Conservative Party of Canada leadership frontrunner Pierre Poilievre (Photo: Facebook/Pierre Poilievre).

Federal Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre seems to have generated a lot of publicity for himself lately with a much re-tweeted pledge to force Canadian universities to “protect free speech” by withholding federal research grants and other funds from post-secondary institutions that won’t knuckle under to his demands.

Former U.S. president Donald Trump (Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons).

Naturally, as one would expect from a politician like Mr. Poilievre, this recycled Trump Administration executive order doesn’t mean what it purports to say. 

At the political level, Mr. Pollievre’s threat is an effective dog-whistle – a message intended to shore up the support of the Conservative Party of Canada’s far-right base while fooling the rest of us.

What it actually means, if I may be so bold as to translate the apparent Conservative frontrunner’s language for him, is this: “Your federal government will guarantee the presence of offensive anti-abortion campaigners and potentially violent anti-vaccine thugs on campus. Or else.”

The Conservative Party’s hard-right base gets the message. The rest of us are intended to miss it, and to ask, “Well, who doesn’t support free speech?” 

If freedom of expression were the real concern, of course, no action would be required. Notwithstanding the Notwithstanding Clause, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been reasonably effective up to now protecting Canadians’ fundamental right to free expression. 

Yale University political science lecturer Jim Sleeper (JimSleeper.com).

Of course, Section 1 of the Charter qualifies that by stating the rights guaranteed in the Constitution are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

With or without such language, however, that caveat must always exist in a democracy’s constitution, tacitly if not explicitly, to protect us from those who would hold cities hostage or cry fire in a crowded theatre, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the United States Supreme Court famously explained back in 1919. 

On a policy level, it seems likely this means Mr. Poilievre would like to compel institutional speech – never mind that compelling speech, just like shutting it down, is a violation of the guarantee of free expression set out in the Charter

Whether such a policy would actually result in funding cuts is, of course, another matter entirely. 

That would be quite complicated, and subject to enough legal action to keep many lawyers well paid and happy for many months. Moreover, the legislation would have to be competently drafted and rigorously abided by – neither a strong suit of CPC governments in the recent past, as former prime minister Stephen Harper’s lack of success on the pipeline file clearly illustrates. 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr).

As suggested by former U.S. president Donald Trump’s “free speech” grandstanding in 2019, in the short term the political utility of the dog-whistle tends to outweigh the practical application of the rule, such as it may be. As we have learned in the past week, though, longer term such demands can be a real indicator of risk to our rights as citizens. 

Nothing about this is unusual or unexpected, of course. “Defending free speech” in places like universities where right-wing ideas may not be particularly popular – because, for example, they mean interfering with the free-speech rights of others – is standard operating procedure for privileged and powerful politicians looking for the opportunity to shout down anyone who disagrees with them. 

Consider the “Chicago Principles,” foisted on Alberta’s universities by Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party in the soon-to-depart premier’s salad days of political power three years ago. 

Former British MP George Galloway, banned from Canada by Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The manifesto was adopted by the University of Chicago in 2014 to push back against popular opposition to racist speakers on campus, university prohibitions of racist, sexist and homophobic attacks on students, and calls to change the names of buildings and remove statues celebrating historic figures known for their racism or cruelty.

To implement the policy, the university hired the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that journalist and Yale University political science lecturer Jim Sleeper said “purports to protect ‘free speech’ on college campuses, but expends more energy blaming – and chilling – ‘politically correct’ activists and administrators.”

The language of the Chicago statement, calling for “free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation,” strives to sound as inspiring as that of the United States Constitution. Like the U.S. Constitution, which was written to ensure human slavery would be an enduring institution, it is deceptive, intended to enshrine bullying by privileging certain ideas and groups while marginalizing others.

John A. Macdonald, first prime minister of Canada, fetishized by the same Jason Kenney (Photo: Apparently no one took this photo of Macdonald, which is uncredited everywhere it appears; Public Domain, I assume).

The statement and its supporters make a straw man of safe spaces where marginalized student groups can gather free from harassment by people who dislike or disagree with them. But the goal is to create a safe space for only one set of ideas, the economic nostrums and social conservative rigidities of the increasingly radicalized North American right.

Naturally, with his fetishizing of John A. Macdonald’s prime ministership and his friendship with “residential” school apologists and deniers, not to mention his strong anti-abortion views, this was a natural bandwagon for Mr. Kenney to jump aboard. 

