A capital where freedom’s in short supply

by Lawrence Martin

(This column originally appeared in The Globe and Mail and is reproduced by permission of the author.)

It’s always great fun to see conservatives getting all worked up about freedom of speech, as they did over the dust-up between Ann Coulter and the University of Ottawa.

The dragon lady, of course, was entitled to the freedom to peddle her delicacies on campus, just as students were entitled to protest against her. The students won the day, and Ms. Coulter left fuming.

The brouhaha, touched off by a bone-headed, threatening letter to her from the university’s provost, brought on a rush of rage from the defenders of our cherished freedoms. That was tolerable, but you have to wonder if the right-siders are missing something – as in perhaps drumming up as much noise on their own government’s record on freedom of speech. It’s a record worth a look.

An early indicator of how things might go came in 2006 when the Conservatives first took office. Mark Tushingham worked at Environment Canada. His publisher had arranged for him to promote a book he’d written on climate change. It was a work of fiction, and it didn’t challenge government policy. But 15 minutes before the speech, the no-freedom bells rang out. Mr. Tushingham was ordered by the minister’s office to cancel his talk.

The gag job was by no means an isolated incident. Silencing orders were going out all over Ottawa – to caucus members, civil servants, agency heads and military brass. They may have been able to state their view in the past. But not in the new Harperized capital. Not without prior approval from the Prime Minister’s Office or the Privy Council Office.

The scope of the clampdown was unprecedented. The government tried censoring coverage of dead bodies returning from Afghanistan. It tried to curtail freedom of the press like never before, at one point having the police move out journalists from a Charlottetown hotel lobby. Restrictions on the access-to-information process effectively put a “stranglehold” on communications, information commissioner Robert Marleau reported.

Individuals or organizations that didn’t heel soon got their comeuppance. There was Linda Keen at the Nuclear Safety Commission, the church-based aid group Kairos, Elections Canada and the Military Police Complaints Commission. There was the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, the Wheat Board and the Montreal-based Rights & Democracy. Leaders were replaced or their organizations dismantled or overhauled.

Freedom of expression all depended on the type of expression. Diplomat Richard Colvin was dragged through the mud for offering honest testimony on the Afghan detainees. Critics of the Afghan mission were called disloyal. Critics of the Israeli government were insinuated to be anti-Semitic, even though, like Irwin Cotler, they were pro-Israel. Personal attack ads against opposition leaders reached unrivalled levels.

The Prime Minister’s operatives put out a secret handbook instructing members how to muzzle parliamentary committees. They went so far as to try to have vetting power over the communications of Auditor-General Sheila Fraser; she told them to bug off. In the Calgary riding of Rob Anders, constituents tried to nominate a new candidate; they were vaporized.

In Muzzletown, reports from government departments such as Justice that ran counter to the government line were never allowed to see the light of day. Justice continues to thumbs its nose at high court rulings on Omar Khadr. The government, alleged former Supreme Court chief justice Antonio Lamer on another matter, was trying to muzzle the judiciary.

Minister of State Diane Ablonczy lost some of her responsibilities because, a colleague said, she tried to give gays a voice to fund their parade. A noted academic, Michael Behiels, was attacked for criticizing the Harper government’s Quebec policy; Government Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton went all the way to the University of Ottawa’s chancellor in a bid to have him disciplined.

More recently, the government, perhaps having misplaced its copy of the Magna Carta, defied the will of Parliament in not producing documents on the Afghan detainee file. It again shut down Parliament because it wasn’t getting its way.

It’s how our freedom bells chime in the nation’s capital. And here we are, in a stew over Ann Coulter.