For a brief and shining moment we had détente.
The NDP government and the Opposition met in the Legislature, engaged in healthy debate and came together to pass a landmark piece of legislation, Bill 1, which bans union and corporate donations to political parties.
Then Wildrose Opposition Leader Brian Jean unleashed the hounds with a spurious attack on NDP Environment Minister Shannon Phillips.
The brouhaha started when the Wildrose stumbled across a book written in 2004 by political activist Mike Hudema. Online bookseller Amazon describes An Action A Day Keeps Global Capitalism Away as a “lively, challenging, and decidedly fun book designed for activists and concerned citizens who want to change the world.”
The Book describes 52 actions or tools in the political activist’s toolbox. They range from sidewalk chalking (a favorite of Calgary’s Mayor Nenshi and the Alberta Party), radical cheerleading and fishing in the sewers to occupations and blockades.
None of these actions are new. The Book simply presents them in a way that is “heavy on drama, theatre and media-friendly visuals”.
And guess what. The introduction was co-written by Mike Hudema and Shannon Phillips, then a university student now Alberta’s Environment Minister.
The Wildrose was apoplectic. How dare a government minister counsel someone to break the law?
Before we answer that muddle-headed question, we need a brief refresher on civil disobedience
Civil disobedience and ordinary acts of protest have a similar purpose, to demonstrate the injustice or unfairness of a particular law or policy; however civil disobedience is more serious—it requires an action that breaks the law.
For example, Henry David Thoreau broke the law when he refused to pay taxes to protest against slavery and the Mexican American War. He was imprisoned and much to his chagrin released when well-meaning friends made the payment on his behalf.
Even if we assume that some of the actions described in The Book go beyond lawful protest and are actually acts of civil disobedience, Ms Phillips’ act of co-writing an introduction to a book written by someone else who describes such actions to an unknown reader who may or may not engage in the activity does not appear to constitute the intent necessary to support the criminal offence of “counselling”.
Wildrose supports protests and civil disobedience
Legal niceties aside, it’s disingenuous for the Wildrose to play the outrage card when they support the use of protests and civil disobedience to fight policies and laws that they feel are unfair or unjust.
In 2010 the Wildrose welcomed former PC MLA Guy Boutilier with open arms after he’d been ejected from the PC caucus by premier Ed Stelmach for organizing a protest against the PC government’s decision to postpone a long term care facility in Fort McMurray.
In 2002 Wildrose MLA Rick Strankman, then a private citizen, engaged in civil disobedience by taking 757 bushels of wheat across the border in violation of the Customs Act. He refused to pay the fine and was sentenced to 180 days in jail but was released after one week. Mr Strankman was so angry about the whole thing that he seriously considered moving to Brazil.
In 2012 Mr Strankman was pardoned by Stephen Harper who characterized Mr Strankman’s decision to break the law an act of courage for which he and his cohorts were unjustly charged, convicted, fined and imprisoned.
Quit while you’re ahead
NDP House Leader Brian Mason said it was hypocritical for the Wildrose to attack Ms Phillips given that Mr Strankman had deliberately flouted the law.
The Wildrose went ballistic.
Wildrose MLA Nathan Cooper argued that Mr Mason’s reference to Mr Strankman’s offence was irrelevant because it happened in the past, Mr Strankman had been pardoned by “the Prime Minister of this great land” and the law was eventually changed as a result of Mr Strankman’s actions.
Mr Cooper ignored the fact that Ms Phillips’ actions also happened in the past and unlike Mr Strankman’s action did not violate the law. He wrongly asserted that the pardon erased Mr Strankman’s offence. It doesn’t.
Finally–and this is the quit when you’re ahead part–Mr Cooper said that when Mason spoke disrespectfully about Mr Strankman and through him the Prime Minister, Mr Mason was speaking disrespectfully of The Queen “that leads our country” and the Royal Family. What???
To his credit Mason did not dissolve in a fit of laughter. He shut the matter down by saying he respected Mr Strankman, while disagreeing with some of his views, and apologised for the way in which he’d raised the matter.
The conservative view
If we’ve learned anything from the Wildrose’s handling of the Phillips matter (aside from the fact that they have a tenuous grasp of the law) we’ve learned this: Anyone who engages in acts of civil disobedience will be hailed as a hero by the Wildrose if the law they’ve broken offends the free market.
However, anyone who engages in civil disobedience to protest other unjust laws that offend Wildrose sensibilities runs the risk of prosecution. If convicted they’ll be tossed into prison.
A chilling prospect, borne out in spades by the man the Wildrose describe as the Prime Minister of this great land.