Canada’s Elites Suppress Freedom of Speech on Indigenous Matters

Under section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadians are guaranteed freedom of thought, belief, and expression. These freedoms are fundamental in our democratic society. In fact, an […]

Under section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadians are guaranteed freedom of thought, belief, and expression. These freedoms are fundamental in our democratic society. In fact, an official government commentary on the Charter states: “In a democracy, people must be free to discuss matters of public policy, criticize governments and offer their own solutions to social problems.”

Given this claim, it is, indeed, a mystery why free speech is protected when people say  that Israel’s policies and practices towards the Palestinians are “racist,” but not when they say that Canada’s policies and practices towards Indigenous peoples are “racist.”

When it comes to Indigenous issues, our academic, media, and political elites have a Charter of Rights free speech blind spot. They refuse to allow contrary minded, but enlightened Nelson Mandela-like beliefs to be voiced unless those people want to be labeled as “racist.” Only a few brave souls have been willing to be pillarized by transgressing this “sacred” boundary.

This writer went over this line when he arranged a Chapters book-signing for There Is No Difference, a book that advocates for the greater integration of Indigenous people into Canadian society, only to have the event cancelled by the bookstore  who chose silence over free speech. Surprisingly, only one mainstream journalist, Barbara Kay in The National Post, defended my free speech rights.

But I am not alone.

A few years ago, Senator Lynn Beyak dared to say that some good came from residential schools, a view that is, in fact, reflected in the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Report, and was shared by eminent Indigenous author and residential school student Basil Johnston in his book, Indian School Days.

For making defensible assertions, Senator Beyak was excoriated by politicians from all parties, and mocked by editorial writers as an ignorant rube. In 2019, she was kicked out of the Conservative caucus, and shortly after she resigned from the Senate.

Associate Professor Frances Widdowson was exercising her “academic freedom,” but, nevertheless, was fired from Mount Royal University in 2021 for challenging the Indigenous status quo. In doing so, the university proved that its core mission was to protect the feelings of Indigenous people and not to challenge fallacies and uphold truth-seeking in a free and open debate.

The same year, an Abbotsford B.C. high school teacher, Jim McMurtry, was fired for saying that most Indigenous children who died in residential schools died because of diseases like influenza and tuberculosis. Even though this fact is reported in the TRC Report, it did not save Mr. McMurtry from unceremonially losing his teaching career.

In 2024, the mayor of Quesnel B.C., Ron Paull, was censured and the nearby First Nations bands boycoted him because his wife — a private citizen in her own right — handed out copies of Grave Error to friends and acquaintances. This book is a scholarly challenge to the “cultural genocide” claimed by the Kamloops Indigenous band.

Also, in 2024, a Manitoba school trustee, Paul Coffey, faced pressure to resign for publicly echoing what Senator Beyak had said a few years earlier.

These cases — and many others — clearly illustrate that no government official, no member of a provincial or territorial legislature, and few mainstream academics and journalists will defend contrary-minded “heretics” exercising their right to free speech, a right that is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In fact, few mainstream news media outlets reported on these stories in a dispassionate and professional way. The CBC, for example, consistently emphasizes the “hurt feelings of the aggrieved,” making their outrage the focus of their reporting. In no media reports has the CBC mentioned the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, implying that Charter protected freedom of speech is no longer relevant in their reporting on Indigenous matters.

Hurt feelings, of course, are irrelevant to academics and journalists because the search for truth always involves controversies that hurt the feelings of some people.

Even more outrageous, the federal government has actively demonized Canadians who challenge misinformation about Indigenous people by proposing to make it a crime for people to engage in what it calls “residential school denialism.” As a result, people who care about the best interests of Indigenous peoples but have contrary-minded views, are afraid to speak up for fear of being called “denialists,” as if they were denying the European Holocaust.

Nevertheless, many Canadians believe that the proper way to advance reconciliation with Indigenous people is to phase out the dependency relationship that has grown since the Indian Act was enacted in 1876. Many also think that Indigenous peoples should be equal with other Canadians—no better, and certainly no worse.

Some Canadians even believe that Canadian governments should not support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) that creates a strong “consult and accommodate” hammerlock on the development of Canadian resources. Similarly, many believe that the “nation to nation” relationship is polarizing citizens leading to ruinous economic and social policies for both Indigenous bands and Canadian society.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Canadians realize that it is best to keep thoughts like these ones to themselves.

Our elites have breached their fiduciary responsibilities to Canadians. It is a tragedy that they do not encourage other viewpoints. In this respect, Peter Wehner correctly says: “The truths to be discovered are complex and many-sided, and the only way to get to them is by engaging with contrary ideas in a manner approaching dialogue.”

It would be in the best interest of Canadians, if our elites shed their hostility towards those who disagree with them. But to do this, they need to develop the confidence and open-mindedness that the French philosopher Montaigne implied when he wrote: “When I am contradicted it arouses my attention, not my wrath. I move towards the man who contradicts me; he is instructing me. The cause of truth ought to be common to both of us.”

But in discussing Canadian Indigenous issues, the Canadian elites are inexplicably unwilling to grant to others the same Charter of Rights-free speech presumptions that they keep for themselves when they support “anti-Zionists” shouting obnoxious statements and insults. When they do this, they are dividing Canadians, losing our trust, and increasing the grave harm to all Canadians but especially to Indigenous Canadians.

 

 Peter Best is a retired lawyer in Sudbury and the author of There is no Difference which argues that Canada’s laws should be changed to make all Canadians equal under the law, regardless of race.

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