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article imageOp-Ed: Canada's top civil servant called student protesters Brownshirts

By Ken Hanly     Jan 25, 2016 in Politics
Ottawa - Michael Wernick, newly appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as Clerk of the Privy Council, Canada's top civil service position is already in hot water for statements he made about protesting students.

This 20-minute student protest shut down today's meeting of Carleton University's Board of Governors.

Posted by Nick Falvo on Monday, March 30, 2015
Eight students were protesting during a board meeting that dealt with an increase in tuition fees. The students used megaphones to read statements making it difficult or impossible for some of the board members to follow what was going on. Nevertheless a vote was taken on the Task Force report that the board was considering.
A number of board members were angry at the process and wrote to the Board: Given that the 30 March 2015 open session of the Board was never adjourned and the Task Force report never debated nor properly voted upon, we are requesting that the Board reconvene for a special session for de novo discussions of the Task Force report. All Board members, including students, have the opportunity to speak as they see fit, possibly on behalf of their constituents, while the Board should enforce the ban on outside speech by visitors
Wernick, who is chair of the Governance Committee as well as a member of the board of Carleton University, replied with an email that compared the students with Brownshirts and Maoists:With all respect you really are missing the point here.The physical disruption and attempt to suppress the functioning of the lawful governance of the university by shouting down speakers and breaking up the meeting is the point. It has no place in a lawful democratic society – it is the tactics of Brownshirts and Maoists. It has no place in a university – it is the antithesis of free speech and open debate. What I would like to hear from the administration is what sanctions will be brought upon the disruptors and how it proposes to protect the peaceful lawful governance of the Board from being intimidated.
Certainly the protest was disruptive and is not really an issue of free speech. It is the type of disruptive civil disobedience quite common in protests in many countries including the U.S. civil rights movement, which often involved actions that broke segregation laws. Environmental and aboriginal groups often use disruptive tactics as well. It is a way of generating publicity for a cause, as many times it can eventually end up in contests with security officials and arrests. There is no evidence of any violence or threats of violence involved in this process as can be seen on the appended video. I cannot fathom why the board did not just call campus security and take a break until the protesters were removed. Eventually, the board did meet again and pass the Task Force report after discussion and hearing the different points of view as was suggested in the earlier letter to the Board.
The Carleton University Graduate Students Association explained the references to Brownshirts and Maoists: “Brownshirts” were the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party know as the Sturmabteilung or SA. The Brownshirts have have also been referred to as the Assault Division and the Storm Detachment. Unlike Brownshirts, Maoists are followers of the political theory of Maoism and may or may not advocate for violence. Aside from not at all addressing the concerns of the eight board members who wanted a new meeting, the terminology used by Wehrer is surely extravagant and even insulting to the students and a bit surprising perhaps in doing a bit of red-baiting as well. The normal response one would think would be to retreat a bit and admit he had gone a bit too far. Quite the opposite has happened in Wernick's case. He told the Carleton University student newspaper: "I have said everything I need to say in the email, which has been posted ... My position's quite clear."
Dr. Root Gorelick a professor of Biology, and elected to be the faculty representative on the Board, wrote on his blog that the students had engaged in "peaceful free speech and civil disobedience." He was critical of what he called over-the-top characterization of the students: "The protesters certainly did not act like the paramilitary contingent of Hitler’s Nazi Party, as suggested by Michael Wernick's brownshirt hyperbole. Michael Wernick and several of his supporters on the Board claim that they were concerned for their own physical safety, which is absurd. There were no threats of violence. As far as I can tell, there were no reports filed with Carleton's safety office about threats to personal safety arising from the student protest."
Last month, Gorelick faced demands for the university administration that he sign a confidentiality agreement and his blog posts were pointed out as being problematic. Wernick defended the administration's demands, saying "personal blogs that attack fellow Governors and university staff and dissent on matters the Board has decided are simply not consistent with the role of a governor." The administration action was condemned by the 68,000 Canadian Association of University Teachers(CAUT), who threatened to censure Carleton over its board's "lack of openness and transparency."
The Junction, a publication produced by Carleton journalism students, reports campus security has started to introduce "tightened screening for student journalists" at board meetings. This included compiling photos of student journalists from their social media profiles.
Last June, Carleton's Board of Governors tabled a motion that sought to remove student union representatives from the Board altogether. The Board Governance Committee, chaired by Wernick argues that student heads were in an irreconcilable conflict of interests since their duty to students would compromise their duty to the board. I always thought that students should be represented in a body whose decisions had considerable interest on their welfare as students. Students are important stakeholders in their own university education. You could argue that faculty representatives ought to be excluded as well since they represented faculty interests. Perhaps important local business people ought to be excluded too! Brandon University where I taught for years had 4 student representatives, 2 appointed by the government and 2 from the student union. We also had 2 faculty representatives elected by Senate, and an alumni representative from the alumni association. These groups are all significant stakeholders and if the university is to have a degree of democratic governance surely a variety of stakeholders should be on the Board of Governors.
I would be more concerned with Wernick's attitude to university governance and dissent than his particular description of a few disruptive protesters. How is it this fellow was overlooked by Harper? In the appended video Trudeau shows exactly the same arrogance as Harper by completely avoiding any discussion of the point made by Mulcair. As the Clerk of the Privy Council, Wernick's duty will be to provide professional non-partisan advice to Justin Trudeau on all policy and operational issues affecting the government. In response to Mulcair, Trudeau said that he is "very pleased to have Michael Wernick as the new Clerk of the Privy Council." Trudeau completely ignores the question. He acts exactly as Harper often did to questions but has a nicer hairdo and is younger.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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