The Grinch Who Stole Democracy

I awoke this morning to the disappointing but expected news that the Prime Minister of Canada had suspended parliament to avoid a confidence vote that would have ended his reign and replaced his government with a coalition of opposition parties. You see we have a minority Conservative government that desperately wants to be a majority. Earlier in the fall, after only two years in power, they called a quickie election (only 5 weeks of campaigning) in a cynical attempt to win a majority of the seats in parliament, but we got pretty much the same result as before, at great taxpayer expense.

But they don’t just want a majority, they pretend to be one too. Ever since they came into power the Conservatives have been playing chicken with the opposition, threatening to call elections every time the opposition threatened to vote against them. This goes against parliamentary tradition of minority governments compromising with the opposition in order to get legislation passed, but the Canadian public was so sick of politics that the opposition didn’t have the nerve to call the Prime Minister’s bluff, and he got away with it. But not this time. The three opposition parties shocked the country last week by announcing that they had formed a coalition that would vote against the government in a confidence motion and form the next government.

We don’t have proportional representation in Canada so we are not used to coalition governments, but they are permitted and we have had them in the past. In fact our founding government was a coalition. The arguments against it are that it will cause instability (or at least the appearance thereof, which amounts to the same thing) that will exacerbate our economic
problems, that the people didn’t vote for a coalition government (an absurdity since one can only vote for individual candidates) and that one of the parties involved favours Quebec sovereignty, and so it is “anti-Canadian.” The last argument is probably the most compelling, though
there are also many Anglo Canadians who really like the Bloc Québecois leader. The Bloc is by no means a one-issue party and they share many progressive ideas with the other opposition parties.

The arguments for the coalition are that the it represents the majority of Canadian voters (54.4% versus 37.5% who voted Conservative), that they will take more immediate action on the economy than the current government (which is lagging far behind the world community in this respect), that the Bloc Québecois has signed on with no preconditions and will have no cabinet positions, and that the unpopular leader of the main opposition party will be replaced in May
as previously planned. The parties involved really do agree on many issues and would probably function very well, but Canadians just aren’t used to parties working together, especially after the last few years, so they remain nervous.

At any rate there was nothing the Prime Minister could do to stop the coalition so he took the only way out and had parliament suspended until late January (a constitutionally questionable move, but it’s done). In that time he’ll be putting together a new budget, and will no doubt be busy scheming and campaigning to break up the coalition as well. In fact the TV ads have already begun. I think that will only be delaying the inevitable, though, and all this just goes to show what little respect he has for democracy and for his peers in parliament. We could today have a government elected by the majority of Canadians, or a minority government that takes the wishes of Canadians who didn’t vote for it into consideration, but instead we have an empty parliament with locked doors. In effect, my vote has been taken away from me. What a sad day for democracy in Canada.


Happy Birthday Israel!

Today is the 60th anniversary of the creation of the modern state of Israel. I know it’s not politically correct to support Israel these days, but I do. There was a time when I was quite critical of the way it responded to terrorist attacks, as it was reported in the mainstream media, but the more I learn about the history of Israel, and about its enemies, the more I wonder at Israel’s forbearance.

Though I am strongly against solving problems with violence, it is hard for me not to feel that Israel has a right to defend itself, a right to merely exist. It is surrounded by hundreds of millions of people who would like nothing better than to finish what the Nazi’s started, and have in fact tried it several times in the last 60 years. How can we, who recoil at images of the Holocaust, criticize Israel for trying to prevent another Holocaust?

The fact that Israel still exists is something of a miracle, and I wonder how long the miracle will last. As we have seen recently with Rwanda and Darfur, the world is not in the habit of doing anything to stop genocide, and has a pretty lousy track record when it comes to protecting Jews in particular. The UN has been very critical of Israel’s actions, and I worry that if (or when) Israel’s neighbours start another war, Israel will be on its own. I don’t even want to think about what would happen if Israel lost.

Israel has a right to exist. That land has been occupied continuously by Jews for thousands of years. History has also shown that Jews are never safe as a minority; they must have their own country. The Palestinians cannot return; there are too many of them now. They need to resolve their internal differences, form their own country, and start building for the future. Living in the past and being consumed by vengeance is only keeping them in misery. I think that if they ever decided to move on with their lives they wouldn’t find a better friend than Israel. Israeli Jews have a long history of helping their Arab neighbours to develop, and I’m sure they would do the same again. The Palestinians just have to say the word; they just have to say shalom.

Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel
Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel
[click image for text in English]

We Grieve

This weekend Canada is in mourning Robert Dziekanski. His family, friends, and hundreds of neighbours gathered for a memorial in Kamloops, where his mother lives.

