Speeches | Erosion of Freedom of Speech

27 April 2010

Debate of the Senate (Hansard)

April 22, 2010

Honourable senators, I want to address the erosion of the freedom of speech inquiry that was presented by a number of our colleagues on the other side. I will begin by saying that it was eloquently presented; there were excellent speeches and great research. At one point, Voltaire was quoted. That is heady stuff. It gives an important issue a significant philosophical, high-minded ring.

However, I am not buying that this freedom of speech inquiry comes from where it seems to come from. There are a number of reasons for that doubt. First, I am not even certain that anyone's freedom of speech has been offended. If one listens to the debate and reads what is happening in the media, it all seems to comes down to the "fact" that somehow the right to freedom of speech of Ann Coulter was offended because of a letter written by the provost of the University of Ottawa.

In reading that letter, there is little in it that in any way, shape or form can be construed as limiting someone's right to freedom of speech. The provost is not a police officer. He did not threaten to throw her in jail. The provost is not some powerful official of the Conservative government who can threaten to throw her out or stop her from coming in. The provost did not cancel the booking of the room.

The university and the city supplied people to protect her. Ultimately, it was not the provost, the university or the police who made the call to cancel the speech; Ann Coulter and her organizers did.

It was perfect politics for her. She is famous for being famous. How much more famous can you become than to be shut down on a speech, if you can somehow construe it that way?

I look at that letter and ask how, in any way, shape or form, did the provost curtail her freedom of speech? She could have spoken if she had wanted to. Then the argument was that students were yelling at her, and they were doing so, said someone, because the provost's speech inflamed them. Did honourable senators read the letter? The provost uses calming language, unlike Ann Coulter's language, which is not calming at all. Might they have been yelling about her language in anticipation of hearing more of it? Of course, they were.

I am not buying that there is any threat to freedom of speech. I think we have a straw person happening over here and I wanted to know exactly what that is so I began to analyze it, and there is more to this issue.

If this government was worried about freedom of speech, let us look at all the ways in which freedom of speech has been offended by this government relatively recently, as has been pointed out by senators on this side.

For example, let us talk about Linda Keen. She was right about the nuclear safety issues at Chalk River. She was right, and what happened to her? She was fired. The man who was wrong — the minister — kept his job. The woman who was right was fired because she would have told us the truth about something that was critical for our safety. It turns out she has been vindicated. It was shown that she was right. That example is the first one.

Why did this government shut down Linda Keen? I guess the difference is that the government did not agree with what she wanted to say. However, freedom of speech means she is able to say what she wants to, even if others do not agree with it.

The second example is those organizations that have taken positions the government does not like. I am thinking of KAIROS. KAIROS is a classic example of a perfectly legitimate non-governmental organization talking about perfectly legitimate issues, working with perfectly legitimate groups. The government does not like them, so the government shut them down. That act is a curtailment of speech. That act was not a letter from the provost; the government shut down an organization in critical ways. The acts are fundamentally different, and fundamentally way worse.

Third, we have Richard Colvin.

Richard Colvin did what he was supposed to do. He was a whistle-blower, which Conservatives wanted to support in their legislation. The man has great courage. The government attacked him when he came out with what is becoming more and more obvious as the truth and which they government knows is the truth, because the government can read the documents and no one else can — which brings me to my next point. Richard Colvin is also having trouble having his legal fees paid. I can go on. That example is the third.

Then we have Environment Canada public servants. Climate change is one of the most important issues facing this country, if not the most important. Suddenly, the amount of times that Environment Canada personnel, scientists, are able to speak has dropped 80 per cent since the Conservatives have been in government. The government has shut down the scientists in Environment Canada, scientists who were always allowed to speak before to help explain research to Canadians, Canadians who pay their salaries.

The next example is the redacted information on the detainees, one of the most important pieces of information that we have seen, and one of the most important issues facing us in terms of human rights. This issue affects our status in the world as a country that does things as they should be done and treats people as Canadians do. The government shut down the information. Under the concept of freedom of speech, Parliament should get that information, but not according to the concept of freedom of speech under this particular government because it has a limited view of what freedom of speech is.

Again, it is okay to have freedom of speech if the speaker agrees with the government but not if the speaker does not.

Then we have the rights of Parliament. We have had Parliament shut down in an unprecedented way, both historically at a national and international level. There have been two prorogations. These houses are the symbols of free speech. The symbols of free speech were shut down and jammed because information was about to be revealed that the government did not want to hear because it was embarrassing.

Then there is George Galloway. Mr. Galloway wanted to talk about his anti-war views. They were not consistent with the government's agenda, perhaps, but he had a right to speak them. Not so: he was not allowed to speak and prevented from entering the country.

These issues are not about a letter from a university provost, who has no authority to do anything by way of throwing someone out, shutting them down or telling them to stop. These are examples where freedom of speech has been curtailed by a powerful government that has husbanded power and exercised it in a way that many Canadians have never seen before — ruthlessly, in many cases. That is what happened in these examples.

On one side, we have a government that is not fussy about freedom of speech when it comes to talking about nuclear safety in Canada; when it comes to talking about Middle East issues with groups that work on them; when it comes to artistic expression because they did not want to fund films because they had not seem them; when it comes to public servants saying something the government might not like them so say, although what they are saying happens to be based on science; or when it comes to hearing what Parliament has to say if it can possibly be avoided. The government does not want to hear all those discussions, so they shut them down.

On the other hand, Ann Coulter's freedom of speech is promoted. She has a right to speak, but let us see where this government lines up. It jumped on her bandwagon to help make her famous for being famous. What did Ann Coulter have to say? This statement bothers me because I am from Alberta. In Calgary, she said Alberta should be the fifty-first state. The government supports her, but does not support KAIROS, Linda Keen or Richard Colvin. Ms. Coulter also told a Muslim person in the crowd not to fly; that if this person cannot get on a camel, then she should use a magic carpet. That is appalling.

If Ms. Coulter had said something like that about Israel, the Jewish people, Chinese people or any other group, do honourable senators think the government would have promoted her freedom of expression? No, it would not have. I know that for a fact.

This government has the worst record on access to information. It is appallingly bad.

An Hon. Senator: And on the Court Challenges Program or the Status of Women.

Senator Mitchell: Honourable senators, I have to take a deep breath; the list is too long.

I do not think Ann Coulter's rights to free speech were offended in any way, shape or form. It became loud and a little difficult for her, but she brings that on herself and it makes money for her. I am sure she was happy for the attention.

I do not think this government has defended freedom of speech in the way they say they have. That fact is evident.

Why is the government defending Ann Coulter? I do not impugn the government's motives, but I think the reason is pure political tactics. This government wants to create spin. The government has a terrible record on freedom of speech and now drapes itself in the freedom-of-speech flag on something totally extraneous. It then leaps from that issue to pursuing our human rights commissions.

Honourable senators, I want an inquiry. However, that inquiry must call Linda Keen, Richard Colvin, Professor Ned Franks and George Galloway. Let us work on freedom of speech in a way that will make this government feel uncomfortable because that work shows we actually care about freedom of speech.

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