Searching for free speech advocates in Canada's public discourse

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I attended the trial of David Suzuki (for treason) this week, an elegantly staged performance piece with real lawyers, judge and Suzuki at the ROM, part of a city-wide Climate is Culture festival. I thought Ezra Levant might show as a "free speech advocate." He disrupted a pretrial event charging the judge was prejudiced. Perhaps he's busy fighting a libel case against him in Saskatchewan. He and columnist Mark Steyn seem to have become Canada's preeminent "free speech warriors" (National Post). They've been charged before various Human Rights tribunals for hate speech, and generally won their cases.

The world is full of mysteries (Why is Castle on the Space channel?) but I find their presence on the free speech podium puzzling. Ezra's "causes" include Big Oil; Steyn's include western civilization under threat from Muslim invasion. Those aren't endangered species in the arena of public discourse. For the record I should say I'm on the Levant/Steyn side in the cases against them; I'm for free speech up to and including outright hate. But the heroization is irritating.

I'd say it comes from failing to make a distinction: free speech as getting to say what you think, versus getting to say it loudly enough to have an impact. It's about access. Anyone can mutter their true thoughts on a street corner or in an obscure blog. Steyn and Levant have always been able to say what they want, from platforms reaching large audiences, and been paid well enough for it to make a decent living. Those enraged by them, who charge and sue, have little opportunity to respond on that level; so they go the depressive, negative route of trying to shut them down legally. Believe me, if they were offered equivalent access as an alternative, they'd grab it.

The most painful case I know is Canadian Muslims, especially Arabs, responding to how they've been derisively portrayed for decades in major media, with few chances to respond on their own behalf. I cannot portray their frustration. They accost you socially or at their hangdog conferences and plead less for redress than for a simple acknowledgment of how unfair it is. I know many outsiders will reject that and insist "the media" have been resolutely anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic. I don't know how to address that. Empirical evidence clearly isn't effective; predispositions seem to be all that count.

Last week I attended -- coincidentally in the same ROM venue -- the inaugural fundraiser for the Canadian Arab Institute. It's attempting to deal with this matter: not just what you say but saying it in a way that resonates. They invited all the right people: Adrienne Clarkson, John Tory, Harper cabinet minister Chris Alexander, media über-host Valerie Pringle, reps from all the papers, plus many non-famous people who've been working in this parched vineyard for decades. They decided to play the game and did it well. But it's a Long March from where they are to the kind of access and respectability they deserve. And when they get there, many others will still be on the outside, bitter, having a voice but lacking a meaningful hearing, i.e. truly free speech.

There's nothing quite like that outsider status and how angry it can make you. In the 1980s, while the Cold War raged, I was referred to in the Globe and Mail as a "doctrinaire Marxist." I was willing to grudgingly cop to "Marxist" at the time (you probably had to be there) but "doctrinaire" was the kiss of death for a freelance writer. It tended to get tacked onto Marxist unthinkingly, like drunken with stupor (I'd hoped to make it through this column without mentioning Rob Ford but that wasn't to be). So I had a lawyer write the Globe saying all this and, amazingly, it printed a "retraction." Not just a "clarification." Did I feel empowered or what? At the time my main platform was a marginal journal called This Magazine, which still exists. But if I'd had anything like an equivalent podium, it would never have occurred to me to go legal.

When you're yelled at, what could be better than simply being able to yell back?

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: David Stobbe/University of Saskatchewan/flickr

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