Canadians outshone their politicians in 2013

Posted on December 29, 2013 in Governance Debates – Opinion/Commentary – In this season of scandals and cutbacks, there were acts of moral leadership.
Dec 19 2013.   By: Carol Goar, Star Columnist

The discord between the conviviality of the holiday season and grim diet of scandal, mismanagement and austerity served up by Canada’s political leaders is acutely jarring this year.

In Ottawa, mean-spiritedness reigns. “Is it the government’s job — my job — to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so,” said Industry Minister James Moore, answering a reporter’s question about child poverty. (He claimed he’d been misquoted and apologized under pressure a day later.)

At Queen’s Park, goodwill is nowhere to be found. The government is mired in a still-ballooning gas plant fiasco and both opposition parties are chortling as new evidence of bloated public-sector bonuses and expense accounts comes to light.

At city hall, disgraced Mayor Rob Ford haunts the corridors and disrupts municipal business, keeping councillors on edge and forcing Torontonians to stew in his toxic juices.

Even the charitable sector doesn’t have much good news to report. Again this year, fewer Canadians made donations and those who did, gave less.

Is anything going right in this benighted nation?

My answer is a quiet yes. In small but significant ways, Canadians began to take back their country.

One of the best examples was the story of the Benhmuda family. Thanks to the actions of hundreds of Canadians — neighbours, friends, strangers, a tenacious lawyer, a big-hearted employer and a can-do kindergarten teacher — the federal government’s decision to deport the Libyan couple and their children back into the hands of their torturers was reversed.

It took five years, a second round of torture, and a high-risk escape to Malta where the family lived in a shipping container for years. The Mississauga community where the Benhmudas lived for eight years submitted a 16,000-name petition to bring them back. And the Federal Court of Canada overturned the decision of the two uninformed immigration officials who ordered their expulsion. Even so, in one last act of spite, the government tried to charge the Benhmudas $6,800 for deporting them in the first place. (Public anger forced Immigration Minister Chris Alexander to waive the fee.)

In contrast to their government, local volunteers found the family a place to live, furnished it and filled the fridge. Discount Optical offered Benhmuda his old job back. A welcoming committee gathered at Pearson Airport. This was Canada at its best.

The same day, a second callous federal decision was neutralized, thanks to a coalition of caring doctors. This story wasn’t quite as gratifying as the first one, but the Canadian tradition of caring for the sick regardless of income or nationality ultimately prevailed.

Eighteen months ago, to the surprise of almost everyone, then-immigration minister Jason Kenney announced that Ottawa was cancelling health benefits for asylum seekers. This meant they were no longer eligible for life-saving medications, diagnostic tests, prenatal care or hospital services. “These are measured changes that will stop the abuse of Canada’s overburdened health-care system,” Kenney said.

For physicians, nurses, midwives and dentists who treat people fleeing persecution, violence, sexual assault and ethnic cleansing, this crossed the line. They formed a coast-to-coast network, organized sit-ins outside cabinet ministers’ offices, held protests, kept statistics documenting the harm they were seeing and kept it up month after month.

Kenney did not budge, but the provinces did. One by one, they replaced the benefits chopped by the federal government. Ontario, which once would have led the pack, was a regrettable sixth. But in the end, it did the right thing.

The third reminder that principles outlast governments came from the judiciary. Required to apply the laws enacted by the Conservatives — which include harsh minimum sentences and financial penalties for lawbreakers, regardless of the circumstances — lower court judges found creative ways to respect the letter of the law, but honour the spirit of justice in which Canada’s legal system is rooted.

In Ottawa, a judge gave a homeless teenager 60 years to pay the mandatory “victim surcharge” imposed by the Tories. In Kitchener, a judge set an indigent offender’s fine at $1. In Alberta and British Columbia, judges came up with their own workarounds.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay scolded the dissident judges, but he could not whip them into line.

It would be an exaggeration to call a few small acts of moral leadership a groundswell. They did not change the direction of the country or improve its political atmosphere.

But it is good to have candles in the gloom.

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