Stephen Harper's communism speech

Harper, Communism and the lessons of memory

Paul Wells explains why Harper’s speech deserves a closer listen


Apparently these days it takes only 20 minutes to deliver a “lengthy” keynote address. Here’s the speech Stephen Harper gave in Toronto on Friday to organizers of a memorial to the victims of Communism: text here, video here. Here’s the website of the organization raising funds for the memorial. The Prime Minister spoke to their fundraising dinner.

Communism will be much on his mind these days. On Wednesday the Prime Minister will be in Warsaw for the celebration of Freedom Day, the 25th anniversary of the partially free June 4, 1989, elections in Poland. Only a grudging quota, 261 seats, were open to competition among non-Communist candidates that day; candidates affiliated with the Solidarity trade union won 252 of them. It was a mortal blow to European Communism. Poland’s embassy in Canada has organized commemorative events across the country over the next several days. And of course Vladimir Putin’s recent adventures in Ukraine cast a certain light on all these events.

Despite its modest length, Harper’s Friday speech deserves to be taken seriously. First, because he plainly took it seriously. He was saying things that have been on his mind. His prepared remarks for this speech repeat, nearly verbatim, parts of an interview he gave Maclean’s just after the 2011 election:

“Look, let me give you the two big threats of the 20th century. First, fascism. Canada, next to its big-three allies, played one of the largest roles in the world in the defeat of fascism, which purged the world of one evil, and obviously the most robust military engagement anyone’s ever been involved in. And then through a different kind of engagement, the long, sustained state of alert of the Cold War against Communism, the other great threat to the world and to our civilization. In spite of, quite frankly, the ambivalence of some Liberal governments toward that, Canada, in fact, remained engaged in that from the beginning to the very end … The real defining moments for the country and for the world are those big conflicts where everything’s at stake and where you take a side and show you can contribute to the right side.”

(Harper’s thinking on these subjects dates from long before 2011. In its themes, Friday’s speech also parallels one Harper gave to the Civitas group in 2003. I discuss that speech in detail in Chapter 2 of my recent book.)

Second, because it’s not devoid of political connotation; as I write this, the only news we have had from the federal Conservatives’ Twitter account today is four tweets about the PM’s Communism speech. Communist revolutions and expansionist adventures in Europe and Asia sent millions of people to Canada in waves throughout the 20th century. Those diasporas and their descendants vote, sometimes with a keen eye to the lessons of memory. The Conservatives are careful to speak to them.

But just because something wins votes doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The people who fled Stalin and Mao were right, the regimes they escaped were wrong and doomed, and their values have helped inform Canadian values. So Harper’s speech is worth considering.

The PM covers Canada’s role in the Cold War and in welcoming those waves of refugees. He notes “with immense regret” that “Canada has not always lived up to those high aspirations.” There follows a brief summation of Pierre Trudeau’s foreign policy as if penned by Bob Plamondon: “moral equivalency… blindness to the unparalleled crimes of Maoism… indifference in the face of the Communist coup against Poland’s Solidarity in 1981” and — and here the Prime Minister chuckled in disbelief — “the so-called Peace Initiative of 1984, not long before the Warsaw Pact collapsed.”

Here as always, the thing about moral clarity is that it is easy to be clear if one ignores contradictory evidence. Pierre Trudeau, and Lester Pearson before him and Brian Mulroney after, kept many thousands of Canadian troops stationed in Germany’s Black Forest — a much longer commitment of a much larger Canadian force than Chrétien, Martin and Harper sustained in Afghanistan. Trudeau was hung in effigy by protesters for permitting U.S. cruise missile tests in Canadian airspace. Nor did being on the right side with Harper endow major players with the guarantee of being right. Margaret Thatcher was certain Germany must not reunite. It may seem now that 1984 was “not long before the Warsaw Pact collapsed,” but I’m here to tell you it felt long at the time. Indeed, Ronald Reagan had time during the interval from 1984 to 1989 to get up to Reykjavik to offer total nuclear disarmament to Gorbachev, a stunt that would certainly have found its way into Plamondon’s book and Harper’s speech if Pierre Trudeau had thought of it first.

