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The Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa (Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr CC licence)

The Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa (Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr CC licence)

If Canadians don’t see a commitment for major change from Monday’s winner, the nastiest and most divisive election in our history, by far, will be for naught.

Change is never easy and the results are never perfect. What one looks for is improvement and the ability to make future changes in case what you’ve done didn’t work out or further refinement is required. The fact is that through neglect and abuse of the system, our very institution of freedom and democracy, Parliament, has become the sword of autocracy.

What must change?

Caucus discipline has gone too far

Parliament, that is to say MPs, must be supreme again. When you think about it, nearly all our problems can be attributed to the unrestrained dictatorship of the Prime Minister. We don’t intend to elect a Supremo, but that’s what we in fact do.

We are hypnotized by what we’ve been taught and don’t question our beliefs. We tell ourselves that Joe or Linda will make a fine MP, whereas he or she will just be another fencepost with hair. In every respect, they will do and say precisely what they are told. They will deny it but it’s 100% true. If they get into cabinet it will be because the PM put them there and can fire them at will.

If backbenchers, they will obey implicitly for, as Napoleon said, “every foot-soldier carries a marshall’s baton in his knapsack”. Every MP, even a senior cabinet minister, knows that the PM cannot only fire them at will but throw them out of Caucus, the Party, and refuse to sign their nomination papers even if their constituency unanimously re-nominates them.

They all know this and need no reminding.

The theoretical ability of the government caucus to revolt and topple the tyrant exists but, for a host of reasons, it never happens..

There can surely be no doubt that this election is about change. The question is how.

Electoral Reform’s time has come

It requires leadership dedicated to change just as Pierre Trudeau demonstrated starting in 1976. It requires patience, but not too much, for reactionaries will delay so as to kill. It must have public participation but also a leader who has the guts to make a decision when the issues are all debated.

The change must be, in the first stage, to reform of the electoral system. The Senate can wait. I believe that some sort of proportional representation (PR) – perhaps mixed with first past the post – is essential. But there are many options to be debated, after which a political decision must be made. Perhaps options can first be put to referendum as in New Zealand. Most importantly, change must be seen to be coming – there must be progress at all times.

I’m not going to outline the unfairness and lack of democracy in “First Past The Post” here – amongst many others, I have written about it extensively. Suffice it to say that its supporters are mostly backroom boys who profit with unelected power when FPTP is in place.

I have suggested an additional way to give power to MPs which, for reasons I don’t understand, raises shrieks of horror – the use of the secret ballot, the safeguard voters have – in Parliament.

Whatever your prejudice in these matters, surely we can all agree that change must happen such that our MP represents our interests, not those of the PMO. That, clearly, is the principal message of this election.

And for the first time, this goal is within reach. Both Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair have pledged electoral reform should they form government. It is up to us to hold them to that promise after election day – especially if Mr. Trudeau should continue his late surge, all the way to a majority government. Once the keys to absolute power are in his hands, he will need ample reminding of his commitment to change the mechanism by which he achieved it.

A return to decency

But there is another critical matter. We must cast aside the meanness and nastiness of the past decade and return to the civility and decency for which we were once justly famous.

A year ago, no one had heard of a niqab, yet our prime minister has fought a campaign centred on an article of women’s clothing and the implication that somehow the safety of the nation depends upon it being banned or severely restricted.

We now have second-class Canadians – God only knows how many but in the hundreds of thousands – because, like me, they have dual citizenship. I’ve lived some 83 years as a 6th generation Canadian and, suddenly, by the stroke of a pen, I’m a second-class citizen because my Dad was born in New Zealand 110 years ago. Never mind the 6 generations, why should any Canadian, no matter how old their citizenship, suffer such a humiliation?

It has not been easy becoming a multi-cultural country – indeed, it’s not always easy being one – and some wish it had never happened. But it has happened and, to our shame, our children and grandchildren have adapted much better than their elders.

Considering where we once were – when Chinese and Japanese Canadians got the vote, I’d reached Law School, while it was 4 years after I had graduated before First Nations did. How unbelievable is that when you think on it?

There is no requirement legally or morally that we all like, let alone love, one another. But before Harper, we’d made considerable progress towards a national habit of civility and decency – we had problems, sore points, and issues but there was a national will to see them through.

Fanning the flames of prejudice

Not from everyone, as we have seen. There are, in all of us, prejudices from the past – some deeply buried, some not so deep. They can be fanned by unscrupulous politicians, as I remember so well as a kid when Barers’ Bakery in Kerrisdale was boycotted because people thought the Dutch owners were German; kids in my school went to concentration camps because they were Japanese, even though the RCMP Commissioner stated their elders posed no threat whatever. Such was the public fear that politicians civic, provincial and federal played on it to great political profit. The newspapers were no better.

After the war, there were huge changes. South of the border there were Jackie Robinson, our hero; the horrible Emmett Till case where a young black was brutally murdered for whistling at a white girl; books like Black Like Me and To Kill a Mockingbird; the little black kids being escorted to Little Rock Central High past jeering, spitting, white adults; James Meredith, a black veteran refused admission to Ole Miss, bringing troops and deadly violence; the Peace Marchers; Selma Alabama and “Bull” Connor and George Wallace; Rosa Parks and the bus boycott; the murders of Medgar Evers and the great Martin Luther King; the riots, the burning of black churches; the Supreme Court and the Brown v. Board of Education case; Lyndon Johnson and the 1965 Civil Rights Act – just to name a few ongoing developments that led to the end of Jim Crow and saw a national attitudinal change and a steady national move to racial justice, a move that still has a long way to go.

In Canada, we abolished racial discrimination in all matters legal, leading to a 1960 Bill of Rights under John Diefenbaker and the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms; slowly but steadily The Supreme Court defined the status and land rights of First Nations; attitudes towards Indians underwent a sea change; people across the land saw tolerance, civility and fairness to all become fashionable, if scarcely mandatory. But it kept getting better, especially as kids, mostly from interracial schools, grew up.

There was no going back … was there?

Perhaps not, but here was a prime minister and a major political party in support that saw a political future in playing upon latent prejudices, creating second-class citizens in order to fan fears he could then pledge to deal with. Many of my generation thought of Barer’s Bakery and  the Dutch family put out of business because it was said they were German, I thought of 10-year-old Michiko Katayama, the little girl that sat next to me just not being there anymore and I remembered how people talked about kikes, niggers and chinks. And how the politicians fanned the flames greatly assisted by the Press. But that was then and now is now.

Was it?

Surely, if nothing else, Stephen Harper and his lemmings have taught us that it if old fears can be revived and new fears manufactured, with some help from a compliant caucus and political party, that even now it can happen again.

God forbid we give him another opportunity to pursue his nightmare.


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