Greg Rickford in Stephen Harper's Ministry of Truth
In George Orwell's "1984", the main character, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth, where he “alters historical records to fit the needs of the ruling Party”. The Party is headed by an invisible personage known only as Big Brother.
In Orwell’s novel, the Party promotes an invented language called Newspeak, designed to prevent political rebellion by eliminating all words related to it. Even thinking rebellious thoughts is declared illegal.
In Canada today, we are seeing a revival variant of Newspeak, as well as a government headed by a shadowy figure.
Of course there are differences. Our "shadowy figure" has a name, and is visible as a physical person. He is the opaque and inscrutable Stephen Harper, who publicly reveals little about his inner workings and motivations, preferring to shape his appearance and his pronouncements around a carefully groomed "persona".
That carefully constructed persona manifests as a calm, emotionally neutral individual, who uses carefully modulated speech and makes constant reference to caring for "ordinary Canadians". No sudden or brusque movements, no intemperate language, no emotional intensity, no revelatory asides.
But it is in use of language that Stephen Harper, and the conservative government in general, have become the proponents of 21st century "Newspeak". In a burst of linguistic creativity, designed to cloak his hard-line, rigid and sometimes obviously ideological goals, the Prime Minister and his representatives have taken language manipulation to unusual lengths.
The first step in this transformation has been to perfect the art of avoiding giving answers. Phrases like "I won't get into the reasons for…" or "I cannot comment on that…" occur routinely in presentations by conservative leaders. When such pronouncements are challenged, the response is always to simply repeat them over and over – never to explain why an answer is being withheld.
The next step has been to simply avoid using certain words. Searching high and low through pronouncements by Stephen Harper and his associates, the word "environment", or it's even more pernicious cousin, "ecosystem", can almost never be found. In its place, words like "the economy", "jobs" or "prosperity" are used as mantras for all future developments on planet Earth. The planet itself? Well, it's not actually there – at least not in so many words.
Then there's the true Newspeak approach. This is where the real creativity comes into play. This means, for example, stating that when in a position of aggressive political conflict, the government is nevertheless a "willing partner". This means addressing intense controversies associated with the two recent Omnibus bills (C-38 and C-45) by stating that "we are proud of our achievements". The Harper administration is making politically-flavoured mincemeat out of the rules of normal discourse.
But there’s one problem. Unlike George Orwell's Oceania, the mythical nation headed by Big Brother and controlling the entire world, the Harper Conservatives control only a small area of the Earth's surface. Dissent and criticism can occur in parallel with pronouncements made by the government. Winston Smith, in Orwell’s work, is tortured into blank submission; no such thing is likely in Canada.
But that doesn't stop Harper and the pundits within the Conservative Party's inner circle from brutalizing the rules of language, and trying vainly to make black (or brown, or more specifically red) turn into white.
Some of the most dramatic examples of this kind of politically motivated wordplay occurred recently on CBC Radio, during an interview on The House, a program on Saturday morning addressing political issues.
Last Saturday, host Evan Solomon interviewed Greg Rickford, the parliamentary secretary for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan. The questions centered around the implications of the upcoming meeting, on Victoria Island on January 11, between Chief Theresa Spence, now nearly 4 weeks into a fast, and other First Nations leaders, and the Prime Minister and Minister Duncan and other high-level Conservatives.
Mr. Rickford used all of the techniques I have outlined above. When questioned about why the Prime Minister was now going to meet with Chief Spence, he refused to mention her name, instead referring to the "leadership of the Assembly of First Nations". When asked if Chief Spence's fast had influenced Stephen Harper to come to the table, Mr. Rickford quickly responded: "I won't get into the reasons for this [meeting]…" And when asked about the hugely controversial parts of Bill C-45, including opening up the rules governing how aboriginal land can be leased, and dramatic weakening of the Navigable Waters Protection Act, Mr. Rickford ignored the question and said "we are proud of our achievements in Bill C-45", rambling on about some paternalistic changes to education funding.
At no point did he allow that there was any connection between widespread First Nations' anger at Bill C-45 and the upcoming meeting. His comments were laced repetitively with phrases like "the economy", "prosperity" and "jobs for ordinary Canadians".
But when it came to finally admitting that a) Chief Spence actually existed, and that b) she was actually fasting, Greg Rickford met his verbal Waterloo. All the careful grooming with respect to the manipulation of language, obfuscation, denial and word substitution – the do’s and don’t’s of word gamesmanship – failed him, and failed Stephen Harper at this crucial moment. He paused, stumbled a bit, hesitated again, and then said, referring to Chief Spence’s fast as her "exercise…in limited caloric intake."
To tell the truth, at that point I grabbed a pencil and wrote down Greg Rickford's words. They belong in the history books.
This single turn of phrase illustrates, in an instant, the inherent will to do violence that underlies the the mindset of Stephen Harper and his government. To try and pretend – even for a moment – that Chief Spence, an experienced, knowledgeable and responsible community leader with no history of wild and irresponsible behaviour, would cease eating and risk death simply as an "exercise…in limited caloric intake" is an astonishing leap into the realm of unbridled and cruel disinformation.
I have used the terms "violence" and "cruel" deliberately. The linguistic style of the Harper government is visible representation of an unbroken pattern of fixed and unbending political goals, no matter what the human or environmental cost – goals that are rooted in his pronouncements while head of the National Citizens Coalition. In this worldview, there is no room for forgiveness, compassion or simple human generosity. There is no room for acknowledging the reality of other people's points of view. There is only a relentless process of denigration, marginalization and disrespect.
It has been said that Stephen Harper never admits a mistake, and never says he is sorry (the apology for the residential school system which he delivered in the Host of Commons has now been revealed as grandstanding). I suspect that at a personal level, this is untrue, and that he struggles with some measure of personal insecurity and doubt from time to time.
But when it comes to what he says in public, or what his carefully groomed and controlled representatives reveal in the words they are allowed to use, his need for hiding the most un-Christian hardness in his heart sometimes does him more harm than good.