The Slow March to Authoritarianism

Where is everybody? That is, where are all those from the Canadian political elite who, in better times, might be expected to publicly condemn the draconian "security" preparations going on for the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City? Is it just the young people, unionists, and others from civil society groups who will be affected, who have the courage to express outrage at this casual denial of civil liberties?

So far, the only government leader who seems disturbed by the picture unfolding in Quebec City is the enlightened mayor of the city himself, Jean-Paul L'Allier, who has bucked the elite consensus and is encouraging people to "express themselves democratically."

The police operation in Quebec City is unprecedented and widely reported. It includes:

  • a huge no-go zone will be established, featuring four kilometres of three-metre-high chain-link fence,
  • the largest and most expensive (at $35-million) police mobilization in Canadian history,
  • special ID for residents of the security zone,
  • the clearing out of 600 prisoners from a local jail to make way for the citizens the police intend to arrest,
  • and the intimidating threat of plastic bullets and other police weapons.

This isn't security. It's decontamination. It's the political equivalent of ethnic cleansing, sweeping away anyone who dares to criticize the complicity of governments in corporate globalization. Thus, we have escalating police operations to respond to escalating public demands for transparency in FTAA trade negotiations - negotiations which themselves threaten democracy.

The Canadian political and economic elite is united with respect to the minimalist role of government. The yearly EKOS poll demonstrates an enormous gulf between "ordinary" Canadian citizens and the plutocrats who run the country. The secession of the successful has now spread into the arena of civil liberties. If nation building is passé, why bother with democracy?

Quebec City is just one more installment in the increasing crisis of legitimacy of all Western governments, a crisis reflected not only in demonstrations against organizations and forums that undermine national sovereignty. It is revealed, too, in governments' contempt for citizens' wishes for enhanced social programs - reflected in massive tax cuts they haven't asked for - and in the dramatic decline in voter turnout in Canada.

The governing elites were not always so homogeneous. Even ten years ago there would have been a widespread outcry over the casual brutality of strip searches of young women, the routine use of pepper spray at close range, the charging of demonstrators by police on horseback and the expansion of what constitutes a "threat" to include holding up a sign hundreds of feet from a motorcade of leaders.

And let's be clear, this is not the police getting "out of control." The problem is precisely that they are in control, as was demonstrated by the direct involvement of the Prime Minister's Office in the police brutality at the 1997 APEC summit held in British Columbia.

To expect the little guy from Shawinigan to respond in any other way to this crisis in legitimacy would be naive. There's also no use appealing to the once robustly democratic Parti Québécois. It is too accustomed to indulging in its narrow nationalism. It cannot even see the irony of collaborating with Ottawa to unleash riot squads on thousands of people fighting for the principle of national sovereignty.

Is there no one amongst our former politicians who is alarmed at the picture of the Summit emerging from press reports? Surely, the APEC protests should have been the wake-up call, with the Canadian government's repugnant kowtowing to the murderous Indonesian dictator Suharto, who was then in power.

Maybe I missed them, but where are Bob Rae, Roy Romanow, Peter Lougheed, Ed Broadbent, and John Turner who, partisan politics aside, surely can grasp the importance of civil liberties?

Warren Allmand has spoken out with appropriate alarm on behalf of his human rights centre. The federal NDP has taken a stand. Alan Borovoy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has at least written to the responsible federal and provincial ministers. But it's nowhere near enough.

I know that Allan Blakeney, a member of the CCLA board, is concerned. I expect that so, too, are board members Pierre Burton and June Callwood. There are many more voices that we need to hear - and would hope to hear.

Where are the other human rights organizations? Where is Daphne Dumont, president of the Canadian Bar Association? Is she not concerned about the criminalization of democratic dissent? Is a three-metre-high fence around Old Quebec now seen as normal? Have the various bar associations asked themselves by what constitutional authority these unprecedented measures are being taken?

How many steps are there from developed world democracy to Third World authoritarianism? From APEC to Windsor, to Calgary, to the attack on the poor at Queen's Park, and now Quebec City, we are marching toward a place no one should want to go.

Yet, the silence is deafening.

Originally published by the Financial Post. Murray Dobbin's column appears on the first Monday of every month.

For more rabble news coverage of the Quebec Summit and its aftermath, please click here.

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