Do we get the society we demand or the one we assume we deserve? Most Canadians, I suspect, are convinced we naturally deserve an open society, and believe one exists that is no less permanent to our national experience than snowy winters or NHL hockey. By planetary standards, to be Canadian is to be lucky indeed, allotted at birth a functioning democracy, healthy social institutions, and the affluence to buttress both.
We’ve debated whether this is politics as usual and have concluded that it isn’t. It is new, and unsettling
We deserve our excellent country because, in effect, we have it already. Or so we assume. PEN Canada is aware of our local good fortune. As a freedom of expression organization, and part of PEN International, one of the oldest human rights organizations in the world, our works tends to focus on less fortunate, less open locales, where writers and journalists are silenced, imprisoned, or killed for doing their jobs.
We readily comment and even intervene in the affairs, so to speak, of China, Iran, Mexico or Vietnam, for the simple reason that freedom of expression is both a fundamental human right, and the freedom that enables all the others. Equally, we welcome outside comment on Canadian matters, especially if it unsettles assumptions about the social or political climate here. No border deserves to be respected in this regard.
That said, PEN has become uneasy with how freedom of expression is faring at home. Like many other groups, we’ve monitored the current federal government, and noted a tendency towards excessive secrecy and a wish to control information, dalliances with censorship and internet surveillance, the intimidation of critics, and the kind of obsession with political gamesmanship, via spin and mis-direction and the manipulation of parliament, that can easily cast a shadow, or create a chill, over political life.
We’ve debated whether this is politics as usual — earlier governments were far from immune from these operating principles — and have come to the conclusion that it isn’t. It is new, and unsettling, and we are concerned. “Non-Speech, Non-Transparency, Non-Accountability,” is how one PEN board member describes the climate in 2012.
“Non-Speak Week” is our writerly way of exploring our worries. Starting today, we’ll be posting for seven straight days on our blog and in the Huffington Post on freedom of expression issues that we find especially vexing. Some posts will be essays, others conversations. At least one will take an appropriately creative form: a short story by the novelist Pasha Malla. In his post, Malla uses a parable, an imagined review of a novella, to tease out the psychology behind recent clumsy attempts by authorities — at the G-20 summit in Toronto in 2010, say, or in Quebec this past spring with Bill 78 — to curb freedom of association.
Pasha Malla’s story will address a concern that isn’t exclusive to any one government. PEN Canada fears that governments everywhere, emboldened by new technologies, may be flirting with levels of censorship and surveillance they wouldn’t have dreamed of a quarter-century ago. Likewise, an upcoming “Non-Speak” post on libel, specifically the use of SLAPP suits by corporations to silence critics, takes on a broad legal concern, while a post on our dawning digital age, while rooted in our alarm at C-30, the Internet Surveillance Bill withdrawn from parliament last year, also widens out, as per the borderless Net, to globalized anxieties.
What happens if restricted media access to scientists, the elimination of troublesome data gathering, and greater Internet surveillance becomes the new normal?
Others posts focus directly on Ottawa. In the days ahead we’ll comment on the silencing of scientists, threats to the charitable status of groups deemed critical of government policies, and the growing restrictions on our access to information.
Always, PEN’s guest writers will be exploring a topic and asking hard, pertinent questions. Even this introductory post has a clear theme — the heavy-handed governance of Stephen Harper in relation to freedom of expression — and wishes to pose a question about our present era.
Namely, what happens if some of this — the media’s restricted access to scientists, the monitoring of charities, the elimination of troublesome data gathering, the imposition of greater surveillance on the Internet, to name but a few — becomes the new normal? Suppose citizens grow so accustomed to these restrictions and controls that they forget we ever had a professional hockey league or white Christmases?
Our contention is that contrary to what most of us assume, people get the society they demand — or don’t demand. In Canada, as everywhere else, freedom of expression isn’t a given, something that is permanently there. It must always be re-examined, not so much defended as re-asserted, re-established as a core principle and a cherished value.
Charlie Foran is the president of PEN Canada. He has published ten books, including four novels and the biography Mordecai: The Life and Times.