Memorial card for Robert Dziekanski

In Vancouver, hundreds, perhaps a thousand people gathered in Vancouver International Airport just outside the area where he died. Prayers were led in English and Polish, so everyone could understand.

Public memorial at Vancouver airport

Thanks to the media we are getting to know Robert Dziekanski. He is described as a gentle giant (6’9″) who was very intelligent and a skilled tradesman. As a teenager, during Soviet times, he was sent to jail for robbery but he learned his lesson and lived quietly after that. His girlfriend was an alcoholic and though they had troubles he had a hard time letting her go. His move to Canada was supposed to be a fresh start. He even quit smoking on the day he left.

Robert had a passion for astronomy and especially geography. Two of his three suitcases were packed full of atlases and geographical magazines. He also kept notes on all the countries of the world in a beautiful hand that puts my disorderly moleskines to shame. Perhaps his brief stint as a typesetter gave him an appreciation for letters. Here are his notes on the country he never really got to see:

Robert's geography notebook

Now that we have mourned, the activism can begin. Protests are scheduled for next weekend in Vancouver, Victoria, and Toronto. There is also quite a lot of online organizing going on, if Facebook is any indication (38 groups and counting, over 10,000 members). It’s wonderful to see Canadians showing their true colours and standing up for the humane treatment of all people. What the RCMP did is not who we are. How sad that we must teach one of our national symbols how to be Canadian.

UPDATE: The RCMP has announced that the four officers involved in the Dziekanski death have been assigned to other duties (about bloody time), and the B.C. government, in a rare show of class and democracy, has apologized for the incident and initiated its own comprehensive, independent, public inquiry into all aspects of Dziekanski’s death. A summary of all the investigations launched to date can be found at Justice for Robert Dziekanski.


There was an incident at the Vancouver airport one month ago. Four big white guys jumped a new immigrant to Canada, killed him, and then claimed it was self-defense. If not for a bystander who videotaped the whole thing, they would have gotten away with it. Oh, did I mention that the four guys were policemen?

I rarely blog about the news but this is such a disturbing event that I have to say something. What happened is this: Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski got off a 15-hour flight from Frankfurt and was expecting to meet his mother in the luggage claim area. She told him she would meet him there, but didn’t know that only passengers are allowed in that area. He waited there for several hours, while his mother waited a hundred yards away in the public arrivals area. He spoke no English and so didn’t understand what he was supposed to do, and his mother, despite repeated appeals, couldn’t get anyone to go tell him she was waiting for him outside.

Eventually he made his way through customs and then waited a few more hours in another secure area that his mother couldn’t access. Meanwhile, his mother was told that he had never arrived in Vancouver and that she should go home, which she did. After waiting some 10 1/2 hours without any food or water, Dziekanski was distraught, frightened, and agitated, attracting the attention of security. The video shows him sweating and breathing heavily. In his frustration he picked up part of a computer and threw it down, and also threw a small folding side-table at a glass wall (which didn’t break). One woman traveller tried to talk to him, but the language barrier defeated her.

Finally the RCMP arrived. Four big guys with bullet-proof vests jumped over a barrier and swaggered into the glass-walled secure area, where Dziekanski was all alone. One of them was heard asking if they can use the taser, and told “yes.” Bystanders, perhaps airport security, told the RCMP officers that the man in question spoke no English, but that didn’t slow them down at all. They approached Dziekanski and instructed him to move to a more open area, which he did and then stood still, surrounded by the officers. Then, less than 30 seconds after they had arrived, they tasered him and he started screaming and convulsing, and fell to the ground. They tasered him at least once more, and then jumped on him. One officer put his knee on Dziekanski’s neck, while the others helped to hold him down. Dziekanski screamed and struggled for less than a minute and then went limp. An officer is seen checking for a pulse, and a bystander says he heard the office declare a “code red.” CPR was not performed, and by the time paramedics got there, 12 minutes later, it was far too late.

This is what we know because of a video taken by Paul Pritchard, and because of his brave actions afterwards. He initially handed his video over to police on the understanding that they would return it in 48 hours. Instead, they refused to return the video, and Pritchard eventually had to file a lawsuit to get it back. With Dziekanski’s mother’s permission he released the video to the media yesterday, and the country is now in shock.

As I wrote at the top of this post, the police initially claimed that Mr. Dziekanski was posing an immediate threat to themselves and the public. There were hints that drugs or mental illness may have been involved. We now know that none of that is true. Although the exact cause of his death has not been released, the coroner has stated that there was no alcohol or drugs in his system. Thanks to the video we can all see that Dziekanski was not acting in a threatening manner towards the police, and there were no members of the public near him to be threatened either. Frankly, it was all lies. He was a tired, hungry, distressed, panicky traveller who couldn’t speak the language, and he was killed for it.

