Brigitte Bardot doesn’t vote in French election .. and other recent Canadian news

Apr 22nd, 2007 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

The sun is shining at last in some parts of the country. But other voices are still asking why 63% of a random sample of Canadians recently told pollsters they want to elect judges. Others again are still trying to sing happy 25th birthday to the Charter of Rights. And Jean Chretien has at last revealed why there was laughter when he signed the Constitution Act 1982. Meanwhile, “Canada’s new government” will not be re-opening the constitution for Quebec (they say). But Bert Brown from Alberta has at last been sort-of elected to the unreformed Senate. There is intriguing as well as tragic news from the American heartland – and from the rising new lands of giants in China and India. More importantly, the seal-hunt protester Brigitte Bardot apparently won’t be voting in the first round of the French presidential elections on Sunday, April 22. And, last but by no means least, another Ontario Six Nations land-claims protest is suddenly blocking the Montreal-Toronto railway line – they say for 48 hours (or they did until 6 AM Saturday morning).

1. This just in … renegade Bay of Quinte Mohawks shut down rail traffic

CW EDITOR’S NOTE: Immediately below is the latest update of Mr. Bunting’s report on the now removed blockade of the Montreal-Toronto rail line by some Bay of Quinte Mohawks. His earlier reports appear as an appendix at the end of this issues-in-brief article, for further background

UPDATE: SATURDAY, 1:30 PM ET. The Toronto Star has now reported that “though the protesters originally said they would stay at the railway blockade for 48 hours,” their blockade “ended peacefully after about 30 hours at 6 a.m. today [Saturday, April 21], after a sleepless night of negotiations with provincial police and other officials.

“Protesters said they chose to end it early over fears of a violent conclusion … A court injunction ordered the protesters and the dilapidated school bus off the tracks with arrests warned as a consequence, but the order was never enforced by police … No arrests have been made at this point, said Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Kristine Rae. We’re pleased that it was a peaceful resolution.'”

At the same time, Shawn Brant “is warning that the protest that ended early today is just the beginning in a series of escalating’ actions … We’ve identified targets as part of this campaign, one being the railway, one being provincial highways and one being the town (of Deseronto) itself … The disruption on the CN line was a first in a series of economic disruptions, the first in a campaign … The campaign calls for an ever escalating degree’ … The next target has already been chosen and plans to finalize the next action are in the works, said Brant, who commented this morning at the site of contention in the dispute – a gravel quarry that the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte say is their land.”

Some may detect the strong hand of tough-minded OPP Chief Julian Fantino behind the protesters’ decision to walk away at 6 AM – “after a sleepless night of negotiations with provincial police and other officials.” (Chief Fantino has lately been called a “schoolyard bully” in connection with an email he sent regarding the current Six Nations land-claims protest in Caledonia, though in this case he was bullying local municipal officials, not aboriginal leaders.) Others may just conclude that Shawn Brant is not totally devoid of political common sense. Who knows just what all his talk about a further “ever escalating degree … of economic disruptions” means? But the crisis is at any rate happily over for the moment now. And on this very agreeable day weather-wise as well, it seems that spring has finally come to Southern Ontario at last, and you can just stand outside in the sun and listen to the birds sing, even in Deseronto.

2. Three quick notes from the global village …

(1) YANKEES TO THE SOUTH OF US ARE RESTLESS DEPT: While John McCain jokes about bombing Iran, The New Republic online has posted an intriguing story about the similarities between the US in Iraq today and the US in Russia in 1919, in the immediate wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. If the juxtaposition grabs you in any way at all, it’s worth checking out. (You have to sign up for TNR online if you haven’t already, but it’s free.)

Here’s a taste: “Suppose … that upon being attacked by a set of dangerous, swarthy foreigners who want to take over the world, the United States retaliated against a completely different set of dangerous, swarthy foreigners and found itself stuck in a dirty war with no exit and endlessly ramifying bad consequences as far as anyone could foresee. You might think we’re talking tediously about Iraq again, but we’re not: It’s something we’ve done before. Then, as now, American leaders systematically misled the American people to justify the misdirected intervention: But as Ann Hagedorn notes in her new, smart, and well-told Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919, the people, the press, and their prejudices had to help, too.”

