Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In America and around the world, freedom-loving people have been astonished at the dark turn of events in Canada. Canadians, they’ve been saying with puzzlement, are so nice. How could a country made up of such nice people turn so quickly into a brutal dictatorship?
But the question is the wrong way round. If Canadians – as the old joke would have it – are so polite that they’ll apologize to you if you step on their foot, then how do you expect them to respond to government tyranny?
Beyond that, how would you expect them to respond when a relatively small group of their fellow Canadians actually stood up to the tyranny?
When, now we’re seeing the answer. And we should’ve seen it coming. We should’ve realized all along that agreeableness – this trait universally associated with Canadians – isn’t exactly the most useful attribute in a people subjected to tyranny.
To be sure, Canadian commentator Spencer Fernando maintains that some of his countrymen are undergoing a sea change. Until recently, he wrote on February 9, “many Canadians believed that we were supposed to be deferential to authority, and that pushing back against the government was too ‘harsh’ or ‘aggressive.’” Hence, “as our rights and freedoms were stripped away one by one, with our leaders treating our rights as nothing more than privileges they could dole out at their whim,” most Canadians “put up with it, over and over and over again.”
But now, claimed Fernando, Canadians have reached their limit. They’re “throwing off the shackles of our weak and submissive mentality, and becoming a nation of people who stand up and push back against government overreach.” Fernando even spoke of a “brewing revolt within the Liberal Party, with two Liberal MPs in Quebec publicly rejecting Trudeau’s divisive approach.”
Fernando’s article appeared, as noted, on February 9. But on February 21, the Canadian Parliament voted to affirm Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act to restrict freedoms. Not one member of Trudeau’s Liberal Party voted against.
Some “brewing revolt.”
No, not all Canadians are agreeable. Far from it. Some – including dear friends of mine – are fighters, as gutsy as anyone you’ve ever known. But they’re on the outside, in the wilderness. Almost all of those – including Fernando – who’ve spoken up for freedom and against Trudeau’s tyranny have had to do so outside of the mainstream Canadian media. Fernando’s article was posted on his own website. Other articles in the same vein have appeared in Canadian alternative media, on conservative American websites, and in the Epoch Times.
Meanwhile, what have the mainstream Canadian media been publishing? Well, the Vancouver Sun ran an article in which veteran intelligence officer Phil Gurski sneered at the Freedom Convoy’s “dog’s breakfast of hangers-on” – “dog’s breakfast,” of course, being a Canadian (and British) way of saying “deplorables.”
But perhaps the most striking document to come out of this chapter in Canadian history, in my view, is a February 22 op-ed by Beverley McLachlin, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
Characterizing the truckers as demanding “the right not to wear masks in public places; the right not to be vaccinated; the right to hold Ottawa’s downtown residents and businesses hostage; the right to malign public officials and call for the Prime Minister’s death; [and] the right to shout epithets at people of colour,” McLachlin contented that such “rights” are “the ugly side of freedom.”
Of course, McLachlin’s list is a mishmash of actual convoy concerns (forced masking, vaccination) and dishonest smears. Nobody held anybody hostage. And if any individual called for Trudeau’s death or shouted “epithets at people of color,” these actions certainly weren’t endorsed by the overwhelming majority of protesters.
As for “the right to malign public officials” – isn’t that a freedom that any judge should defend?
Not McLachlin. “Freedom,” she lectured, “is not absolute. We live in a social matrix, where one person’s exercise of freedom may conflict with another person’s exercise of freedom.” Governments therefore have the responsibility to “draw the difficult lines that mark the limits of freedom in a particular situation. When you must wear a mask. Whether you can cross a border without a vaccine certificate. How many people can attend a party and who gets to go to school.”
People who don’t like where their government draws the line on freedom, she explained, have options. They can take their leaders to court. They can vote them out. But they can’t “take matters into their own hands, threatening the welfare of people around them and, more broadly, the constitutional framework that allows us to continue to live together.”
In any case, she concluded, you shouldn’t have “the freedom to say and do what you want about people who don’t look like you or talk like you.” Such freedom “is dangerous.” And it’s not “true freedom,” anyway. “True freedom – freedom subject to reasonable limits that allow us to live together – is essential to a peaceful and prosperous future for us all.”
There you have it: “true freedom” is curated freedom, restricted by our betters. Americans speak of individual freedom, but for McLachlin, freedom is a matter of community – a way of regulating society in such a way that people don’t hurt each other’s feelings.
Alarming, no? But many of the readers who commented on McLachlin’s op-ed couldn’t have agreed more. A number of them expressed the view that those whose battle cry is “freedom” are uneducated louts – or, as one commenter put it, “village idiots.” Several identified this curious preoccupation with freedom as an American fetish, unworthy of Canadians, who, one gathered, are too sophisticated for such silliness.
