Hébert: Canada’s alternative facts

Contrary to an increasingly popular Canadian belief, the Trump administration does not have a monopoly on so-called alternative facts. Nor did it invent the concept.

Deliberate distortions of reality have been part and parcel of the Canadian political discourse for years and no party, including the one that is currently in power at the national level, is failing to propagate some.

Two decades ago, former journalist André Pratte – who now sits in the Senate – filled a whole book with examples of what he called the Pinocchio syndrome, and he did not have to travel further than the National Assembly and Canada’s Parliament to find them.

He would not lack for material for a sequel. Here is a sample:

The Parti Québécois’ narrative to justify the imposition of a secular dress code on the province’s public sector workers a couple of years ago was essentially based on alternative facts, including the impending Islamization of the province. It was a solution in search of a problem.

Ditto for Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s proposal to subject every visitor to Canada – be he or she a tourist, a refugee or an immigration applicant – to a one-on-one interview with a border official. The idea as it applies to tourists is inapplicable. As for immigrants, the premise that anyone can currently settle in Canada without having to go through a rigorous screening process is a false one.

The rhetoric about motion M-103, that calls on MPs to denounce Islamophobia, falls in the same fictional category. There is no rationale for the contention that the motion opens the door to the imposition of sharia law on Canadians or that it marks the beginning of the end of the right to free speech.

The NDP’s enduring election promise to abolish the Senate similarly rests on an unsustainable construct. Unless NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has spent the years leading up to the last campaign on another planet, he had to know that there was not a hope in hell that the unanimous provincial consent required to do away with the upper house could be secured. Mulcair also brushed off the notion that Quebec would insist on having its longstanding constitutional demands satisfied as a pre-condition to coming to the table. His assertions flew in the face of the political reality of his home province.

Prime ministers have not been immune to spreading alternative facts. Think of Jean Chrétien’s assertion that he did not break his 1993 promise to eliminate and/or replace the GST.

In 2008, Stephen Harper portrayed opposition efforts to form a coalition government as an illegitimate affront to democracy. He advanced that narrative at the very time when the United Kingdom’s Conservatives were striking a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

And how about the Conservative depiction by Harper and by most of those who would succeed him of a carbon tax as a job-killing measure? For as many years as the federal party has repeated that mantra, B.C. has had a carbon tax.

So far, there is no evidence that the negative media focus on Donald Trump’s affection for alternative facts is having a deterrent effect on Canadian politicians. On the contrary.

Just this week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Calgary claiming that, in contrast with Harper, he “had gotten a pipeline approved.”

That assertion does not have a leg to stand on. In fact, the previous Conservative government approved every pipeline project that came its way. On Harper’s watch, some pipelines also got built.

In the debate over health-care financing last fall, the prime minister inferred that under the Conservatives, some or all provinces had diverted federal health dollars to other spending priorities.

In fact, year in and year out the provinces put more of their own revenues into the health envelope just to keep up with rising costs. That stands to be even more the case under Trudeau’s financing formula.

And then there were the Liberal talking points on electoral reform: a collection that belongs in an alternative facts class of its own.

On the scale of the Trump administration, Trudeau and his opposition counterparts do not churn out enough mistruths to turn fact checking into the full-time beat it has become south of the border.

But their relationship with often inconvenient truths does not give voters cause to feel smug about the state of the country’s democratic debate.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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