she would have been disqualified as a candidate by the party vetting committee and would not have been permitted to run.”
There are three levels at which things have changed, about which I have written elsewhere:
Law: Between 1993 and 2003, Canada made a series of changes to its election laws that altered how candidates are chosen. Before 1993, the law vested power concurrently in a party’s leader and its local riding associations to select candidates; effectively both had to agree for a party to field a candidate, except in extraordinary circumstances, requiring the consent of a party convention. If both did not agree, the party typically could not field a candidate. But by 2003, the law was clear: a party leader had the sole prerogative to select or deselect any candidate anywhere at any time for any reason.
Institution: Beginning in 2003, leaders of Canada’s parties delegated this power into “vetting committees”, members of parties’ head office staff who had the power to disqualify any person from seeking a party nomination for any reason at any time. This power has not just been used on new candidates but has been used to deselect sitting MPs. These committees are not required to reveal the reason for their decisions or even the names of their members. I was the first person to be disqualified by the NDP’s vetting committee in 2010. But 10 years later, people cannot believe this story because most think we have had vetting committees since 1867.
Culture: This is because of culture. It used to be that leaders were regarded as strong if they could tolerate dissidents in caucus and promote them even after they had committed rebellious acts. John Turner and Eric Kierans were members of Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet who were like this. A leader who sought to prevent any and all expressions of dissent was regarded as weak, someone who could not handle being contradicted, someone who could not hold their own in the rough and tumble of debate. If a candidate like Brice were running, a strong leader would be able to show up at the nomination meeting and twist enough arms and shake enough hands to make the meeting pick their preferred candidate. This is what Mike Harcourt did in Nelson-Creston in 1991 to save Corky Evans from Wayne Peppard’s insurgent eco-socialist candidacy.
Today, the media act like every time a candidate does not read directly from the party’s talking points sheet and says anything original at all, it is evidence they have a weak leader. A strong leader, in current Canadian political culture, is someone who has managed to fill their caucus with automatons, reading from a set of head office talking points in a 90-second loop. And, our pundit class insists, this horrifying reality of the past decade is how it has always been.
Today, we face something far more serious than a bad constitutional deal that excludes Indigenous people. We face omnicide, a global extinction event that just killed half a billion animals in Australia in the past couple of weeks, a devastating set of interlocking environmental crises that has killed 50 percent of all life on earth since I was five.
Today, we have a legislature in which a single vote separates the two blocs. Any single member of the NDP-Green alliance could side with the B.C. Liberal Party on the next confidence vote and bring this government down. Before spring is over, a budget will be placed before those MLAs that includes the $6 billion in subsidies to build the biggest carbon bomb, the highest-emission fossil fuel project in B.C. history, and nearly $1 billion in addition subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, mainly to frack for natural gas, to burn, to turn into plastic bags for the Great Pacific garbage gyre, or to use as a key ingredient in diluting Alberta bitumen.
Any one MLA could stand up and say they will bring this government down if it does not end fossil fuel subsidies, something that both the national Greens and NDP promised in the federal election just a few months ago. Where is our Elijah Harper?
The answer is, of course, that there is no such person in our legislature. And that’s because of the impeccable vetting processes of the B.C. Greens and NDP.
Ontario trade union leader Gary Shaul explained all this to me back in 2009. You see, the NDP’s vetting committee is not looking for embarrassing things in a potential candidate’s past. It is, as Gary said, “the NDP Pre-Crime Division”. Its purpose is not to find problems in your past but to ensure that you will be no trouble in the future.
It is not simply that it reviews your employment, social media, and civil society record because they are looking for sheep. They are looking for ladder-climbers, people who, whatever their views on the issues, have risen successfully through a bureaucratic system in which they have never defied a superior, that they are a member of a professional association whose rules they have never breached. They are looking for ladder-climbers who show filial piety to their parents, submission to their superiors, and patience as they move up the ranks.
Such people will not see themselves as fearful, cowed toadies, but as smart, ambitious professionals who are patiently waiting their turn, playing the “long game”, as they once did as union vice presidents, middle managers or tenured professors. As one long-time party boss once confided in me, the party’s goal is to one day eliminate nominating meetings entirely, to simply function like the civil service, replacing election from below with promotion from above.
I am sure that, among these caucuses of ladder-climbers, professionals, and resumé-polishers, there are some who see themselves as a kind of social democratic Pope Francis, a true radical able to keep their powder dry for decades and rise, undetected through the ranks of a corrupt, nihilistic death machine until they can finally uncloak and set things right.
Sadly, by then it will be too late.