August 2015 Archives

Robyn Benson, PSAC

The Con of Silence

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To Stephen Harper, silence is golden.

In my last post I noted a recent memo from a higher-up at the Department of Justice, trying to intimidate public service workers who want to get involved in the current election campaign. Now a member of our sister union PIPSC is in hot water. For what? Singing a song.

No, this isn’t satire. Tony Turner is a well-known member of the Ottawa folk scene. He’s perhaps best known for the often-performed “Circle of Song,” but he wrote another song more recently—watch the video, above—called “Harperman.”

Most people probably didn’t know that Tony was a federal public service worker—a scientist at Environment Canada, nearing retirement—but they sure do now. And that’s thanks to his bosses, who saw his song “Harperman” on YouTube and literally made a federal case out of it.

Tony has never identified himself as a public employee while on the folk circuit. But he’s been sent home, suspended, while his department “investigates” him for an alleged breach of the public service Values and Ethics Code. His work in habitat planning at Environment Canada has somehow been compromised by his singing.

But Tony isn’t alone. Parks employees in Banff have been forbidden to speak about the wolves that have been wandering into town, bears on the railway lines, and successful rescue operations. And all of these matters are routine, operational aspects of their jobs. Wolves on the main street, furthermore, might be considered a matter of public safety. But even this news had to go through channels, and the public found out only a week after the incident.

Then there are the Conservative candidates themselves, obediently droning identical talking points. They’ve evidently been told to stay out of sight: one candidate, if you can believe it, said he would only give interviews after the election. The mayor of Ottawa discovered that local Conservative candidates were—all nine of them—unable to meet with him to discuss Ottawa issues. Mayor Watson tweeted about that—and only then did Minister of Employment and Social Development Pierre Poilievre promise upcoming meetings.

The Harper muzzle is by now well-known—free scientific discussion has been shut down under his rule, for example. Artists and novelists have been hounded. But the situation has now become almost comical, in an unfunny way.

We’re in the midst of a federal election campaign. Harper’s own candidates are slinking around in the shadows. A folk artist is suspended by his federal government department for exercising his political rights in song. Parks employees are forbidden to warn the public about wild animals.

October 19 is the day we can vote to put an end to these loopy goings-on. A pity we have to wait that long.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

We shall not be zipped

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The Department of Justice seems to have a case of nostalgia these days. Bruno Thériault, director general of the department’s workplace branch, recently sent out a memo to all employees, telling them how he thinks they should behave during an election campaign. The two-word summary? “Zip it.”

Won’t happen. Sorry.

M. Thériault made me remember a simpler time from long ago, when public service workers had no political rights. No going door-to-door; no lawn signs; no public declarations of support for a candidate or a party. But Osborne v. Canada (Treasury Board) changed all that in 1991. It was a Supreme Court decision, which declared that public service workers have political rights like every other Canadian citizen. There were some restrictions, which made sense: senior managers in policy-making roles, for example, had to maintain strict neutrality, as before. But rank-and-file federal public employees could engage outside their workplaces in the political life of Canada—and so they did.

Area Councils and Component activists plunged in. Political action committees sprang up. Regional activists organized all-candidates meetings. Later, with regionalization, regional councils took part with enthusiasm. Public service issues were brought to the fore, again and again. Candidates’ feet were held to the fire in campaign after campaign.

The powers that be were not entirely pleased with this turn of events. The Public Service Commission to this day sends out carefully-worded memos during election campaigns, warning public service employees not to cross some ill-defined line or other. Departments have been doing the same thing. The intent has been to discourage the political activity that is ours by right.

Now the Department of Justice has gone a step further. Our members and other government employees were sternly reminded that they owed a duty of loyalty to the government. Stay away from the social media if you want to be political, M. Thériault advised, or there might be consequences.

The Thériault memo was supposedly sent to “complement” other rules and guidelines. But it’s causing confusion and stirring up fear.

For example, the memo states that our members are “public servants 24/7.”

Er…no. While in the workplace, no politicking, and no use of the employer’s facilities for politicking. That’s common sense. But once out of the workplace, you have rights that we won fair and square.

