NDP MP David Christopherson gets it. Liberal Labour Minister Patty Hajdu apparently just can’t.
Christopherson broke party ranks and voted for a Conservative motion in late March demanding the government scrap its “values test” for Canada Summer Jobs funding. Even with Christopherson’s support, the motion was easily defeated.
“If the law is an ass, you have a right to say so,” Christopherson argued. “You have to obey the charter. You have to obey the laws. You don’t have to bow and scrape. You don’t have to say ‘I love the law.’”
There might never be a more succinct statement of what it means to be a citizen than those five short, clear sentences. Alas, their brevity and clarity have had no noticeable effect on the labour minister as she oversees the summer jobs program that provides federal dollars to help churches, charities, non-government organizations and small businesses hire students.
Hajdu was quoted by Huffington Post as saying the Liberal government will tweak the infamous values attestation that infuriated Canadians coast to coast after it was announced in December. So … progress, yes? No.
“Whatever we do, it will be still with the policy goal of ensuring that we don’t in any way support organizations that are in any way working to undermine Canadians’ rights,” the minister told HuffPost.
Translated, it means the government will continue insisting applicants tick the box to attest that they don’t oppose Canada’s unrestricted access to abortion. The minister apparently can’t get the point that opposing abortion undermines nothing that has anything to do with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. On the contrary, the freedom of citizens to peacefully oppose abortion, or anything else, is the very base on which all rights – indeed, the charter of rights itself – are founded.
If the law is an ass, as Christopherson says, we have a right to say so. And we must not be denied due public money just because we exercise our right to speak and to oppose.
Yet André Schutten, an Ottawa lawyer who is director of law and policy at the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA), says Hajdu’s state of denial threatens far more than mere access to funding. It puts at risk hard-won guarantees of free expression that pre-date even the 1982 charter.
“We’ve got five or six really good (pre-charter) Supreme Court cases that say no jurisdiction (can) restrict political speech,” Schutten told me in a recent interview. “There are cases out of Alberta, and particularly out of Quebec, that provide a really strong defence of political expression.”
Strong defence matters, he says, because of what’s been obscured in the Canada Summer Jobs debacle. The fog of controversy has distracted Canadians from efforts by Hajdu and others to depict opposition to abortion as “hate speech” that violates federal law and the charter itself. The claim is an utter fabrication, Schutten notes. It also changes the summer jobs debate from an argument for or against abortion, and it makes it about limitations on our basic right to political speech.
“Are we really going to start cherry picking and censoring (political) images because we don’t like what we see,” he asks.
Actually, we appear on the verge of doing something even more troubling, Schutten warns.
“The current government, the prime minister, and his cabinet, keep repeating things that are legally untrue. But with repetition, those things end up being embedded in the minds of people and of the media. They keep repeating that (pro-life posters) are a form of hate speech, which they’re clearly not. They keep repeating that women have a constitutional right to abortion. That’s not legally true, either. But if you ask, 80 to 90 per cent of Canadians, even lawyers, will tell you it’s true. With constant repetition, people begin to believe what is completely false.”
And the bright young legal counsel for ARPA suggests that repeating legal fictions “undermines the law.”
In Christopherson’s words, it makes the law an ass. If we lose the freedom to say so, we lose something infinitely more precious than any government summer job funding can buy. We lose the means to speak the truth.
Peter Stockland, senior writer with think-tank Cardus and publisher of Convivium.ca.
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