Skip to main content

Where is Jon Stewart when we need him? He never did do Canada. Too bad. Imagine the fun he could have lampooning this place?

Would he know where to start? How many segments could he do on Canada, land of the free? The weekend provided more fodder. From a government determined to keep terror in the news for electoral purposes came a ban on travel to lands where terrorists might lurk.

Less noticed than the travel curbs was yet another example of curbs on freedom of speech. A headline on Ipolitics summed it up: "Participants at Conservative events must agree to gag order." The story reports that no members of the public can attend a Stephen Harper election campaign event unless invited and vetted by the Conservative Party. Furthermore, they must sign a form that prohibits them from transmitting any description or picture of the event.

How's that? Well it seems that even the Tory pompom shakers allowed in aren't permitted to talk to a journalist about what went on or send Aunt Ruby a capsule comment. Risks retribution. You can picture Mr. Stewart's eyes bulging, face jackhammered. "Ah, where's your head at up there? Eastern Europe circa 1953?"

We used to be able to just line up at the door of a rally, pass through security, and get in to heckle or cheer. All our leaders – John Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, etc. – had the courage to face dissenters. Not the current Prime Minister.

If he had his druthers, it seems everyone would be swearing allegiance. I recall a story some time ago about the employees at Library and Archives Canada being compelled to swear new loyalty oaths. The oaths said that even if they attended conferences or spoke at public meetings, they were engaging in "high-risk" activities. They must, bearing in mind their "duty of loyalty" to their political masters, be cleared for such activities.

You can picture the Daily Show guy on this one, riffing on about the dangers of setting librarians loose. "What are our good neighbours to the north thinking? All those bookworms rampaging through the streets, speaking their minds! Rein them in, Prime Minister. Invoke C-51."

The examples cited are smallish. There are innumerable others. On Monday, The Tyee, the popular online paper in British Columbia, printed an entire Conservative catalogue. It's entitled, "Harper, Serial Abuser of Power: The Evidence Compiled." It lists 70 well-documented examples – a better record than one I've been keeping – of how freedom of speech and democratic institutions are being undermined in this country.

Everything pulled together like this provides a remarkable portrait. Any smart opposition leader would be trying to get this list to every household in the country. Don't count on it, though. Look how they blew it at last week's leaders debate. Moderator Paul Wells opened the door to lots of discussion on the democracy issue. What did they do? They started talking about separatism. On that point, Mr. Harper mopped the floor with them.

The media aren't doing much better at bringing what's happening into focus. One prominent national columnist compared Mr. Harper to Richard Nixon last week. But so much of the journalism is tippytoe stuff. We report each outbreak of abuse of power episodically. We rarely connect the dots, or, as Mr. Stewart might say, the rots.

The problem, a veteran CBC reporter was saying the other day, is that journalists treat the undermining of our system like any other policy debate. They shouldn't. As he said, when the integrity of the democratic process is under threat, we have a duty to protect it the way the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee did south of the border.

The shrinking of liberties – from a Conservative government no less – is more important than endless reports on whether the budget is a morsel in or out of balance. But don't let any non-acolyte try to get into a Harper rally to point this out. In the new Canada, he or she wouldn't get near the place. If they did, they would be frogmarched out the door.