There is a lot of discussion about tasers today, but to my mind that is not the issue. The taser didn’t kill him—it looks more like he was axphyxiated. The real issue is police brutality, and their lack of accountability to the public. If it were not for this video, we would have had to accept the story that the officers were being threatened by a crazy hopped-up foreigner and that his death was an unfortunate accident. A perfunctory internal investigation would have confirmed it, and that would have been the end of it.

How many times have we been through this? In August alone, four people died while in police custody in B.C. This week in Victoria there is an inquest into the shooting death of a car thief last February. Always we hear the same story about threatening behaviour and drug use. Are we supposed to believe it now? How can we?

I think it’s pretty obvious what we need, beyond the dismissal of the officers involved. The police need to be trained to use minimum force, even when they are being personally threatened. They need to be taught that their lives are no more valuable than anyone else’s. They also need to be surveiled by video as much as possible. But most importantly they need effective civilian oversight; they must never be allowed to investigate themselves again. It is a serious thing when the police can kill civilians and then exonerate themselves. No one should be above the law, least of all those charged with upholding it.

UPDATE: Polish translators have identified Dziekanski’s last words. When he saw the police arrive, he called out “Polizia! Polizia!” as though appealing to them for help. But when one of them pulls out a taser and points it at him, he cries, “Are you out of your mind?!” After that, only screams.

For a full video report on the incident, see here. Below is a poetic response to that report from one viewer:

A Poem: Another Taser Death: Fatal Intervention at Vancouver Airport, 7 Oct 07
(pat newson, comox, b.c. 15nov07)

First, a 15-hour flight
from a foreign land
his first ever trip
& his last on this plane

Then, 10 hours of waiting
a thousand people milling,
but none to talk or listen
in his mother tongue

Except his mother, but
she was beyond the walls
Her son, her son, her one
& only – oh to hold him

After hours & still not finding
him, his mother, in tears,
returns to Kamloops
to wait & wonder & wait

His weariness, his rage
no one to hear or care
He slams things, breaks
a computer – now!

The police, finally, salvation
the relief of giving over
to authority, to sort the mess
for want of a translator

But, ah, in time of terror
of terrorists, the armed fist
before the heart or head,
for want of a translator

A matter of seconds
& Robert Dziekanski is dead;
one more taser death
one more mark on our walls.

Zofia Cisowski mourns
Robert Dziekanski, rest in peace.

Canadians: The police want to read your email

I just read the most horrifying thing in the news. The federal government is looking at reviewing its laws so that police will have access, without a warrant, to your personal account information at your ISP (name, address, email addresses, IP address, etc.). Furthermore, they want to require ISPs to build-in the technical capacity for the police to monitor the electronic transmissions of whoever they are investigating. Whether that will require a warrant remains to be seen. Ironically, this set of laws and policies is being called “Lawful Access.” I guess if they are in charge of the laws they can make anything “lawful”!

Here’s the 411:

News story at CBC

Customer Name and Address Information Consultation
(this is the ISP account information part)

Lawful Access Consultation
(this is the reading-your-email part)

The minister responsible is Stockwell “Personal Watercraft” Day, and he can be contacted here. Explain to him, since he obviously doesn’t know, why the police should never be able to invade our privacy without a judge’s permission.

UPDATE: This is amusing. My email to the Customer Name and Address Information Consultation people was bounced. I used the email link, so it wasn’t my typo. The address on the website has changed since then, so I guess they have fixed the problem. I’m sure it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to make it more difficult for people to make themselves heard…

It’s International Women’s Day!

International Women's Day 2007

As you can see, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ending impunity for violence against women and girls. I read in the news yesterday that India has taken a step in this direction with the new Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act that enables women to leave abusive relationships and entitles them to financial support from their abusive husbands. The context for this is a society in which 70% of married women between the ages of 15 and 49 have been beaten and/or raped by their husbands.

Mexico has also brought in a new law against violence against women in (belated) response to the ongoing mass murder of women in Ciudad Juarez. Since 1993, about 400 women in that border town have been raped and murdered, and not a single man has been convicted of any of these crimes. It is thought that men are now travelling there from other countries to experience the thrill of raping and murdering without the risk of getting arrested.

Violence against women and girls is rampant in developing countries, and legal impunity encourages men to commit these crimes. Even in countries with democratic and civil rights, the rights of women and girls not to be beaten, raped, or murdered are not often respected by men nor defended by the authorities. Progress has been made in passing laws protecting women and girls, and now it’s time to enforce them. You can help by finding out more about the problem and then supporting organizations that are working on this issue. Here are some starting points:

Amnesty International: Stop Violence Against Women