At the age of 77, Stephen Lewis describes himself as being “happily in his dotage,” a man free to bare his soul and dispense with diplomatic niceties.
He did just that in Charlottetown on Friday.
The one-time lion of the left unleashed a withering roar over eight years of Stephen Harper government that deserves to be moved from the relatively tiny confines of the Confederation Centre of the Arts and into a larger forum.
Lewis focused on five fronts of perhaps irreversible decline in this country; five only, because time did not allow him to get into all the factors that “scar my soul.”
The former Ontario NDP leader, United Nations ambassador and lifelong human rights advocate took aim at the “pre-paleolithic Neanderthals” in office and their role in the decline of Parliament, the suppression of dissent, the plight of First Nations, their blinkered climate-change policy and our plummeting world status.
There is no secret of the left-wing perspective from which Lewis comes. He borrowed the title of his speech, A Socialist Takes Stock, from his father David, who delivered a similar cri de coeur some 60 years ago.
When he surveys the political scene today, he says he runs the emotional gamut from “rage to rage.” But he is not alone. He joins a line of political elders who are taking increasingly harsh stock of this government’s performance.
Former Progressive Conservative prime minister Joe Clark has spoken out about foreign policy, former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin has been an outspoken critic of aboriginal policy and former ministers in the Brian Mulroney government emerged to condemn the watering down of environmental regulations.
Lewis told the Symons Lecture on the future of confederation:
Canada’s world standing is in free fall.
The Harper government’s contempt for Parliament and its traditions has degraded political life and fostered voter cynicism.
Its attitude to aboriginals is not paternalistic, it is racist.
Harper’s refusal to join the rest of the world and move toward renewable energy sources is endangering future generations and contributing to a looming planetary meltdown.
Civil society and the ideas it fosters have been slapped down and censored, subverting democratic norms.
“There is a radical ideological agenda gripping this country,” Lewis said, “but it’s not the environmentalists or the other targeted groups committed to the quest for social justice; it’s the political leadership.”
We are channelling the years of Richard Nixon’s enemies list, Lewis says, adding the former U.S. president was driven by paranoia, Harper is driven by malevolence.
Lewis compared the atmosphere in Ottawa to that of the Ontario legislature where he served for 15 years, the William Davis years.
There was a respect in that chamber, he said, and that was respect was fostered by the premier.
“Vitriolic nastiness in debate does not breed respect,” he said, “nor does adolescent partisanship, nor do pieces of legislation of encyclopedic length that hide contentious issues, nor does the sudden emergence of frenzied TV attack ads, nor does the spectre of a Prime Minister’s Office exercising authoritarian control.”
The government’s refusal to hold an inquiry on missing and murdered aboriginal women, its refusal to compromise with aboriginal leadership on the funding gap on First Nations education and its environmental standing that has sunk so low that we are seen as an impediment to a climate change accord in Paris next year, are all being watched around the world, said Lewis.
“It is as though Canada had decided, like some mindless national curmudgeon, to be a permanent outlier on issues of minority rights and women’s rights,” Lewis said.
“It does us damage. It does us shame.”
Of the “redundant” oilsands, Lewis says he is “hyperventilating for the day when some Canadian politician has the courage to say: Leave it in the ground.”
Is this merely an overheated attack on a government that shares none of Lewis’s principles? An angry journey into nostalgia?
“Somewhere in my soul,” Lewis says, “I cherish the possibility of a return to a vibrant democracy, where equality is the watchword, where people of different ideological conviction have respect for each other, where policy is debated rather than demeaned, where the great issues of the day are given thoughtful consideration, where Canada’s place on the world stage is seen as principled and laudatory, where human rights for all is the emblem of a decent civilized society.”
He will be ignored by those in office.
But his words should be studied by any who seek to govern going forward.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.