And I urge all PSAC members to exercise them, as we have done in the past. In fact, I hope a lot more than we have done in the past.

We are encouraging our members to get fully engaged in the most important federal election campaign that I can remember. Do not be intimidated: the law is on our side.

Our union rights and our members’ hard-won wages and benefits have been under unprecedented attack by the Conservative government. We need to put a stop to this. Harper has to go.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Harper visits the North

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It’s a good time for the Prime Minister to flee, perhaps, what with the Duffy trial in full swing. But he may have his hands full as he trolls for votes north of sixty.

Combine the effects of global warming with an on-going food crisis, add one of the worst Cabinet Ministers in the past thirty years (our climate change-denying Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, MP for Nunavut), and yet another climate-change “skeptic’ from the Yukon, and you may not have a winning electoral formula.

So serious is the food situation that people have been seen scavenging for food in a Rankin Inlet dump. The response of Aglukkaq was reportedly to demand an apology from the mayor of Rankin Inlet for daring to bring that inconvenient matter up. She was caught reading a newspaper in the House of Commons while the crisis was being discussed.

Aglukkaq insisted that the mayor tell the world that the Conservatives’ Nutrition North program, introduced in 2011, is working. But it’s not—according to the Auditor General, anyway. The mayor is standing his ground, and her constituents are still foraging in dumps, visiting food banks in greater numbers than ever, and receiving food parcels from the South. Meanwhile, reported price-gouging by northern food stores has led to protests and social media campaigns, while Aglukkaq tells the gullible that the Inuit get what they need from hunting—again, not so.

But what does the Auditor General, who spent months reviewing the Nutrition North program, know? For that matter, what would climate scientists know? Don’t bother Harper’s Minister of the Environment with facts. They just get in the way.

Then there was the infamous “Dumpcano” in Iqaluit. The toxic fumes from this burning dump forced schools to close. The fire’s out now, at a cost of $2.75 million. The federal government’s response was, “not our problem.” So the city was forced to use up its own reserves, which had been earmarked for such luxuries as roads and children’s playgrounds.

The discovery of a Franklin Expedition ship, the HMS Erebus, was turned into yet another Harper photo-op. He was awarded a medal, as though he’d led the diving team himself. (The site had actually been known to the Inuit for generations.) But somehow even this happy historical news managed to blossom into a scandal.

Supporting the Harper government does have its rewards for a few, of course. A lucrative contract to build an Arctic research station has been awarded—to Leona Aglukkaq’s election campaign strategist.

So much, then, for Harper’s “Northern Strategy.” His government’s interest in Arctic sovereignty is not matched by any obvious concern for the people who live there. The reverse, in fact.

I’ll be visiting Nunavut shortly myself to meet with PSAC members, but I doubt that I’ll bump into Stephen Harper. Sounds like he’ll be busy on a salvage operation.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

The first leaders debate

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Leaders debates during an election period never fail to disappoint. A wide range of topics flashes by, and candidates have little time for more than well-rehearsed sound bites. In the absence of real content and depth, observers comment on “quirky body language” and whether the candidates smile too little or too much.

Then there’s a lot of post-debate debate about the debate. Who won? Depends whom you ask. But there really was a clear loser last Thursday evening: Stephen Harper.

Offering soothing words about how well we’re all supposed to be doing under his nearly ten-year rule, Harper made up “facts” as he went along. And he made some startling admissions, too, which should give us all pause.

Under the Conservatives, Canada has seen 400,000 manufacturing jobs disappear. Harper countered with the claim that 1.3 million new jobs have been created under his watch. But what kind of jobs? Here is what an economist from one of Canada’s leading banks has to say: “More people are working part-time instead of full-time, more people are self-employed instead of having secure employment and more are in low-wage jobs than at any time in the last 25 years.”

Harper wants us to believe that the economy is doing well. In fact we’ve seen a steady shrinking of the economy for five straight months. We’re heading for the second recession during Harper’s watch. He claimed that falling oil prices were to blame, but that 80% of the economy actually grew. It didn’t. 28 per cent of Canada’s economy shrank from May 2014 to May 2015, and then got worse: between April and May, fully 80% of the economy shrank. Harper was actually forced to concede that, er, yes, we might be in a recession after all.

