Constitutions, even if carefully structured, are not self-enforcing. If the majority’s will is to violate a minority’s rights, eventually the mob will prevail. Herein lies the primary threat to free speech in Canada. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms unequivocally proclaims a right to “expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.” Little by little, however, we have witnessed the undermining of this freedom with the voting public’s tacit approval.
Free-speech curtailment has proceeded under such guises as “hate speech,” “discrimination,” and “misgendering.” The Ontario Human Rights Commission, for example, has tasked itself with defining “transgender” and educating us on “the importance of pronouns.” To refer to someone contrary to his self-identified gender is now “discrimination” and illegal in Ontario. Since 2016, Quebec comedian Mike Ward has been fighting a $42,000 fine for an insensitive joke mocking a young physically handicapped singer. As reported by the National Post, a judge ruled the joke violated the singer’s “right to dignity, honour, and reputation, as well as his right to equality and to be safe from discrimination.”
The legal action against Ward is but one of many sanctions imposed on those who violate opaque and evolving speech codes. Journalist Ezra Levant has long been the target of a lawfare campaign over his criticism of militant Islam. In 2017, then-Minister of Heritage Mélanie Joly dumped author Christine Douglass-Williams as a director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation after she condemned sharia law. Union members and feminists have shut down men’s-rights events, and so-called hate watchdogs have deplatformed and blocked funding for nationalist commentators and political provocateurs such as Gavin McInnes.
Meanwhile, approved media enterprises are getting more taxpayer subsidies – including a new $600 million federal injection over the next five years – which crowd out independent media and incentivize conformity with the Ottawa narrative. The annual $1 billion for the CBC is problematic enough, but a further $75 million goes to the Canada Periodical Fund and $350 million to the Canadian Media Fund. On January 30, the federal Liberal government announced $7 million for “civic-literacy programming to help Canadians make informed decisions” in the next election, part of a plan to protect voters from government-defined “fake news” during the campaign.
Be the silencing and manipulation juvenile or sophisticated, public or private, the outcome is the same: a cloud of intimidation and self-censorship, confined discourse, and the degradation of liberal democracy. A widely held expectation of retribution leads many to flee from the crossfire. This unwillingness to either speak our minds or be associated with those who push the boundaries ultimately suffocates public debate, from our legislatures to our pubs and dinner tables.
Michael Chong, a 2017 challenger for the Conservative Party leadership, has long argued that there are “too many restrictions on free speech in Canada.” He favours comprehensive repeal of hate-speech provisions, not just in administrative law such as human-rights codes, but even in the criminal law. In Chong’s view, shared via email, “they generally get free speech right south of the border.”
Data Tells the Tale
Surveys show Canadians either never had or have lost respect for free speech. According to the Canadian Constitution Foundation, 60 percent of us support bans on “hate speech.” That climbs to 72 percent for speech construed as praise for terrorists or terrorism. A Vanderbilt University poll found that fewer than one in five Canadians perceive too little freedom for expression and the press. Only half support the right to “say bad things about our form of government.” CCF Executive Director Howard Anglin doesn’t see “the lack of enthusiasm for free speech” in Canada as anything new. What has changed, he says, is that support for censorship now comes mainly “from the left rather than the right.” This shouldn’t be surprising, he feels, for “free speech is most valued by those whose speech is being suppressed.”
Another way to gauge values is to assess pushback against censorship: action rather than talk. If any social institution might be expected to defend intellectual freedom, surely it should be our universities. For almost a decade, however, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) has monitored free speech on publicly funded university campuses and found blatant violations to be the rule rather than the exception. Only five of 60 assessed universities protect free speech, and the trend has worsened in recent years. Student unions have likewise become social-justice fiefdoms; not a single one received an A grade from the JCCF.
A handful of Canadian academics, including the University of Toronto’s Jordan Peterson and Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lindsay Shepherd, have garnered attention and disapproval for standing up for free expression, but the practical response from administrators has been little to nothing. The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship has documented how administrators push progressive agendas and stifle alternative views. Most campuses remain reflexively hostile to politically incorrect perspectives.
Of late there has been some political pushback. Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has threatened to tie federal post-secondary funding transfers to free-speech protections. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has actually done it, along with making student-union dues optional.
“The radicals of the 1950s and 1960s became the tenured professors, journalists, judges, and politicians of the 1980s, and they have now educated two generations of students, written two generations of books and reportage, and passed two generations of laws,” says Anglin. “The old rebels now command the heights of our culture.”
