Freedom of speech. It is a right. Well, that is what they teach you in school, and that is what they want you to believe. But, unfortunately, as the story of Franke James shows, freedom of speech has been under attack in Canada since the current government made it a practice to censor scientists and artists who do not parrot their party lines when it comes to the climate change and environmental science.
I grew up believing that Canada was one of the places in the world where freedom and democracy were still powerful forces guiding our society. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms champions certain fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of expression, thought, and belief. As I grew older, and as the “Harper Government” continued to demolish many of the laws that made Canada great and protected Canadians and Canada itself, I began to see that this basic right was not as safe as I once believed.
There have always been disagreements in politics. Part of what makes democracy a wonderful thing–something worth fighting for–is that those discordant voices, raised in coalition, actually build a stronger country. When we do not agree, constructive debate rises to replace argument and creates policy that could make Canada a place we could be proud of. At least, that’s how it should be.
However, under the recent “government,” which is unaccountable to the public and fraudulently elected under an old-fashioned electoral system, Canada has pushed past the boundaries of bad taste and into the arena of Orwellian thought-control and blatant propagandism. Like Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984, the current government wants us to believe that lies are truth, and the tar sands are clean. But unlike 1984, they have not been able to silence the voices of dissent.
The story of Franke James is a striking example of how blatantly the current Canadian government is disregarding the stronghold of free speech. Her book, Banned on the Hill (2013), draws the reader into the tale of how the only acceptable art in Canada is now propaganda. An artist who believes that climate change is a real problem and that we need to wake up and start dealing with it, she wrote a visual essay to the Prime Minister asking him to make polluters pay, and asking him what kind of Canada he is creating for our children.
She could never have expected that her expression of discontent with the current environmental policies of the government would get her blacklisted as an anti-government radical. Under this current government, expressing any opinion that doesn’t agree with the government’s policy, makes you no better than a terrorist or rabble-rouser. Funding for her international art show was cut, under pressure from various Canadian bureaucrats in various blunderbuss ministries. Only after years of painstaking freedom of information act requests did she find out the truth about how the government saw her as an enemy of the state, against the Canadian government.
To me there are several issues here. First, that the government saw fit to censor the opinion of an artist, whatever that might have been. Aside from hate speech, everyone deserves the right to express their opinions and make art about it. Art can open a dialogue about the environment that could be the beginning of a solution. The second issue, to me, is that Harper deems it a radical thought against government policy to say that climate change is real and we need to do something about it. Excuse me? Since when is cleaning up after your own mess a radical idea? It seems Stephen Harper did not pay attention in kindergarden when they teach you to put your toys away when you’re done playing with them. Or perhaps he paid attention but was expelled after failing miserably in basic human life skills. If it was up to Harper, the oil companies would spew their toxic waste all over Canada, and then they would all pick up and move to a gated community and wait for the rest of us to waste away of cancer from the poison in our water and air.
Not satisfied with banning freedom of artistic expression, the Harper government has made it a standard policy to censor public and private scientists whose findings do not agree with government policy. When science must agree with a pre-determined solution, it is no longer science but pseudo-science and propaganda.
In Banned on the Hill, Franke James opens the readers eyes to the dark path Canada is heading down. We need to listen to our trailblazing artists and scientists and allow an open, frank dialogue about the challenges of climate change. In a world where very few will be able to afford to retreat to gated communities with their own water-filtering systems, we need to take care of nature, which has always provided us with clean air and water. We need to take a hard look at a sustainable future, and it is time to stop impeding progress by insisting that we choose between the economy and the environment. I believe that innovation, science, and art will draw us out of the dark age of climate-change-denial and into a reality where we have a fighting chance for survival. The economy IS the environment. To attempt to chose between the two is to take a narrow, short-sighted view of the most important issue facing our society today.