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A. Vandenbeld: Is Canada Still a Model of Good Governance?

Presentation to a conference on Peace, Order and Good Government:
The Quest for True Canadian Values
Ottawa, Canada - May 30, 2014

 While there are multiple definitions of good governance, they generally fall into two categories: 1) Democratic Institutions; and 2) Democratic Processes.

Regarding the former, unlike many newly emerging democracies, which have benefited from 200 years of democratic lessons learned in Europe and North America, Canada’s democratic institutions were established almost 150 years ago (or longer if we go back to Britain) and have not changed significantly. Much of our current democracy rests on precedent and self-restraint rather than written rules. In our constitution, the Queen and GG have power, but by precedent this is not used. British tradition is not written and codified like in Europe.

Our institutions, on paper, are very centralized – most appointments are by Order-in-Council: Judges and heads of oversight bodies are selected by the PM, the governing party sets the parliamentary and legislative agenda, our rules of procedure have not changed significantly in 150 years, the Senate remains an unelected body with the same powers as the House of Commons – originally as a check by the propertied class against the whims of the majority. The GG can dissolve parliament. Party whips ensure that backbenchers fall in line, and the budgetary resources of PMO, Ministers offices and government departments dwarfs that of MPs.

Canada’s democracy has evolved over time. The 1982 Charter of Rights added significantly to the formal limits on power of the government, guaranteed through the courts. This brought us in line with international practices of ‘constitutional democracy’, which is more than majority-rule and periodic elections, but includes protections for minority groups and citizens.

Over the past few decades, global discourse on democracy has evolved even further – now the key words are “inclusive democracy”, “participatory democracy”, transparency and accountability. Democracy is no longer seen as a noun, but a verb. It is the process that matters more than the structures.

Up until the past 8 years government, Canada was a model, not for our institutions which in many cases are anachronistic throwbacks to the 19th century, but because of our decision-making processes, which were able to adapt to the more participatory and responsive model of democratic accountability. This is what we refer to as “democratic culture”.

The guarantors of this democratic culture are an informed and engaged public. This requires strong NGOs and advocacy groups in civil society; independent investigative media; reliable sources of evidence and information (stats can, access to information, PBO, AG, public servants), high electoral participation rates, strong representative institutions (parliament, ombudspersons) and strong opposition political parties.

Canada in many cases pioneered these processes. For instance, Canada was one of the first countries to establish Access to information laws and many other countries have used Canada’s example as a model. Because Canada has been able to develop a strong democratic culture despite our sometimes non-democratic political structures and rules, Canadians are sought after in international democratic development, and hold some of the highest posts in organizations such as UN, OSCE, NDI, etc.

However, under the Harper government, this is all changing. The attack on democratic culture in the last 8 years, were it to happen in an emerging democracy, would be drawing rebuke from the international community. I will outline just a few of the more egregious examples, and come to the conclusion that Canada is no longer a model on good governance.

Independent agencies and institutions

  • Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page
  • Chief statistician Munir Sheikh
  • Nuclear safety commissioner Linda Keen
  • RCMP public complaints commissioner Paul Kennedy
  • Veterans’ ombudsman Pat Stogran
  • Ex-head of gun registry, Marty Cheliak
  • Rights and Democracy, Remy Beauregard
  • Head of the Canadian Wheat Board, Adrian Measner
  • Richard Colvin, the former Canadian diplomat who spoke out on Afghan detainees


  • Control who asks questions
  • Attacks on CBC
  • Limiting media access to PM and scripting only
  • e.g.: this week not allowing media in international conference, Mandela funeral
  • PMO vetting of all information: Not long after the Conservative government was elected in 2008, a new media protocol was introduced that required any request for an interview with a federal public servant to be approved by officials.


  • Access to information – once vanguard, now 55th out of 93 countries (Centre for Law and Democracy) – behind Angola and Colombia
  • Cuts to long-form census and Statistics Canada
  • Muzzling of scientists: In the past five years the federal government has dismissed more than 2,000 scientists, and hundreds of programs and world-renowned research facilities have lost their funding. Programs that monitored things such as smoke stack emissions, food inspections, oil spills, water quality and climate change have been drastically cut or shut down
  • Closure libraries at DFO
  • Muzzling public servants & diplomats


  • Contempt of parliament
  • Prorogation
  • Committees – handbook, partisanship
  • Omnibus bills – 321 page budget bill
  • Record use of closure and time allocation
  • Senate appointees and scandal; trying to unilaterally reform Senate

Civil society

  • 72 major organizations “defunded” and counting – sometimes with no notice (women's groups, aboriginal, immigrant services, etc.)
  • Cutting funding to umbrella groups (CCIC, Status of Women, Climate Action Network, CC on Social Development)
  • Ideological: Rights and Democracy, Match, Kairos, reproductive rights
  • Cutting charitable status if more than 10% advocacy - interpretation
  • Targeting environmental NGOs for audit due to position on Oilsands (7 NGOs including David Suzuki Foundation and Pembina)

Political parties

  • Cutting public financing
  • Public servants political activity monitored, anecdotes of a “blacklist” and chill


  • Cutting Court Challenges Program
  • Nadon appointment and public criticism of Chief Justice: 650 Lawyers signed letter
  • long-time comments on the courts (old quotes)


  • Harper vs Canada – third party election financing
  • Robocalls
  • Negative ads – voter suppression
  • Breaking election laws – overspending (“in-and-out”, Del maestro)
  • “Fair” Elections Act

Everything that I have mentioned here has been widely reported in both mainstream and social media. But when putting it all together, it is clear that under the Harper government, there has been a concerted attack on Canada’s democratic institutions, processes and culture. Because so much of our democracy depends on unwritten rules and procedures that have developed over time through precedent and restraint, all it takes is one Prime Minister to undo generations of democratic development. The only way to reverse this is through massive public outcry (the recent changes to the Fair Elections Act show that this government will blink when faced with overwhelming expert and public opposition); mobilization at the ballot box in 2015 to replace this government, and then a massive democratic reform mandate for the next government to codify and legislate much of what we have taken for granted to ensure that such abuse of power can not happen again in Canada.