(2) CHINA AND INDIA RISING ETC: Those who don’t think the world economy really is changing should especially note the news that “India’s Essar Global Ltd., an international conglomerate with core business interests in a half-dozen sectors, has a $1.85-billion cash offer on the table to acquire the 106-year-old Sault Ste. Marie [Ontario] steelmaker,” Algoma Steel. Algoma’s “board of directors is unanimously recommending approval of Essar’s offer … but two-thirds approval by voting shareholders at the still-to-be-determined June general meeting, as well as regulatory approvals, are still necessary to move forward.”

At the same time, lest anyone get too excited about just how fast the world is changing, Jonathan Manthorpe of the Vancouver Sun has recently urged that the “hype around China’s economic development and the opportunities it presents foreign investors or marketers has become self-perpetuating and self-inflating … China’s much ballyhooed middle-class is actually the size of a small country in Europe … even though the number of households with a reasonable income is growing in China quite rapidly, it will still be a long time before there is a truly enticing group with North Atlantic Basin-sized consumer power … China does, of course, present a great opportunity for Canada’s resource and infrastructure industries … But for consumer goods and services, established Asian middle class nations like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and some parts of Southeast Asia like Singapore are much more sensible targets for Canadian attention.”

(3) CANADIAN SEAL-HUNT PROTESTER BRIGITTE BARDOT WON’T BE VOTING IN IN FRENCH ELECTION: The first round of the French presidential elections takes place Sunday, April 22. Those Canadians who want the broad lay of the land were well-served by a recent Reuters report in the Globe and Mail. Front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy’s opponents are portraying him “as a dangerous right-winger who scares voters.” His “closest rivals, Socialist Sgolne Royal and third-placed centrist Franois Bayrou, are concentrating their fire on his character, seeking to make the vote a referendum on his personality as much as his policies … they say his inability to visit France’s multiethnic suburbs without a small army of riot police shows he is incapable of being the unifying force a president is supposed to be.”

Meanwhile other Canadians may be interested in the related news from other sources about seal-hunt protester and all-around animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot. (Also, quite a while ago now, the great sex goddess of French cinema. Who can forget And God Created Woman [1956] ?). She “insists she is not backing any candidate in France’s presidential election on Sunday because they had refused to meet her to discuss animal rights … Bardot, 72, also denies supporting the far-right National Front, even though her husband has been an advisor to its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen … I have never been on a National Front list nor given my support to Mr Le Pen,’ she was quoted as saying.” Her animal rights colleagues have also issued a statement that says: “Brigitte Bardot wants to make it clear that she is in no way associated or a sympathiser of an extreme right wing movement, neither personally and even less as president of the foundation that carries her name.” 

3. Electing judges in Canada?

On the received local wisdom, perhaps especially in central Canada, Canadians have always thanked the great spirit of the northern forests in their prayers at night that we do not elect judges in Canada, the way they do in the USA (at the state level of government at least). In the British (and French? or Aboriginal?) traditions of Canadian institutions, justice is supposed to be impartial, not political.

So how come “Sixty-three per cent of 1,000 Canadians questioned by pollster Strategic Counsel for CTV News and the Globe and Mail supported the notion of elected judges”? There seem to be two main answers to this puzzling question.

Some might term the first answer “Canadian neo-con ideological.” And it urges that “many Canadians have apparently come to suspect that in the age of the” Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “the potential for arbitrary use of power has shifted from Parliament or the police to the bench itself.” Another “recent opinion poll said that a startling 68 per cent of Canadians support the Charter’s notwithstanding’ clause, which allows legislatures to override certain court-affirmed rights.”

