That this House urges the government to agree to the request of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission inquiring into incidents at the Vancouver APEC summit that the government provide separate funded legal representation for the complainants in the inquiry.
Mr. Speaker, before I begin I would like to indicate that I will be sharing my 20 minutes with the hon. member for Burnaby—Douglas.
This motion is certainly a timely motion, given the decision by the government last week not to provide funding for the students who are appearing at the RCMP Public Complaints Commission. We believe that justice demands that they be given this funding. We believe that this demand is justified not only by an elementary sense of fairness in this respect, but also by the demands and the requests of the commission.
As you know, Mr. Speaker, we have been debating this in the House for some days now. The point that the government seems not to appreciate or does not want to acknowledge is that the commission has twice asked the government for funding for these students.
Why this unusual request? Because the government itself earlier requested that it be allowed to do something out of the ordinary and have a battalion of lawyers there on behalf of the government and the RCMP. It is not out of the ordinary in terms of fairness for the students to expect that something similar might be done for them. It is not out of the ordinary as far as the commission is concerned because it has twice requested that the government do this.
By putting this motion today the NDP hopes to give the opportunity to the House and particularly to Liberal backbenchers to express their outrage at the position the government has taken.
We have learned that the Liberal backbenchers are being whipped into shape as usual. We are disappointed to hear that, but we hope that by the end of the day we might be able to persuade some of them, if not all of them, to come around to the wisdom of this position and vote with us. Vote with us not just for the sake of the students, but perhaps also to draw a line against the increasing arrogance of the Prime Minister's office and the Prime Minister himself and the way in which dissent is constantly being stifled on that side and throughout the country. The pepper spraying of the students at the APEC summit has become a symbol of that for all Canadians.
It is not just a question of pepper spraying but also other things that happened at the APEC summit. People were being asked to take signs down when the signs posed absolutely no threat to the security of any of the leaders at the APEC summit. People were being asked to sign pledges that they would not do so again. They were basically being asked to sign away their charter rights to freedom of expression.
There were all kinds of things happening at the APEC summit which concerned Canadians and the NDP. In that respect, although we have had a lot of attention paid to this issue by everybody in the last little while, I want to remind the House that this issue was first raised in the House of Commons on November 26, 1997 by me on behalf of my party. I asked the Deputy Prime Minister at that time whether he would apologize for the joke the Prime Minister had made with respect to the pepper spraying. It was the incident where the Prime Minister was asked on TV about the pepper spraying and he said “Well, pepper is something I put on my plate”. We went after the Deputy Prime Minister at that time as the Prime Minister was not present. We asked him about the appropriateness of those remarks and other things that had happened at the APEC summit.
It all could have been different if the Prime Minister at that time had taken an entirely different approach. Nobody takes any joy in this, but how different it would have been had the Prime Minister said how sorry and concerned he was about the students who had been pepper sprayed and that he was going to look into it. Afterward he might have come forward and said that perhaps they had overmanaged the APEC affair and they may have been too zealous in their concern for the comfort of visiting leaders, particularly Mr. Suharto. They could have said it was regrettable and that they would not let it happen again.
Would that not have been preferable, I say to my Liberal colleagues, than all that we have gone through now. The Prime Minister, the solicitor general, the government and the Liberal Party itself are digging themselves in deeper and deeper just out of a refusal to admit a simple mistake.
I would hope that this debate today will provide an opportunity for the government, as we have tried to provide other opportunities in question period, to fess up and say that it has handled this wrong. Or are the Liberals going to insist and are Liberal backbenchers going to collaborate in insisting that they have done nothing wrong, that nothing untoward has happened and it is only a matter of letting the RCMP Public Complaints Commission do its job, as we have heard time and time again in this House?
I think this raises a larger question, one which we have certainly paid attention to on this side of the House in the NDP. That is, is there any truth to the argument often forwarded by the government that if we simply put aside human rights, labour standards, environmental matters and all these difficult questions that get in the way of unregulated commerce and the marketplace, if we trade with everybody in an uncritical way and devote our entire foreign policy to cutting deals, to team Canada and to just making money, that this will help other people to become like us. So goes the argument offered by the government, that somehow our values will rub off on them.
APEC shows us that there is a very real danger their values rub off on us when we invite authoritarian and dictatorial leaders to this country and we act in a way as to protect their sensitivities. What are their sensitivities? Their sensitivities are about democracy. They are very sensitive to the whole idea of democracy. They are not just sensitive, they are allergic to the whole idea of democracy.
Instead of giving them a lesson when they come here about dissent and democracy and the fact that Canada and other democratic countries operate in a different way, instead of using that opportunity to stand up for our own values, we back off. We cater to them.
I think we do the wrong thing. And it is not just myself and my colleagues who are saying this. There are people very experienced in the world of dealing with east and west matters who say that the only way to deal with these things is to stand up for our own values and to play hardball with people who want to question those values. I am thinking more recently of the former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, who has said that you do not get anywhere by kowtowing to people who have different values.
Yet this is not what the Liberal government has made a name for itself in doing. In fact it has made a name for itself by being almost supine in its relationship with these other countries, to the point where it has made former governments which did not have outstanding records on human rights look good.
I think we express today the embarrassment, the indignation and the regret many Canadians have at the way APEC was handled in the first place, but even more so in the way the government has refused to admit that something wrong happened there, that the Prime Minister was wrong in the way he dealt with this issue and the casual way he has now joked many times about this issue, as if he just does not get it. He just does not get it.
I tell my Liberal colleagues that we are going to persist with this until somebody over there gets it. This is their opportunity to show the rest of Canada that they get it, even if their Prime Minister and their leader does not. This is their opportunity to show that they take no comfort in the fact that baseball bats were not used and only pepper spray was used. Imagine, this is the argument offered by the Prime Minister. Instead of offering up an apology for his jokes about the use of pepper spray, he asks us to take comfort in the fact that well, after all they were not hit on the head with a baseball bat.
This is a pretty low time in Canadian politics. We hope that our colleagues opposite in the Liberal Party will take an opportunity to show a little independence, not just on behalf of their own self-esteem and self-respect, but on behalf of the democratic values that all of us hold in this place.