Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to add my comments to the debate on Bill C-23, Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act, now before the House. I am pleased to also express my opposition to this legislation, primarily because of human rights issues, as we have been stressing over the past few weeks.
As with everything else, before making a decision it is important to weigh the pros and the cons, to hear the arguments on both sides, and then to take into consideration the fine distinctions that are overlooked in the basic arguments. It is not out of ideological stubbornness that the Bloc Québécois is opposed to this bill. I know the Bloc critic on international trade quite well. He is a serious person who would not let his parliamentary duty be tainted or marred by restrictive ideological straitjackets. So, I can say with certainty that our party's position on the legislation before us today has much more to do with a careful review than with irrational stubbornness, contrary to what some parliamentarians suggested during their usual display of petty partisanship.
One has to be very shortsighted to not realize that our position is shared by a large number of organizations, including unions, workers advocacy groups and human rights groups, both in Canada and in Colombia. “We are not alone”, as Michèle Lalonde says in her poem. There are many who, like us, think that supporting Bill C-23 would be “shooting ourselves in the foot”, this for a number of reasons.
Indeed, to agree with this legislation is to condone serious and even very serious human rights violations affecting social, economic and even fundamental rights. There are many examples of that.
For instance, it is estimated that, since 1986, close to 2,700 trade unionists have been killed. In 2007 alone, 38 were assassinated because of their commitment.
According to France's national institute for demographic studies, in the year 2000, Colombia had by far the highest violent death rate in the world, with 60.8 violent deaths per 100,000 population. This was far more than Russia, which came in second with a rate of 28.4 homicides per 100,000.
By comparison, Canada had a rate of 1.78 per 100,000 for that same year. So, we are talking about a rate that is 34 times higher than that of Canada.
To claim that a treaty can improve humanitarian conditions is to delude oneself. It is the contrary that should occur. Indeed, the improvement of the social conditions should be a prerequisite to signing a free trade treaty.
Canada does not have to be a global cop enforcing what is morally right, but it has a duty to refuse to condone things that happen elsewhere, but that would not be tolerated here. It is because of this same principle that we cannot accept the unconditional transfer of Afghan prisoners, without any guarantee that they will not be mistreated. Otherwise, we are more or less part of a subcontracting process involving basic right violations, whereby the government shirks its responsibilities on the pretext that these violations are not occurring on its territory. The government should know that moral obligations do not stop at the border.
Beyond the humanitarian dimension of the situation in Colombia, and regardless of the good and not so good reasons that should make us accept or reject this bill, there is one aspect that remains profoundly unacceptable, namely the utter contempt for democratic institutions shown by the Conservative government in signing the free trade agreement, without even waiting for the committee's report.
That adds another string to the bow of Conservative hypocrisy. Was it not the Prime Minister himself who used to castigate Paul Martin’s Liberals for running roughshod over the will of Parliament? Did he not proclaim loud and long that, if elected, he would make it a point of honour never to disregard the will of the House?
Obviously these were hollow words that soon yielded to actions that speak a lot more loudly and show the true face of the government, which cannot accept its minority status.
So even if we had agreed with the spirit of this bill, which we do not, we would have been forced to object to the way it was handled in actual fact.
This made the front page of last Saturday’s Le Devoir, as my colleague mentioned, and I quote: “Democracy in crisis”. In this devastating article, the excellent journalist Manon Cornellier writes the following in her introduction: “Stephen Harper rules: his ministers play second fiddle, committees have fallen out of favour, and debates are ignored. Neglected, held in contempt, Parliament is in deep trouble”. She goes on to quote Peter Russell, an emeritus professor at the University of Toronto who could hardly be described as a nasty separatist. He is unequivocal, though, saying that the Prime Minister does not take the House of Commons seriously as a forum of national public debate, which only encourages the further marginalization of Parliament.
There are numerous examples: the manuals given to committee chairs on techniques for slowing and sabotaging the work when things are not going the Conservatives’ way; their contempt for private member’s bills, even if the bills pass all stages of the legislative process; their refusal to give royal recommendation to these bills; the use of public funds for partisan purposes; and the constant appeals of decisions made by Canadian courts. I could go on forever.
Yet this same government constantly urges the opposition to cooperate with it. They must have a very peculiar idea of cooperation to think they were encouraging it by short-circuiting the work of a committee.
What message does an attitude like that send to parliamentarians? Basically, their work is useless and the government could not care less about the conclusions they reach and the recommendations they make. In other words, no salvation outside the government, or should I say, outside the Prime Minister’s Office.
Passing this bill, agreeing to this treaty, would amount to approving, condoning, confirming, ratifying and assenting to a way of doing things, a view of parliamentary government that is so restrictive it poses a real threat to the democratic values of Quebeckers.
The end never justifies the means.
This reminds me of another flagrant example of the government’s inability to listen to either parliamentarians or the courts of the land, namely, the case of young Omar Khadr. I think there is a parallel here with a case whose historical importance should give us pause. I am thinking of what in France is called the Dreyfus affair.
If I may, Mr. Speaker, I would like to quickly remind the members what happened.
Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army of Alsatian Jewish descent, was at the heart of a very important political and social scandal in the late 19th century. He stood accused of the most serious crime an officer could face, namely, high treason, after a note was found that gave details regarding the location of French troops during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. He was quickly tried and convicted, but later appealed that ruling, knowing he had been the victim of a legal conspiracy. In fact, as history has shown, he was innocent. There was compelling evidence to support his theory that it was a conspiracy. Clearly, France wanted to make someone pay, to find a scapegoat for the French fiasco. A guilty party had to be found.
Thus, in seeking some form of justice, the French government was willing to convict an innocent man, someone it knew to be innocent.
One of the most outspoken individuals in this affair was certainly Charles Péguy, an author who is largely unknown today, but whose body of work was enormous. In Notre jeunesse, he wrote the following about the Dreyfus affair and what he considered a crime committed against him:
—that a single injustice, a single crime, a single illegality, particularly if it is officially recorded, confirmed, a single wrong to humanity, a single wrong to justice and to right, particularly if it is universally, legally, nationally, commodiously accepted, that a single crime shatters and is sufficient to shatter the whole social pact, the whole social contract, that a single legal crime, a single dishonourable act will bring about the loss of one's honour, the dishonour of a whole people.
I could go on. Ten minutes go by very quickly in the House. I will move on to my conclusion, for I believe I have made my point.
The way in which Bill C-23 was brought forward is another example of how this government tends to undermine the House. So people will understand why the Bloc Québécois could never vote in favour of Bill C-23, the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act.