Canada’s Elites Suppress Freedom of Speech on Indigenous Matters

Under section 2 of the Charter, Canadians are guaranteed freedom of thought, belief and expression…These freedoms… are important to the success of a democratic society like Canada. In a democracy, people must be free to discuss matters of public policy, criticize governments and offer their own solutions to social problems. –  Extract from official Commentary by the Canadian Government on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (italics added)

In a democracy, abdications of conscience are never trivial. They demoralize politics, debilitate candour, and disrupt thought.  – Marilynne Robinson[i]

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It is one of the great mysteries of contemporary Canadian life that it is “protected free speech” when a person says  that Israel’s policies and practices towards the Palestinians are “racist” and “genocidal”, but when the same person says that Canada’s policies and practices relating to Indigenous peoples and residential schools were/are not “racist” or “genocidal” that person automatically gets publicly shamed, pilloried, banned, boycotted, suppressed and even fired from his/her job.

Clearly, when it comes to free speech relating to Indigenous issues, our elite classes have an inexplicable Charter of Rights-free speech blind spot.

Elite classes – political, academic and media- in a healthy liberal democracy have a trustee-like duty to practice the values of their democracy and, by example and otherwise, encourage the general populace to do so as well.

Canada’s elite classes and their institutions, both non-Indigenous and Indigenous, are failing to carry out this leadership duty in relation to Canada’s history with Indigenous peoples and to the situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada today.

Our elite classes are suppressing free speech on these subjects and are encouraging and enabling others to do the same.

The majority of Canadians, in accordance with our liberal traditions and values, believe that the proper way to achieve “reconciliation” is to phase out the dependency and demoralization-inducing Indian reserves, repeal the benignly racist Indian Act, and make Indigenous peoples equal under the law with all other Canadians. Yet, despite the fact that the reserves and the Indian Act are the prime causes of Indigenous peoples being at the bottom of every social well-being/progress indicator, our elite classes refuse or neglect to allow these Nelson Mandela-like beliefs to be publicly voiced.

The majority of Canadians believe that Indigenous groups should not have an UNDRIP and “consult and accommodate” hammerlock on the country’s resource industries. They believe that the new, elites-proposed “nation to nation” constitutional relationship is a country-fracturing, economically ruinous, socially divisive, and utopian chimera, yet our elite classes refuse or neglect to allow these beliefs to be publicly voiced.

The Indigenous and non-Indigenous establishments, for their own selfish purposes, contrary to the cause of truth, and contrary to one of the most fundamental, Charter-protected values of democracy – free and open debate on important public issues – have in effect declared a ban on free speech around these profound political, economic, constitutional and human rights issues – effectively erecting “no trespassing” signs around them, thus preventing needed ameliorative discussion- and thus potentially saving lives, because the status quo, measured by the Indigenous suicide rate for example, is literally and very disproportionately killing Indigenous youth.

As to those “no trespassing signs”, only those Canadians who “dare to be a Daniel” go past them.

This writer went past those signs, arranging a Chapters book-signing event for his book There Is No Difference, which advocates for the Nelson Mandela goals that the majority of Canadians want, only to have the book signing cancelled by Chapters – which chose cowardly suppression and silence over a Nelson Mandela-free speech message. (Ironically, free speech is the life blood of the publishing industry.) Only one mainstream journalist in Canada defended this writer’s exercise of respectful free speech: the principled Barbara Kay, of the National Post.

Senator Lynn Beyak went past those signs, daring to state the obvious fact that some good came from residential schools, a view shared by eminent Indigenous author and residential school- attendee Basil Johnston in his bookIndian School Days, and a view fully endorsed by Indigenous playwright Tomson Highway.

For making these defensible assertions, in respectful and careful terms, she was shamefully excoriated by politicians from all parties, including her own, and mocked as an ignorant rube by most of the media. In 2019 she was kicked out of the Conservative caucus entirely and then forced to resign from the Senate.

In 2024 a Manitoba school board trustee is facing the same pressure to resign, for publicly echoing Ms. Beyak’s views, and calling into question the reliability of the methods and conclusions of the Truth and Reconciliation Report, which has undeservedly attained near Ten Commandments status amongst our elite classes, where any criticism of it is regarded as apostacy deserving of pariah status.

No member of any of Canada’s elite classes defended Ms. Beyak or is defending this volunteer public servant on Charter of Rights-free speech grounds.

Associate Professor Frances Widdowson, exercising what used to be traditional academic freedom, was fired by Mount Royal University in 2021 for defending science and Western Enlightenment scholarly standards, and for challenging  aspects of the opportunistic Indigenous status quo.

Professor Widdowson’s views hurt the feelings of numerous, featherbedding beneficiaries of the University’s new, intellectually debased approach to “Indigenous studies”. By firing Professor Widdowson the University demonstrated that it now regards its core mission in this questionable field of academic endeavor to be protecting the feelings of these featherbedders. This new mission is not to challenge ideological lies and intellectual fallacies, and not to uphold academic competence, truth-seeking and free and open enquiry and debate, all of which in Indigenous matters academia in general is now actively discouraging.

