Free speech in Canada

Two heated public debates are taking place north of the 49th parallel these days, and broadly speaking, both debates pit progressives against conservatives. The funny thing is that the progressives are illustrating how it is possible to believe two mutually contradictory things at the same time.

Mark Steyn  and Ezra Levant, as well as the magazines they respectively wrote for and ownedwere the targets of complaints filed with various Human Rights Commissions across Canada, accusing them of publishing material that was offensive to Muslims. The Human Rights Commissions which were set up to protect the rights of minorities -- including it seems, the right never to be offended by something they read -- are not so zealous when it comes to protecting human rights such as the right to free speech and the right to freedom of conscience. Targets of the HRCs include a man who wrote a letter to the editor arguing the traditional Biblical strictures against homosexuality, and a restaurant owner who objected to a man smoking marijuana in the doorway of his establishment. 

Journalist Joseph Brean notes, in an article which provides a good overview of the HRC controversy,

"[i]f there is a pattern emerging in [these human rights] complaints, it seems to be that the complainants are frequently Muslims or progressives, and the respondents are frequently Christians or conservatives."

Defenders of the HRC counter that the Commissions uphold "human dignity." "Who ever said freedom of speech meant you could not be held accountable for what you say and how it might impact another person or group?" wrote the head of a provincial Human Rights Commission. 

Another fan of the Commissions asks

"Is a 19th-century English philosopher [John Stuart Mill] really the best arbiter of Canadian human rights standards in the 21st century? At the time Mill wrote [in favor of free speech], England was openly racist, sexist and anti-Semitic."

Okay. So apparently we are right to use the power of the state to repress speech deemed to be racist or sexist. Patrolling speech is something a civilized, modern, multi-cultural and tolerant nation should do.

Unless you happen to be a filmmaker facing the loss of federal tax credits which subsidize the film industry in Canada. The federal government is contemplating a new bill which will deny tax credits to a film "deemed offensive." The examples used are films that are pornographic or extremely violent. Please note: the government is not saying the film can't be made. They are saying the taxpayers won't have to subsidize it.

In this square-off between free-speech absolutists and the government, it's the progressives, like actress/director Sarah Polley, who declared

"It's the job of artists to provoke and to challenge. Part of the responsibility of being an artist is to create work that will inspire dialogue, suggest that people examine their long-held positions and, yes, occasionally offend in order to do so."

The loss of these tax credits, she charges, has "a whiff of censorship."

Okay. Censorship bad. We are wrong to use the power of the state to repress speech deemed to be offensive. But surely pornography would be offensive to Muslims? If a Muslim is offended by a cartoon Mohammad, wouldn't he be offended by actresses writhing in simulated ecstasy who are not covered by burquas?

So what happens if the bold, transgressive Sarah Polley decides to make a film that provokes dialogue by portraying, say, a neo-Nazi in a sympathetic light? [Update: She did! hat tip: Kathy Shaidle and Five Feet of Fury]What about her right to "occasionally offend" then?

I'm kidding, of course, that will never happen. And I don't mean to suggest that she ever would or should make such a film. 

We're fiercely anti-Nazi in Canada. The Human Rights Commissions are vigorously prosecuting "neo-Nazi losers in basements," as Steyn puts it, who run pathetic little websites.

On the other hand, Communism, responsible for the deaths of untold millions? No problem. The Canadian government not only won't suppress you, they will pay you to spread your message.

Canada's National Film Board promotes films like "They Chose China," the tale of the "courageous" American P.O.W.s who elected to stay in China after the Korean War.

Seriously. This "award-winning" documentary is about soldiers who were tortured and indoctrinated in Chinese prison camp and argues that the brainwashed victims were American "dissidents."

Our national broadcaster, the CBC, recently ran Oliver Stone's documentary about Fidel Castro.

I am highly offended by these films. What are my chances of having a Human Rights Commission reining in the propagandistic efforts of our tax-payer subsidized film board and television broadcaster?

It's all clear once you understand the rules: Fascism: must be rooted out, condemned and suppressed. Communism: go right ahead, make your film. Bonus points if you can take a swipe against the United States in the process.

And of course the neo-Nazi losers in basements aren't asking for federal tax credits to underwrite their enterprise. The progressives are. (For the record, I am against tax credits for neo-Nazis.)

Lona Manning is a freelance writer living in Canada.