PEN Canada condemns disinvitation of antiracism advocates from presentation to Supreme Court of Canada clerks

PEN Canada condemns the abrupt cancellation of invitations to three anti-Black racism advocates scheduled to appear at a January 15 presentation to the law clerks of the Supreme Court of Canada. PEN Canada board member El Jones, a political science professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, and a poet and activist was one of the three disinvited guests.

The presentation was meant to focus on the 2022 Halifax Declaration for the Eradication of Racial Discrimination. The three advocates were part of that antiracism project and had been invited to appear at the request of former Governor-General, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, whose foundation published the Declaration.

According to the Toronto Star, El Jones, DeRico Symonds, director of justice strategy with the Africans Nova Scotian Justice Institute, and Benazir Tom Erdimi, an Ottawa-based student and founder of The People of Tomorrow, were disinvited due to pro-Palestinian comments made by members of the group on social media that had made the law clerks feel “unsafe” and “harmed in their mental health.” The court’s registrar, Chantal Carbonneau, did not provide any further details about these comments.

The cancellation of qualified speakers because of their private views on an unrelated matter undermines civil discourse. It has no place in a democracy and should not prevent this country’s highest court from accessing information on matters of compelling public interest, in this case, anti-Black racism.

PEN has commented before on the ongoing chill on criticism and debate around the Israel-Hamas war and the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza. This has led to suspensions and firings, cancellation of events and disinvitations. There should be no place for suppression of peaceful expression of opinion in this country, pro-Palestinian or otherwise. Peaceful dissent is never more important than in times of war.

PEN has called on public agencies, institutions of higher learning and the public generally to commit to the right to freedom of expression as a shared social value. Surely, this should be a paramount value in the halls of the Supreme Court of Canada.