David Faltenhine/ Lead Now
There have been no major casseroles against the Conservatives' omnibus budget bill across the land yet, but that doesn't mean the opposition parties and thousands of Canadians aren't organizing to halt passage of a bill they warn does much more than dictate spending priorities.
Critics of the 450-page Bill C-38 charge that it's not a fiscal document at all but has been craftily designed to reshape the nation in the Tory mould. The mission of the 70 hard-to-decipher legislative amendments, they say, is to weaken civil society, poke holes in the welfare state and roll back enviro protection.
The bill could pass as early as Thursday, June 14 - and the days leading up to that showdown on the Hill promise a protest onslaught both parliamentary and beyond.
On Monday, dissent went online when hundreds of non-profits and small companies joined the Black Out Speak Out campaign by turning their websites dark for the day. Among the high-profile participants were Amnesty International, Oxfam, World Wildlife Fund, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, major unions and a host of other social justice and enviro groups.
According to the WWF's climate and energy director, Josh Laughren, viral action is one of the few tools organizations like his have to combat professional lobbyists from the oil and gas industries. These companies stand to benefit from the bill's provision to drastically reduce the number of environmental assessments required for major projects.
"Unlike Enbridge, we cannot take out millions of dollars of ad buys in the media. That's way beyond our means," Laughren says.
The blackout appears to have provoked a response from the Conservatives. On the day it launched, the government dispatched 10 ministers across the country to tout the party's plans for "responsible resource development."
But citizen protests may be far less dramatic than actions the opposition parties plan to take next week if the Conservatives don't agree to remove major policy changes from the bill.
The NDP, Liberals and the lone Green Party rep are planning to introduce hundreds of amendments, forcing some 50 consecutive hours of marathon voting that will test the endurance of all MPs and, the opposition hopes, the unity of the Conservative party.
Because NDPers and Liberals have seats on the Finance Committee, which has already held hearings, they will only be able to move amendments to delete clauses of the bill. Green Elizabeth May, on the other hand, doesn't sit on the committee and will be able to table substantive amendments.
Says NDP House leader Nathan Cullen, "This is the worst piece of legislation I've ever encountered, not just because of what it's doing, but its anti-democratic nature. It's trying to shut down the conversation."
If the Conservatives lose a single vote during the marathon session, Cullen says, it would put the government's survival at risk because budget matters are technically considered confidence votes. But he admits that because there is little precedent, it's not clear if the government would automatically fall on the basis of a single vote.
"Some of this is brand new territory," he says.
May will have to stand throughout the introduction of her 200-odd amendments. The House speaker is currently reviewing a point of order she raised this week that argued the budget bill violates proper procedure and should itself be ruled out of order.
"I'll do what needs to be done," she says. "Whatever physical discomfort there is for MPs, nothing compares to the long-term damage represented by this bill. I believe the majority of Canadians never voted to have environmental laws destroyed," she says.
Filibustering opposition parties believe they have major support - besides the raft of citizen groups. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities and four former fisheries ministers (two of them Conservatives) recently came out against the bill. That's the kind of support Jamie Biggar, executive director of Leadnow, a non-partisan pro-democracy group, is banking on. "Concern about this bill is spread across the political spectrum," he says.
On Saturday, June 2, the group organized 3,000 people to occupy the offices of 85 MPs across the country. Emboldened by Tory backbencher David Wilks's candid (and later retracted) confession that he has reservations about C-38, Leadnow targeted swing ridings held by Conservatives. Their hope is to convince wavering MPs to break ranks with Stephen Harper's notoriously disciplined party by warning them that there will be consequences in the next election if they don't.
"At this point we have to do everything we can do to create space for those Conservative MPs to represent their constituents by stopping the bill, splitting it and starting over," Biggar says.
Leadnow plans a second day of action on Tuesday (June 12), when debate over the bill is expected to reach fever pitch in the House.