Never mind Mr. Kenney’s decree as federal immigration minister in 2009 banning George Galloway from Canada on the spurious grounds the left-wing British Parliamentarian was a threat to national security. The real problem, of course, was that Mr. Kenney didn’t agree with Mr. Galloway’s opinions about the rights of the Palestinian people.

It can’t have been by mere coincidence, this was happening when Mr. Kenney was about to launch his abortive attempt to harass and silence anyone who dared to criticize Alberta’s fossil fuel industry with the so-called Energy War Room, or Canadian Energy Centre. 

We’ve heard very little about the Chicago Principles since then, however, doubtless because it was an exercise in performative politics, not a sincere effort to protect free speech, which appears to be in no danger in Alberta as long as the flags and bumper stickers say “F**k Trudeau” and not F**k Harper.”

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18 Comments

  1. I suppose the true test of Mr. Poilievre’s true intentions would be how he would act in a hypothetical situation where the free speech was not to his liking. I notice his slogan is not protect all free speech. Perhaps, that one key missing word gives an indication of what he is really thinking.

    However, to say Poilievre is thinking might be giving him too much credit. He is really just trying out different slogans to see which resonate best with whomever’s votes he needs at the moment. So this one plays to the Conservative base without offending more moderate voters too much. I suppose it is an effective dog whistle.

    However, I think that Poilievre is a bit more committed to this one than say to bitcoin. He is a political opportunist, but I suspect after what happened to O’Toole he is not going to change positions on say gun control mid election.

    So, the problem with this sort of dog whistle is it means different things to different people. If elected the Conservatives will claim they have a mandate for more than people realized they were giving them. Just ask those voters who supported Kenney’s supposedly modest cuts, if they for instance really anticipated his huge cuts to post secondary education funding.

    So yes, it seems Poilievre will use vague slogans about freedom of speech as a cover for a more insidious agenda that most voters don’t really embrace.

  2. I don’t think you can say whatever you want and expect to get away with it. This is instilled upon us from an early age, by our parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and from our teachers. A hypothetical situation would be where a youngster is with his parents, and he calls a large woman walking down the street a tub of lard. If the child’s parents were raising their offspring right, their child would be told not to say that again, and apologize. Another hypothetical example is that someone cannot enter a bank, and claim they have a weapon, then demand the tellers give them the money, and they come back into the bank, half an hour later, and say that they were only joking. Neither the Canadian Charter ff Rights and Freedoms, nor the Amendments in America are absolute. There are still restrictions on them. Pierre Poilievre is part of the Reformer crowd, and he cannot be trusted. He is going to enable more divisions, which isn’t going to help matters. He was in support of those trucker convoys. I would be very cautious about having Pierre Poilievre as Prime Minister of Canada.

    1. I agree that Mr. Poilievre likes to hear himself promise things he can’t deliver. His so called support of the truckers convoy was a tactic for him to take advantage of the vaccine mandate. He takes advantage of any controversial topic, and boasts about what he would do- yes his opinions are the only ones that counts that is clear. Just listen to his outlandish suggestions. Either he doesn’t think vaccines save lives, or he is a self-serving opportunist.

  3. On social media, former Harper cabinet minister, James Moore, lashed out at the “divisive partisanship” that coming to Canada. While Moore made it clear that, in some many words, there are bad people on both sides, he did go to some pains to deflect that much of the venom was coming from Skippy Pollivere and the CPC. When it comes to a point where one of Pollivere’s cabinet colleagues makes a veiled warning about his endless dog whistling, you know everyone is noticing it and is calling it out.

    Last week, members of the CPC caucus defended the FreeDUMB Convoy’s upcoming protest in Ottawa. This time, instead of buying them all Tim’s and taking them to brunch, the signatories to a letter in support of the Convoy’s action have made it public that they are all in with the Canada Day protest. The Convoy intends to set up a protest camp off of Parliament Hill, which they have christened “Camp Eagle”, and plan to stay there until PMJT resigns, the Liberal Party and the WEF stands trial and is executed, Donald Trump is declared the King of Canada and the New Jesus, and Pat King is freed and awarded the Nobel Prize for everything. This list is my own invention, but this is the level of crazy that is in store. And I’m sure the CPC will help fund this protest camp — public monies at work, no doubt.

    When establishment conservative Andrew Coyne, strangely the current voice of reason, publicly denounces the CPC leadership race as a “clown show” that is bent on substituting conspiracy theories for policies, you know that the rush to the loony bin is in full swing. Of course this does leave Trudeau with nothing to worry about as the CPC implodes into its own vortex of insanity; but this indicates that American-style dementia has come to Canadian politics in a big way. Now that the pro-lifers in the CPC caucus are coming up and trying to push abortion to the center of their own leadership contest, you know that they have every intention of bringing the issue to the rest of Canadians, whether they want it or not.

