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NDP MP David Christopherson gets it. Liberal Labour Minister Patty Hajdu apparently just can’t.
Last week, Christopherson broke party ranks and voted for a Conservative motion demanding the government scrap its “values test” for Canada Summer Jobs funding. Even with Christopherson’s support, the motion was easily defeated.
Last Friday, despite the veteran Ontario New Democrat explaining he voted against his party only from deep democratic principle, New Democratic Party brass stripped him of an important committee post. He knew he’d be punished. He was unapologetic.
“If the law is an ass, you have a right to say so,” he said after the demotion. “You have to obey the Charter. You have to obey the laws. You don’t have to bow and scrape. You don’t have to say ‘I love the law.’”
There might never be a more succinct statement of what it means to be a citizen than those five short, clear sentences. Alas, their brevity and clarity have had no noticeable effect on the current labour minister as she oversees the summer jobs program that provides federal dollars to help churches, charities, NGO, and small businesses hire students.
Hajdu was quoted by Huffington Post as saying the Liberal government will tweak the infamous values attestation that infuriated Canadians coast-to-coast after it was announced in December, 2017. So…progress, yes? No.
“Whatever we do, it will be still with the policy goal of ensuring that we don't in any way support organizations that are in any way working to undermine Canadians' rights," the minister told HuffPost.
Translated, it means the government will continue insisting applicants “tick the box” to attest that they don’t oppose Canada’s current unrestricted access to abortion. The minister apparently cannot get the point that opposing abortion undermines nothing that has anything to do with Charter rights. On the contrary, the freedom of citizens to peacefully oppose abortion, or anything else, is the very base on which all rights – indeed, the Charter of Rights itself – are founded.
If the law is an ass, as David Christopherson says, we have a right to say so. We don’t have to bow and scrape. And we must not be denied due public money just because we exercise our right to speak and to oppose.
Yet André Schutten, a bright young Ottawa lawyer who is director of law and policy at the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA), says Hajdu’s state of denial threatens far more than mere access to funding. It puts at risk hard won guarantees of free expression that pre-date even the 1982 Charter.
“We’ve got five or six really good (pre-Charter) Supreme Court cases that say no jurisdiction (can) restrict political speech,” Schutten told me in a recent interview. “There are cases out of Alberta, and particularly out of Quebec, that provide a really strong defence of political expression.”
Strong defence matters, he says, because of what’s been obscured in the Summer Jobs debacle. The fog of controversy has distracted Canadians from efforts by Hajdu and others to depict opposition to abortion as “hate speech” that violates federal law and the Charter itself. The claim is an utter fabrication, Schutten notes. It also changes the Summer Jobs debate from an argument for or against abortion, and it makes it about limitations on our basic right to political speech.
Having served in the so-called Whatcott case in the Supreme Court, Schutten insists nothing done by even the most assertive pro-life organizations “comes even close” to constituting hate speech. How can he be so sure? Because the Whatcott decision, which now represents the gold standard for defining hate speech in Canada, specifies that “hate speech” must be “expression that incites extreme manifestations of the emotion described by the words ‘detestation’ and ‘villification’ (and) a level of abhorrence, de-legitimization and rejection that risks causing discrimination.”
There’s no way someone on a street corner with a sign that says “save babies” represents that extreme manifestation, not even if there’s a picture of an aborted baby under the exhortation, Schutten says.
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“That’s not a message of detestation, villification and abhorrence of women,” he says. “It’s about truth in advertising. It’s empowering women with more truth, more information.”
While such photos are appalling (I strongly oppose their use), they are no more an “incitement” to de-legitimation, rejection or discrimination than the famous photo of the drowned little boy on the beach used in 2016 to mobilize support for welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada.
“Are we really going to start cherry picking and censoring (political) images because we don’t like what we see?’
Actually, we appear on the verge of doing something even more troubling, Schutten warns.
“The current government, the prime minister, and his cabinet, keep repeating things that are legally untrue. But with repetition, those things end up being embedded in the minds of people, and of the media. They keep repeating that (pro-life posters) are a form of hate speech, which they’re clearly not. They keep repeating that women have a constitutional right to abortion. That’s not legally true, either. But if you ask, 80 to 90 per cent of Canadians, even lawyers, will tell you it’s true. With constant repetition, people begin to believe what is completely false.”
And the bright young legal counsel for ARPA adds this ominous note: “When you’ve got a prime minister, a justice minister, other cabinet ministers repeating things about the law that are wrong, there is a problem. It undermines the law.”
In Dave Christopherson’s words, it makes the law an ass. If we lose the freedom to say so, we lose something infinitely more precious than any government summer job funding can buy. We lose the means to speak the truth.
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