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Dear Ryan: Don't pretend the Harper government cares about free speech

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Ryan Leef
Member of Parliament for Yukon


Dear Ryan.

"Does this pencil make me look fat?"

Stephen Harper held the pencil above his head.

Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, was embarrassed.

The Prime Minister had asked his most trusted advisers to help him stage a compelling, vote-winning, fundraising, reaction to the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by terrorists. 

"Never let a serious crisis go to waste," said Stephen Harper, reminding them of Rahm's Rule of Crisis Management.

"Mr. Prime Minister, you look absolutely heroic!  Anyone who says different gets a Revenue Canada audit!" said the Conservative Party campaign manager, Jenni Byrne.

"Can you use your speech to attack Trudeau?  You know...standing up for free speech, looking hip, exposing our enemies as politically correct, latte drinking, moral relativists," said the Government House Leader, Peter Van Loan.

"Uh, talking about free speech could backfire. Just saying!" Baird tried to smile.

The above is, of course, an imagined scenario in the spirit of Charlie Hebdo, of what might have taken place in the Prime Minister's Office earlier this month.

The Conservative Party government does not murder cartoonists for hurting their feelings.  Nor does it imprison, torture or flog critics.  But conservative cultures worldwide are undemocratic at their core.  They share a belief that it is their right, even their duty, to suppress opinions and information that contradict their particular worldview.  Conservative organizations appear to hold an irresistible attraction to people with grudges.  I believe this is just as true of the Harper Conservative Party as it is of the Taliban.

Stephen Harper's Conservative Government has a long persistent record of attacks on freedom of speech.

Under the Harper regime, government scientists aren't allowed to speak for themselves or report on their studies to Canadians.  Any attempt by the media to interview scientists results in a flurry of panicked civil service e-mails with no one willing to risk their jobs by allowing it.   

How ridiculous is it? Attempts to speak to Fisheries and Oceans scientist Max Bothwell on rock snot, (a species of algae), resulted in 110 pages of e-mails, a request that Canadian Press reporter Dene Moore put her questions in writing, an expectation that communications officers could either answer for Bothwell and/or pre-approve his responses to the questions. In the end, Bothwell wasn't allowed to speak to the press.

Archaeologist, Patricia Sutherland was fired from the Canadian Museum of Civilization.  Her research indicated pre-colonial contact and trade relations between the Inuit and the Norse, something not in line with the Conservative plan to reinvent Canada as a product of British adventurers.

(Now that we are no longer civilized, our national museum has been renamed the Canadian Museum of History.)

Brave artist, Franke James was able to prove through Access to Information that she was blacklisted from international showings in spite of the Government's claim that she wasn't.

An internal monitoring report from Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in July 2011 described James as "an inconvenient artist."  James was the subject of four reports by the Department of Foreign Affairs, one by Environment Canada, one by the Ministry of Natural Resources and three by the Privy Council.  She was the subject of 2,172 pages, written by federal bureaucrats.

Inconvenient, indeed!

The tools Harper conservatives use to control free speech are numerous and varied.  Leona Aglukkaq has allegedly threatened the Deputy Mayor of Ranklin Inlet, Sam Tutanuak, with a lawsuit over revealing that elders were combing the dump for food in November. 

Canadian Nuclear Safety Watchdog, Linda Keen, was fired for insisting that the Chalk River Nuclear reactor was unsafe and must be shut down.  Not content to just fire Keen, Conservatives piled on and shredded her reputation.  A year later Chalk River had to be shut down because of a leak.

A lawsuit stopped the Liberal Party from playing the audiotape that indicated Stephen Harper knew about the offer of "financial considerations" to dying MP Chuck Cadman if he voted with the Conservatives in 2008. It is telling that Conservatives didn't try to sue Tom Zytaruk, author of Like a Rock: The Chuck Cadman Story, who disclosed the audiotape. 

If there was such a conversation as depicted at the beginning this letter, brighter if not wiser heads prevailed.  The Prime Minister's first comments regarding the Charlie Hebdo murders were, "When a trio of hooded men struck at some of our most cherished democratic principles -- freedom of expression, freedom of the press -- they assaulted democracy everywhere."  

However, his later comments, as posted on the Conservative Party Website, use the words "jihadist" three times, "terrorist" once and "war" four times without once mentioning freedom of speech.   

The "DONATE" button was removed from the webpage after a few days due to complaints.

"Freedom of speech isn't on our radar," said the Prime Minister. "Our base doesn't care."

Then he wrapped himself in the flag.

"Baird!  Does this flag make me look fat?"


Linda Leon is not now, nor has she ever been a member of any federal political party. Letters to Ryan leef are now published monthly in the Whitehorse Daily Star.

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