    The abortion question was settled in Canada a long time ago, but the Fundies among the CPC are looking to make sure that issue will never die. Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, Clarence Thomas has made it clear that the SCOTUS is coming for every “bad decision” made by the Court, including on matters of same-sex marriage, reproductive freedom…you name it. Thomas’ own bold declaration will surely give encouragement to Canada’s own wannabe GOP contingent to do the same.

    One of the signatories to the letter supporting the Convoy Protest is Melissa Lantsman, at member of the CPC caucus and out lesbian. While Lantsman appears to be all in with the Convoy, one wonders what will happen when Lantsman herself becomes the target of the Fundies in the caucus. After all, to them, Lantsman is an abomination before their God — barely human let alone worthy. Lantsman should be more careful who she sups with, because she may find herself on the menu.

  4. Something about ‘good people being silent amid the chaos’ comes to mind with all this disgusting lunacy south of that long, undefended border to our south. Just as precarious as a recent article by Chris Hedges [https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?hl=en_GB#inbox/FMfcgzGpGdlhJzgdBKSTsDfFwQgHtlbd].

  5. Pierre Poliveire has never had any sort of employment in his life, outside of politics. That’s also why he is not relatable to the average person. He supports cryptocurrency, which has had major problems lately. His ideas, and proposals, are quite farfetched, such as what he proposes to do with house prices and inflation. There still are people who believe he will be the next prime minister of Canada. They can keep dreaming, because it most likely will not transpire. He’s another Reformer, who has policies that will end up doing more harm than good.

  6. Has anyone else noticed that when a right wing politician’s word salad includes “robust” their mind hears “blah, blah, blah”, like the teacher in Charlie Brown?

  7. Which political party muzzles federal scientists?

    “The control and micro-management points to a high level of ‘science illiteracy’ in the upper ranks of the federal govt… and ‘incredible disrespect’ for both the researchers and the taxpayers footing the government’s multi-billion-dollar science bill.”
    “Ottawa’s media rules muzzling federal scientists, say observers”, (Margaret Munro, Postmedia News, Sep 12, 2010)

    “When science goes silent
    “With the muzzling of scientists, Harper’s obsession with controlling the message verges on the Orwellian” (Macleans, May 3, 2013)
    https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/when-science-goes-silent/

    “Canada’s deadly disdain for science” (Montreal Gazette, July 14th, 2011)
    https://www.carp.ca/2011/07/15/a-deadly-disdain-for-science/

    – “What if Galileo were here?” (15-Sep-10)
    – “Media chill” (15-Sep-10)
    – “Harper’s bureaucracy orders no alarms, no surprises: Documents” (16-Sep-10)

    Ask Dr David Swann about standing up for Kyoto.
    “Kyoto views get medical officer fired – Canada”
    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2002/10/04/docfired021004.html

    Ask Dr. John O’Connor about raising health concerns downstream of oilsands development.
    “Doctor cleared over suggested link between cancer, oilsands” (Edmonton Journal, Nov 7, 2009)

    “Climate-change scientists feel ‘muzzled’ by Ottawa” (Canwest News Service, March 15, 2010)
    https://globalnews.ca/news/86145/climate-change-scientists-feel-muzzled-by-ottawa-documents/

    Textbook censorship in U.S. schools is mainly a conservative phenomenon.
    Harassment and death threats against climate scientists.
    Likewise, the intimidation and murder of environmentalists in developing nations.

    University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill was fired for an incendiary essay he wrote after 9/11: “On the Justice of Roosting Chickens”, in which he argued the attacks were blowback from decades of illegal US foreign policy.

    Mostly right-wing attempts to stifle critics of the Israeli govt have never stopped.
    “Silencing pro-Palestinian professors – Israel’s academic army” (Mondoweiss 2018)
    https://mondoweiss.net/2018/06/silencing-palestinian-professors/
    “Zionist group publishes target list of ‘anti-Israel’ US professors”
    https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/zionist-group-publishes-target-list-anti-israel-us-professors

