By Jim Mosher
Sadly, there’s nothing new in the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s penchant for shutting out criticism — often using deplorable tactics.
It’s impossible for an ordinary citizen to change this ‘new normal’ in Canadian federal politics.
However when my MP appears to work from the same script, I must speak.
Selkirk Record reporter Jill Winzoski was fired Oct. 19, the day after her paper’s owners received an e-mail from her MP, Selkirk-Interlake MP James Bezan. Winzoski is a boots-on-the-ground reporter. She is not a columnist or editorialist.
(I have lived in Bezan’s riding since 1986, though he was only elected in 2006. I have worked at two newspapers here in Manitoba, though there was a four-year hiatus (1996-2000) when I was founding and only editor of a newspaper in Kenora.)
Mr. Bezan’s e-mail contained a message Winzoski had sent to him and others regarding her personal opinion about a looming investment deal between China and Canada. It’s a deal, one should note, that has been the center of a protracted if truncated discussion across this country.
Winzoski, to her credit, had signed an online petition, changing only the subject line of the pre-written petition. She replaced the petition’s anaemic subject line with one of her own. She wrote, simply, that she ‘opposes this deceptive government’. Tens of thousands would agree.
Winzoski’s bold change in a subject line should be considered fair criticism, one would have thought — from a concerned citizen. Maybe she’s a Conservative, maybe an NDPer. It does not matter.
One would have thought this strong and engaged woman’s e-mail (subject line changed) would have been treated as a private message to, in this case, her MP.
(It appears, however, that MPs can share correspondence with anyone of their choosing, unless it bears the letterhead of a parliamentarian, in this case Mr. Bezan. It should be noted that the recipient of the petition, with its uniquely changed subject line, was the PMO, and copied to other MPs, including Mr. Bezan, Ms. Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada and a few others.)
Winzoski reported with distinction at the Selkirk Record for more than two years. Her writing was growing in maturity and was, in any event, superb.
(I should note, for the record, that Winzoski is not only a colleague but a close personal friend.)
Mr. Bezan has chosen to forgo advertising in newspapers in his riding, notably the Interlake Enterprise and the Selkirk Record. Instead, he advertises in Interlake Publishing newspapers, owned by Quebec-based Sun Media, an outlet that is stridently pro-Conservative.
Mr. Bezan indicated in his e-mail to Winzoski’s employers that he would have nothing to do with the Selkirk Record, apparently because of Winzoski’s criticism of the Harper government’s handling of the Canada-China Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPPA).
The Canada-China FIPPA is at the center of a heated national debate, in part because parliamentarians have not had an opportunity to discuss the agreement in the House of Commons. We are told it will happen, but it will be a brief, if briefly lively, debate.
The Canada-China FIPPA was tabled Sept. 26. It will be put to a vote soon.
That opposition politicians will not have a chance to fully debate the agreement is, arguably, moot because the governing Harper Conservatives have a majority of the seats in the House.
Winzoski has a right to express her views as a private citizen in a democracy — or what used to be a democracy before Mr. Harper strode to his coveted majority — the pretext he needed to advance his flawed neo-conservative programme.
The prime minister once famously said that Canadians would not recognize their country once he was finished — that to a gaggle of American businessmen, but let’s not lose the point. We are getting it, nevertheless.
For his part, Mr. Bezan has every right to advertise where he pleases. It may not be surprising that he chooses to advertise in newspapers that do not disparage or criticize the Harper government.
Journalists should not inject their political views into news stories. But that does not trump the right of those journalists to express their views as private citizens, corporate ‘ethics’ policies notwithstanding.
(It should be noted that Winzoski’s employers have never provided such a policy nor, it appears, does one exist; though, one suspects, it will be hurriedly written soon.)
We should recall that in a democracy we require a clash of ideas to ensure robust discussion of matters of moment. Government policy — particularly the policies of a majority government — should be subject to open and full debate in our country’s parliament — by everyone, corporate and citizen media included.
My newspaper — though I do not now speak on its behalf — has carried and will continue to publish criticisms and praises of Mr. Bezan and Mr. Harper. We all have a right to speak — and speak openly.
That is the more important as we near Remembrance Day, a sometimes over-wrought affair, full of platitudes and so forth. But a day the more meaningful for me because both my parents served in their respective militaries in England and Canada — my mother in the WAF in intelligence, my father in the RCAF on the Burma Front.
We have lost yet another passionate voice for the truth in Winzoski. She may never write as a journalist again. One can only hope that, as a diarist perhaps, she will chronicle the wrong that was done to her — and all of us.
If there is a spark left in our democracy, we must speak against what has become a banana republic, a totalitarian regime of corporatists and money lenders.
There is a way out of our political morass. We should all figure that out, each for ourselves.
One thing is clear. The way out does not include, involve or invoke the government of the present moment.
We may be conservative in our way of approaching the challenges this world faces, but the Harperism that has befouled Canadian politics is about as far from any sort of thoughtful conservatism as one can get.
As a reporter, I recall Mr. Bezan, addressing an otherwise celebratory crowd in 2010, when he announced a federal contribution to Gimli-based Evergeen Basic Needs, a non-profit that does good works for the less advantaged in Manitoba’s East Interlake. And I recall how the MP remarked that he had to read from a statement prepared by minions of Mr. Harper, the vaunted PMO.
We recall that moment with some regret — precisely because Mr. Bezan had always, theretofore, spoken openly and as a true representative of his constituents.
Lately, Mr. Bezan is muzzled as indeed are all who may have the temerity to criticize this country’s latest, perhaps first, autocracy — one ruled without regard for decency and principle by a chap named Stephen Harper.
Had Mr. Bezan ever interceded to have a reporter fired before?
Mr. Bezan said in an interview with me Nov. 2 that he had, as he deemed appropriate, spoken with newspaper editors and managers when he felt he had been “slagged in an way”.
Tellingly, he said about his dealings with the Selkirk Record: “I haven’t ever had to go this far before, no.”
He did go that far — and it precipitated Winzoski’s ignominious departure.
No worries. It was the right thing to do — or so the minority of Canadians who elected the PM may think.
I just think about the hell storm my parents would have raised. But that was a different day.