Not only are free-speech opponents a dominant plurality, they include aggressive, militant factions that seek to destroy the livelihoods of dissenters. As noted by one of their victims, Rick Mehta, a fired professor from Acadia University, we are in a “culture war that is taking place in universities all over Canada and much of the Western world.” Faith Goldy – a former Rebel Media journalist and Toronto mayoral candidate – has been a favoured target of the social-justice mob. They succeeded in badgering the PayPal and Stripe platforms into barring her from receiving donations. Later, Goldy lost a court action against Bell Media for refusing to run her campaign ads and had to pay $43,000 in legal fees. Her opponents, including the Anti-Hate Network, delighted in adding insult to injury as they pressured GoFundMe to shut down her plea for support.
Culture, Technology Circumvent Intimidation
In a recent interview with Maclean’s magazine, Chong asserted that “we need to find our way back to a pluralistic politics that puts freedom at the center of our society.” Elaborating in an email to C2C, Chong said “the challenge to free speech in Canada stems from an overly expansive interpretation of the harm principle”, which he sees as manifested in protections against hurt feelings. Anglin advocates free speech as a “neutral principle.” Conservatives should “defend even radical progressive speech with which they disagree…pro-BDS and pro-sharia law speakers must be permitted, as well as Lindsay Shepherd and Faith Goldy.”
Both principles are integral to the moral case for free expression, but getting Canadians to embrace this degree of liberty is a tall order. Still, if the problem is bottom-up, the solution is unlikely to be top-down. Government censorship is only one of many threats to free speech when it is a reflection of popular will or apathy. The scope and tactics of the censorship mob also necessitate resilient use of appropriate technology, culture, and even the courts. Free-speech advocates may be the minority, but with spine and groundwork they are numerous enough to oppose silencing efforts. They should take heart from recent additions to their cause such as Dalhousie University Interim President Peter MacKinnon, author of University Commons Divided (2018). He was attacked because his book argued for “proportionality” and restraint in response to “black face” Halloween costumes that grievance-studies students wanted banned.
Freedom-loving Canadians may also find inspiration from events in Costa Rica in 2013, when then-President Laura Chinchilla threatened to sue anyone who offended her on social media. The ploy backfired. Citizens heightened their criticism and ridicule using the hashtag #LauraLeaEsto (Laura read this), and Chinchilla backed down. She had no capacity to round up tens of thousands of Twitter agitators; nor does any democratic state. The beauty about this chain of events is that there was no need for seminars on natural rights. Rather, people led by example. They backed each other, enjoyed flexing their free speech, and were confident of their strength in numbers.
Even when social-media giants suppress content, increasingly there are alternatives to circumvent deplatforming. The market for free speech has generated competitors for Facebook (Mastodon), Twitter (Gab), Reddit (Voat), and YouTube (Bitchute and Brighteon). Gab, whose mission is “defending free speech online,” gave voice to Twitter-banned supporters of Jair Bolsonaro during his successful 2018 campaign for the Brazilian presidency. On decentralized platforms, such as LBRY, effectively no one has authority over who can share content. Crowdfunding remains vulnerable to suppression through the likes of PayPal and Stripe. One of their few peer-to-peer competitors is Side Star, which now hosts Faith Goldy, but it still is subject to the discretion of credit-card companies. Cryptocurrencies remain volatile and suffering from growing pains, but as their usability, security, and affordability improve they will enable more transactions outside the legacy financial system.
Many court decisions have favoured a right not to be offended, but the JCCF has demonstrated the efficacy of careful legal challenges – both in and out of court. Pro-life students at the University of Victoria in 2017, for example, mounted an elaborate display to make known the ubiquitousness of abortion in Canada. Counter-protesters took the display down as campus security stood and watched. However, just the threat of court action was sufficient to bring a change and protection from campus security in 2018. This is how a predictable legal system consistent with the Charter should work.
There are limits to speech, such as clear and present threats of or overt incitements to violence. The contemporary push for freedom from offense, however, is a path to tyranny, since its scope is endless and in the eye of the beholder, easily politicized. In the face of this attack, we must defend expression as a foundational liberty in the cross hair – a noble cause we can win. It allows the best ideas to rise to the top and deliver transparency to those in leadership positions. For those who fear antagonizing opinions, Chong counters: “Only through the disinfectant of…free debate [will we] counter the odious views of those who spew hatred. Otherwise, we risk driving these views and debates underground, where they will fester with unintended consequences.”
Fergus Hodgson is executive editor of Antigua Report and a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Follow @FergHodgson.