Repression of speech-Canada’s real tradition

December 29 1980

Repression of speech-Canada’s real tradition

December 29 1980

Repression of speech-Canada’s real tradition


Why did most Canadians support the War Measures Act in 1970? Why are they content to live with restrictions on their civil liberties? Such questions have been the business of June Callwood for far longer than her 15 years as vice-president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. She has been a journalist for more than 30 years, author, broadcaster and social activist on behalf of women, young people and prisoners— and vocal civil libertarian. Shortly after the October Crisis of 1970, she was commissioned to write a popular history of Canada, which will be published by Doubleday in the spring. A Portrait of Canada, which examines the psychological and civil evolution of Canadians, will shed new light on the quandary of civil rights in this country. Callwood discussed her findings with Toronto free-lance writer Terry Poulton.

Maclean’s: Your book examines how Canadians were able to accept the imposition of the War Measures Act of 1970 without serious objection. Why weren't there riots in the streets?

Callwood: Well, the Americans would have rioted. We not only took it lying down but loved it because we’re a very different people. They’re the revolution; we’re the counter-revolution. Ironically, we developed as a country in reaction to their belligerence. Any time they weren’t actually invading us they were at least thinking about it. So we were always thrown into a defensive posi-

tion. We never had the chance to examine those aspects of the American culture that stand for the principles we think we stand for—democracy, freedom of the individual—because that’s what the U.S. was doing and it was the enemy. So they reinforced our conservatism and our passion for the old values. Maclean’s: What were the old values for us?

Callwood: One could say that the original sin here was not sex but disobedience. There’s a kind of complacency in the Canadian nature which comes from our garrison mentality, in Northrop Frye’s genius phrase. [He contends] that we are in a fort, we’re well-protected and we don’t have to worry. Just find out what our orders are, salute and go about our business. And if the commanding officer doesn’t want to tell us what he’s about, it’s okay with us. I’m also a supporter of Margaret Atwood’s theory that for Canada the supreme victory is survival. Just to get through a disaster, not to rise above it, is plenty for us. We’re full of Americans and other immigrants, but what we’ve attracted are the conservatives—people who want the old values. So we have safety, clean streets, order. But we gave up entrepreneurs. We gave up the instinct to be angry at the abuse of our rights.

Maclean’s: How do you feel our rights have been abused?

Callwood: In its whole history, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has only won one case—and it’s being appealed. I maintain that the attitude of our Supreme Court puts us slightly to the right of Vlad the Impaler. Just in the past few years, they’ve eroded our right to be silent when arrested, upheld a municipality’s right to forbid demonstrations that might lead to “tumult” and allowed illegally obtained evidence to be used against people. Their attitude generates a nourishing environment for the intimidation of writers, broadcasters, all kinds of journalism. It’s very reactionary and it’s nourished by acceptance at the bottom. We always talk about our traditional freedom of speech. But actually, through our history, anybody who demonstrates convictions about freedom of speech that are contrary to the established views is usually put in prison. So our tradition is really repression of speech.

Maclean’s: In that regard, what are the implications of the Ian Adams case [a Canadian writer sued for libel in a work offiction]?

Callwood: Any time somebody stands over a writer’s shoulder invisibly and watches what’s going down on the paper, it’s not only a limitation on imagination but a dangerous thing for us all—especially when the repression is aimed at controlling our political ideas. And the whole thing’s a domino process. If publishers and insurance companies run scared, it will be very difficult to publish anything that cuts at all close to real events, and we’ll all suffer. Our society is already dominated by very secretive governments which reflexively, compulsively and habitually hide what they do. So the process of getting the truth out to the public is under a shadow. If people who trust journalists see that even novelists can be forced to identify their sources or risk going to jail, how are they going to feel about revealing things like where industrial

'An attitude slightly to the right of Vlad the Impaler'

waste is being dumped? So the sources are going to dry up, as the information outlets have already. It’s becoming a society in which one person can very nearly rule.

Maclean’s: Why is the p'ablic so careless of its right to know?

Callwood: We’ve always felt that other people knew better, that we are well taken care of, that our society is well managed and that we don’t need to know any more than we do. We have an attitude that we’re nicer than most people, that our government isn’t exploitive and that life is mostly fair. Any attempt to say that it isn’t that way, that there’s an awful lot of unpleasantness and injustice and humbug is resented because it conflicts with the mythology and the sense of comfort we get from the mythology.

Maclean’s: Is it our complacence that has led to the current unity crisis? Callwood: There is nothing in this coun-

try to encourage staying together, except in Ontario. And Ontario is behaving as it always does, thinking in its megalomania that it’s the whole country. But there has never been anybody who’s formulated an idea of Canada. We never bought Sir John A.’s—it was only a way to build a railroad and make money for most of his cabinet. So the only time we really pull together is in a disaster, like war or when people are trapped at the bottom of a mineshaft. Maclean’s: As a civil libertarian, how do you feel about the charter of rights proposed by the prime minister?

Callwood: As he sees it, if he doesn’t bring in a charter of rights we’ll never get one, because most of the provincial governments are extremely right wing and lacking in protection for the individual. They have human rights commissions without teeth or any intention of chewing, and weak legislation behind it. But the one Trudeau wants is also totally toothless and I think it’s dangerous. No one understands the implications of what he’s doing. We’re just beginning to sort through all the clauses and some of them, especially clause 1, are lamentable.

Maclean’s: What worries you about clause 1?

Callwood: Clause 1 says that you have all your freedoms so long as there is “general acceptance” of what those freedoms are in a democratic system. But the laws of our country don’t give us any. And the general acceptance part means that any kind of public feeling can be considered valid. If you want to move 20,000 Japanese in from B.C. or bring in the War Measures Act, you can do it and there’s no appeal. It’s a joke. It’s the opposite of entrenched rights. Maclean’s: Can you think of anything that might wake us up, short of a bout with outright tyranny?

Callwood: Tyranny from within

wouldn’t do it—that’s always been a big hit here. We just haven’t coalesced. I’m not sure we can and I think now we’re in a real crucible. The country hasn’t much chance of survival unless somebody will do us the great favor of bombing us. In which case, by lordy, we’d show them a thing or two. But short of that, I think we might be ripe for a hero. Canadians are fond of demagoguery. That’s what Trudeau represents—somebody who gives you a larger idea of yourself. We thought: “My goodness, aren’t we splendid. We can do backflips off motel diving boards.” And that gave us the feeling that we were pretty marvelous. So a kind of splendid Canadian right now with charisma and credibility might be able to speak to Canadians in a different way so they felt they were ready for—“unity” is a tired wordsome aspirations. But I can’t see who it would be....