Joe Howe must be spinning in his dark Camp Hill grave. As a champion of liberty, Howe would surely be appalled that our main political parties are celebrating democracy in Nova Scotia by handing out thousands of toques imported from China, a Communist dictatorship, and long-sleeved t-shirts from Haiti, where Canada, the US and France overthrew a democratically-elected president. “Our role is to promote democracy, to talk to young people,” says former premier Russell MacLellan, “not talk at them, but talk to them and get a dialogue going. As such, we’re using various things to do that and those shirts and toques are two of the items.” MacLellan was speaking as co-chair of a provincial campaign called Democracy 250. He and former premier John Hamm are being paid $40,000 each to head the campaign, which is being managed by members of all three political parties in the legislature. Democracy 250 is holding events in schools and communities this year to spread the good news that Nova Scotia was the first colony in Canada to win full parliamentary democracy. That happened in 1848. But the process leading up to it began in 1758 when Nova Scotia’s first House of Assembly met in a wooden building at the corner of Argyle and Buckingham Streets, a site since wiped out by that ugly brick pile known as Scotia Square.
“We had no idea these things were going to be made in Haiti or China,” MacLellan tells me. He emphasizes however, that the province is giving the t-shirts and toques away, not selling them. “So, because we’re giving them away, there’s also an obligation that we not spend a tremendous amount of money. We had to get a competitive price.” Provincial officials explained in interviews that Democracy 250 followed government procurement policies. Privately owned Canadian suppliers were asked to submit bids or tenders and the government picked the lowest ones. The suppliers then ordered t-shirts from Haiti and Honduras as well as toques and a variety of other trinkets from China, where Human Rights Watch points out that “the Chinese government continues to deny or restrict its citizens’ fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of religion.”
As for Haiti, a veteran local activist says she finds it troubling Nova Scotia would be distributing shirts made by workers earning sweatshop wages. Tamara Lorincz adds it’s especially troubling since Canada helped overthrow president Jean-Bertrand Aristide after he doubled the country’s minimum wage to $2 a day in an effort to improve living standards. “So we subverted and undermined democracy in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” Lorincz says, “and with this Democracy 250, we’re promoting democracy in Nova Scotia. It’s totally hypocritical.”
Lorincz points out that on February 29, the fourth anniversary of the coup in Haiti, 5,000 demonstrators marched to the presidential palace in Port-Au-Prince demanding that Aristide be allowed to return from exile in South Africa. The demonstration received little or no coverage in the Canadian media. Canadian news organizations prefer to report that Canada is trying to help Haiti, although in May 2006, CBC reporter Stephen Puddicombe acknowledged that Canada has a bad reputation among the poorest Haitians. The RCMP trained the country’s national police---the same police who murdered thousands in the Haitian slums after the US flew Aristide out of the country.
And now irony of ironies, we’re using shirts from Haiti and trinkets from China to promote Nova Scotian democracy. Former premier Russell MacLellan rightly points out that stores such as Wal-Mart are crammed with merchandise from China. Nova Scotia consumers seem happy to buy such low-priced goods. But at least people aren’t pretending that they’re doing anything more than buying things cheaply. Nova Scotia’s attempt to promote democracy using goods produced by poorly paid workers with few or no rights raises a fundamental question: How can anyone vote for provincial representatives who would participate in such a scheme?