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Stories undone June 11: Committee hearings

Bilbo Poynter

The pace in which laws are being challenged, re-written, scrapped or introduced right now by the conservative government is truly astounding. The government’s use of the omnibus bill, where a number of pieces of related legislation are introduced as one big Bill, is the main way this is being done. But a lot of the agenda gets set in the dozens of committee and sub-committee meetings of both the House and Senate.

Consider this disquietingly funny moment from a May 30th Standing Committee on Finance hearing on the dense but important topic of proposed changes to the Investment Canada Act.

Shortly after Steelworker economist Erin Weir began his presentation Saskatchewan Conservative MP Randy Hoback actually launched into – and this is a quote – “Have you, or have you ever been a member of the NDP Party?” in a line straight out of the red-baiting McCarthy hearings of the 1950’s, only substitute “‘NDP Party” for “Communist Party”. And just like the McCarthy hearings (whatever Hoback’s intention) the effect was to get far off track from the issue of changes to the Investment Act.

And these changes to the Act are important. According to the law firm Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg (hardly a bastion of pot-banging communards) the “apparent intention” of amending the threshold for direct acquisitions of Canadian companies by foreign investors is to, “to reduce the number of foreign investments subject to a general net benefit review under the Investment Canada Act.”

While committee hearings do get broadcast by CPAC, and there are sources of consistent news about all things Ottawa – the Hill Times, for instance – it all still can feel a little too “inside baseball”. And if you were in government and trying to push through controversial legislation this might be a state of affairs you would welcome. Hoback’s run at Weir, noteworthy at least because he was backed by the other members of the government on the committee, only got picked up that I can see by his Prince Albert riding’s local news site, while the changes to the Investment Act, making it easier for foreign companies to buy Canadian assets, has gone virtually uncovered by the media.

Angola rodeo or Angola 3?

The National’s Paul Hunter recently went to the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, or “Angola” prison. His reason for going? To cover the prison’s rodeo. Now it’s true the prisoners of Angola do stage a rodeo every year – and that’s interesting as it goes – but the whole time I was watching I was thinking that only a month before Hunter’s report human rights campaigners were marking an anniversary that also takes place at Angola.

Two of three men known as the “Angola 3” have now been in solitary confinement for forty years – the longest known stretch spent in prison isolation in the U.S.. Found guilty of killing a prison guard during an inmate uprising against conditions in the former slave plantation in the early seventies, the Angola 3 have filed a civil lawsuit against the state for prolonged, “cruel and unusual punishment” to be heard by the courts in 2013.

They couldn’t have been very far away from where the rodeo was being staged, and it wasn’t very hard to find information about their case. For me it was four or five items into a Google search for “Angola prison”, right after the official prison page, a page about the religiosity of the prison’s warden, and pages pumping the rodeo – which gave me the uneasy feeling that a message was being crafted here (Both the story of the Angola 3 and the rebranding of the prison were taken on by Jim Hightower in a Mother Jones article in 2011 – also available through the Google search.)

And the only CanCon I could pick-up in the National piece was a throwaway line about how Canadian officials are contemplating bringing the idea of a prison rodeo this way. But again, in light of the massive changes expected by the passage of Bill C-10 the more important question, seems to me, is should we expect prolonged solitary confinement in Canadian prisons of the type experienced by the Angola 3?

It’s not like Hunter doesn’t tackle hard topics – he extensively covered the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Who knows, maybe his crew were shooting b-roll and biding their time before bringing us the story of the Angola 3 at a later date? – I mean they were already down there.

As was mentioned last time, this blog will appear bimonthly, every other Monday, on I’ve now created a twitter account, follow me @StoriesUndone.

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