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Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power & Politics.
God knows he's tried his best. Stephen Harper always said he intended to change the face of Canada if he could. He'd turn us from peacekeepers into warriors. But now we know he couldn't.
That doesn't mean he hasn't done inordinate damage in 100 different ways, much of it very serious. It will take years for other governments to reverse the harm.
I've mentioned in this space any number of books and reports comprehensively documenting the malevolence that marked Mr. Harper's decade as Prime Minister, not least his attacks on democratic procedures. I want to add here Michael Harris's revised paperback edition of his scathing exposé, Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada's Radical Makeover. Mr. Harris is travelling the country promoting his book while giving fact-packed talks about the Harper record that entertain, educate and, ultimately, infuriate his audiences.
In his speeches, Mr. Harris shares a cornucopia of information and analysis from his book, truly an embarrassment of perverse riches. It seems, among other things, that just about all those whom the Prime Minister has thrown under his bus, and they are legion, have then marched into Mr. Harris's Ottawa apartment and poured out their shocking stories of abuse by the Prime Minister. I guarantee that when you're finished reading, or listening to, Michael Harris, you will be afraid, very afraid, because of what Stephen Harper has done to Canada. Or at least tried to do.
For there's some very good news as well. The Prime Minister has largely failed to eliminate what's best in Canadians, our fundamental values, our decency, although it's taken an international crisis to reveal this. Immediately after a drowned Syrian boy turned the refugee crisis into a Canadian election issue, Mr. Harper responded as only he would. Of course he and his family felt terrible about Alan Kurdi's death, I have no doubt. But not so terrible the PM wasn't prepared, predictably enough, to use little Alan as a political weapon, a divisive wedge issue against the NDP and Liberals. Mr. Harper made clear that he wasn't going to move rashly to allow many new Syrian refugees into Canada if that opened the door to Islamic terrorists slipping in among the new arrivals. So quite typically, poor Alan Kurdi became the door through which Stephen Harper contrived to introduce violent Muslim jihadists into the election campaign to terrify Canadians.
The Prime Minister clearly thought he could bring most Canadians along with him in his continued strategy of fear-mongering. But he failed entirely to conjure with the Canadian instinct to help in a crisis, even if it's sometimes a gamble. That's the caring, sharing sentiment long embraced by Canadians and held in contempt by the Harper government.
Canadians have made this choice before many times, and know that the gamble always paid off. Who among us really knew what we were getting when we opened our doors to the Hungarians or the Vietnamese or the Ismailis or the Chileans in the past half-century? Who knew what hidden dangers lurked in the midst of those tens of thousands of new Canadians-to-be? It didn't matter. There was a crisis. There was an urgent need. There was an obvious role for Canada, and Canada played its role honourably.
And most of us have reacted in the same way again now. That's the Harper failure. The Prime Minister warned us ad nauseam that we must move cautiously, if at all. Yet there has been a spontaneous outpouring of support for a significant, immediate Canadian contribution to this grave humanitarian crisis. It's come from across the country – from mayors, premiers, faith groups, interfaith groups, community leaders, civil-society groups, retired soldiers, Progressive Conservatives, universities, businesspeople, corporations, and most of the media.
It appears that only the Conservative base buys the PM's position.
Canadians know we can't solve this crisis on our own, or even make more than a dent in it. But they also know we can make a real difference to tens of thousands of fleeing Syrians whose lives have been shattered, and they're determined to do so. Only in the past day or two, shaken by public pressure, has the Prime Minister finally, if grudgingly and perfunctorily, responded. Hooray for election campaigns.
It hasn't helped Mr. Harper's case that – again par for the course – he is not telling the truth about two central aspects of the crisis. First, Canada is nowhere close to having one of the world's most generous refugee and immigrant policies. Second, his insistence that the Syrian refugees are the victims of the Islamic State's depredations is largely false. In fact most have been created by their own miserable government, which shares with Canada and the United States a profound interest in defeating Islamic State.
For all practical purposes, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the man most responsible for the refugee crisis, is our de facto partner against the Islamic State. The very least we can do is open our doors to some of those Syrians whom our ally has cruelly brutalized, and it remains the glory of Canadians that whatever Machiavellian political game our government plays, most of us are determined to do exactly that.