At the beginning of October, Grace Westcott, Tasleem Thawar and I went to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, to represent PEN Canada at the 2014 PEN International Congress. The annual meeting of PEN International brings together PEN members from all over the world to discuss freedom of expression issues and plan how to protect and promote this fundamental freedom internationally. It was particularly significant that we met in Bishkek. The government of Kyrgyzstan was in the process of adopting regressive anti-gay “propaganda” legislation modeled closely on a recently adopted Russian statute. Congress passed a robust resolution criticizing the proposed law, and the president of PEN International, John Ralston Saul, met with the president of Kyrgyzstan to make our views known.
On the way home I stopped in Turkey for a few days. That country has a poor record when it comes to freedom of expression, particularly in its treatment of journalists. One day I picked up Istanbul’s English-language daily and read a courageous column by Esru Ablk that observed that Turkey’s newspapers “were tied very closely to the government.” Ablak wrote, “yesterday something magical happened: Two columnists from two different newspapers wrote exactly the same article…”
I should have been happy to get off the plane at Pearson International. But it is worth remembering that even in Canada freedom of expression can be threatened, albeit in subtle ways. In my recent direct experience, important Canadian institutions and individuals have characterized efforts to protect freedom of expression as “political activity” with the implication that it is somehow suspect. I reject this characterization. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Canadian constitution. To protect and promote such a right is above politics.
I write this message in Winnipeg, having just attended the funeral of Ken Filkow. Ken, a distinguished Winnipeg lawyer and former chair of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, was an active and valued member of PEN Canada’s Canadian Issues Committee. As the funeral service says, “What are we to do when a good person dies?”
President, PEN Canada