APEC and Democracy

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CBC Radio, “Commentary”

by John Dixon

The APEC story runs, as the journalists say, on two very long legs.

One of them is the iconographic image of a fifty-something RCMP officer going nuts with a party-pack of pepper spray. The other leg is an image of the shrugging Prime Minister, doing the little guy from Shawinigan thing as he delivers his big brush-off line: “Pepper? Dat’s some ting dat I put on my plate.”

There’s a heavy dotted line connecting these images, with a big question mark on it. Or maybe five or six question marks. Because everybody understands that many, many things had to go wrong before a federal policeman would dream of attacking Canadian citizens—citizens, that is, caught in the act of expressing their view that human rights are more important than trade.

Sorting out all the strands connecting the Prime Minister’s Office and the disastrous RCMP performance at APEC is going to provide lots and lots of fun—spectator and otherwise. Eventually, however, even the longest legs get run off a story like this. Our media need constant movement, drama, speed, and—first, last, and always—powerful visuals. Commission and court hearings run very short on these commodities, and without them a mass audience starts to fade.

I point this out not to depress, but to put us on alert. Because the heart of the APEC story, quite apart from its great legs, is about nothing less than democracy’s one true thing, and it would be tragic for us to lose interest in it. That “one true thing” is that it is not the political parties in power, not the mandarins in the civil service, not the police, and not the judiciary, who are sovereign in Canada. It is the Canadian People who form the sovereign branch of their own government, and in whom reside the ultimate source of all legitimate political power and authority.

Flowing from this fundamental fact of democratic life is the great free speech corollary that when the people come together to confer or discuss or argue or demonstrate about any matter of political importance, no inferior branch of their government may interfere with them. So after all the fuss dies down about what the PM knew and when he knew it, or what staffer has to be thrown out of the great canoe, we will be confronted with the enduring national question: How did it come to be that a Canadian politician, or his staff, or the police directed by them, could think for one nanosecond that the tone of a state visit is more important than the civil rights of the citizenry?

THIS is the great issue that the commission hearings and the lawsuits must struggle to bring into focus—and then keep in focus—for Canadians and their legal culture.

In aid of this struggle, I propose that we have a plan—like all good Canucks who realize that we must travel far by snow in the deepening cold. When we find the inevitable APEC fatigue starting to set in, we have to be ready to give ourselves a good pinch to keep from lying down in the snow. So put these words on the fridge door now: