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Losing respect long before Senate stunt

Those who oppose the Harper government – a sizable and growing contingency – have adopted Brigette DePape as their new poster girl.

DePape is the 21-year-old former Senate Page who held up an octagonal sign bearing the message “Stop Harper!” during the June 3 Throne Speech. She managed to do so for about 20 seconds before being escorted from the chamber and subsequently sacked.

Those who miss the point decry the move as disrespectful. Some of the law-and-order types – the ones gunning to spend tens of billions to house the perpetrators of unreported crimes – tried to spin the story as a security breach. But most of us saw it for what it was: a young woman with the guts to make a statement in the midst of the powerful and privileged.

She exercised her democratic right to express her opinion, paying a price for her act of civil disobedience.

Her statement falls well short of the kind of thing we’re seeing in the Middle East and North Africa, where people have been putting their lives on the line to end the rule of oppressive regimes. We’re not in that kind of state here, though successive governments have adopted policies that are lowering the standard of living for middle-class Canadians while restricting our freedoms. That’s something worth protesting, and many more of us will need to do so to prevent further sliding.

To be sure, we’re democratic on the surface. And we don’t live under the kind of oppressive, dictatorial regimes seen in the Middle East, though the West is much to blame for the state of those nations. But our democratic freedoms are always imperiled by our own complacency, allowing power-hungry politicians and greedy corporations to wield increasingly more influence over our system of government.

It’s no wonder we’re losing respect for institutions such as government, big business, the legal system and, truth be told, the media.

Fewer than 40 per cent of Canadians trust the legal system, for instance. That number drops below 30 for business and union leaders, as well as the media. It’s lower still for government, with trust for politicians typically hovering in the 10 per cent range, pretty much at the bottom of the list.

In the 1960s, 80 percent of Canadians trusted governments to ‘do the right thing’. These days, the level of support has fallen to less than 30 per cent, according to research by University of Ottawa Professor David Zussman, who holds the Jarislowsky chair on management in the public sector.

Most Canadians distrust government and big business and their cynicism towards politicians is increasing, he found in a widely-published study from 2005. According to his research, trust in government has plummeted from a high of 58 per cent of Canadians in the late 1960s to only 27 per cent in 2005 who state that they trust government always/most of the time.

People in “help positions” are viewed as having high ethical standards compared to those in politics and big business. Some 78 per cent of Canadians rate NGO volunteers as having high ethical standards, followed closely by doctors and scientists. Forty-five per cent rate civil servants as having high ethical standards, whereas only 25 per cent say that of big business executives and a mere 21 per cent say that of politicians.

There’s something intrinsically Canadian about deferral to authority. We’ve long assumed government, business and other institutions are doing what they’re supposed to do. Add to that an increasing sense of disconnectedness and shrinking sense of community and you have a recipe for a world in which few in power are looking out for your best interests.

Instead, they’re looking out for themselves, and their wallets. That much is clear in figures released last month by Berlin-based Transparency International, which looks at a broad range of corruption issues, ranking countries accordingly. For 2010, Canada comes in at number six, behind Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore in the top three, and Finland and Sweden as four and five. For comparison purposes, Germany was 16th, the UK number 20, the U.S. 23rd and France rounding out the top 25.

The 2010 rankings show nearly three quarters of the 178 countries in the index score below five, on a scale from 0 (perceived to be highly corrupt) to 10 (perceived to have low levels of corruption), indicating a serious corruption problem. The corruption involves all facets of the society, including government and business.

Although scoring relatively well, Canada was cited for weak legislation and poor enforcement in matters of corruption, falling in that regard over the past few years. Much talk about the law-and-order agenda, but little action on what would have an impact on corporate interests.

For the government to speak of Brigette DePape as disrespectful is more than a little disingenuous. I’d wager more Canadians have respect for her actions than for the politicians questioning her stance.

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