A Canadian scientist, speaking publicly for the first time after years of being muzzled by her government, expresses her joy to the media about her new-found freedom. In the same breath, she laments the gag order that made her – and her colleagues – feel professionally like “second-class citizens”.
The usually staid and sober diplomats at Canada’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs greeted a visit by their new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, with enthusiastic cheers reserved for liberators.
Mild-mannered friends (half) jokingly quipped that before the federal election, they were so upset by what was happening in Canada that they were ready to take up arms.
These are unusual events in a country as placid as Canada. But this is the response to the departure of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
For nearly a decade, the office of the prime minister enforced a strict, Orwellian-like edict, preventing Canada’s civil servants from speaking to the media without prior approval. That order – designed to prevent transparency and open public discourse on topics the prime minister reviled (especially science and the environment) – was backed by implicit threats of dismissal for employees.
Collective sigh of relief
Since being sworn in last week, Trudeau has reversed that most unusual of decrees, triggering a collective sigh of relief across Ottawa. And now that the stories of bureaucratic repression are beginning to come out, people are asking how such an uncharacteristically Canadian thing could have come to pass.
Harper managed to stay in power owing to circumstances: Canadian fiscal health, a weak opposition with a lack of compelling vision, and high oil prices driving his Alberta base.
He also played into the passive mindsets of Canadians who were content with the status quo, so long as taxes were not raised and they could take their yearly vacation to Mexico or Cuba. This is a form of implicit servility common across the globe: handing over one’s independence, as long as the most basic wants are met.
The Harper years, whether or not Canadians realise it, were a much watered-down version of the harsher oppression many people across the world have to live under.
But over time, Harper’s clandestine agenda, a hollowing-out of the country’s institutions and a politics of confrontation and deceit, finally forced many to wake up. People’s desire for renewal became embodied in the figure of Justin Trudeau, the son of Pierre Trudeau, the former prime minister who, four decades ago, had successfully fought the battle to keep the country united.
The experience of the past decade offers other valuable lessons for Canadians. It may be surprising, but the Harper years share a much watered-down version of what many people suffer across the globe in other regimes: people afraid to speak their minds out of fear of losing their jobs; public servants muzzled through bureaucratic tactics; zealots and loyalists of a regime enforcing its rule by hook or crook.
Basic DNA of oppression
Is it ridiculous to compare the terrible tyrants of other nations with the Harper regime?
Obviously, Harper did not imprison and torture people, but he used the tool that all oppressors use: rule by fear and threat and the primacy of loyalty to a leader rather than the rules of the government. Threat and its most salient consequence, fear, are the bricks and mortar of all tyrannies.
This basic DNA of oppression was at play in Canada over the past decade, despite the very light touch its shape took.
Canada is resilient and is already bouncing back. A public servant recently told one of the authors: “Under Harper, we learned to talk the talk, but it never sunk in very deep. It will pass quickly.” The country will move beyond Harper’s more superficial changes quickly. The rehabilitation of institutions will likely take more time.
But having tasted the blight of oppression and the caustic nature of fear, Canadians may well better understand the plight of others in the world. Canadians have always been moderate and constructive actors on the world stage, but they were also seen as benign innocents to some degree. That may change as that extra dose of reality, the lesson of how badly things can go wrong, is internalised.
The experience may help firm up Canadian policy with greater empathy for the plight of others, and by making it more rigorous and disciplined. The world requires more positive actors at this stage of the game.
In the unpredictable twists and turns of fate, it is ironic that Harper would be the one to teach Canadians this harsh lesson: that goodwill and good governance are fragile, and that the dark side can surreptitiously take control and wreak havoc.
Canadians may now, with new insight, begin to imagine what Syria is like after four decades of rule by the Assads – an exponentially darker and more powerful tyranny than that of Harper; one that has inflicted incalculable pain and damage, warping the minds and souls of many millions in the process.
Canadians are lucky. They have escaped from a kind of prison, released back to being more themselves. But they would do well to remember that the trap they temporarily slipped into is all too common across the world – and that there is even a strong temptation for it.
Although it was public servants, and certain communities such as indigenous Canadians and environmentalists, that felt the brunt of this problem, it may have spread further over time or, worse, co-opted more average citizens.
Whether by comfort-induced apathy, a flawed electoral system, or simply by the fact that zealots of all kinds will triumph when better-intentioned people go to sleep or are distracted, it is important to remember that, even in Canada, Harper was elected prime minister three times.
John Bell is director of the Middle East programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat and served as political adviser to the personal representative of the UN secretary-general for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.
John Zada is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.