November 16 a 'Black Day' for Canadian Democracy and Climate Change Activism

The defeat of Bill C-311 by the Senate without any debate on Nov. 16, 2010, goes far beyond the loss of Canada’s only climate change legislation. It undermines the role of the Senate, counters the very democracy that Canada has been built on, and is one more step towards the dictatorship that Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to be managing to build. Canadians should be out in the streets protesting, but complacency still rules here instead of alarm and indignation.

This recent undemocratic action, along with Canada’s overall appalling record on climate change, appears to be more highly recognized on an international level than within the country itself. On the first day of the Climate Change Conference in Cancun (COP16), Canada won all three Fossil of the Day awards for its continued poor performance in the climate change arena. The Senate’s killing of Bill C-311’s progressive climate change legislation garnered first place.

Patrick Bonin of AQLPA (Association Quebecoise de Lutte Contre la Pollution Atmospherique) stated, “Only in Canada could you find such a fossil-worthy Senate.”

I wrote to the members of the Senate about Bill C-311 and received several responses from Liberal and PC senators, which vilify the unjust process that occurred in the Senate.

As Senator Grant Mitchell wrote, “The Conservative senators’ defeat of this bill is unprecedented. Rarely has the Senate defeated a bill that has been passed by the majority of elected members of the House of Commons. On the very rare occasions when this has occurred, it has been done only at third reading after the bill had been fully debated at second reading and studied extensively at the committee stage, where Canadians were given the opportunity to be heard.”

Steven Guilbeault of Equiterre says, “It is like a jury arriving at a verdict in a trial without hearing any witnesses or knowing what they need to know about the case.”

Senator James Cowan wrote, “[The Senate] has an obligation when a bill has been passed by a majority in the House of Commons, to first study it seriously, including in committee where interested Canadians may come and present their considered views, before taking any final action.”

Canada Online states, “the main role Canadian senators have is in providing “sober, second thought” on the work done by the House of Commons… senators review federal legislation clause-by-clause in Senate committees and may send a bill back to the House of Commons for amendments.”

Why was there no ‘sober, second thought’ or study or clause-by-clause review for Bill C-311?

Senator Larry Campbell explained it as, “Welcome to the world of neo-conservatism and the Harper dictatorship.” Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette wrote, “Their decision [the 43 Conservative senators in the Senate] to disregard the will of the House of Commons is absolutely despicable.”

MP Bruce Hyer told the media: “A number of our Conservative senators — who darn it, won’t go on the record — have told me that the [Prime Minister’s Office] has ordered them not to speak about the climate change bill, not to allow it to come up for a vote and to kill it when they could.”

Senator Mitchell also stated, “The bottom line is that the Conservatives voted to kill Bill C-311, an important climate change initiative… just weeks before Canada attends international climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, with only a part-time environment minister who cannot present anything even resembling a plan.”

It appears that Harper felt that trying to uphold Canada’s dismaying climate change contributions, or lack thereof, in Cancun would be too difficult with science-based greenhouse gas emissions reduction legislation on the Canadian legislative table during the talks.

In fact, many experts point to our government’s stance on climate change as the main reason for Canada recently losing its vote for a seat on the United Nations Security Council and its generally diminished reputation on the world stage.

Canadians need to wake up and see what is happening to their country. They need to speak out and take action. How else will Harper be stopped from steadily chipping away at the respected standing Canada used to have internationally? How else will he be stopped from creating a country that Canadians can no longer be proud of and or feel safe in?

Sir John A. Macdonald wrote of the Senate, in 1867, “It must be an independent House, having a free action of its own, for it is only valuable as being a regulating body, calmly considering the legislation initiated by the popular branch, and preventing any hasty or ill considered legislation which may come from that body, but it will never set itself in opposition against the deliberate and understood wishes of the people.”

After the way Bill C-311 was ambushed in the Senate, it is evident that the Senate is now ruled by the leader of the Conservatives. This openly demonstrates that the Senate no longer has “free action of its own” and therefore, by Macdonald’s definition, has lost its value to Canada.

And with the majority of Canadians wanting substantive action on climate change, as shown in recent polls and as represented by the majority of MPs who voted to pass Bill C-311 in the House of Commons, the Senate has also set itself against the “understood wishes of the people.”

In private industry, organizations that do not follow their mandate are normally terminated or severely reprimanded; yet disregarding primary responsibility seems to be acceptable in the Canadian governmental system.

Hannah McKinnon of Climate Action Network Canada commented after the first day of COP16, “[Canada] has a Senate that makes the U.S. [Senate] look good, and not just because these senators aren’t elected.” Do Canadian senators not care about their diminished reputation, not only in Canada, but internationally?

Senate has a right to propose legislation and can introduce its own bills. Numerous senators are outraged at what happened to Bill C-311. If the process cannot be reversed, to demonstrate their concern for Canada and to try to re-instate the integrity of Canada’s “fossil-worthy” Senate, could these senators not introduce the Climate Change Accountability Act, or very similar legislation, as a Senate bill?

If there is no rebuttal or defence to Harper’s tactics, the following part of Senator Mitchell’s response is indeed frightening: “The Conservatives have used procedural issues, like the timing of the vote, in an attempt to create controversy. They do this as a strategy to distract from the real issues…. It is also very important to note that Conservative senators have the numbers to control the Senate and their grip will only be strengthened in the weeks and months to come, as more Liberal senators reach retirement age.”

Harper has demonstrated that he now dictates the will of the Senate and that, at his bidding, it will set itself against the will of the people. Even if the Conservatives were to lose the next election they will still be in the House of Commons and will still control the Senate. Harper has become so used to having control that, like Putin in Russia, he may well still be able to manage to manipulate the running of Canada from the sidelines.

In the words of two of the senators that replied: “It was a black day for the Senate.” “It is truly a sad day for Canada.”

Senate’s “black day” topped the list in a long series of dictator-like tactics Harper has utilized. I now sincerely fear for my country. Discussing this the day it happened, I got choked. And the tears in my eyes were for Canada, whose very fibre is being eroded away without the majority of Canadians even realizing it.

Michelle Mech is a freelance writer living on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia and Board Member of

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