Canada Day, July 1, is a day for Canadians to show their pride in their country. I love my country deeply. I am very grateful to have been born here, and I chose to live here. But this Canada Day is less than a joyous occasion for me – because on June 30, a law was enacted whose content and history is an embarrassment to democracy in this country.
I’ve written a couple of previous posts about Bill C-377, which started out as a private member’s bill in Canada’s House of Commons in late 2011. The bill amends Canada’s Income Tax Act to require “labour organizations” to submit statements to the Canada Revenue Agency showing the details of every financial transaction they make with a value over $5,000, along with details of any salaries over $100,000 annually that they pay. They are also required to submit a statement estimating the amount of time they spend on “political activities, lobbying activities and other non-labour relations activities”.
This information would be made publicly available on the Canada Revenue Agency website. It’s important to note that the details of financial transactions could include the amount of the transaction and the details involving the union, and the details of the other party or parties participating in the transaction.
There are many articles on the Internet describing the selective interpretations of Parliamentary procedure that were used to push this bill through Canada’s House of Commons and Senate. It says a lot about the poor quality of this bill that procedural manipulations were necessary for it to receive the approvals needed to become law. However, what I want to focus on in this bill’s enactment is the shameful disrespect for expert opinion and the apparent dominance of party loyalty over responsible decision-making.
One of the fundamental principles of good government is that elected and appointed representatives should make reasoned decisions based on factual information. In assessing the merits of Bill C-377, a reasonable question would have been to ask: who supports this bill, who opposes it, and why?
Only five organizations have consistently expressed public support for Bill C-377: Merit Canada, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), the Canadian LabourWatch Association (LabourWatch), the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and the Independent Contractors and and Business Association of British Columbia. These groups frequently speak out on the same issues, with the same perspectives, and are also connected with each other through such networks as board directorships (for example, there are members of Merit Canada and the CFIB on LabourWatch’s board).
The messaging from these groups emphasized “openness” and “transparency” as reasons that Bill C-377 was needed, without ever clearly explaining why it was only labour organizations that needed the level of disclosure the bill was proposing. And some of the statements of support from these groups contained questionable information, such as this assertion from Merit Canada that “most union members are in the dark when it comes to how union executives spend the billions in dollars in dues that members are compelled to pay”. This article explains why that statement is incorrect, along with identifying many other problems with the “openness” and “transparency” arguments.
Here are some of the organizations that publicly opposed Bill C-377, and the reasons why they opposed it.
- Canadian Bar Association: concerns about unjustified infringement on personal privacy
- Canadian Labour Congress: concerns about unconstitutionality and about unreasonably discrimination against unions
- Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association: concerns about transactions in group plans involving unions that could disclose financial information of individuals without any connections to labour unions
- Investment Funds Institute of Canada: concerns about similar disclosures related to mutual funds transactions
- Daniel Therrien, Privacy Commissioner of Canada: concerns about whether public disclosure of information around unions’ financial transactions is an appropriate method of accountability. (Similar concerns were expressed by Jennifer Stoddart, Therrien’s predecessor as Privacy Commissioner.)
- National Hockey League Players’ Association: concerns about disclosure of details around licensing and marketing agreements
This is not a complete list of those who opposed Bill C-377 (a Google search of “organizations opposing Bill C-377” will show you even more). But compare even this partial list to the list of organizations supporting the bill. One is a small interconnected group of organizations making identical claims. The other is a diverse group of independent organizations, each expressing specific and different concerns based on their area of professional expertise.
Canada’s legislators should have been concerned about that wide range of criticism of the bill – particularly from those organizations that are anything but crazed political agitators. But when it came time to vote on the bill, following directions from one’s political party was apparently more important than respecting expertise. That’s the only explanation I can think of. I don’t want to believe, and I can’t believe, that so many of Canada’s Senators and Members of Parliament are incapable of telling the difference between strong, factual evidence and a weak, poorly reasoned argument.
The debacle of Bill C-377 becoming law is already being framed in various bi-partisan ways: Liberal party vs. Conservative party, “get rid of the Senate” vs. “keep the Senate”, “greedy union bosses” vs. “ordinary Canadians”. (For the record, I don’t think passing this bill alone is enough of a reason to get rid of the Senate.) But what’s most important in this story is that both reason and facts were ignored to get Bill C-377 passed. The majority of Canada’s elected and appointed legislators ignored professional, expert evidence to enact a piece of legislation that doesn’t solve any problems and has no reason to exist. That’s sad – and it’s disgraceful that Canada’s system of democratic governance was abused to achieve that outcome. And that is why I’m not as happy as usual about my country on this Canada Day.