No member of any of Canada’s elite classes has yet defended Professor Widdowson on Charter of Rights-free speech grounds.

In 2021 an Abbotsford B.C. high school teacher, Jim McMurtry, was effectively fired from his job for saying that most Indigenous children who tragically died in residential schools died from disease, primarily tuberculosis. That this is a true fact was not enough to save his career.

No member of any of Canada’s elite classes defended Mr. McMurtry on Charter of Rights-free speech grounds.

In 2024 the mayor of Quesnel B.C. was censured, and nearby First Nations bands are boycotting him, because his wife, a private citizen, handed out a few copies of a book, Grave Error, to other private citizens, which book, in scholarly manner, defends residential schools and challenges the “cultural genocide” conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The mayor was basically found guilty by association for failing to publicly denounce her, as in Stalinist Russia.

No member of Canada’s elite classes – no high government official, no member of any legislature, no mainstream journalist, no academic- defended the mayor or his wife against this blatant, disgraceful, authoritarian attack against their Charter-protected rights of free speech and freedom of opinion.

The CBC, which extensively reported the story, was conspicuous in emphasizing the “hurt feelings” of all the self-described aggrieved – making their faux-outrage the focus of their reporting- and was conspicuous in not reading Grave Error and not reporting on its intellectually authoritative contents, and thereby, by not providing any context or balance, committing censorship by omission. This is typical of all mainstream media reporting on Indigenous issues.

And in none of its reporting did the CBC mention the profound Charter of Rights-free speech implications of the story, obviously considering Charter protected freedom of speech no longer important or relevant in relation to Indigenous matters.

This is dangerously wrong. As the brilliant George Eliot said in Daniel Deronda: “We must have the courage to hear things, else there is hardly anything we can talk about.”

Hurt feelings are so journalistically irrelevant. The search for truth always gives rise to controversies and “hurt feelings.”

As the hypocritical federal government correctly says in its Charter commentary: “In a democracy, people must be free to discuss matters of public policy, criticize governments and offer their own solutions to social problems.”

“Hypocritical” because the same federal government, showing by disgraceful example its anti-Charter of Rights-free speech stance in relation to all matters Indigenous, is actively demonizing Canadians who write and say positive things about residential schools, even to the point of  considering making it a crime to engage in what it calls “residential school denialism.” This shameful, civically divisive, illiberal conduct goes directly against the Charter and the government’s own Commentary on it.

Because of this hypocrisy and abrogation of responsibility on the part of our elite classes, people who care about the best interests of Indigenous peoples and have different views and opinions that they feel may help improve their situation in Canadian society, are afraid to speak out for fear of being labelled a racist.

Our elites have breached their trustee-like duties to the populace. They have been too complacent on this, and they have been too rarely challenged. The preservation of our liberal democracy greatly depends on them engaging in right conduct, and by allowing by their acts and omissions this suppression of free speech to exist and proliferate they are dividing and failing us.

Their Charter of Rights-free speech blindness and irresponsibility  in Indigenous situations is so egregious, wrong and civically unhealthy that they greeted with indifference -and some even with approval – the Supreme Court’s recent cancellation of the rights of 1.8 million Indigenous Canadians to Charter of Rights and Freedoms protection on their home reserves and territories.

It is a civically-impoverishing tragedy that our non-Indigenous and Indigenous elites can’t seem to grasp the crucial importance of widening the parameters of the debates on this profound national topic – of encouraging, rather than suppressing, other viewpoints.

“The truths to be discovered are complex and many-sided, and the only way to get to them is by engaging with contrary ideas in a manner approaching dialogue”.[ii]

It would be in Canada’s best interests if our elites, especially our Indigenous elites, could shed some of their reflexive defensiveness, expressed often as outright hostility towards people who disagree with them, as the above examples show. This is particularly true of our academic and cultural elites, now known more for suppressing free speech than for defending it.

Would that they were all less about pride, position, money and power and more about humility, curiosity and whatever will bring that appalling Indigenous suicide rate down. Would that they had the confidence and open-mindedness to emulate the precept of the French philosopher Montaigne, who wrote:

“When I am contradicted it arouses my attention, not my wrath. I move towards the man who contradicts me; he is instructing me. The cause of truth ought to be common to both of us.”

Our elite classes are responsible for binding us together.

But, in relation to domestic Indigenous issues, because they are inexplicably unwilling to grant to ordinary Canadians the same Charter of Rights-free speech presumptions, protections , defenses and tolerances as they grant “anti-Zionists” shouting obnoxious statements and insults in relation to a foreign conflict, they are demoralizing and dividing us – losing the trust of the people, (which is the glue that holds civic society together) – and increasing the grave harms being caused to Indigenous peoples by the status quo.

For the sake of us all, especially the vast majority of vulnerable and marginalized Indigenous Canadians, freedom of speech in relation to Indigenous issues must be encouraged and protected.

Peter Best

May 11th, 2024


[i] From her essay The Tyranny of Petty Coercion, in The Death of Adam.

[ii] This quote, and the Montaigne quote, from Peter Wehner, In Defence of Politics, Now More Than Ever, The New York Times, October 29th, 2016

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