Ottawa: Unhealed wounds undercut an experiment in democracy

The Globe and Mail, Canada
April 27 2004

Unhealed wounds undercut an experiment in democracy


Prime Minister Paul Martin was not amused, and said so to his cabinet
last Thursday morning.

The day before, he and Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham had urged
the Liberal caucus not to support a Bloc Québécois MP’s motion
“acknowledging the Armenian genocide of 1915” – a tragedy that was
further described as a “crime against humanity.”

Mr. Martin had made the vote a “two-line whip,” which under the new
government procedures meant that ministers had to vote together but
backbenchers were free to vote as they saw fit. This “two-line whip”
was part of the Prime Minister’s new attempt to reform the
“democratic deficit” in Parliament.

The new strategy boomeranged. It was embarrassing enough that 78
Liberal MPs supported the opposition motion against the Prime
Minister’s wishes. At least that’s the new game. But for cabinet
ministers to fail to vote as one mocked the whole point of the
“two-line whip” system.

Ministers such as Stephen Owen and Rey Pagtakhan sat in their seats.
Other stayed away. (That the Prime Minister himself skipped the vote
irritated some cabinet ministers.

Thursday morning, Mr. Martin laid down the law. Being a minister is a
privilege, he told ministers. You play by the rules. When there’s a
“two-line whip,” you vote as government ministers, not solo flyers.

Across the aisle, the Conservatives voted as a bloc for the motion,
as did the other opposition parties. That’s the kind of behaviour
that will sink this parliamentary reform.

If the government allows its backbenchers to vote freely, but sees
the opposition voting as a bloc, these kind of votes won’t last long.
The opposition parties, in other words, are as responsible as the
government for seeing that this parliamentary reform works. So far,
they are flunking the test in their eagerness to show up the

The Conservatives, blinded by their own short-sightedness and led by
their foreign affairs spokesperson, Stockwell Day, will now find
themselves caught if they ever form the government. Having voted for
this motion in opposition, the Conservatives will be badgered in
government by the Armenian lobby to make this resolution government
policy, thereby aligning Canada with only France and Switzerland.

The operative principle in a highly multicultural country should be
to remain wary of allowing strongly held ethnic grievances to
influence foreign policy, whether it’s the Armenian-Turkish dispute
over the violence of 1915 or any number of other disputes.

That principle has wide applicability in a country such as Canada.
Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Jews and Palestinians
(and other Arabs), Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Greeks and Turks,
Pakistanis and Indians, Serbs and Croats, Tamils and Sinhalese are
among the rivalries, rife with bitter historical memories, that can
be played out on Canadian soil. The principle has nothing to do with
business contracts at peril.

Canada has never been completely immune from these imported pressures
ever since the Fenian raids just before Confederation. When a country
has been settled, and continues to be settled, by those from many
lands, it is understandable that at least some ancient disputes will
be brought to Canadian shores.

People have their own historical memories of what happened to their
ancestors, and perhaps even to themselves. They will want sometimes
to carry on those feuds in their adopted country, or at least to have
their particular and deeply-felt interpretation of past and current
events legitimized by the Canadian government. The question is what
their adopted country will and should do about these efforts.

By and large, Canadian governments have tried not to allow these
memories, and the ethnic lobby groups that form around them, to
influence unduly contemporary policy.

Canada has tried to develop a reputation as an honest broker, so that
Canadians troops can be used in divisive situations (Cyprus, the
Middle East) or that individual Canadians can play healing roles
(Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Rwanda) without their country being
tainted by preferring one version of historical memory over another
and succumbing to domestic lobbying by one particular group.

Does that mean Canada should be insensitive to contemporary disputes
that lead to gross violations of human rights? Of course not: Proof
is Canada’s strong support for the International Criminal Court, now
headed by a Canadian.

A multicultural country like Canada has to be careful about allowing
ancient grievances to be played out such that they push foreign
policy in a particular direction. Once that starts to happen in a
country like this, it won’t end.