Free Expression Is Slipping Away

Man with Mouth Taped Shut on WhiteCanadians can no longer afford to take our rights for granted.

Free expression is democracy. Without it, political choice is a farce. You can have all the elections you want and they will mean nothing without the secure right to express, share information and advocate for your views. But the boundaries of these rights of citizenship are always vulnerable, and right now, political, technological and commercial forces are converging into a chilling anti-freedom force.

Canada’s federal government has been no friend of the right to know since Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to power. It was a shock back in 2008 when Linda Keen, then president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, was fired for publicly disclosing safety concerns and refusing to restart the Chalk River nuclear reactor. This doesn’t surprise us now because being terminated for speaking out has become routine in Canada’s civil service.

Remember Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin, whose credibility was attacked by the government in 2009 for exposing the fact that the Canadian military was turning over Afghan detainees to torture? Then there’s Sylvie Therrien, who got the axe in 2013 for revealing that Employment Insurance investigators had to meet a quota of savings by denying EI applicants their benefits.

The public service has got the message loud and clear. Everyone knows they will keep quiet or pay with their jobs.

In another realm, access to public information has never been more restricted. In one stark example, Kevin Page, then parliamentary budget officer, couldn’t get government departments to release details about spending cuts they were implementing to meet federal budget guidelines. In another, during the last federal election, Conservative candidates running for public office were instructed not to make themselves available for interviews with the media.

By now, lack of access to elected politicians and government officials has become the new normal. Even the gathering of research by government to inform public policyhas been undermined, be it through defunding scientific research, deregulating environmental assessments or ending the collection of important population data. Those producing and disseminating independent research unpopular with those in power have been targeted relentlessly.

It hasn’t been pretty. We all have watched Ottawa’s culture of secrecy become an international scandal over the muzzling of government scientists. Civil society organizations researching missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and so many other poverty and social justice organizations, have been systematically defunded. Other high-profile non-governmental organizations have been subjected to costly CRA audits, including venerable NGOs like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and PEN Canada.

It is business as usual to see members of the government using McCarthy-style “red scare” language when referring to highly credible environmental organizations like the Pembina Institute, the David Suzuki Foundation and Environmental Defence, which often confront government climate inaction with fact-based research. Characterizations about groups with “radical ideological agendas” funded by “foreign special-interest groups” are ho-hum typical. And that is why the word “advocacy” is not spoken louder than a whisper across the not-for-profit world.

At the same time, the government raises barriers to information we have a right to access, and it has pointed a microscope at our lives, allowing for the untold collection of data that it constitutionally has no right to possess…read more at Huffington Post

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