Canada fought on the right side during the Cold War. Successive governments (including, I am reminded, Joe Clark’s during the Vietnamese Boat People crisis) made enough right calls, on balance, to leave a record that can make us all proud. It is entirely fitting that the evil we and our allies sought to contain be commemorated in Canada today. And if the Conservatives translate their support into votes, good for them. But while it is always satisfying to say something like “We were right then, and we’re right now,” it’s best not to use that sentiment as a shield and risky to use it as a weapon. It’s more of a test, and the appropriate tone is interrogative: How much of what we did then was right? How much of what we do next can be?


Harper, Communism and the lessons of memory

  1. spare us your “rhetoric” Paul,
    How ’bout the “Tiananmen Square anniversary” -tell us how Harpo plans to “celebrate” that.

    • You don’t celebrate Tianemen Square…… highlight the reality that Communism was responsible for it.

      • While working hard to build a pipeline to get them our oil?

  2. Duck and cover everyone, the red scare is back but apparently communist China with its exploitation of its people and ready cash is acceptable as long as it serves the needs of corporate interests.

    Communism is neither inherently good or evil. Much of what was done in its name, by both those who enforced it and those who used it as a rational to suppress the legitimate aspirations of many who lived under brutal dictatorships throughout the world. Twentieth century history is replete with examples of the destruction of budding democracies by those much touted champions of anti-communism. A history which Stephen Harper has chosen to ignore in his latest tirade.

    • Budster wrote:
      “Communism is neither inherently good or evil”

      Thereby proving the “useful idiots” still about in the Great White North.

      What Stephen Harper chooses to ignore…….is the folks like you who think Communism is just another economic model.

      • My Stephen Harper would never support anything advocated by a “trade union” especially one called “Solidarity”.
        He’s swinging over to the more authoritarian, non democratic side of the political spectrum.

        • J.W.

          the “Solidarity” movement in Poland was not simliar to the unions we have in Canada. The Polish movement, was asking for freedom…..canada’s unions just ask for more freedom to pick our pockets.

          Learn the difference.

          • Solidarity was exactly what unions in the west are. It was independent of government control, fought for workers’ rights and social change and used civil resistance i.e. strikes to achieve its goals. Apparently conservatives learned from Poland that the collective action of unions can bring down a government and that’s why they fear them and are hell bent on destroying them.

          • budster,

            The members of “Solidarity” were oppressed under a Communist regime, it was under TOTAL government control….just like everyone else in Poland.

            the solidarity movement was NOT about demanding more money for themselves, it was for demanding more FREEDOM for everyone.

            If you do not understand that basic reality…….there is no wonder you are so confused.

          • Not only are you short on logic James, but history also seems to have eluded you as well. Solidarity was an independent union with 9.5 million members formed to fight for worker’s rights and change just as unions in the west.

          • Thanks James. I didn’t understand why the Conservative right in Canada and the U. S. want to take away long held union rights if not abolish them totally a la Kevin O’Leary.
            As you suggest, this has nothing to with freedom of speech or assembly or any other freedom sought by Solidarity.

        • Big news today. Harper Gov’t sends out request to all departments across Canada. Keep record of every Canadian involved in any demonstration against the government.

          • If you look closer, you’ll see it was demonstrations that involve violence, or people prone to violence. this is just prudent.

            Ask yourself what your reaction would be, if some of these eco-nuts, or violent aboriginal protestors sabotaged a rail line and people died? You would be the first one attacking the governemnt for NOT protecting against such acts.

      • Your so-called “proof” along with your assumption that you know what I think did the predictable. It led you to a false conclusion. Apparently what’s missing in the Great White North is the ability in some to use logic. However, personal attack in place of thinking and debate has obviously grown in certain quarters under Harper’s tutelage.

        • If it led to a false conclusion, Budster, then please enlighten me.

          Tell me……What is required (in your mind) to make communism work? Details please. (Wherever Communism has been tried, it not only comes with poverty, oppression, and economic failure….there are always mass graves somewhhere down the line).

          Tell us, oh wise Budster… can you make communism work?

          • If you don’t know that a personal insult is irrelevant in a debate, you certainly do need a course in logic.

