Writers are blessed (or damned) to be concerned constantly about language. We’re concerned about things like how our work is received by the reader, whether we are accurate in isolating on the paper or the screen something singular and unique that will be a turn-on for the reader. Maybe give them a little insight or entertainment.
Politicians and leaders generally, whether they be titans of industry, or heads of state, are also consumed by language.
The difference between the lowly scribe, however, and the high-falutin’ leadership classes is that the lowly scribe can easily be dismissed or ignored if she doesn’t hit the right balance in her work, whereas the words of the leadership classes carry a force way beyond the moment of their articulation.
Our current Prime Minister Stephen Harper knows this distinction well.
From the start of his tenure as the head of a majority government, he has been Canadian history’s most jealous guardian of language, particularly as it issues from the mouths of the Harper government caucus.
Readers of this column will recall the many times I have complained bitterly about the lack of clear communication from PM Harper and his caucus.
It is no secret that we hear little real news from Parliament Hill because the PMO does not allow reporters an inch when it comes to their news-gathering imperative. There are few or no media scrums after Question Period, and when there are, the mug in the spotlight handles all questions with robotic recantations of the morning’s talking points delivered to them by the “kids in the short pants.” No one deviates from this successful form of media ostracism because they’ll be further diminished within the party if they do.
Instead, Canadians have been fed a diet of pronouncements from the PMO that border on cynical fictionalizing or outright lies. And crazy as it seems to some of us: many Canadians seem to be going along with this wildly irresponsible form of trust-us-we-know-best form of governance.
Despite the masses of academically-vetted criminological studies evidencing the precise opposite of what the Harper government has claimed in these matters, Canadians seem to be on board with the Conservative Party of Canada’s “Law and Order” and “anti-terrorist” initiatives.
Too many Canadians continue to trust a government that assures them that their aims are honourable, and that they can be trusted to do what’s right for the nation as a whole, even if individual rights are vapourized before our eyes with a few swift strokes of a legislative pen on issues that get virtually no debate in the House.
So let’s take a look at some of PM Harper’s recent language.
“As you are aware, Madame Chancellor, one of the jihadist monster’s tentacles reached as far as our own Parliament.”
Thus spake PM Harper a week ago Monday as he addressed the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Of course, PM Harper’s bellicosity was just that, more sabre-rattling and fear-mongering that he has been hell-bent on fomenting with horrific frequency for weeks now.
He was referring, ostensibly, to the terrible crimes committed on Parliament Hill and in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
The trouble is: we have not seen the information yet that would definitively confirm that these two attacks were in fact “jihadist” or “terroristic” in nature. The stories that have proliferated in their wake seem to suggest that the perpetrators were unbalanced loners; but not tied in to organized terrorism per se.
No matter, according to PM Harper.
The Prime Minister chose instead to politicize these tragedies, and to cynically use them to buttress his own ideological ends. One wonders if the idea to do so came to him during his blessed safe-keeping in the Parliamentary closet where he had some time to do some productive strategic thinking.
Fast forward a few weeks from the awful tragedies that saw police agents and an army reservist gunned down by whack jobs, and the Canadian public is regaled with sweeping changes to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
Bear with me, but this is another area where we need to be clear on the finer points of understanding our language.
CSIS does not stand for Canadian Security AND Intelligence Service. It is axiomatically NOT a security service like the RCMP. CSIS was enfranchised originally to avoid the conflicts that routinely occurred within the RCMP when their intelligence gathering activities caused breaches within their capacity and charter to enforce the law.
CSIS was originally created to surreptitiously gather intelligence (lawfully) and report their findings to government so that the government could decide on how best to deploy their findings, or not. Its activities offered necessary guidance on threats to the national interest; but they were not a police agency as such. Former CSIS agent, Francois Lavigne reminded us of this in the last few days, as he lamented the new Bill C-51 and how it would likely affect Canadians’ rights and freedoms once enacted.
It is because of language and its clarity, or lack thereof, that has many of us questioning the eventual outcomes if Bill C-51 passes and is put to use. Once again, too much of the language used is undefined, and intentionally so.
If the new Bill is enacted, we can be legitimately concerned about voicing opposition to initiatives set forth by our government. “National interests” seem to be increasingly equated with “business interests” which means that those that would dissent from government aims could very well become targets for CSIS to monitor perceived “radicals” (also vaguely defined by the government), disrupt their activities and potentially detain them without charge.
As two fine academic lawyers have argued in their comprehensive analysis of Bill C-51:
“If bill C-51 passes, CSIS will be expressly authorized to “take measures, within or outside Canada, to reduce” very broadly defined “threats to the security of Canada”. Where authorized by Federal Court warrant, these “measures” may “contravene a right or freedom guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” or may be “contrary to other Canadian law”.
Expect to see the Harper government speaking with the uniformly bellicose language of war and anti-terror as the weeks pass leading to the dropping of the writ that will signal the start of the 2015 federal election.
It is telling that PM Harper and his government are shying away from issue number one that has defined its governing “strength” until now: The economy. Now that the economy ain’t so lovely to look at anymore, anti-terror may very well become the coming election’s theme: Those who are with us or those that are against us.
It will be an ugly campaign to be sure.
But it is my belief that as more Canadians become attuned to the language that the various parties deploy from now until Election Day, more and more folks will come to the realization that the language of Law and Order and the fear-mongering of the Anti-Terrorists are vehicles utterly devoid of veracity, and simply further alarming examples of a government’s desperate need to create conditions of crippling fear as a precondition for its hoped-for re-election.
Reject the language of opacity, folks. Once again, your freedoms are dependent on it.
— Having lost his 2,500 volume library in the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, Jeffrey is beginning to fill the void by writing his own. Reach him at jeff.loewen(at)gmail.com