On Representing You

I haven’t responded to Ted Falk’s column in a while; the election call has led to more canned messages than ever appearing there. Even so, I went to www.tedfalk.ca today to see what he’s been up to, and was redirected to tedfalk.conservative.ca – his campaign page. The first thing that struck me about this page is that it is dominated by a huge picture of Stephen Harper. You have to scroll down to find a picture of Ted.

What does it say when a local candidate’s website is dominated by his party leader? It says a lot, and none of it is very good for Ted. Harper dominates Ted’s website because Harper dominates Ted. Putting Harper first, with Ted nowhere to be seen without scrolling down, says that Harper is more important (despite the fact that people in Provencher do not get to vote for him), that Ted is interchangeable with any other Conservative candidate, and that Ted is only an extension of Harper. Unfortunately, at least as far as his role as a Conservative MP goes, that last part is actually true.

Much has been said about Stephen Harper’s unprecedented control over his caucus and the government in general. Scientists, MPs, and staffers are muzzled, requiring approval for any press release or statements. Conservative candidates across the country are avoiding debates and all-candidates forums – at the direction of their party. (Note: Ted Falk has agreed to one debate, and I look forward to him honouring that.) There have been a few Conservatives outraged at this state of affairs, notably Brent Rathgeber who quit the Conservative party to sit as an Independent, but for the most part the Conservative MPs are happy to submit to this level of control. Former Conservative and now Wildrose leader Brian Jean recently responded to a question about Harper’s level of control this way:

I do not believe it is a tightly controlled caucus. I believe it is a tightly self-disciplined caucus, and I think you should quote me on that because it’s a misperception of who Stephen Harper is. He has soldiers that are disciplined and admire him greatly and will follow him into the battlefield because they believe in what he does. They are not whipped. Take my word for it.

So what’s worse: MPs whose leader tightly controls what they say and their ability to speak to and for their constituents, or MPs who see themselves as soldiers and have willingly given up their ability to do their job and represent their constituents for the sake of a leader they believe in? I can appreciate the loyalty they show, but they’re supposed to be loyal to their constituents, and they’ve abdicated that loyalty and duty in favour of their admiration for one person. Ted Falk is a nice guy, and I don’t doubt that he’s working hard, but he openly admits that he believes his role is to support Stephen Harper. He’s wrong.

The role of an MP is to advocate on behalf of their constituents to ensure that legislation and government programs meet their needs as much as possible; to communicate the concerns, ideas, and ideals of their constituents to Parliament; and to communicate to the constituents regarding the actions being taken and issues being discussed in Parliament. Conservative MPs are very good at communicating what the government is doing – they have staffers who write canned messages branded with party logos to announce every newly funded project, and they tour their ridings handing out big cheques to distribute government funding (especially in the lead-up to an election). Even their speeches are choreographed to ensure that none of them go off message when telling us about all of the great things they’ve done for us. But when it comes to speaking up for their constituents in Parliament, they are nearly silent.

Since January 2014, Ted Falk has spoken 42 times in the House of Commons. That might sound like a lot, until you consider that Elizabeth May spoke 315 times over the same period. Elizabeth May gets no special privilege for being a party leader; as far as the House is concerned, she is an independent MP because the Greens only had 2 (now 3) MPs. She speaks as often as any MP is entitled to. While not all speeches are equal, that’s still a significant difference. If Ted Falk could have spoken 315 times, or even just 115 times, on behalf of Provencher, he should have (and probably would have); raising your riding’s profile in Parliament is crucial to advocating for your constituents. But even though the Conservative party gets extra speaking opportunities because they are the governing party, they limit their MPs ability to speak on behalf of their constituents and tend to focus MP speeches toward partisan matters.

Added to this is the ridiculous truth that the large parties tell their MPs how to vote on issues. They actually give their MPs info cards with the House’s agenda for the day, with notations on how their party will vote on each item. MPs who vote against their party on important issues have been stripped of any ability to speak in the House, and usually end up going Independent so that they can continue to represent their constituencies. The Conservatives definitely do this, but they are not alone: the Liberals and NDP have even tighter party discipline, at least recently. So I’m not just picking on Ted here; Terry Hayward is also a great guy who would make a good MP, if his party would let him, but I’m not confident that they would.

This is one of the reasons I chose to run with the Green Party. I take representing my constituents very seriously, and want to spend my time as an MP in the House making sure that your interests are being served. My loyalty is to my constituents, then to Canada as a whole, and then to my party. I will certainly bring a Green perspective to my work, but Elizabeth May will not be able to overrule my constituents when it comes to how I vote (not that she would – this is a central Green value), and I will work to follow her example as someone who speaks on behalf of my constituents at every available opportunity.