            You obviously don’t know what the definition of communism is. The USSR was no more a communist state than the German Democratic Republic was a democracy. What counties call themselves, even democracies and what they actually do are two very different things. Those god-fearing, liberty loving Europeans (not a communist state among them) started the First World War over a power struggle that left 37 million dead. The US, with it’s liberty for all and the UK with its Magna Carta overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953, installed a dictator, the Shah and his CIA trained Savak who were very efficient at making the opposition disappear to protect corporate oil interests. After 29 failed CIA orchestrated coup attempts, the elected government of Guatemala was overthrown and a dictator was installed to preserve the United Fruit Company. Mass graves are still being uncovered in Guatemala and many other Latin and South Americas where US installed dictators and their CIA trained death squads operated.

            BTW China with its state owned and private enterprise is moving to become the largest economy in the world. It’s buying up natural resources and land all over the world, as well as lending vast amounts of money to western countries. Apparently it’s learned that building roads, schools and hospitals for the poor is far more effective than the old colonial way of grabbing the resources and exploiting the labour of less powerful nations at the point of a gun. Capitalism. as now practiced his spawned an ever widening disparity between the haves and have-nots not only nationally but world-wide. If you think that it hasn’t also spawned much of the unrest in the world, you’re dreaming.

      • Yes, as Budster says, let us not forget the laundry list of post-WWII “democracy building” exercises carried out by a certain North American superpower — exercises which included death squads, political assassinations and military coups — all in the name of capitalism, which is just another economic model.

        • If you think Capitalism is “just another economic” model…then clearly, you know NOTHING about economics.

          I’ll help you out.

          captialism…with all of its faults….is the ONLY system that has proven it works for the vast majority of people.

          • Really? Apparently, it didn’t work in 1929 and 2008 and is not working now unless you think that the top 1% who own as much as the bottom 3.5 billion, are the vast majority.

          • budster,

            Captialist countries are the strongest countries, the most free, and the most economically successful. The difference of course, is that those who live in these capitalist countries….need to make an effort; and even when they don’t, we look after them.

            As for the great depression of 1929, and the recession of 2008……here’s a tidbit.

            Even then, we were not enslaving people, nor executing them for being opposed to the Government of the day. Get that part….government of the DAY. you see, Bud…in capitalist countries, if we don’t like what is going on, we can throw the bums out. In Communist countries like China….they shoot you in the head and send your parents the bill for the bullet.

            As for your history lesson’s about American malfeasance….that has nothing to do with the economic model that has proven itself successful. You and I actually agree that the Yanks tend to be a little too forceful on occassion, and they do get their fingers dirty. But that has NOTHING to do with the guy who hangs up his shingle and goes into business on his own. I know you think it does…..but it doesn’t.

            As for those in the top 1%….they also pay most of the taxes in relative terms. If you are bitter because you think “the man” is holding you down…then get off your asz and do something for yourself for a change. If you want to earn the money Bill Gates earns, then by all means, create something that billions of people want which has changed the world. (for the better). If you want to live a more comfortable life, then by all means, formulate an idea or product that people will pay for. If you can’t do that….then suck it up princess and stop blaming successful people for your troubles.

            As for China…clearly you are in the Trudeau camp of admiration. You can be chinese, and be wealthy…..but only if you’re a member of the Communist party; which only inflicts communism on the masses. There are millions of chinese starving…..but as Communist countries control everything, you very rarely hear about it unless someone sneaks out a video. Hopefully, you are aware that the massacre of Tianenmen square could easily happen again today, because while the people of China are doing better using “Capitalist” methods…the Government of China will not allow them to challenge their rule. if someone tries it…..their parents will soon receive a bill for 13 cents.

          • “Captialist countries are the strongest countries, the most free, and the most economically successful.”

            In Europe in the 30s, two of the best performing economies were both fascist. Capitalism did quite well under them, and party bosses made out like bandits for their role as middlemen. And Africa is stacked with capitalist foreign corporations that have no qualms whatsoever about handing over a little baksheesh to the corrupt rulers and then getting down to business. Capitalism does not necessarily equal ‘freedom’…if not vigilant, greed soon takes over policy, as is happening now everywhere. Is there a better system? Probably not, but there sure has to be better ways to manage it because it is now incredibly unstable due to economic opportunities and benefits being enjoyed by a shrinking number of individuals and corporations.

          • More blather from the cow pasture, James. Anyone who thinks that 1 million dead, wounded and displaced Iraqis is “a little too much force” so the corporations can get their hands on the oil reserves, is kidding themselves. No doubt you also think it’s acceptable for corporations to make their profits by exploiting “those” people in foreign lands.

