Harper’s Bad Idea

1 06 2009

Canada’s Conservative government has proposed a law that would allow victims of terrorism to sue foreign governments and organizations that sponsor terrorism in Canada courts.

This law is a terrible, terrible idea.

First, this law appears to infringe on provincial jurisdiction. Suits for the loss of life, limb, and property are connected to property and civil rights,  which are clearly a matter of provincial jurisdiction according to the British North America, er, I mean, Constitution Act, 1867. If a provincial government wished to pass a similar law, I would have fewer objections.

Second, this proposed law would further politicize our judiciary by forcing judges to define “terrorist”.  Defining terrorism is much more complicated than it might sound.  Nelson Mandela once used tactics that that can reasonably be described as terrorist. Some Western countries regard the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization, while others do not. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Third, I’m disturbed that Mr Harper announced this law at an ethnic organization.  (The identity of the ethnic group in question is not really important, although for the record it was a Jewish organization.) This law risks drawing the Canadian government into Old World ethnic-nationalist strife. What the Canadian government needs to be doing is to promote a sense of unhyphenated Canadianism, a civic nationalism that embraces all citizens. We should be encouraging all groups to identify primarily with Canada and to forget, as much as possible, where their ancestors are from. The proposed law, which would probably lead to lawsuits by competing ethnic groups, will do nothing to advance this aim.   It will set ethnic group against ethnic group.

Anyone who lives in a major urban area in Canada is aware that some immigrants bring Old World rivalries with them to Canada (e.g., Serb vs. Croat, Sikh vs. Hindu, Jew vs. Arab). Like most old stock Canadians, I sometimes find myself wishing that we could wipe the memories of certain classes of immigrants.

Ask yourself this question: had this law been in place in 1985, would it have promoted healing in the wake of the Air India bombing? I think not.

It will be interesting to whether Michael Ignatieff, the noted expert of ethnic conflict, reacts to Mr Harper’s proposal.


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