Senate Inquiry into The Erosion of Freedom of Speech in Canada: Speaking notes for Senator Patrick Brazeau on the matter of Free Speech in Canada

Speaking notes for Senator Patrick Brazeau on the matter of Free Speech in Canada

April 13th, 2010
For immediate release

“Honourable Senators, I rise in this chamber today to add my voice to the inquiry of the status of freedom of speech in Canada. As has been so eloquently pointed out by my honourable colleagues, the concept of freedom of speech is fundamental to democratic government. It has been said that “the test of democracy is freedom of criticism”. Indeed, healthy, provocative, even intense debate is the truest essence of the basis for participatory democracy.

Freedom of speech is not, as some have suggested, an American idea. It is an extension of free will. It is a by-product of democracy and it is reflective of the notion that all men and women were created equal. Freedom of speech knows no political station, no power structure nor race, colour or creed.  Given this, how sad it is that we seem as a society to place the notion of freedom of speech as less important than ensuring none might become offended by the hard truths of 21st century living. I took note of several Senator’s questions about the fine line between freedom of speech and respect.

As an Aboriginal person, I am personally aware of how freedom of speech can be used as a tool to promote prejudice and hatred. It was presumably that situation, as reflected in the Ann Coulter incident that has given momentum to our deliberations on this most important subject.

Equally important is that the recent incident highlights another ‘fine line’ between one person’s freedom of expression vis-a-vis another’s – and this warrants further study.

Je ne saurais dire, personnellement, si ce sont les professeurs de l’Université d’Ottawa qui ont empêché Mme Coulter de prendre la parole, ou si ce sont ses organisateurs qui ont décidé d’annuler son discours. Je ne sais pas non plus si elle a été intimidée par la foule d’étudiants ou si, à vrai dire, leur manifestation l’a laissée indifférente.

Je sais toutefois pertinemment que les étudiants se sont sentis libres d’entraver sa liberté d’expression.

There are those who believe that freedom of expression and free speech works in only one direction – those who will insist on being able to express their views and opinions while denying others the opportunity to challenge those views.  The line between speaking freely and being spoken to freely should not exist – but sadly, it most assuredly does. If the students were free to protest Ms. Coulter’s presence on their campus and the nature of the presentation she was expected to give, why was she not equally free to be there, and to speak her mind?

The erosion of many of these freedoms is nowhere more evident than in First Nation’s communities. In many instances, the utter absence of accountability and transparency that has plagued Aboriginal politics for so long can be attributed in large part to the infringement of the rights of grassroots Aboriginal people to their freedom of speech.  For many reserve residents, the price for their attempts at free speech and the expression of their concerns in an open manner is often restriction of access to essential services such as housing and post-secondary education. The price of speaking out against corruption and demanding accountability can at times be even more severe, involving physical violence and threats to family and friends.

Il y a aussi des personnes qui prônent la liberté de parole et d’expression, mais qui par ailleurs mettent tout en œuvre pour empêcher que d’autres jouissent de cette même liberté. J’ai moi-même vécu ce genre de situation en 2008, dans un rôle précédent, lors des discussions entourant l’abrogation de l’article 67 de la Loi canadienne sur les droits de la personne; les discussions ont finalement abouti à ce que les dispositions de cette loi puissent aussi s’appliquer aux peuples des Premières nations pour la première fois depuis plus de 30 ans.

Qui, selon vous, s’opposait le plus vivement à cette amélioration importante des droits de la personne pour les membres des Premières nations? Je vous le donne en mille : leurs propres dirigeants.

There are numerous examples whereby freedom of speech has resulted in positive change that has and will benefit generations of Aboriginal people.  John Corbiere spoke up against being prevented from voting in elections in his community because he lived off-reserve. Sharon McIvor recently spoke out on the injustices in the area of gender inequalities regarding the Indian registration system, as did Senator Lovelace Nicholas in the 1980’s. Donald Marshall spoke out on the matter of Aboriginal fishing rights.

Each of these people, Honourable Senators, served their communities and their own rights by exercising their freedom of speech all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.  Colleagues, as Canada’s first peoples the Aboriginal community needs to be able to freely define its aspirations, to debate the real root causes of poverty in Aboriginal communities and to compellingly prescribe the cure for its ills.

This cannot happen in a vacuum where people live in fear of retribution and retaliation if they have the courage to speak out. This will not happen if divergent opinion is termed racist – and it surely will not happen without the full engagement and participation of grassroots Aboriginal peoples, convicted and convinced enough of the need to embrace the need for change.

Songez à ce que nous pourrions espérer d’un débat sans parti pris, mené en toute liberté d’expression : des solutions internes pour surmonter les problèmes de pauvreté chez les Autochtones, conçues par et pour les Premières nations, les Inuits et les Métis; un engagement plus profond de la communauté autochtone dans le processus politique et même dans la vie politique, où les Autochtones pourraient briguer volontairement les suffrages et élire des représentants qui sont responsables et qui rendent des comptes; et surtout, un Canada où les Autochtones sont reconnus comme faisant partie intégrante du tissu de notre pays et comme étant essentiels aux débats nécessaires pour assurer notre prospérité soutenue.

The time-worn saying that “The truth shall set you free” is a dream for many Aboriginal people. The sad reality being that the truth will most often set you back – to the back of the line for housing repairs, for job training, and for employment opportunities. Honourable Senators, we must not take on this complex matter lightly. There are numerous ‘fine lines’ that are to be found intertwined in this subject.

There is the line between freedom of speech and freedom of expression which must not be crossed –, and that is in the instance where freedom of expression can lead to resorting to violence.  Equally, there is the line between freedom of speech and the freedom to knowingly misrepresent the truth. There are the lines between our rights to free speech and our rights to protect ourselves from slander and libel. This is a highly complex matter and one from which we in this chamber should surely not shirk…

Colleagues, I believe that it will only be through the open exercise of free speech that Aboriginal poverty will be overcome and that the aspirations of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples will be achieved. It is only by ensuring the essential right to freedom of speech is respected and affirmed that Aboriginal people will have the fair opportunity to participate fully in Canada’s prosperity.

Honourable Senators, freedom of speech is often a right that we in parliament sometimes take for granted. However, in Aboriginal communities, the affirmation of the right to freedom of speech is something that needs to be taught, exercised and most importantly, rigorously defended in light of anything that attempts to trump it, short of hate-crime.”

Speeches By Senators Finley,  Wallin,  Duffy , Tkachuk & Eaton