    1. Geoffrey Pounder Dr David Swann told me in September 2009 he had no intention of ever becoming a politician but felt that someone had better try to stop these lunatics from destroying our health care system like Klein was doing. Klein’s father Phil said to me Al what in the hell is the matter with that son of mine. While he gives away billions in royalties he is trying to make us survive without a proper health care system. This could cost some people their lives. Phil was right it did and the lawsuits prove it. One was almost my father after he had donated around $30,000. to the Alberta Conservative Party . After Klein was forced out of office medical doctors told me the Klein’s replacement Ed Stelmach was a hero for spending millions on buying up foreign doctors and nurses and if he hadn’t our health care system would have been shut down. Of course Klein’s reformer party game plan was the same as Kenney’s destroy the health care system then tell ignorant Albertans that you have to fix it with privatization and who gives a damn who gets hurt in the process. Yet as you know we still have these mentally challenged seniors hurling their sarcastic comments at you and me for not being as stupid as them. Now Poilievre is making a complete ass of himself and these fools can’t wait to see him elected so he can privatize our Public Health Care System, that’s how stupid they are. That was the greatest fear the former MLAs I knew had. They had seen what Harper wanted to do. His budget in 201 2 promised health care cuts to the provinces of $36 billion as a good start to force us into privatization. It got Harper defeated. After Klein had driven out thousands of health care workers, we were told we lost 14, 783 and I had these ignorant fools , seniors, tell me Klein had nothing to do with it. These damn doctors and nurses wanted a lot more money and when Klein wouldn’t give it to them they left. Too bad these fools weren’t in my office watching the nurses bawling their eyes like I did. I helped nine doctors and at least two dozen nurses leave this province and not one wanted to go. Klein gave them no choice. Ones who stayed and changed careers included a nephew and my next door neighbour. Over the years I have run into a lot more of them and now we are seeing it happen again all thanks to these damn reformers who don’t care.

  8. Dog whistle politics may work for the voting CPC members.

    It certainly did not work for Steven Harper when Chis Alexander and and Kelly Leitch tried on the Barbaric Practices Hotline in a desperate attempt to solidify waning traditional Conservative support for Harper. It was apparently at a point where the election team concluded that instead of the f’casted minority win they were staring at an electoral loss.

    It backfired spectacularly and ended the political careers of both Alexander and Leitch.

  9. Do conservative politicians know what’s actually required for constitutional changes in Canada , and are obfuscating that fact, or are they as ignorant as their constituents ? Asking for a friend.

  10. As much there are those who are convinced that there will never be a PM Pollivere, it recall it was said not too long ago that there would never be a President Trump. Careful what you are able to convince yourself of, because you may not get it.

    Looking to the US, I predict there will be a summer of violence leading into their mid-term elections.

    The public hearings for the Jan 6th Insurrection are not getting the exposure they need. Foxnews has buried them on their schedule and the now more popular alt-right news outlets are calling them everything from a sham, to a provocation for violence. Indeed, Trump’s supporters regard former Atty. Gen Barr as a paid-off Dem stooge, Ivanka Trump’s own compelling testimony against her father’s actions is dismissed as a “deep fake”. All this tells is that the temper south of the Medicine Line is pitching toward boiling over.

    There’s no doubt Canada will get swamped in the onslaught, as CPC Fundies see their chance to break the peace in Canada. Those who dismiss this as an American problem would be prudent to forget that notion immediately.

  11. Freedom of Speech? Julian Assange through Wikileaks published truthful information about war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan which was picked up and reported by the New York Times and other media outlets. Abandoned by these purveyors of enlightenment and his own Australian Government, his extradition from Britain to the U.S. is imminent. No one was harmed by his revelations, yet for telling the truth he faces life imprisonment in the Colorado Supermax along with Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and other mass murderers.

  12. Free speech, eh? Let’s platform a bunch of Marxists and Anarchists and Social Democrats and classical Liberals (nowadays most conservatives would call them ‘far-left’) and people who would have been considered Conservative 40 years ago and members of BLM and BDS and Land Defenders and environmentalists, and when Pierre and his little fiercely partisan yappy dogs start sounding off, I would spread my hands helplessly, look guilelessly into the camera, and say, “I don’t get it, I thought they wanted free speech. The government ordered me to allow free speech. Now there is more free speech than ever. Some of these people haven’t been free to make these speeches in decades. We’ve platformed basically everything that isn’t either hate speech or factually incorrect. Where’s my medal?”

  13. Don Cherry learned that freedom of speech has it’s limits, yet we watch these Reformers spreading their lies without anyone putting a stop to it by challenging them in court and ignorant Albertans continue to believe every one of them. Where is the intelligence in that?

    1. Alan K. Spiller: I agree with you. Anyone that went to school in Alberta, long ago, would be strongly disciplined for saying bad things. My parents, aunts and uncles went to school in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and the 1950s. They would remember what happened then. Many of my aunts and uncles are no longer around, but I was told what happened by one of my uncles.

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