            The 1% pay most of the taxes? Please post the link and Mitt Romney’s or the the Teabaggers or Faux Snooze partisan hacks talking points don’t cut it.

  3. Yes, I agree with some of this, but let us also NOT forget “Tianem Square”, I have no doubt Paul is also an expert historian regarding that tiny-little-matter of history?

    • Well, I know that’s not how you spell it.

      • Burn.

  4. Mmm, well I’m afraid all you cranky ol’ white guys will just have to put the 20th century behind you and move on.

    No more ‘Groundhog Day’

    • emily….

      It was a bunch of cranky old white guys, for the most part…..who created the comfortable world you live in.

      Oh…and Maggie Thatcher.

  5. So pleased to read a good article on pm’s speech. I read it and listened to it and thought it was excellent. It seems we have quite a few monuments to the fight against nazism, and we should also have one to the horrors of communism. Reading the horrible comments (over 3000 of them) on the pm’s speech on the cbc’s comment section,it is obvious that already the younger generation is ignorant of these facts.

    • By all means, let’s continue to build monuments to remind us of the sins of others while we ignore our own sins. Will won’t be building one to remember the 800,000 Rwandans murdered while we ignored the warnings and sat back and watched? Will won’t be building one to the millions of the victims of climate change, the poorest of the world who contribute the least to it while we continue to destroy the planet? Or to the exploited and oppressed victims of corporate interests while we tout our moral superiority, support the despots who are richly rewarded for suppressing their own people on our behalf and brag about our economic growth and rising stock market gains achieved on the backs of those who are unworthy of our concern.

      We’ll continue to build monuments to serve our governments political ends and bemoan the actions of others while we allow communist China to buy up our natural resources and bring in their own workers to exploit them and continue to create victims of our own greed.

      • budster………….

        You need a few more layers of tinfoil. You’re leaking crazy again.

        • Well James, you’re nothing else, if not consistent. Apparently you best you can come up with is a trite personal attack. If you can’t debate an issue, the least you could do is try to be just a little more creative.

          • I’m not being “creative” whatsoever….I’m just pointing out the obvious. The fact you can’t see it, is your failing not mine.

            As for the Rawandan’s…..I do recall that just a few short comments ago, you were decrying the tendency of Western Nations to get involved in the affairs of other countries. Based upon your clearly anti-American / Anti-Capitalist bent…you would have been the first person on the bandwagon criticizing the West (and American in particular) for sending soldiers in to shoot the Hutu’s…who were to blame for it.

            Now, where are these “millions of vicitms” of climate change you describe? Where are the millions of corpses killed by heat-exhaustion, rising seas, and other dramatic examples of climate chaos. Oh..that’s right. Hasn’t happend the way we were warned it would.

            by the way….you do realize that these “corporate” interests you seem so fond of condeming are the same interests that give you cars, Tv’s, computers, fuel, heat for your house, the food on the table……and everything else you enjoy. Frankly, if it wasn’t for the people with “corporate” interests… may as well be living in Rawanda, because lord knows…countries without the corporate interests you hate so much are really not very nice places to live.

            Now..about that tinfoil issue of yours.

        • Thank you for mentioning Rwanda. What happened there illustrates my point that economic interests drive intervention. There were none in Rwanda. It would have been purely humanitarian so the world stood by and watched the genocide happen. 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in less than 3 months in full view.

          The climate change refugees are in Africa and their numbers will continue to grow as the effects of climate change become more severe or are you under the illusion that that it won’t? Maybe you even think that during the last ice age, humans who were affected by it just stayed where they were and died, rather than migrate.

          Based on your assessment of corporations, one has to wonder how man survived for 25 million years without them. Maybe you could explain that?

          Neither communism or democracy or capitalism kill. The ideologues who use them to justify their actions do.

          • The lack of interest in Rwanda had nothing to do with economic interests….it was due to the uselessness of International organizations to handle situations like that. The UN proved useless…..and if the States had gone in, they would have had to kill a lot of Hutu’s, and folks like you would be up in arms about it.

            As for African climate vicitims….sorry. Africans are the victims of African leadership. climate has nothing to do with it. Sadly, droughts and bad weather have been killing africans….for as long as there has been an Africa.

