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Protect freedom of speech with Canada’s founding principles says historian

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — Though freedom of speech is under attack in Canada, historian John Robson says it can be defended by returning to Canada’s founding principles.

“This is a nation proudly founded on liberty,” Robson told a gathering of POGG (Peace, Order and Good Government) Canada here Jan. 14. In 1867, Canada was constitutionally “founded by people who were enormously proud to be the freest people on earth.”

“They deliberately set out to preserve in the British North America Act the constitutional order coming out of the Magna Carta,” said Robson, a columnist and documentary maker who teaches American history at the University of Ottawa.

Those attempting to defend freedom of speech in Canada have a number of advantages, Robson said, because “freedom of speech in principle is a good thing; freedom of speech, like all those other liberties that were given in 1867, is the basis upon which Canada became the great nation that it is; and Canada is prosperous, open, tolerant and dynamic” and has been a bulwark against tyranny in the world in the last century.

Robson said if one uses “evidence-based decision-making” the evidence is there that “liberty has worked.”

Yet often people who defend freedom of speech do so “in a kind of apologetic way,” as if acknowledging, “this isn’t how we do things in Canada” but maybe we need to change it.

A Canadian elite attempting to bring in “ever more burdensome government regulations and laws, and evermore limitations on our traditional freedoms” has a strange relationship with Canada’s past, he said.

Instead of arguing Canada was a free country and “it didn’t go very well, it could have gone a lot better so now we’re going to change things,” they put up an “ersatz history,” a “fake version,” he said.

This fake version asserts: “we’ve always believed in big government; we’ve always relied on the state; and we were never like those awful Americans with their devotion to freedom,” he said. “It’s not just that it’s not true, it’s dull! Who would want to live like that?”

Robson said both Canada and America can trace their founding principles back to the Magna Carta, an 800-year tradition recognizing ancient British liberties and has produced the best government system in the world.

The Americans were revolting because they thought King George was subverting them with taxation without representation, he said, so their founding was in line with the Magna Carta as well.

In the system we inherited from the British, “government is small because citizens were big,” he said. “Government could not deprive you of your rights or your wallet” because the executive branch was controlled by the legislative branch under the control of the people, he said. “The government could not plunder you for the sake of the elite and powerful.”

John Stuart Mill laid out the arguments for freedom of speech, he said. They include: unpopular ideas may turn out to be true; the “Dracula effect” that “sunlight destroys bad ideas,” but if they are suppressed they fester, and go underground; and freedom of speech “reinvigorates truth in the minds of those who care about it.”

The Canadian story is one that includes “successful resistance to the usurpation of freedom,” he said.

He urged those arguing for freedom to be neither apologetic nor belligerent, because both attitudes undercut one’s arguments.

“All rights tie together and are essential to human dignity and to being Canadian,” he said.

“Don’t be afraid. Don’t be apologetic. Be polite,” he said. “This stuff is truer and more exciting.”

Young people who have been fed junk food all their lives will find real food off-putting at first, but once they get used to it, they will develop a taste for it and prefer it, he said.

Most history offered young people is “tasteless, mass-produced sludge,” he said. “We must offer them the real thing.”

“We have something to offer the other side doesn’t, and that’s a real adventure worthy of a human being,” he said.

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