The second answer is more pragmatic. It points out that “if we look at more of the polling questions and answers, it quickly” becomes “apparent Canadians are, if nothing else, charmingly befuddled by the whole notion of electing judges” and haven’t “quite thought the entire concept through … Because when the same 1,000 people were asked who they trusted more to protect the interests of the average Canadian, 47% said the Supreme Court of Canada while 37% picked Parliament … In other words, the public trusts unelected judges more than elected politicians. Yet 63% of Canadians want judges to be elected, effectively turning them into politicians, despite the fact that a plurality of Canadians believe unelected judges do a better job protecting the rights of Canadians than elected politicians … Good luck squaring that circle.”

4. Doing the right thing for the Charter

Say whatever else you like, it is certainly true that Stephen Harper was more interested in celebrating the 90th birthday of the Battle of Vimy Ridge than the 25th birthday of the Constitution Act 1982 and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

At University of Ottawa happy birthday celebrations for the Charter, the excellent Governor General Michaelle Jean worried that “its spirit is threatened … by apathy and intolerance.” More exactly: “Now, 25 years later, we find ourselves at a crossroads … Even the very act of thinking critically, of questioning received beliefs, is being stifled as the glamour of commercial images and new sensations are bringing social fragmentation and atrophy right to our doorsteps … More and more we are hearing alarm bells calling upon us to stay fast to our shared commitment to democracy, justice and freedom.”

Some have felt that this was yet another veiled criticism of Mr. Harper’s Conservative minority government in Ottawa from Rideau Hall. Governor General Jean’s “comments come as the Conservative Party is facing renewed criticism for withdrawing funding to the Court Challenges Program. The $5.6-million initiative has enabled groups considered disadvantaged, such as aboriginals and gay-rights advocates, to mount Charter challenges for almost three decades.”

Through her spokeswoman Isabelle Serrurier “Ms. Jean categorically denied her speech referred to this program. It’s one of her themes to her mandate: giving voice to the voiceless … It’s a very general kind of thing.” Nonetheless Liberal opposition leader Stephane Dion (successor to the Liberal prime minister Paul Martin who appointed Ms. Jean in the first place) has “pledged a Liberal government would reinstate … the court challenges program, increasing federal legal aid for criminal cases and providing legal aid for civil cases.” Which all at least goes to show just why the current selection method for the office of Governor General of Canada needs to be reformed, regardless of what you think about the British monarchy in Canada, or anything else.

5. Why Queen laughed in 1982 etc

On the general themes of both the Charter and the British monarchy in Canada, the 25th birthday celebrations have also prompted former prime minister (and before that federal justice minister) Jean Chretien to reveal an old state secret.

The background here is that the Charter of Rights is part of the Constitution Act 1982, which “patriated” the Constitution of Canada from the United Kingdom, by at long last providing an independent Canadian constitutional amending formula. The Canadian act was given legal effect by a final “Canada Act” of the British Parliament, and signed into full legal force at Ottawa on April 17, 1982 by Queen Elizabeth II and her relevant Canadian ministers.

It has long been known that the Queen laughed discreetly when then federal justice minister Jean Chretien signed the document. On April 17, 2007 Mr. Chretien finally explained why: “What happened was Mr. Trudeau broke the tip of the pen, and so when he asked me to sign right after him and I started to sign, there was no ink. It was broke,’ Mr. Chrtien told CTV’s current affairs program, Newsnet … I said merde and the Queen laughed. She’s perfectly bilingual and she understood very well what I said. So I took the other pen and I signed.'” (“Merde” of course means what you do when you go to the bathroom # 2, in Canada’s other official language.)

The Queen of course, as the always interesting L. Ian Macdonald of Montreal has just reminded us, “whatever one thinks of the monarchy … understands her role, and has been playing it very well for more than half a century.” Yet as further evidence of just why the Canadian people may finally want to take the ultimate step here, and “patriate” their formal head of state as well as their constitution from the United Kingdom, both the Los Angeles Times and the Times of London have recently also commented on how the Queen’s grandson’s abandonment of his “too middle class” girlfriend Kate Middleton “has reminded Britain, though the rest of the world might not have needed reminding, that it has not yet achieved its aspirations of a classless society. If indeed it ever had them.”

