Prime Minister Stephen Harper would have us believe he has nothing to do with the recent turmoil racking Rights and Democracy, a Montreal-based human rights agency funded by the federal government. Past practice and a wit of deductive reason however, suggests the prime minister’s fingerprints are all over this scandal, which reads more like a sinister Agatha Christie whodunit than your typical tale in the life of Canadian politics.
The organization’s president died from a sudden heart attack following a heated debate. Computers were stolen in an office break-in on the day of the funeral. A unanimous employee revolt demanded the resignation of Tory-appointed members, including Harper’s hand-picked successor to the deceased. The suspension of three senior managers is said to have led the rebellion. And this is all set against an ideological struggle pitting Harper’s pro-Israel board appointees against the rest of the agency staff, up in arms at the recent onslaught of political interference which has sought to stifle the body’s support for human rights organizations critical of the Jewish state.
Established by Brian Mulroney in 1988 with former NDP leader Ed Broadbent as its first head, the arms-length organization has from its inception been envisaged as non-partisan and independent of government, the better to fulfill its mandate of promoting human rights and democracy abroad in as balanced and non-ideological a manner as possible. These factors and the credibility and support they engendered were it’s currency; every government since has understood the necessity of keeping it this way. Until Harper.
Following the sudden death of agency president Remy Beauregard, sources related the intense acrimony which had descended upon the organization following the Tory government’s seven appointments to the 13-member board of directors, including one who heads a Christian evangelical think-tank called Cardus. Other board members accused the new appointees of trying to impose their “narrow neo-conservative agenda” on the arms-length body. Two board members, Sima Samar, a former Afghan deputy-president, and Payam Akhavan, a McGill law professor, resigned in protest. A unanimous letter was signed by the agency’s 47 employees declaring no-confidence in the Tory appointees. What’s more, no fewer than 52 foreign human rights organizations from Israel, the United States, the Palestinian territories and Western Europe have penned an open letter decrying the actions of the Tory-appointed board members, characterizing them as a “call to cease altogether any meaningful promotion of respect and protection of human rights in the [Palestinian Territories], in clear contradiction to Canada’s declared interest in furtherance of universal values of human rights and promotion of democracy.”
Responsible Canadian politicians have learned to tread carefully when dealing with the Mideast, giving ample weight to both sides and refraining from words or actions which could inflame the debate and stoke tensions among Canada’s diverse communities. The resultant outcome has informed and defined the Canadian consensus, defended both by Progressive Conservative and Liberal governments over the years, aiming for balance, compromise and the promotion of a two-state solution through the furthering of mutual respect and acknowledgment.
To Harper and the Reform/Alliance wing of the Conservative Party, this always rang of equivocation in the support of the Jewish state, with any and all criticism of Israel viewed as bordering on anti-Semitism.
This conflict cuts to the core of Harper’s governing style. On one side, deeply ideological and divisive, he carves out the electorate into “winnable” constituencies and plays them off against each other for partisan gain, with no regard nor concern for the corrosive effects on multicultural harmony here in Canada. This might in fact be the first time Canada has a prime minister more concerned with the defence of another state’s national interest (namely Israel’s) than with the primordial national interest of keeping the Canadian people together. On the other, he has a contemptuous bunker mentality pitting his government against any and all who stand in his way, be it independent organizations, the courts, the Senate or the elected members of Parliament.
If this isn’t classic Harper, it’s hard to see what is.