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Joanna Baron: The Liberals claim to be the ‘Charter party.’ Nothing could be further from the truth

Commentary

Arif Virani, Minister of Justice, and Attorney General of Canada, holds a press conference regarding the new online harms bill on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Back in 2016, when Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government still had its sunny ways glow upon its face, the government and some of its prominent advisors proudly touted the notion of the Liberal Party as the “Charter party.” Constitutional law professor Grégoire Webber, then serving as a judicial advisor, was among them. Webber praised, at the time, the government’s promise to “actively and consciously” “respect, protect, and promote rights.”

“It is a promise to situate the Charter’s influence within the workings of government and Parliament,” he said.

One key part of this promise was the Department of Justice’s new practice of affixing “Charter statements” to newly proposed laws, analyzing them for constitutional compliance. The Constitution is the supreme law of Canada, binding upon all government actors and branches of the state, so this is on its face a sensible and laudable practice aimed at transparently showing how the government arrived at its conclusion that a proposal complies with the supreme law.

 

But the recently published Charter statement assessing the government’s proposed Online Harms Act demonstrates that even if publishing Charter statements was an earnest attempt to ensure laws and policies are drafted within constitutional boundaries, they have in reality become sheer exercises in government agitprop.

The Charter statement will serve as the basis for any eventual Department of Justice defence of a Charter challenge, so it’s unsurprising that it aims to sell the bill’s constitutionality and is suffused with ends-motivated reasoning. It’s useful, though, in revealing the government’s weakest arguments. It’s also notable for its complete lack of engagement with some of the major critiques lobbed against the bill since its announcement in late February.

Kirk LaPointe: Fed up with disorder, British Columbians are desperate for change. That’s bad news for the NDP

Commentary

B.C Premier David Eby during a news conference in Vancouver, on Friday, May 31, 2024. Ethan Cairns/The Canadian Press.

Spring became summer over the weekend in Vancouver, bringing along the prospect of mid-20s temperatures and sunshine for the next three to four months, sprinkled occasionally with miserly rain and more often with back-baking heat.

As part of Vancouver’s civic rhythm, the warmth also shoves an even larger cohort from the city’s Downtown Eastside to the curb and into life on the streets, to escape sweltering shelter when the sun is high in the sky.

This district, for those unfamiliar, is a depot for multi-generational trauma stemming from abuse and violence, mental health problems insufficiently treated, or flat-out poverty with no path toward opportunity. People care for each other much more than they are cared for by the state.

In other cities, SRO largely means Standing Room Only and describes well-attended concert venues. In Vancouver, it defines the many, mostly decrepit Single Room Occupancy hotels and their desecrated shared bathrooms, all within a despicable containment strategy of a city, province, and country that is incapable of putting a serious dent into the day-to-day conditions of Canada’s poorest postal code. It is a vivid national display of disgraceful destitution and harm. The warm weather reminds us visibly of how it’s not getting any better for many people here.

That string of Hastings Street blocks shocks anyone at first sight; visitors wonder how a place like this could countenance a place like that. The powerlessness of its residents has much to do with it. Their despondency used to be a unique, isolated feature. They were voiceless in British Columbian political discourse—something elected officials could elide while claiming concern and promising to fix it.

But in more recent years the lack of hope has spread into the kitchen of a governing NDP, presumed to be champions of social equity. One-third of British Columbians, and one-half of young people, tell pollsters they’re seriously considering moving from the province. Just as drug safety issues were once the scourge of others, we British Columbians now have merely two or fewer degrees of separation from a victim of opioid poisoning; more recently, we now know, or know of, people ready to pack up and head east. They are unable to afford to be where they are, uncertain they’ll ever own a house to provide wealth for their last decades. They are even more uncertain that the health-care system will be there for their families. When pessimism crawls up the income ladder, a government is made vulnerable, which in part explains the sudden sharp rise of the BC Conservative Party, as the NDP goes about steadily threatening to unelect itself.

It doesn’t matter—even if it will before long—that more than half of those polled can’t match leader John Rustad with his party. It isn’t relevant to many if some of his party’s social views are unpalatable, or if he as a leader doesn’t tick every box. If Rustad can lay the most credible claim as the hopeful agent of sharp change by the October 19 provincial election date, he can win—that’s how unsettled voters are at the moment.

Rustad has already swiped two more BC United MLAs, and if his former party’s fortunes continue to decline, there are bound to be additions—and before long, an opportunity to deliver real change. He has a lot of work to do to build his team, but time is still on his side and his opponents appear to be most helpful to his cause. The B.C. economic data is also a great argument on his behalf.

The math at the moment isn’t quite where it needs to be, and former premier Christy Clark stepped forward at a Business Council of B.C. gathering to add her voice to the chorus chant for a unite-the-right agreement. Otherwise, she insists, the province gets four more NDP years. While her calculation may not be wrong, her timing is. There are too many candidates for each party already campaigning and no evident plan that would create a coalition. Each is just hoping the other will dissolve as the vote approaches.

Critics find their voice

Only a few blocks from the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s retail and commercial hub is gradually hollowing out like those in many other cities. There is a new strain of casual vandalism that businesses wake up to each morning, an extension of a permissive city dating back decades that focuses more on down-the-road climate change than down-the-street broken windows. Quite a few stores have shuttered and moved. A few days ago, the Vancouver Sun headlined: “Is Vancouver on the brink of becoming a retail dead zone?”

If it seems that the withering criticism of David Eby’s government involves critics only talking to themselves, spare a few seconds to take in what former NDP premier Glen Clark has to say. Clark, who lost the job in 1999 after allegations he’d secured a casino licence for a friend (he was later acquitted of breach of trust), remains a dedicated social democrat and a card-carrying NDPer. But his eyes were opened in two post-politics decades running the company The Jim Pattison Group for the province’s wealthiest resident, and he still serves on boards for the Rogers communications firm and the forestry giant Canfor.

His perspective has lived for ages but in private conversations. He never wanted to shake the tree. But this Monday, four months from an election, Clark strategically chose to speak to the same Business Council of British Columbia meeting as Christy did later in the day. He was music to their ears. He said the government needs to shift from “wealth redistribution to wealth creation.” He called Vancouverites “arrogant” and said his party is like many others around the world who fail to understand the needs of those outside of our cities. Canadians buy pick-up trucks as their vehicles of choice for good reason, he said.

He chided the NDP for making an incoherent miasma of moves involving natural resources and land management. “Stop making changes,” he implored. “We need a lengthy period of stability.”

Much of this could have been scripted for Rustad, who before he was booted from the BC United Party (the former BC Liberals) was contemplating retirement. By moving into the provincial Conservative leader’s role, he likely thought he’d revive it for someone else after this next election. Now, he realizes he could be premier.