6. Constitution will not be re-opened, but Bert Brown goes to Senate (at last)

However much he may dislike the Liberal Party of Canada, Stephen Harper does seem to respect the raw political talents of former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien (predecessor of the former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, from whom Mr. Harper won at least his present Conservative minority government last year).

Mr. Chretien was also asked on April 17, 2007 whether it matters that, alone among all the Canadian provinces, Quebec has still not officially signed the Constitution Act 1982 itself. (Among other things, in 1982 the virtual founder of the modern Quebec sovereigntist movement, Rene Levesque, was premier of Quebec.) Is it very important that Quebec finally sign Pierre Trudeau’s greatest Canadian achievement? Mr. Chretien replied: “It would be desirable, but not absolutely necessary … Quebec used the new Constitution . . . they used the notwithstanding clause.” (Quebecers still pay federal taxes like everyone else and so forth too.)

So … what does Stephen Harper do when the new darling of “soft” Quebec nationalism Mario Dumont says: “If Ottawa is ready to open the debate on spending power, [Quebec’s] national assembly should have an initiative to facilitate its inscription in the Canadian Constitution”? According to CTV News: “Prime Minister Stephen Harper has no plans to take up Mario Dumont’s offer to re-open the Constitution, one of his top lieutenants said … Our focus is on concrete, tangible deliverables, not abstractions,’ Jason Kenney, secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity, said in an interview.”

Meanwhile on another non-constitutional front (but also related to the ill-fated late-1980s-early1990s days of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, also originally designed to convince Quebec to sign the Constitution Act 1982): “Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in the House of Commons … that Bert Brown, who has twice been elected as a senator in waiting’ in Alberta, will fill a seat in the red chamber this fall … The province of Alberta did, some time ago, hold popular consultation for the filling of a Senate vacancy,’ Harper said. When that seat comes due, I will recommend to the governor general the appointment of Mr. Bert Brown’ … Brown, a long-time advocate of a triple-E’ (equal, elected and effective) Senate, will replace Dan Hays, who is retiring when the Senate rises for the summer. Brown has served as national chairman of the Canadian Committee for a Triple-E Senate.”

Appendix: Early reports on Bay of Qunite Mohawks …

FRIDAY. 5:45 PM ET: Even more than usual, it is hard to know just what to make of the young Iroquois activists in southeastern Ontario, who suddenly blocked all traffic on the Montreal-Toronto railway line near Deseronto on Friday, April 20, 2007. The official Chief of the Bay of Quinte Mohawks, R. Donald Maracle, has made clear that he and his council do not support or condone the action, which is apparently being led by a young man called Shawn Brant. (Some will inevitably wonder: Is he any relation to the ancient legendary Chief Joseph Brant?)

The ostensible issue said to be at stake involves an aboriginal land-claims dispute over a local quarry, that the Bay of Quinte Mohawks (including Chief Maracle) say is theirs – as a result of a grant from the Crown at the end of the old Revolutionary War, in recognition of the loyalty of the Bay of Quinte Mohawks in the Great Lakes struggles of the late 18th century. Chief Maracle says he is still willing to be patient with the appallingly slow pace of the legal resolution of the land-claims dispute (now in the works it is said for 20 years). The younger Shawn Brant and his perhaps even a bit younger supporters (judging from the TV footage on CBC Newsworld) say they have just run out of patience – especially after a recent long peaceful sit-in at the quarry, to which no one paid any attention. So now they have managed to get some attention.

By Friday afternoon CN – i.e. Canadian National railway (also affected is the Via Rail passenger service) – had secured a court injunction ordering the protesters to disband, and apparently providing that any of them who signed a written statement saying they would not return would not be locked up, or something like that. (Again, judging from the serving officer’s not entirely clear reading of the legal mumbo jumbo, as televised by CBC Newsworld.) When the Ontario Provincial Police served the injunction on the protesters, it was received politely by a young man (who apparently was Shawn Brant, according to later press reports), who shook hands with the OPP officer, and then stuffed the document into the back pocket of his jeans. A young lady activist interviewed on TV seemed to make it clear that the protesters would not be leaving their stations voluntarily until their stated objective of keeping the track blocked for 48 hours has been met. (And this was later confirmed by Mr. Brant in press reports too.)

