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Leslyn Lewis Is Testing Us

And hoping we’ll fail. Unpacking the Conservative MP’s call for Canada to leave the United Nations.

Crawford Kilian 8 Jan 2024The Tyee

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Leslyn Lewis, the Conservative MP for Haldimand-Norfolk in Ontario, has done us all a favour. By calling for Canada to leave the United Nations, she’s told us a great deal about her party’s plans for the next election. She’s also pointed out a real problem: the steady erosion, by right-wing parties and movements, of democratic institutions that bind us together at the international, national and even provincial levels.

A week before Christmas, Lewis sent a letter to federal Health Minister Mark Holland. It seemed like an obscure dispute: she criticized his response to an online petition protesting changes to the International Health Regulations that had been proposed at the 2023 meeting of the World Health Assembly. The WHA directs the activities of the World Health Organization.

Lewis argued that the amendments had been proposed too rapidly and would shorten Canada’s time for responding to them. She also asserted that the process would violate the World Health Organization’s own constitution.

Last year’s meeting was intended largely to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on WHO’s member states, and on their ability to meet the 17 Sustainable Development Goals laid out by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. These include no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education and gender equality. Many countries have made little progress since the start of the pandemic; the slow and uneven response to COVID-19 cost millions of lives. The WHA had invited member nations to propose amendments to help improve everyone’s performance in meeting the goals.

The WHA received over 300 proposed amendments, including shortened response times. No nation appears to have objected to the suddenness of the proposals or the shorter response times; the whole point of the proposals was to improve responses by member nations and by WHO itself.

Minor affair turns major

So far, this was a very minor affair in Canada — an opposition MP sniping at the health minister. But Lewis was preparing to turn it into a very big issue.

On Jan. 3, Lewis posted on X: “Over 60,000 Canadians have now signed a petition calling on Canada to protect our national sovereignty by withdrawing from the UN and its subsidiary organizations. The petition remains open for signature until Feb. 7.”

The World Health Organization is only one of many United Nations bodies. WHO’s budget for 2024-25 is just C$9.2 billion. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Canada’s health budget for 2023 was $334 billion.

WHO is a very small operation that does exactly what its member states allow it to do with the money the members agree to provide. Far from dictating to member states, it takes orders from them. (In 2010, to avoid embarrassing the UN and the United States, WHO was forced to deny that UN peacekeepers had brought cholera to Haiti.) The idea that it might encroach on Canadian sovereignty seems absurd.

The petition that Lewis supports explains a great deal.

Originally submitted by a person named Doug Porter in Burnaby, it claims (among other things):

... and the list goes on. The petition claims that sustainable development goals contribute to “damaging children,” “intrusive universal surveillance” and serving “the interests of UN/WHO and unelected private entities (e.g. World Economic Forum, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, International Planned Parenthood Foundation, etc.), while diminishing the health rights and freedom of Canadians.”

Code for anti-vaccination

Terms like “personal autonomy,” “physical autonomy” and “health rights” are used widely by members of the anti-vaccination movement, who claim we should be free to be vectors for infectious diseases like COVID-19, if we choose to be.

Porter’s petition as a whole is thinly camouflaged Trumpism, the kind that has imposed abortion bans and “parents’ rights” on many Americans’ sex lives. “Get the UN out of the U.S. and the U.S. out of the UN” has been an American right-wing trope since the heyday of the John Birch Society in the 1950s.

So it makes a kind of sense to parlay an attack on WHO into a call for withdrawal from the United Nations itself, an organization of which Canada was a founding member and which has saved us from countless wars over the past 75 years. Isolationists in Canada are few and far between, but Porter’s petition has brought together (as of Jan. 4) 67,307 signatures, including that of Leslyn Lewis, MP.

Indignation is the wrong response to Lewis’s call to abandon the UN. It’s more important to reflect on why a highly intelligent Conservative MP (one with a law degree and a PhD in international law from Osgoode Hall) would be the one to make this call, and to make it now.

The focus on WHO suggests that the Conservative Party of Canada under Pierre Poilievre sees a substantial part of its support among the anti-vaccination, anti-science right — and sees that support as a lot more extensive than we might imagine.

Poilievre was an early friend of the Ottawa convoy protesters, but as a smart politician he would have dropped them if they turned out to be too few to help him win power. Lewis’s anti-WHO, anti-UN call can be read as a kind of trolling of the Canadian centre and left. It also may attract some uncommitted centre-right voters.

The attack on democratic institutions

But Lewis’s attack on the UN also reflects a much wider problem in modern world politics. Institutions that helped us win the Second World War are now under attack.

Consider how Donald Trump cast so much doubt on the Federal Bureau of Investigation that a quarter of American adults now think the FBI organized the Jan. 6, 2020 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The U.S. court system is full of Trump appointees, and the conservative justices on the Supreme Court have enjoyed favours from billionaire friends. Public trust in the U.S. justice system has been gravely damaged.

But the erosion has harmed other institutions, notably health. Trump supporters believed his lies about COVID-19, and died believing them in greater numbers than Democrats. Public health agencies in the United States and Canada alike effectively shut down, or were shut down by their political masters.

“Public” health has become purely private decisions about protecting oneself and others. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith seems to have instructed Alberta Health Services not to mention COVID-19 or flu in messaging about vaccinations.

Pulling out of Confederation

Climate is another issue where provinces and states are pulling away from their federal governments. Alberta and Saskatchewan are increasingly baiting Ottawa about climate change. Saskatchewan is now breaking the law by refusing to collect the carbon tax.

In the United States, Republican-dominated states are going their own way, passing laws that violate any part of the constitution they don’t like. They’re also trying to extend their power beyond state lines, with laws threatening to punish women who leave their state to seek an abortion elsewhere. This is a close parallel to the 19th-century fugitive slave laws that allowed southerners to seize Black people in free states and return them to enslavement.

On the international level, the UN has been steadily weakened at least since George W. Bush invaded Iraq after lying in the UN about “weapons of mass destruction.” Since the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, the UN and its agencies have been obviously impotent to end the war, especially Israel. Scores of UN personnel have died, and all the UN can do is to tweet yet again for an immediate ceasefire.

In the late 1930s, countries like Japan, Germany and Italy quit the League of Nations when it criticized their aggressions against other countries. No one has left the UN yet, and Canada is unlikely to leave because Leslyn Lewis doesn’t like it.

But the UN could wither into a futile talk shop like the League of Nations if countries refuse even to be embarrassed when it criticizes them in non-binding resolutions. Its members might form new regional alliances or become clients of particular superpowers, and begin to plan for new wars the UN would be unable to forestall. Global programs for climate change, health, cultural exchanges and international law would vanish, or be taken up as billionaires’ philanthropic hobbies.

The path to power

Around the world, the right has grown more extreme and has attacked democratic institutions for a very good reason. Right-wingers know their ideology appeals only to a minority. They can never gain power and keep it in a democratic country.

But if they can subvert democratic institutions, make enough people question them or just surrender to apathy, the path to power lies before them in the form we call fascism. They will have the personal and physical autonomy to infringe on everyone else’s freedom, to punish their critics and set the terms of meaningless debates.

Lewis, who has greatly benefited from Canada’s democratic system, is now carefully testing it. If her attack on the UN gets too much pushback, she will demurely protest she’s been misunderstood, and her fellow Conservatives will praise her for daring to support unpopular ideas.

And if Lewis doesn’t get much pushback and enough people rally to her side, then her fellow Conservatives will join her in a mighty choir, rejecting not only the UN and WHO, but the whole idea of a democratic Canada.  [Tyee]

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