    • Bettie….I would agree with your comments, but we must remember the type of folks who bother to comment on any CBC media outlet.

      I know a lot of young people, who are actually quite bright……bright enough not to pay much attention to anything they read / see / hear from the CBC. If you take anything the CBC reports on at face value… may as well go to a Justin trudeau fan page for your information.

  6. Don’t know where it is, but there’s marvellous NP article out there blowing the theory that pet gutted the military right out of the water. His record over 16 odd years was around 2% of GDP on defense spending. Harper be lucky if he gets halfway there by the time he’s done.
    Jazus… even with the benefit of hindsight and the historical record Harper cant get close to the truth.
    Trudeau was far from perfect. Harper OTOH is a pathological partsan and liar.

    • You fail to mention that Trudeau (Senior) increased Canada’s debt exponentially….and the GDP in his time was far less than it is today.

      Harper on the other hand, is focussing on not only what the Military needs….but what the country can afford.

      And you will notice, the military gear Trudeau purchased….was all third line garbage, while Harper is buying the best available.

      • Harper has raised the debt level by $100 billion. In 2012 he cancelled the tenders for the armored trucks that his Defence Minister claimed were the top priority in 2006 to protect the troops in Afghanistan. The testing of lightweight artillery vehicle cost the taxpayers $70 million before he cancelled the contract. The Search and Rescue helicopter purchase has been dormant since he came to office. We’re paying twice as much for an icebreaker than we need to and the ships he ordered from his pals at Irving Oil are as well. He lied about the costs of the F35 which is yet unproven even though you claim it’s the best and the cost of them is spiraling upward every day. Harper claimed they were for much needed protection of the Arctic for which they are totally unsuitable. So far he has not announced any plans to do so except we now have stealth snowmobiles. They will be so useful given that the snow and ice are rapidly disappearing in that region.

        You’re definitely right, not providing the equipment necessary for our troops and blowing tax dollars is what Harper’s focused on.

        • Budster,

          Again, you contradict yourself. Just a few comments ago, you spoke about the recession of 2008. If you are not aware, Harper was in a minority Government and was basically FORCED to increase spending to stave off what was then considered impending doom. I didn’t agree with it…but there you go. By the way, he’s elimated the deficit, and we can now focus on the debt.
          The Search and Rescue helo deal was put on hold for a very simple reason. The company providing them agreed on a price, and after the papers were signed, they jacked the price up. They broke their word, so harper sent them back to try again. One should be glad (at least taxpayers) that the PM expects people to honour an agreement.

          As for the snow and ice rapidly disappearing in the Arctic… It’s not. Try and find some pictures, you’ll see the ice covers have broken records over the last few years….but if it floats your boat to say otherwise…so be it. You won’t however, be floating any boats in the Arctic any time soon though. too much ice.

          Now, go back and read what I wrote again. I specifically mentioned that harper will buy the best equipment, but only if the country can afford it. As for the F35…..that’s still up in the air. The truth however, is that we need to get an aircraft replacement soon, and the only real option is to buy American. May not end up being the F35…but I’m sure it will be American in any event. You don’t want to buy your aircraft from Europe…..because if things get hairy over there…the first targets will be military, and mlitary industry.

          • Stephen Harper inherited an economy from the Liberals, that served Canadians well when the global meltdown occurred in 2008. Paul Martin had reduced the debt and the there was no deficit. Harper chose to run adeficit in 2008 rather than call an election over it. There’s also no doubt that he, after claiming Canada would not be in recession or run a deficit, recognized that we were already in recession and stimulus money was necessary even though it would require deficit spending. It is rather amusing that after blaming the opposition for the deficit, the Cons are now claiming that Harper’s stimulus spending saved the economy and shows what a good economic manager he is. However, as I never mentioned the deficit, it’s obvious you don’t know the difference between it and the debt which I did note.

            It took him six years to decide to cancel the contract and btw, there is always a cost plus agreement when the product is not yet developed and to cover the purchaser’s requirements for additions and changes.

            Try googling and “Watch 27 years of Arctic ice melt away in 27 seconds”.

            The only real option is not to “buy just American” as replacement for our aging F18’s but whatever we buy will cost us more because no comparison was made prior to announcing the choice of the F35’s and Harper’s diddling since 2011.

