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Many Canadians—particularly on the left side of the political spectrum—are outraged by warnings from Elections Canada that talking about climate change could be considered “partisan speech.”
The warning came because the People’s Party of Canada has cast more doubt on human-caused climate change than the other parties, which means federally registered charities could be considered to be pushing partisan rhetoric by discussing climate change, since that may be contradictory to the message of a registered political party.
With many people considering the warnings and potential speech restrictions absurd, it’s interesting to note that former PM Stephen Harper had raised similar concerns years ago, and in fact fought to push back against the chilling of speech by Elections Canada.
When Harper was the President of the National Citizens Coalition, he launched a challenge to the Canada Elections Act, which restricts the activities of third party groups—including charities— when it comes to election spending and participation.
Harper lost the case, when the Supreme Court ruled that—while the restrictions did violate sections of the charter—the “reasonable limits clause” of the Charter justified those restrictions.
Many on the left were happy with Harper’s loss in the case, as they were worried that removing the restrictions would lead to a bunch of “right-wing” groups blanketing the airwaves and newspapers with ads.
Of course, these things always have unintended consequences: The same restrictions on election speech that silence right-wing groups also silence left-wing groups.
And that’s what seems to be happening.
As noted by Stephen Taylor on Twitter, people are now—likely unwittingly—echoing Harper’s concerns:
The deeper issue here is that defending freedom of speech—especially for those we may disagree with—is more important than it may appear in the moment.
At the time, few people “prophesied” that the restrictions Harper fought against would end up impacting left-wing organizations. But that’s exactly the point. We need to defend free speech and free expression, because when a government has the power to restrict the speech of some people, those restrictions will inevitably be used against others.
This represents a vindication of the concerns that had been expressed by Stephen Harper and the National Citizens Coalition, and should inspire Canadians across the political spectrum to take a strong stand in favour of free speech, free expression, and a more open political process in which all Canadians can freely participate and make ourselves heard.
We don’t need the government telling us what we can and can’t say.