And some accused the truckers – and their defenders – of “whining” and “complaining,” the implication being that Canadian citizens, however disgruntled they might be, are obliged to be meek and polite in their dealings with the government as well as with one another.
One of the comments on McLachlin’s article that received the most “likes” described the trucker demonstration as a “shameful, violent, tantrum that was an affront to bedrock Canadian values that do not let liberty run roughshod over community.”
Savor that last bit. “Canadian values…do not let liberty run roughshod over community.”
Last October I wrote about a new rule in the courts of the Canadian province of British Columbia. Henceforth, lawyers would be required to announce their pronouns and those of their clients when introducing themselves in court. When a relative handful of lawyers dared to publicly criticize the rule, Margot Young, a law professor and gender activist, balked at their arrogance, insisting that the new policy was a simple matter of being “inclusive” and “respectful” – of trying not to cause offense. In other words, it was about being nice.
In April of last year I wrote about Rob Hoogland, a father in British Columbia whose daughter, over his protests, was put on track for “sex-change therapy” at age twelve. Informed that it would be considered “family violence” if he referred to her as “she” or addressed her by her birth name, he did so anyway, and ended up in prison.
I remember at the time thinking that this story felt oddly Canadian. Everyone else involved – the girl’s mother, friends, teachers, and school psychologist, as well as a host of doctors, lawyers, and school officials – was willing to go along with the girl’s claim that, deep down, she felt like a boy. Why couldn’t her father go along, too? Why, then, couldn’t he just be nice, instead of making such a fuss and causing such a ruckus? Didn’t he understand that his behavior was “threatening the welfare of people around [him]” and making it difficult for them to live together in peace and harmony?
But back to Beverley McLachlin. I wasn’t surprised to discover that she’s now a member of the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong, and has been criticized for remaining on the court even after the Communist Party of China crushed human rights in that formerly independent jurisdiction.
But why shouldn’t McLaughlin remain on the court? Her definition of freedom, after all, is malleable enough to allow for a CCP-friendly interpretation. If she can support without hesitation the denial of Canadian truckers’ right to protest, how difficult could it be for her to support the crushing of Hong Kong freedom protesters? Why should a call for freedom, as they see it, by a handful of Hong Kong residents trump the right of over a billion Chinese to live in harmony with one another?
After reading McLachlin’s op-ed, I felt compelled to take another look at Ezra Levant’s video of his 2008 appearance before a representative of the Alberta Human Rights Commission. A Muslim group had filed a complaint against Levant, a lawyer and journalist who now runs Rebel News, for reprinting the Danish Muhammed cartoons in his magazine Western Standard, and he was compelled under Canadian law to explain himself.
Fourteen years later, in the age of the tyrant Trudeau, Levant’s remarks, made to a gray little bureaucrat in a gray little room, sound almost quaint. Levant referred to his “ancient rights,” to Magna Carta, to “800 years of English common law,” to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and to the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights. Asked about limits on freedom of speech, Levant acknowledged that limits on speech were appropriate in cases of fraud, impersonation, slander, defamation, copyright, confidentiality agreements, or the Official Secrets Acts. But aside from those categories? No.
Recalling the suffragettes, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the gay-rights movement, Levant told the apparatchik that “no liberal progressive cause has ever advanced except through offending the order….Unbridled political speech is not just allowed; it is the antidote, the prophylactic against violence. Only a fool would think that by passing a law you could change hearts and minds.”
Levant cited with outrage an earlier Human Rights Commission ruling that subordinated one party’s freedom of speech to the right of another party not to be offended. When his interlocutor informed him that his verdict could ride on the question of whether his publication of the Muhammed cartoons had been motivated by “contempt and hatred,” Levant admitted that he did indeed feel contempt – for the Human Rights Commission.
In the end, Levant was acquitted, but, thanks to legal bills, he walked away $100,000 poorer. Meanwhile the Muslim group’s legal costs were covered by taxpayers. As Levant put it, “the process has become the punishment.”
Some people would say: well, Levant could have avoided it all just by being nice. Nice! Canada nice. What’s wrong with Canada nice?
No names, but I’ve had some exceedingly nice people in my life. I’m thinking of one in particular whom I knew for most of my life. Everyone loved her. She could socialize one day with a far-right Pentecostalist neighbor and the next day with an old friend who was a Communist – and leave both of them thinking she was their ideological twin.
She thought that was the way to go through life. Don’t offend. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make waves. She had a problem with my work as a critic – first a literary critic, then a movie critic, cultural critic, social critic. She rejected the very premise of criticism. “You can’t change people,’” she’d say. It was an excuse for inaction, for passivity. For indifference.
She thought niceness was virtue. No. Niceness in the face of aggression is gutlessness. Niceness in the face of tyranny is cowardice. And niceness in the face of evil…is evil.