          • Budster,

            We have another partial agreement on one point, but you may not like the reason why. The Liberals under Jean Chretien did get rid of the deficit, but you forgot to mention how they did it. I’ll give you the cliff notes version. The Liberals basically stole the REFORM party economic platform and enacted the policies they were running on. If you can’t beat em…join em.

            By the way, the REFORM party economic policies…the ones the Liberals stole and used to pay down the deficit….was created by a 27 year old economics student. That student, is currently the Prime Minister of Canada.

            If you want to thank anyone for getting the books in order while Chretien was in charge…thank Stephen harper.

            Oh yeah…..the same goes for the Clarity Act. That was another policy created by Stephen Harper, but only Chantal Hebert has had the guts to report on it. Chretien was offered the policy in the run up to the last referendum, and he soundly rejected it. After almost losing the country, Chretien changed his mind, gave it to Stephen dion…and the rest is history.

            Other points:

            Deficit: Balance at the end of the year.
            Debt: Accumulation of Deficits.

            Artic Ice……if you google “Bigfoot” you will also find the type of evidence you refer to. If however, you actually go up there and have a look, you’ll see the ice is just fine thank you very much. Oh…and satellite photo’s. There is more ice now, than there has been for years.

            let alone 27 seconds.

            Fighter jets. I should have clarified. The only “Sensible” option, is to buy American. If you choose and aircraft from europe…then you are a hostage to European interests; or wars.

      • Er…apparently you don’t know what percentage of GDP means, do you?
        And the topic isn’t economics here Einstein.

        • KCM2:

          The topic is ALWAYS economics.

          that’s why you don’t get it.

  7. Oooops! Wells gets his history wrong…Reagan did not offer Gorbachev ‘total nuclear disarmament’. T’was the other way round, and Reagan rejected it for admittedly ‘reasons of domestic politics’. In other words, he would have been called a ‘chicken’ back home. Gorbachev was well onboard with deep cuts, including the outright elimination of certain categories of nuclear weapons. It was the world’s best chance, and it was ignored solely for the concerns of a political party. Harper’s grasp of history is likely on a par with his grasp of ethics…no doubt tentative and highly subject to yet more domestic political considerations.

    • No fan of Harper me[ or Reagan], but i’d bet dollars to donuts that Well’s version of who offered what in Iceland was correct[ my dodgy recall of events supports Well’s assertion]. Dangerous move to call out a pro journo…course there are a lot around who aren’t pros.

  8. ” Nor did being on the right side with Harper endow major players with the guarantee of being right. Margaret Thatcher was certain Germany must not reunite.”

    This is why i like Wells, even though he irritates the hell out of me from time to time; mostly because he’s so coy about who he’s really rooting for. But he’s enough of an honest pro not to let that prevent him correcting political rhetoric and partisan gas baggery from whomever.
    Thatcher for instance is on record as once having said to pet that total nuclear war wasn’t as much of a clear cut, everyone loses scenario as conventional wisdom held. Apparently she assured him[ no doubt in her usual hectoring and pedantic school marmish way] that the planet would eventually recover from an all out nuclear exchange. Is it little wonder that a man as smart as Trudeau would feel compelled to do what he could while in office and embark on a fruitless peace mission, when faced with the latent idiocies that lurked behind the steely resolve of Maggy and Ronnie? That things ended as well as they did for the west and the world as a whole is at least as much as a result of the pragmatism of Gorbachov and the moral power of a Pope, who did know about the evil of total power, as it was the resolve of Harper’s card board cut out heroes. But there’s the rub. Two dimensional ideologues such as Harper never can grasp that the world is a very complicated place, and not often easily categorized as either just good or bad. He’s rather pull on his biggles glasses and pretend that but for an accident of history it would’ve been him up there is his Sopworth camel dueling with the red Baron, putting commies on the run and personally teaching old Adolph a lesson or two…wait something wrong with that. Which war we talking about again?

    • Fine for Maggie to talk, but had a nuclear war erupted between the US and the USSR it would have been fought over Canadian territory. As soon as those planes started flying north and south, we would have been toast.

      Sorry, I can’t picture Harper in a Sopwith Camel, his over-blown ego would never have fit in the cockpit.

      • If someone like trudeau Junior ever gets to be PM……..there is a great chance the air force will be using that aircraft again.