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Book Reviews

It’s the Regime, Stupid! A Report from the Cowboy West on Why Stephen Harper Matters

by Barry Cooper

Losing Confidence: Power, Politics, and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy

by Elizabeth May

Canadian democracy is in crisis, on this they agree. In each of two new books, Elizabeth May, Green Party leader, and Barry Cooper, Calgary political philosophy professor and ersatz cowboy, both make urgent appeals for action to safeguard our basic freedoms. Beyond that, the two could hardly be more at odds. May calls for the restoration of the virtues of Canada’s parliamentary system, and Cooper summons the virtuous to fight for the dissolution of Canada – a bureaucratic “tyranny without a tyrant.”

The sponsorship scandal of the Chrétien government – or Adscam – is given the pole position in both books. May considers it yet another example of the ills of partisanship and of the “brainless” media playing politics as a bloodsport, all the while missing what is truly important (in this case, the 2005 climate change conference that was underway in Montreal). Cooper, by contrast, uses the scandal as the cornerstone of his argument that Canada’s political elite are thoroughly corrupt.

May and Cooper present very effective counterpoints to one another, revealing the problems with their respective standards for Canadian politics and their very different approaches to the subjects of crisis and tyranny.

May provides an excellent overview of many key issues in Canadian politics, such as media concentration and electoral reform, presenting several chilling contemporary anecdotes about threats to the system. These include the Conservatives’ attempt to use legislation to hobble the other parties, the RCMP’s intimidation and defamation of Members of Parliament, and Harper’s intentional misinformation campaign about the parliamentary system.

May believes politics is about reasonable people co-operatively choosing their future, not an antagonistic power struggle between people with competing visions. This is an oddly rose-coloured picture of our political culture. She does not consider, for instance, that at times people simply can’t agree, or that ideological prejudice often trumps reason. Instead of dismissing political hostility as nothing more than petty and “moronic” games, May should consider that our political parties are often engaged in important disputes about profoundly divergent conceptions of freedom. She might also want to take corruption a bit more seriously.

Despite these drawbacks, May sounds the alarm: Canada’s democracy is endangered, and we had better learn how the system works and fight for its preservation. For those looking for a primer, Losing Confidence is a fine entrée into our political culture. It is an intelligent, fair-minded, absorbing book that introduces us to one of Canada’s political leaders while awakening us to the urgency of the struggle for freedom in our nation.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Cooper provides punchy, provocative writing and a sharp chapter on Adscam, plus one other compelling reason to read: the book is a bold revelation of the angry thoughts of a neo-liberal Albertan separatist. Cooper argues that outside of Alberta, Canada is a fragmented country of “losers” who would be better off dissolving the federation and freeing themselves from what he calls the Laurentian elite.

His is a polemical call to arms in the spirit of the American Revolution. For Cooper, Stephen Harper represents the political arm of the “cowboy resistance,” the cultural descendents of the Métis. Cooper claims that, politically, all North Americans are liberals. There is no conservatism in Canada, and there is no Canadian cultural identity distinguishing us from the U.S. The only difference between Canadian individuals is that some of us are corrupt while others are virtuous.

Cooper’s central claim is that Canadians have turned rights into entitlements, particularly the entitlement to state largesse. Instead of valuing hard work and a spirit of independence, Canada has inculcated a culture of dependency. It is a country of “whiners” and “losers.” Nearly everyone takes a hit, including his friends at the Fraser Institute, those “free marketeers” who can think only of market values, not virtue. Cooper stands alone on the open plain (his state-funded university office), fiercely independent (he was funded by Alberta’s oil and gas industry to criticize the Kyoto Protocol), facing down the encroaching beaurocratic “tyranny,” presumably with his grandmother’s shotgun (with which she killed a native to defend her own virtue).

Cooper claims his first political statement at the age of six, which earned  him a slap and rebuke from his mother, was, “Look, Mom, it’s the goddamn CPR.” Instead of a symbol of national unity, the government sponsored, nation-building CPR represents for Cooper encroaching tyranny, and any slaps he receives for putting this idea in print will only remind him of his mother’s love.