Stephen Harper, or more properly Governor General David Johnston, delivered the Conservative government’s 2011-2012 throne speech this past Friday, outlining an exceedingly modest, non-ideological agenda that everyone has long seen coming.
Though he now holds a majority of seats in the House of Commons, and can thus easily ram through whatever crazy agenda he wants, the Prime Minister kept to his word, and pledged to continue moving forward with the same, middle-of-the-road, compromise-heavy platform he’d been pursuing in his previous minority administration. So Harper promised to balance the budget — by 2015 — and cut government spending — but only by 5%, and with no specifics. And he upheld his minority government-era promises to the NDP to ratchet up the federal government’s Guaranteed Income Supplement payments to seniors, and increase tax credits for “environmentally friendly” home renos, despite the fact that NDP support is now meaningless.
When he held only a narrow plurality of seats in the House, Harper was often blasted by the opposition for arrogantly “governing as if he had a majority.” Now that he actually has that majority, however, he seems content to govern as if he was still in a position of fragile weakness. Perhaps old parliamentary habits die hard.
The painfully moderate nature of Harper’s Throne Speech is particularly worth noting when one considers the far more interesting story that arose from the event.
Right as the Governor General was reading some bland line about preserving Canada’s future, Brigitte DePape, a 21-year-old parliamentary page, walked into the center of the Senate chamber and quietly held up a hand-made construction paper stop sign with the words “STOP HARPER” crudely scrawled upon it. She was immediately escorted off the premises by the Senate’s elderly sergeant-at-arms, and has since been fired from her ostensibly non-partisan position. (You can watch the CP’s video summary of the episode here).
In the gaggle of media interviews that followed, Ms. DePape declared that she was trying to draw attention to the fact that Harper should be, er, stopped.
“Harper’s agenda is destructive for people who are living in Canada, as well for my generation,” she said on the CBC. “He’s blowing billion of dollars on fighter jets, he’s expanding military bases abroad, he’s cutting social services and public sector jobs, all at the expense of the values of the people in Canada.”
In other forums, she’s similarly described her protest as an act of “civil disobedience,” the beginnings of a “resistance movement,” and in one particularly memorable quote, akin to a “Canadian version of the Arab Spring.”
Though DePape was universally criticized by all party leaders for her “disrespectful” gesture, in the aftermath of her demonstration she’s also earned a lot of praise from left-wing activists across the country — and even internationally — who see her as something of a folk hero. Dozens of Facebook groups have sprung up in her honor, and the job offers have been pouring in fast and furious from freshly inspired lefty NGOs. Even the always-eager-to-be-relevant American filmmaker Michael Moore has offered her something, presumably as part of his ongoing effort to keep Canada as liberal as he believes it’s supposed to be.
Many thoughts arise from all of this. The first is simply obvious irritation at DePape’s pompously overblown rhetoric and sense of purpose. Canada is free, prosperous, electoral democracy. We just finished having an election, in fact. The idea that Canadians are somehow laking venues to express their displeasure with our current government is absurd, while any analogies that compare Prime Minister Harper’s moderate, center-right government with the murderous dictatorships of the Middle East are outright offensive to the thousands of freedom fighters who have perished in that troubled region.
Worse than that, however, is what Ms. DePape’s stunt and ensuing 15 minutes of fame reveals about the state of politically engaged Canadian youth.
Since Brigitte clearly wants to be taken seriously as an activist, so I’ll treat her seriously. Ms. DePape, your “protest” was pathetic. Ideological perspectives aside, holding up a crudely made stop sign with a two word slogan that asks for nothing more than the current prime minister to “stop” reveals a depressing lack of both creativity and ambition. Without getting too glib about it, the entire act was just one giant non-sequitur, lacking any visual coherence, depth, symbolism, or cleverness. Harper should stop, so here’s me holding a stop sign. Deep.
In interviews, likewise, DePape meanders and rambles, reciting various canned, left-wing talking points but never quite articulating any coherent vision or agenda, other than she doesn’t really like the Conservative Party. Her goofy grinning and inarticulate delivery all broadcast the image of a young woman who only half understands the causes she professes to care about, and completely lacks the basic intellectual wisdom, insight, or savvy to contribute anything new or useful to Canada’s political conversation.
Like Ms. DePape, I too am a recent college graduate, as are many of my friends. To say I know young Canadians possessing greater skills and wisdom than Brigitte DePape would be a dramatic understatement — almost every young Canadian I know, of all political orientations, is more politically insightful, creative, and articulate than her. Yet because these people live quiet lives and play by the rules, no rich union bosses or American filmmaker will be beating down their doors with job offers.
To serve as a white-gloved, tuxedo-wearing page in the House of Commons is one of the most gilded positions of establishment privilege a young Canadian can ever aspire to hold. As a job that literally entails the constant rubbing of shoulders with this country’s most powerful political figures, it’s similarly a position that offers up untold connections and possibilities for those interested in furthering a professional career in Ottawa. And yet, Brigitte decided that still wasn’t enough, and, in a supreme act of egotistical vanity, decided to throw it all away in favor of something even bigger — which it now looks like she’ll get.
The idea that brazen, unabashed self-promotion — even when you have nothing worthwhile to say or do — is the only gesture deserving of praise and promotion in 21st Century Canada is depressing indeed. It highlights what a vapid, celebrity-obsessed culture we have become, and how little benefit there is to be gained by adhering to traditional Canadian values of dignity and respect; hard work and accomplishment.
Rather than simply offer a lot of wishy-washy “right message, wrong time” pseudo-criticisms, I hope more Canadian youth will realize how much the vainglorious actions of the DePapes of the world cheapen the collective efforts of all those young Canadians who are truly trying to contribute politically to a country they love — as opposed to just themselves.