Changing a society, one step at a time

Harper’s stacking of the Rights and Democracy board got noticed. Not so with most of the other levers he shifts.

The excitement is winding down at Rights and Democracy. Last week I wrote here about the conflict between newer and longer-standing board members of the Montreal-based, federally funded rights organization. A majority on the board had been complaining about the new board chairman, Aurel Braun, since last spring. The government kept sending Braun reinforcements, in the form of newly appointed board members, throughout 2009. By the new year, Braun and his supporters had a majority on the board. Two of the old-guard board members quit in frustration at the new direction. The president of Rights and Democracy, Rémy Beauregard, was dead of a heart attack. The organization’s full-time staff circulated a letter, signed by nearly all of the employees, calling for the departure of Braun and two of his closest associates from the board.

That’s where we left things last week. A few days later the Rights and Democracy board met in Toronto. Now securely controlled by recent appointees, they selected a new interim president. The guy they chose was Jacques Gauthier—one of the three top board members whose resignation the staff had demanded. This was a crisis moment. The staff had asked for Gauthier, Braun and a third board member, Elliot Tepper, to resign or be fired. Instead one of the three, Gauthier, was the staff’s new boss. The new board appointees obviously weren’t going to back down. Would the staff?

You bet. There were no immediate resignations in protest at Gauthier’s appointment. And ringleaders of the staff rebellion, who had stupidly gone public with a “unanimous” letter calling for the three board members’ ouster before gathering signatures on paper, suddenly had trouble proving they had every employee on their side. The rebellion essentially collapsed. The Ottawa press gallery, whose interest in this complex story was never more than fleeting, moved on.

Each side in the showdown offered a public explanation for its behaviour that had little to do with the real stakes. Braun, in careful statements to only a few selected journalists, insisted he was sticking up for “transparency” and “accountability,” even though he had fought for half a year to keep an evaluation of Beauregard’s work secret from Beauregard himself. The staff insisted there was nothing ideological about the conflict when everything about it was ideological. It was all about whether Rights and Democracy was within its mandate to give money to groups that advocated for the rights of Palestinian Arabs during the Israel-Gaza conflict.

The old guard, obviously, thought this was fine, because they did hand out the money. The new board appointees see all this talk of Palestinian Arabs’ rights as a coded attack on Israel’s right to exist. Braun told a reporter one of the groups that received a donation, B’Tselem, is Israeli “in name only.” So I looked them up. Actually almost everyone there is Israeli in citizenship, place of residency, home of the heart, what have you. You know: Israeli. They also worry that it’s possible to treat Arabs too harshly.

The new interim president, Gauthier, spent 20 years working on a doctoral thesis in which he argues that Jerusalem belongs to the Jews by international law. A lot of people don’t share that analysis. But they’re not running Rights and Democracy.

I’m actually not here today to argue most of this one way or the other, merely to note that it all happened. It happened while Parliament was prorogued, while Stephen Harper continued to hold a minority in the Commons and to command roughly a third of decided voter allegiance in most polls. Four years after Harper was elected, Liberals still like to console themselves that he hasn’t won a majority. But he now controls a majority on the Rights and Democracy board, and the Liberals couldn’t even slow him down.

Harper’s government cut funding to Kairos, an interfaith human-rights organization. Two Harper ministers, Jason Kenney and Bev Oda, couldn’t agree on why Kairos’s funding was cut—Kenney told an Israeli audience it had something to do with anti-Semitism, then insisted he had said nothing of the sort. An op-ed in the Jerusalem Post last week chose to believe his first explanation and ignore the second. Whatever. The Conservatives still have a minority in Parliament—and 100 per cent of Kairos Doesn’t Get The Money.

Onward. The Canadian Council on Learning, whose superb Composite Learning Index measured the way people in a community study, play and take part in cultural activities, gave us the information for two Maclean’s cover packages on Canada’s Smartest Cities. The Harper government didn’t renew its funding. The Millennium Scholarship Foundation ran a flawed student-aid program and, with a little money on the side, did the best research in Canada on who gets into university and how much it costs them. The feds have shut that research program down, too.

Multiply these few decisions by all the appointments and funding choices a government makes. Understand that almost none of them are reviewed by Parliament and almost none will be noticed by most voters or even most journalists. A government stands or falls on bigger, simpler questions. But having stood and not fallen, it gets to shift these hundreds of levers: not to reward cronies, but to change a society. This is why Harper likes his job, and why simply hanging on to it is at the heart of his game.