Marie Henein addresses the rise of illiberal democracy in IdeaCity speech

Henein had three main points of observation: Dialogue has been replaced by a screaming match, illiberal democracy is on the rise, and the urge to protect classes of victimhood has become a priority.
Diana Davison Montreal, QC

Moses Znaimer’s IdeaCity celebrated its 20th year of innovative thinking opening on June 19, 2019. Znaimer is best known as one of the masterminds behind CityTV and MuchMusic back in the 80s but he continues to break the fourth wall in media, both bringing new ideas and creating an event that involves the audience.

A mobile version of his iconic Speakers Corner was available for guests who wanted to add their own voices and Znaimer hosted the event with an affable but energetic dynamic that indicates he’s not done changing the world.

The keynote speaker was esteemed lawyer Marie Henein who spoke about the rise of illiberal democracy.

Henein said she took it for granted in the past that Canadians engaged in “fairness and decency” and assumed that democracy was a synonym for the will of the majority. She noted there were many contentious social issues in which the public was split but as those issues are resolved in law—allowing gay marriage, abortion, and assisted dying—allowing for one set of values did not mean the destruction of the other point of view.

The current divisiveness and lack of dialogue is something new.

Part of the problem, she noted, was the lack of information available to the public before they make their decision. Informed opinions can’t be issued in “140 characters” or fast enough to get in on a current Twitter debate.

Henein had three main points of observation: Dialogue has been replaced by a screaming match, illiberal democracy is on the rise, and the urge to protect classes of victimhood has become a priority.

Henein warned against the calls to be “tougher on crime” by escalating police charging policies and leaving it up to the legal system to sort out. She said we “can’t solve problems at the courtroom door” when the real solution to some of these issues are social and economic.

A vigorous champion of our legal system, Henein said that public figures denouncing so-called “activist judges” when an outcome is unpopular is a “snake oil” scam that falsely attempts to delegitimize our legal system.

The attempt to place a higher value on perceived “majority rights” at the expense of “individual rights” is an Orwellian approach that ultimately claims some people’s rights are better than others.

At the same time, Henein noted that you can’t say “just calm down” to someone in the midst of a panic attack and that we will need to find a different way to bridge that communication gap.

Finishing on a note that ties back to the concept of the whole event, Henein closed with the remark “ideas breathe life into democracy.”

The afternoon also highlighted former Minister of Justice and Attorney General Irwin Cotler, who gave a passionate speech that was met with a standing ovation. Cotler outlined the great work Canada is doing to address human rights violations around the world, emphasizing how “one person acting with integrity can make a difference” even in extreme circumstances.

He outlined specific cases of political persecution in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and China and what is being done to free those people from torturous conditions. These examples of the “criminalization of dissent” are a good reminder why events like this are important and how many reasons we have to engage in the world around us.

In terms of what the average person can do, Cotler quoted a professor he had at McGill University who said “imagine the world is split into two halves and your one kind act can tip everything in that direction.”

IdeaCity continues until the 21st at Koerner Hall in Toronto.

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Diana Davison
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