“Be careful. I don’t want you to get your name on a list.”
My father said that to me about ten years ago, shortly before I went to a protest in Ottawa which ended up becoming the Seven-Year Squat. In order to understand his comment, you need to understand that he was a refugee from the disastrous 1956 Hungarian Revolution; he had only been a child at the time, but his parents had lived through the upheavals of the early 20th century, and for them “your name on a list” was a very real, very terrifying threat. If “they” (meaning the authorities) had your name on a list, you were in serious trouble.
My grandfather got his name on a list during the 1956 Revolution – after the Soviets were driven out of the country he made the mistake of talking (and listening to others talk) a little too openly. Someone took note and when the Soviets came back a week later that person informed on him. To make matters worse, he had two brothers living in Canada and had been corresponding with them, trying to arrange an immigration hearing to allow him to bring his wife and son to the West. A few days after the Soviets “restored order” officers of the Államvédelmi Hatóság (the Hungarian secret police) dragged him from his home in the middle of the night and threw him in prison where they spent two weeks torturing him, trying to make him confess to being a spy. When he refused to “confess” they let him go… not because he was innocent, but in the hopes he’d lead them to any other “traitors.”
My father once told me – he was about seven at the time and the events of that winter are burned permanently into his mind – that my grandfather spent a week in bed recovering from what the AVH did to him. The day after he got out of bed someone (my father never knew who) warned my grandfather that they would be coming back for him. On Christmas Day, 1956, my grandfather took his wife, his son, and a suitcase full of black-market cigarettes to morning Mass. They walked in the front of their local church, walked out the back door and didn’t stop walking until they reached the Austrian border. There, he used the cigarettes to bribe a border guard not to shoot them in the back and slipped through the barbed wire in the middle of the night. Through the auspices of the Red Cross, they eventually reached Canada.
My grandfather died of cancer in 1984, my grandmother of advanced age in 2006. They had become Canadian and were modestly successful farmers. And for the rest of their lives they both lived in the perpetual fear that they never really got away, that “They” would kick in their door in the middle of the night and drag them from their home. My grandparents grew up in a world where the State monitored your actions, even your thoughts, and if those thoughts or deeds became unacceptable to the State, “They” came for you and locked you away and tortured you or had you killed. Fascists, Communists, it was all the same – the people in power cared more about their power than about the well-being of their people, and they would do whatever was necessary to ensure that power was preserved.
My grandparents’ story is, sadly, not unique. There were any number of places in the world where this happened — or is still happening. That kind of fear left its mark on my grandparents and my father, and so when he expressed his concern that I would get my name on “a list” I understood where he was coming from and what he meant: He had learned that the best way to survive in a place where your government viewed their own people as disposable was to be invisible, to do nothing to garner official notice. Get your name on a list and there’s nothing but trouble for you.
Ten years ago, I dismissed my father’s concerns although of course I understood where he was coming from. I was young, and free, and this was Canada. So what if my name got on a list? I wasn’t doing anything wrong. It’s easy to dismiss these concerns when you’re 25 and living in a country where the tradition is for freedom and democracy; Canada has always been a place where dissent has been tolerated, or even encouraged! Ten years later, it’s not that clear anymore. A little while back Adam Kingsmith wrote an excellent article detailing the changes in our country thanks to the Harper government… and that was before the whole “enemies’ list” scandal broke. That’s right: It turns out that there actually is a list… and I find myself rather hoping I’m on it, if only from my old “Damn the Man” instincts as an activist. (As a quick aside, one of my literary heroes is Hunter S. Thompson, who was mortified to discover that his name wasn’t on a comparable list authored by one Richard Nixon.)
Harper’s “enemies list” runs directly contrary to the image we have of ourselves as a nation: We’re not a country where politicians plot to destroy nebulous enemies, or where elected officials are openly corrupt, or where the police can kick in your door in the middle of the night for no reason… but the simple truth of it is that under the Harper Government we have profoundly less freedom than we did ten years ago. This government is, slowly but steadily, undermining the basic freedoms we assume we enjoy.
What I’ve been ruminating on is why their agenda is what it is, and why they’re going about it the way they are. Hyperbole aside, Stephen Harper and the grey little personality cult he’s built around himself aren’t Nazis. He’s not Hitler, or Stalin, or Pol Pot… Hell, he’s not even Adenoid Hynkel. There’s no deep and sinister motive behind any of this, no march to greatness or plans for world domination. Nobody is sitting in a leather wing-back stroking a cat and laying out the details of their master plan to a plucky band of unlikely heroes before activating the the Unnecessarily Slow-Moving Dipping Mechanism.™
No, the “why” is far more banal: it’s just about money. Stephen Harper is deregulating business and the legalizing the rape of our environment because big business wants to make big money. The policy of the Harper government is, was and always will be to turn Canada into a third-world-style resource extraction economy… and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the average Canadian is not benefiting from the extraction of our resources. Stephen Harper isn’t a James Bond villain – he’s just an amoral politician who’s found a way to game the Canadian system to maximize profit for his rich buddies, who in turn give him the ego-stroking self-image of the Important Politician™ he so craves… and deep down he’s got to know that they’d throw him under a bus the instant they got a better deal from somebody else.
In order to keep himself in his beloved position, Harper has surrounded himself with self-interested, hyper-partisan bullies like Dean del Mastro or John Baird who can be depended to prop up his government no matter what it takes. The various low-blow, mud-slinging, anti-democratic antics they’ve gotten up to – including this asinine “enemies list” — are merely symptoms of the kind of mindset which would deliberately ignore any sense of actual responsibility to their constituents while simultaneously mouthing pious lies about “Traditional Family Values” and “What’s Good for Business is Good for Canada” and whatever other bullshit they come out with. The increasing amount of government control being extended over our lives stems from greed combined with arrogance – they’re doing it, they want to do it, and that’s enough reason; The people in power are simply enamoured of being in power, and outraged by any suggestion that they might not deserve to be in power… and they’ll take what steps they need to preserve that power.
So yeah, they’re not particularly evil… but then, I can’t help wondering if the people who tortured my grandfather in 1956 were particularly evil, either. The study of history removes certain comforting illusions about human behaviour and if there’s one thing that the 20th Century proved it’s that people can be led, step by not-particularly-evil step, to some very, very bad places. I don’t think that Stephen Harper and his cronies are trying to put us on that path… but I look around and see that we’ve taken the first steps down it, all the same.