In the midst of a pandemic, combined with a period of civil unrest and political uncertainty, it is easy to take our eyes away from some of the fundamentals that define a democratic society. But it is dangerous to do so.
One of those fundamentals is freedom of speech, the right to express yourself and say what you believe. There are limits of course. Hate speech is not only wrong, it is illegal. Libel and slander can cost you a lot of money. But to have an opinion contrary to the status quo, to express viewpoints that may not be currently popular, to stand for things that you believe in, is not illegal and is not wrong. In fact, in a democratic system it is necessary.
Recently, a friend of mine, a former journalist, an accomplished writer, and very much in the centre when is comes to politics, said this to me: “Whatever happened to freedom of speech in this country? And where are their supporters? Obviously (they are) afraid to speak up because of social media and left-wing crusaders.”
In this instance, my friend was referring to the removal of Stockwell Day, a former right-wing politician, as a commentator on CBC television’s Power and Politics. Neither of us are particularly a fan. He expressed the opinion that while there was racism is Canada, he did not believe that most Canadians were racists and he did not think it was a systemic issue here. He may well be wrong but it is also wrong, in my view, to say he cannot express his opinion.
In recent weeks, three other individuals with media connections have been suspended or fired for speaking out in a manner that was considered politically incorrect under current circumstances. These include Wendy Mesley, a veteran and highly respected news commentator for the CBC, who apparently used an inappropriate word when meeting with her editorial team. It also included that well-known curmudgeon, Rex Murphy, who questioned whether racism in Canada was at the level of being systemic, and Jessica Mulroney who got into an email argument about white privilege with another journalist.
It is true that, with the probable exception of Wendy Mesley, these people are to the right of centre. But while my friends on the left of the political spectrum (and thankfully, I do have friends on the left), may not be too upset with these folks being shuffled out of the way, I urge you to remember that the pendulum swings both ways. What goes around comes around.
The issue here, in my view, is not whether these people were right or wrong in what they said, but rather whether they had the right to express their viewpoint. As the well-known phrase attributed to Voltaire goes, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Because we are, for a variety of reasons, living in fragile times, it is important for people to guard against the erosion of basic rights and freedoms as we go about the business of change and reform. Freedom of speech and the right to express an opinion are chief among those things that must be protected.
When we allow the fundamentals of democracy to slip or to be eroded, we risk autocratical government. Autocrats have come from both the left and the right when society is vulnerable. People who are interested in understanding history, rather than rewriting it, will know this.
That is why, especially during the period of turmoil we are going through, it is important that Parliament be in full session. Accountability and oversight are essential in ensuring that full democratic. principles are adhered to. The prime minister himself has said this but he is not practising it. That is a concern.
Recently Justin Trudeau stated that politics got in the way of actually helping Canadians and that he thinks we need to reflect on that. While that can be taken as a bit of a threat and when you think about it, is a little scary, we certainly should reflect on it.
The prime minister is upset because Parliament did not rubber-stamp a bill he wanted to push through Parliament. He did not want oversight. He did not want accountability. He just wanted them to do as they were told. That is not their job, it was not what they were elected to do, it is not helping Canadians and it is a clear indication of what the prime minister really thinks of Parliament. We need to reflect on that.
Parliament is an important forum for free speech, for an ability to speak to power and for guarding against an erosion of democracy. It is well past time to bring it back.
I have reflected long and hard on this article. I recognize that the issues are sensitive, and many people will disagree with what I have written. I respect that. But I also think it is an important perspective that we need to think about if we value a democratic and free society.
To be clear, I believe we have traversed to a point where change is necessary in attitude and substance in many areas. There are serious racial problems in Canada. Black lives matter. Indigenous lives matter. We all should have equal opportunity and equal rights.
But as I have said before, we must not throw out the baby with the bath water. I do not believe that democratic principles like free speech, accountability and oversight need to be diluted or sacrificed in order to do what needs to be done.
Canadians are better than that. We must not let it happen.
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