By PAT WATSON
With the Winter Olympics taking place in Vancouver and its environs, Canada is in the world spotlight this week. Just in time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper left the country for a two-day official visit to Haiti.
Harper is an interesting person to observe because he appears to be so different from recent leaders. Brian Mulroney had been the target of bitter criticism during his tenure – considered fawning perhaps, given his “Irish Eyes” duet with Ronald Reagan – but no one in memory characterized him as ruthless. The irony of time passing is that one could bet money and win some that there are voters out there today willing to trade Harper for Mulroney, and not least because Mulroney’s projected environmental program had merit.
Jean Chrétien, on the other hand, has been described as ruthless, nevertheless he was able for many years to finesse his iron-fisted control of government. Maybe he got away with it because much of the country was willing to give the federal Liberals a pass. That is, until the sponsorship debacle in Quebec and internal fighting that split the party.
Paul Martin reined in the deficit with certainty to the point where the Liberals looked like conservatives. In contrast, as prime minister, he earned the nickname ‘Mr. Dithers’. Yet, none of these heads of government – all coming out of Quebec, by the way – have earned the kind of cynicism that Harper has. Not that it is unmerited. On the contrary, while we cannot presume to know what goes on in the mind of our current Prime Minister, we can from a distance interpret his actions fairly enough.
Therefore, if the Prime Minister found it possible to leave the Olympics proceedings so soon after the official opening and travel to Haiti, we can extrapolate and consider that it hardly seems that it was necessary to close Parliament down, sorry – prorogue Parliament – from Dec. 30 until early March.
It is expected that on March 3 the Harper government will present its ‘recalibrated’ federal budget, more commonly being referred to as a deficit budget.
So, how much of a distraction will the Olympics really be when in this early post-recession period anti-poverty protesters have become a part of these Olympic games? Also, how much of an image boosting payoff will there really be in the Prime Minister’s trip to observe Canada’s presence in Haiti?
We could rationalize Harper’s immediate interest by noting that Canada’s funding commitment to Haiti is $555-million over five years, which is second only to the country’s $7-billion plus for Afghanistan where, in terms of the human cost, 140 Canadian soldiers have lost their lives. While that may to a certain extent have merit, it would be hard to overlook the skepticism being echoed from many corners of the country about what is considered the real reason for the extended period out of Parliament. That would be the business of addressing the charges that the Canadian government was in violation of international law for turning over Afghan prisoners captured by Canadian forces to Afghan authorities known to engage in torture.
The new budget would have to be truly impressive if it is to deflect the pressure that will be put on the government over the so-called Afghan detainee scandal when the House does return.
Could it be a hint of what is to come that federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has already announced a new policy that will have a cooling effect on the real estate market? Unless the government is prepared to immediately roll out something spectacular like a massive hiring program, we can expect more theatrics in the House. One hopes that within all of that there will be real substance for those feeling most vulnerable during this current fragile economy
A note on the Vancouver Winter Olympics…
History is being made in Black History Month. Toronto-born Vanessa James, 22, and her partner Yannick Bonheur, 27, who are skating for France are the first persons of African heritage to compete together in Olympic pairs skating competition. They have embraced the fact that they are setting an example, opening the door for future young hopefuls.
A bit more history: At the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Debi Thomas became the first African American to earn a medal in skating. Thomas was a bronze medal winner. And, Surya Bonaly of France competed in three Olympics in the 1990s.