The topic of democracy came up, and in particular the Senate. Readers may remember that Harper pledged years ago never to appoint unelected Senators. He went on to appoint 59 of therm. And far from being a chamber of “sober second thought,” most of the Conservative Senators often act like trained seals. A case in point was the Climate Accountability Act, passed by the elected members of the House of Commons back when Harper was running a minority government, and then spiked without debate by the Senate after Harper asked them to.

In his own words: “What I—we always ask senators to do—we cannot force them to do anything—what we ask them to do…is we ask them to support the party’s position. The party didn’t support that particular bill.”

“The party” didn’t support it, so never mind what our elected representatives decided. Harper floundered badly here, and I for one hope this clip makes it into the political ads during the campaign.

Then there was a quick mention of our veterans. Harper: “This government has made record investments in veterans. We’re spending 35 percent more on the average veteran today directly than we were when we came to office.” Similar ludicrous and offensive claims have already been fact-checked. Part was due to replacement of secure lifetime pensions with lump-sum payouts, to save the government money in the longer term. A good chunk of this extra funding was returned to general revenue, unspent. Small wonder, because 900 job cuts have slowed or eliminated the flow of services to our veterans, despite repeated warnings that went unheeded.

We’ll see how well Harper’s snake-oil sells during the campaign. But if this debate is any indication, there’s a mountain of facts available for Canadians to pelt him with as he crosses the country trolling for votes.

On a personal note, I found myself frustrated that public services were not even discussed: not a single question addressed them. Sisters and Brothers, looks like we have a lot of work to do between now and Election Day.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Status of women in Canada--2015

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Canadian women are not faring well under Stephen Harper. A new UN Report covers a number of areas where our country has failed to measure up. And looking over the list, it’s hard to disagree. We’re being told what most Canadians already know.

Take the pay gap. In fairness, it predates Harper, but he didn’t exactly help to close it when his government, with Liberal support, passed the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act in 2009, which, like the Fair Elections Act, flatly contradicts its name. The pay equity provisions of the Canada Human Rights Act, that gave past and present PSAC members billions of dollars in compensation owed to them for years of pay discrimination, were abolished outright. Now, a basic human right has been made a negotiable issue, an affront to the whole concept of a Charter of Rights. And given the government’s “just say no” approach to collective bargaining, pay equity will be extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve. But that new law went further. Now only an individual is permitted to submit a complaint about pay discrimination. Unions can be fined $50,000 for daring to assist her.

Non-union employees and union employees alike are supposedly governed by Article 3 of the Act, which obliges Treasury Board and separate employers under federal jurisdiction (and bargaining agents for unionized employees) to “take measures” to provide “equitable compensation.” But, as the UN report notes, six years later no regulations have been put in place to determine how this will be done.

When it comes to violence against women, we have little to be proud of either. The Report says Canada is failing to enforce legislation, to provide avenues for complaint and protection against retaliation, to penalize the perpetrators appropriately, and even to compile relevant statistics.

Homing in on murdered and missing indigenous women and girls, the Report is deeply critical. It points out that they are “disproportionately affected by life-threatening forms of violence, homicides and disappearances,” and expresses concern about “the lack of information on measures taken to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible.” It also calls for a national inquiry on the issue, in consultation with indigenous women’s groups and the families involved, adding its voice to countless Canadian individuals and organizations that have been demanding just such inquiry—which Harper has so far stubbornly rejected.

The Report is a condemnation of the current government but it is not complete. Instead of bringing in an affordable national child care program, for example, the Harper government has doled out a flawed “Universal Child Care Benefit,” while abolishing the Child Tax Credit at the same time. The net amount does not give families the financial support they need for child care, and it does not create a single child care space to address the critical shortage.

Harper shut down 12 out of 16 Status of Women offices during his tenure. And he abolished the Court Challenges program, which helped women fight for their Charter rights.

The Conservative government, in short, has been bad news for women. The record speaks for itself. But this October 19, women from coast to coast to coast have a chance to speak right back at the ballot-box. I know I will.

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