© 1998  Karen Selick
Let’s Pierce the Government Veil
An edited version of this article first appeared in the March, 1998 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Let’s Pierce the Government Veil

Several Doukhobors in B.C. have become the latest group to announce that they will be seeking compensation from the government (federal or provincial—they haven’t decided yet) for grievances dating back many decades.  They allege that between 1953 and 1959,  Doukhobor children were snatched by police and interned in distant government schools.  Their only offence was that their families had refused to enroll them in the public school system—intolerable behaviour in the eyes of the then government. 

Doukhobor spokesmen say children were hunted down with dogs and pitchforks.  Doors of houses were smashed in.  Once institutionalized, the children were abused.  Children were sent to bed with broken limbs and no medical attention.

If these allegations are true, it’s clear that serious injustices occurred.  As an abstract principle, the victims of this treatment surely deserve compensation.  What does not follow is the attempt to concretize that abstraction by exacting compensation from today’s taxpayers. 

Many of those now being asked to foot the bill hadn’t even been born back in 1959.  Others were mere children, too young to vote the government out of office even if they had known of the outrages taking place.  Still others were residents of foreign countries who didn’t immigrate to Canada until later.  Many Canadians had voted against the governments in power during those years .   Others who might have voted for the reigning governments initially would never have sanctioned such actions if it had been in their power to stop them later.

Add up all these segments of the tax-paying population and you might well find that a majority of the people who would now have to bear the burden of this compensation claim are innocent of even the tiniest share of blame for the offences.  Forcing them to pay would not be righting a wrong.  It would just be shifting the wrong from one group of victims to another. 

The new victims, the taxpayers, will be so numerous that the injury to each will be diffuse and easy to ignore.  Some will shrug it off with Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous platitude:  "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society," oblivious to the ironic truth that what they’ll be paying for here is precisely the opposite—the uncivilized behaviour of the very persons charged with ensuring civility. 

The number of people claiming compensation for government misdeeds in recent years is astonishing.  A search through the Canadian Press data base reveals literally dozens of unrelated claims.   Clearly, many Canadians have suffered physical, emotional and financial injury at the hands of the state.   If they all receive compensation out of tax money, we’ll witness the ludicrous spectacle of victims compensating other victims.  Japanese Canadians who suffered internment and expropriation during World War II will be paying compensation to recipients of tainted blood, who in turn will compensate David Milgaard, who will pay sexual assault victims at government reform schools, who will pay the Dionne quintuplets, who will reimburse early Chinese immigrants for the head-tax, and so on ad infinitum. 

This absurdity has its roots in the acceptance of collective responsibility for misdeeds which were conceived and implemented, as all human action is, by specific individuals.  The government is not "us".  It is rather a tiny subset of individuals chosen from among us.   These people are expected to know right from wrong.  Their job is to enact and implement a system of laws that protects the rights of citizens.  If they choose instead to exercise the coercive powers of government to violate the rights of citizens, it is they, not innocent bystanders, who should be held accountable—first, for not doing their jobs properly and second, for the harm they’ve caused.

We’ve had it backwards for centuries.  We’ve allowed successive bands of so-called statesmen to occupy our legislatures, inflict or at least preside over one injustice after another, then walk away free of all responsibility for the damage they’ve done, basking in praise for having served society, pension cheques swelling their bank balances.  The worst that ever happens to them, no matter how badly they’ve harmed their country or their countrymen, is that they don’t get re-elected. 

It’s about time we re-thought this.  We’ve been "piercing the corporate veil" for years.  Why not the government veil?  Why not trace the financial liability for genuine government wrongdoing back to the individuals who actually formed the government at the time of the transgression?

If making politicians pay for their blunders would discourage people from seeking public office, or from doing much while in office, so much the better.   This might be the shock treatment they need to make them realize they are there primarily as guardians of our liberty, not meddlers in our lives.

The easier we make it for people to collect compensation by taking it out of the common pot so that the new victims won’t notice, the more such claims we will encourage.  The more we discourage individual responsibility among our elected representatives and their employees by shifting the cost of their malfeasance to the taxpayers, the more such violations of rights we can expect to occur.


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June 18, 2000