Ted Falk is not the problem, but he’s also not the solution; his party prevents him from giving you his full attention. The Conservative Party of Canada is all about Stephen Harper, and individual MPs are interchangeable mouthpieces for him. The Liberals and NDP may allow their members to speak, but they still control how they vote. If you want an MP who can actually represent you in Parliament, there’s only one choice.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

Jeff_Background1

Ted Talks: Niqab, and the Great Honour of Canadian Citizenship

In his most recent column, Provencher MP Ted Falk applauds Prime Minister Stephen Harper for “taking a strong stance” on the issue of whether or not a Muslim woman who wears a niqab should be required to reveal her face during a citizenship ceremony. The title of his column is “No place for the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.”

I met Mr. Falk recently, and he struck me as being a nice man with good intentions and a genuine concern for his constituents, including a concern for religious freedom. As Ted and I are both Christians, we were able to discuss our faith and how it relates to our desire to serve the people of Provencher. Also, Falk is a Mennonite surname, so Ted should be more familiar than most Canadians about the experience of religious immigrants (I’ll talk more about that below). So I trust that Ted is simply unaware of the incredible hypocrisy of his column.

If you live in this area and haven’t yet visited the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Steinbach, I highly recommend it. I visited there on Canada Day last year (and I saw Ted there, so I know he’s been there too), and learned a lot about how Mennonites had been persecuted in Europe for the past four hundred years because of their religion. Anabaptists (the larger group of which Mennonites are a part, including Amish and Hutterites) believe in a separation from the world and staunch pacifism, which historically led them to refuse military service, oath taking, and any outside interference in their lifestyle. Whenever their communities were pressed into military service or other disruptions, rather than fighting back they would move on in order to maintain their pacifism. So while they were originally largely from Germany and mostly still speak low German, there are different strands of the Mennonite heritage from Ukraine and Russia. They moved to Canada when the Russian government went back on their word to respect the separation of Mennonites from their society, including the refusal of military service. When they moved to Canada, they made prior arrangements with the Canadian government to ensure that their religious requirements would be respected: they were exempt from military service, public schools, and taking oaths (they were allowed to give an affirmation rather than take an oath).

I taught a theology class of undergrads about the Anabaptists a few weeks ago, and I asked them how many were from Mennonite heritage; more than half of the class raised their hands. Of those, about half are currently attending Mennonite churches; most attend evangelical churches. Of the entire class, only two were pacifists, and both of them were from Paraguay (where Mennonites settled after Canada began to require that their children attend public schools in English). So I get that Mennonites in this area are often very far from their heritage. I even had a friend of Mennonite heritage tell me, regarding this issue of the niqab, that he found it frustrating when immigrants come to Canada and try to demand special treatment, saying “the Mennonites didn’t do that.” I had to gently remind him that, yes, Mennonites more than any immigrant group in Canada’s national history have received special privileges which were guaranteed to them before they became Canadian citizens. My friend immediately and a bit sheepishly withdrew his statement, realizing his mistake. It appears that many Mennonites now identify so strongly with Canadian evangelicalism that they’ve forgotten their religious immigrant roots. I don’t in any way mean that as a judgment on them, it’s just an observation of an unconscious psychological phenomenon called in-group bias. But that doesn’t change the fact that they, and perhaps especially Ted Falk (because he’s an MP), should know better.

Pacifism and refusal to take oaths are often referred to as matters of conscience, and our law generally respects matters of conscience unless they endanger others. For many Muslim women, wearing a niqab is a religious duty, and therefore a matter of conscience; to reveal their face to a man, much less in public, would be shameful and degrading, comparable to stripping someone else naked in front of others but with more profound religious implications. So when Ted Falk says “We believe that everyone, out of respect for their new home country, must show their face during a public citizenship ceremony,” he’s revealing either a complete ignorance of what a niqab is to those who wear it, or a complete disregard for their conscience and their religious rights. He’s effectively saying that Canada disrespects new immigrants in the very act of demanding respect from them; and as a Mennonite, he’s saying it from the privileged position of someone whose immigrant ancestors were exempt from swearing at that same ceremony. And as someone whose ancestors were exempt from military service, he’s implying that wearing the niqab is a threat to public safety (“in matters of public safety”).

Mr. Falk, I urge you to reconsider your statement. There are already existing procedures and mechanisms in practice in Canada to allow women who wear the niqab as a symbol and requirement of their faith and conscience to reveal their faces in private to a woman in order to verify their identities. There are places where verification of identity while still respecting a woman wearing a niqab might be a problem (a traffic stop, for example), but the citizenship ceremony is not one of them.

I would also like to affirm your last two paragraphs:

Although Canada is a country built on immigration, I believe that all Canadians, including new citizens, have a duty to protect and adopt the values and freedoms that make our country great. The freedoms that we enjoy are what make Canada so attractive to people from countries across the globe.

We live in the best country in the world, and while we must continue to work hard to respect the diversity of all Canadians, including our newest citizens, we must also always strive to uphold our common values, identity and way of life.

Canada is a country built on immigration, and the respect for religious freedom is one of those common values that makes this country great. Fairness is another. You cannot defend the right of Mennonites to religious education and expression while denying the same to Muslims and still claim to uphold those values of freedom and fairness.

Provencher, let’s keep Canada great by keeping it fair and free.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

Jeff Wheeldon