At this moment it is unclear just what the OPP will do by way of trying to enforce the injunction. [ED. NOTE: SEE SUBSEQUENT UPDATES BELOW.] The CBC TV reporter on the scene has stressed that no one wants to see any violence, and that is apparently what will likely enough happen if the OPP tries to remove the protesters by force. (And again Shawn Brant has subsequently stressed that this is what will happen in his view.) On the other hand, the TV clips of reactions from Via Rail travelers whose lives have been disrupted by the blocking of the line reflect the increasing impatience of the wider Canadian public with, e.g., the Six Nations land-claims protest at Caledonia in southwestern Ontario that has been dragging on itself for more than a year. It may be that the renegade Bay of Quinte Mohawks will finally get the kind of attention for all their issues (the quarry and the much broader and more difficult problems of current aboriginal policy writ large) that just buries them even deeper.

On the other hand again, from the TV clips it does seem a bit striking just how young the Bay of Quinte protesters are. And this can still remind you that aboriginal Canadians are the fastest growing demographic group in the country today – and that there are as a result growing large numbers of aboriginal young people who are troubled about who they are and just what their place in Canadian society is. All this can still remind you too that the much broader and more difficult problems of current aboriginal policy writ large remain at least something of a powder keg, that no one in office in Ottawa these days seems to take altogether seriously.

Prime Minister Harper’s initial response to the news of the youthful renegade Bay of Qunite Mohawks protest, on TV, somewhat stiffened these last impressions. He did stress the importance of law and order – and of going about your political objectives in a lawful and orderly way, and so forth. That no doubt does strike increasingly receptive notes among the wider Canadian public at the moment, perhaps particularly with regard to aboriginal issues. And shutting down major railway traffic is a rather serious form of political protest and raw civil disobedience that no duly constituted authority can let go very far. But Mr. Harper’s brief remarks exuded perhaps a little too much smirking condescension towards the young protesters as well. He is just not taking them seriously at all, he seemed to be trying to tell us. And, even allowing for everything else, that may not be the wisest message, for someone who aspires to be prime minister of Canada for any great length of time?

* * * *

UPDATE: FRIDAY, 10:15 PM ET. A report this evening in the Toronto Star has added a few extra subsequent details. Apparently the protest was underway by midnight, Thursday, April 19. And it is now quite clear that Shawn Brant and his supporters will not be leaving the site voluntarily until their 48-hour objective has been met.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has “appealed to the federal government for help … The best thing that the federal government could do to protect the interest of all Ontario citizens is to address this outstanding issue in a way that takes the protest action off the table, sets up a good negotiating table, and resolves this at the earliest possible opportunity,’ he said.”

Meanwhile, “Prime Minister Stephen Harper said while he didn’t know all that much’ about the blockade … he was obviously hoping that that can be cleared away, and that it can be dealt with fairly quickly’ … Jim Prentice, the federal Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, said the protesters should abandon’ their blockade … I continue to ask that everybody return home and do so peacefully,’ Prentice told the Belleville Intelligencer today. That is the best way forward’ … Prentice said negotiations concerning the land tract are proceeding and the protesters could jeopardize the talks.”

I have promised the counterweights editors that I will report back on further crucial developments at some point soon enough. A report on CTV Newsnet just now notes that the protesters say they will not abandon their blockade until midnight Saturday. Considering that this is not all that far away, it may by that the OPP will just let it expire on its own due date, so to speak. (Perhaps with another formal attempt to bring the injunction to the protesters’ attention, without actually trying to remove them forcefully, etc, to show the law is there?)

Viewed from this perspective the whole event will be annoying to many shippers and travelers, perhaps prejudicial to the longer-term objectives of the protesters, perhaps subsequently legally problematic for Mr. Brant and some of his supporters, but not quite disruptive enough to turn the universe inside out?

The whole thing remains troubling nonetheless, of course. And right now who can say exactly what will happen over the next 24 hours, in fact?

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