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Alberta’s NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley accused Premier Kenney’s speech writer Paul Bunner of having penned “an essay that includes horrible, hateful, racist, and I would argue even illegal comments denigrating Indigenous people in Alberta.”
I wonder whether Ms. Notley has actually read Mr. Bunner’s essay Mr. Bunner, an acquaintance of mine, wrote that now-deceased Cree political leader Harold Cardinal once compared Canada’s residential schools to Nazi Germany’s Final Solution for the Jews of Europe. Mr. Bunner disagrees with Mr. Cardinal, and also points to the fact that some alumni of residential schools have spoken positively about their experiences.
There is nothing “hateful” or “racist” about former students of residential schools saying that their own experiences were generally positive, nor are these people “denigrating” other Aboriginals. If Ms. Notley believes that Canada’s residential schools were like Nazi Germany’s Final Solution, she has a right to express her opinion.
Unfortunately, Ms. Notley makes no effort to refute any of Mr. Bunner’s arguments. That, too, is her right, although I would hope that she recognizes that attempts to silence debate and contrary opinions are destructive to democracy.
What is even more troubling, however, is Ms. Notley’s denunciation as “illegal” the words of someone she disagrees with. Free speech is already undermined on a daily basis by howling Twitter mobs, but at least one has the opportunity to move to other platforms, because Twitter is not government.
In contrast, when Ms. Notley speaks of “illegal” comments she is calling on the government to censor and punish the expression of ideas that she disagrees with. The word “illegal” by definition involves some kind of consequence or sanction for those who break the law. In Ms. Notley’s mind, the government should use its coercive power to promote and enforce what the authorities deem to be truth.
It’s one thing when the majority of people agree with a particular belief or opinion, whether about residential schools or any other issue; this is normal for a free society. It’s quite another when the government renders disagreement “illegal,” which is the norm in North Korea, theocratic Iran, and a sadly large number of repressive regimes, past and present.
If Ms. Notley really believes that Mr. Bunner’s essay contains “hateful, racist and illegal comments” she could file a formal complaint with the police against him, for “willfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group,” prohibited by section 319(2) of the Criminal Code. However, arguing that Canada’s residential schools for Aboriginals did not constitute a Holocaust or other genocide, which is what Mr. Bunner argued, does not come remotely close to the willful promotion of hatred. As a lawyer, Ms. Notley should know this.
Speaking of hatred, one can’t help but wonder how Ms. Notley feels about Catholics. In October 2017, Alberta’s Catholic schools proposed a sex-ed curriculum stating that there is more to sex than consent: “sexual relationships are not based solely upon ongoing consent and pleasure, but rather the understanding that they are to occur in an authentic life-giving relationship embedded within the sacrament of marriage.”
Ms. Notley twisted this into a perverse accusation that Catholics condone rape within marriage, stating “Consent is the law in Alberta and under no circumstances will any child in Alberta be taught that they have to somehow accept illegal behaviour in a sexual relationship … under no circumstances will we ... condone a sexual health curriculum that normalizes an absence of consent.”
She has not apologized for or retracted her obvious mischaracterization of Catholic teaching. I don’t pretend to know whether Ms. Notley hates Catholics, but she did denigrate and vilify an identifiable group with a demonstrably false statement. People in glass houses should not throw stones.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the expression of minority beliefs even if the majority might regard those beliefs as wrong, distasteful, offensive or false. As former Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote in R. v. Zundel: “The view of the majority has no need of constitutional protection; it is tolerated in any event.”
The Charter protects free expression for both Rachel Notley and Paul Bunner. Neither should be silenced.