“Everyone dies but not everyone lives.” – A. Sachs
Parliaments have not always given into the Will of the People. Between 1787 and 1788, the British Public began to turn against the Slave Trade. In three months, over 100 petitions containing 60,000 signatures were presented to Parliament. Yet the Government did not act.
However, Abolitionists still tried. In 1788, Olaudah Equiano led a delegation to the House of Commons to support a William Dolben’s bill, to improve conditions on slave ships, by limiting the number of enslaved Africans that ships could carry.
In 1789, Wilberforce made his first speech to Parliament in the support of ending the Slave Trade. While the supporters of the Slave Trade used delaying tactics, Wilberforce and his allies mobilized. When lobby groups supporting the Slave Trade were created, voices were raised against them.
But dirty tricks did not end there. Slave Trade supporters even produced witnesses to speak in their favour during the parliamentary debate. Captain James Penny described how well the slaves were treated on board ship. “…They are then supplied with Pipes and Tobacco … they are amused with Instruments of Music peculiar to their own country“. Our present day knowledge indicates that this testimony was “questionable”, yet Abolitionists did not stop.
By 1792, they had presented 519 petitions with over 390,000 signatures, showing that public opinion was turning against the slave trade. Through the continued effort of Abolitionists, the Slave Trade was put to an end in the British Empire. With this being said, I find it strange that Parliamentarians in Canada today are complaining about the intransigence of the Harper Conservative Government and its Parliamentary Majority. The truth is that change does not come easily and often comes from work done outside of Parliament. If the Crown, Parliament and the Government don’t want to get to the bottom of this, Opposition Politicians can proceed in other ways to get to the bottom of the XL Foods fiasco.
Like the Abolitionists, Opposition MPs could flood Parliament with petitions. If Parliament was presented with a petition, signed by a million Canadians, asking for a Royal Commission into the XL Food file, my guess is that the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper would call a Royal Commission. He might call a Commission to look like a populist. He might call one because it is the right thing to do; but he would call one. However, this is not the only tool that is held by the Opposition.
Just think back to the October Crisis of 1970. During that Crisis, two interesting things happened. Firstly, there was the “The Petition of the Sixteen Eminent Personalities”. Delivered at a press conference on the 14th of October, the Petition had two messages. One was to emphasize the provincial nature of the tragedy. The other, and more relevant, issue was that this group of Eminent People were trying to shape the Political Response to a volatile issue.
Groups of people have always been able to shape our political discourse. In response to King John’s questionable actions in 1215, English Nobility gave their king a choice: either sign the Magna Carta or face a revolt. Today, groups still act in the same manner. Some Christian Churches have taken on the Sanctuary Doctrine to generate conversations over Immigration Policy. While, anti-Abortionists have held photo displays on campus to make their point. This was even the case with the Occupy Movement. Through North America, people gathered to talk about wealth distribution and economic policy. People together can act to change the world. So if Parliament and the Crown choose not to act, people can act together in their own self-interest or societies’ interest. My argument is that Opposition MPs can assemble this group of people.
In the case of XL Foods and the recent meat contamination, a number of issuesare outstanding. For example, what is the present condition of the food inspection system? The Americans, for example, seem to have questioned shipments from XL Foods for a couple of years. Furthermore, in the States, it seems that their regulatory response was much quicker and more robust. Without some form of public investigation, we will not know if this is true.
A interested group of people can ask that question. Therefore, with many questions outstanding, what do we do? I think Opposition Politicians could take another lesson from the past: form a Citizens’ Commission. In the 1970’s, interested individuals formed the Citizens’ Commission of Inquiry into the War Measures Act. Today, like it was then, Governments were not interested in talking about the issues created by their governments’ actions or inactions. Therefore, a citizen’s coalition to look into the XL case could be a solution.
However, a couple of hurdles have to be climbed. For example, let us think about the idea of neutrality. A Crown Commission works because of its essential neutrality. The Crown calls a Judge to investigate a question. A Judge goes into the world and creates a commission and finds a counsel. That same Judge can call on anyone – using their subpoena powers – to get to a truth. In fact, if one thinks about Royal Commissions into the Tainted Blood Scandal or the Somalia Affair, often times that means a Government is called into account. More often than note, Governments end up in Court trying to lessen the blows from the commission they do call. Neutrality is essential and important.
Additionally, people accept the report because a Judge-led commission listens to the evidence, while every conceivable interest gets to examine and re-examine that same evidence as it is presented to the Commission. The process is fair and open and, therefore, the results are seen in the same light: an honest and truthful understanding of a particular event.
The challenge would be to recreate the same neutrality. Or put differently, while, the Liberals, NDP and Green Party can forward – or even co-ordinate – such a solution, it needs to be neutral to be an effective policy tool. From my point of view, Eminent Persons are required to obtain that neutrality. Consequently, this is where we would have to begin: a Petition from Eminent Persons.
In my mind, this Petition should be signed by a large cross section of society. Fifty to a Hundred Prominent Persons should sign such a petition. They should include people from the Religious Community, the Political Community, the Academic and Journalistic World as well as by members of the Labour Movement and Private Sector. Such a wide swath of people would make the mandate of this panel above reproach.
Just look at the numbers. Based on the 2001 Census, we know that 43.2% of Canadians are Roman Catholic; while more than 20% are Protestant. This means that a call from Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran and United Church Bishops and Leadership would easily represent a strong majority.
Religious Diversity would just strengthen that majority. While, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh worshippers make up less than 10% of our community, a broad base of supporters would simply strengthen its mandate. Or put differently, diversity creates strength.
More importantly, in Alberta, Provincial Politicians, Labour and Business Groups want to have a Commission. For, they all recognize that questionable practices at the XL plant puts jobs and the industry at risk. Raj Sherman, Danielle Steele, Allison Redford and Brian Mason has all been done to Brooks, Alberta. Labour Groups do not want to lose jobs and Business Players want to get back to a growth environment. Therefore, each of them should participate in the Eminent Persons decree because of their own self-interest.
Eminent Academics and Journalists would sign a petition for the same reason. Or put differently, Eminent Agricultural Academics would want to talk about their knowledge of the field, while Journalists would love to report on issues and forward their knowledge of government practices and reports. Therefore, most people would Business Men and Academics, Politicians and Labour Groups want to move forward.
Given a non-for-profit structure, many of those same groups would probably donate to run it. However, the public might also wish to contribute to it. I for one would give $50 to know that my meat is safe and my family is looked after. Such donations could pay for an ex-Judge to head up the commission as well as providing for a Lead Counsel and Staff to run the finances, research and administration. Such an objective approach would have the public’s support because we all want to have a strong food safety system and where the government does not act we should.
If one thinks about drawbacks, they are few. For example, this Commission would not have the power to subpoena people. However, the very public nature of its process would allow for the Auditor General and/or the Parliamentary Budget Officer to testify. In fact, the head of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency would probably feel compelled to testify as evidence is submitted against his agency. Furthermore, it would be odd for the Minister to not want to come before such a public process.
Additionally, should the commission be unfair, it could be held to account in the Civil Courts. Therefore, the truth is that the Opposition could call its own Commission and then table the report in the House of Commons. The Liberals, the NDP, the Greens or even the Bloc Québécois could be the leaders in this field. The Liberals or the NDP or the Greens could be the Government-in-Waiting. The Liberals or the NDP or the Greens could show how forward thinking they are. The only question is will anyone take up my challenge or will they simply whine in the House of Commons?