Canadians have free-speech bipolar disorder. On one side of our brains, we consider the right to freedom of assembly, conscience, and expression to be part of the constitutional heritage inherited from the British. On the other side, we recoil from the sort of free speech absolutism of the United States that—in an infamous case—holds that white racists burning a cross on the lawn of a black family is a protected form of speech.
This national hemming and hawing about free speech finds direct expression in the Charter of Rights, which takes away in its first clause—“only to such reasonable limits”—the very freedoms it goes on to grant in the second. It also manifests itself in the behaviour of free speech tribunes like Ezra Levant, whose current crusade against Canada’s censorious human-rights tribunals is undermined by his long-standing penchant for filing suit against anyone who says something he finds even slightly defamatory.
Onto this constitutional teeter-totter have stepped a few thousand Tamil protesters, who for over a week have been marching back and forth on Wellington Street in Ottawa, yelling slogans into megaphones, banging on snare drums, and—to many citizens’ great offence—waving hundreds of red flags associated with the Tamil Tigers, a group that Canada has designated a terrorist organization since 2006.
The protest began on April 7, when Ottawa’s rush hour was disrupted by hundreds of Tamils waving banners and flags, calling for the Harper government to push for an immediate ceasefire in the Sri Lankan civil war. It was part of a coordinated campaign that included protests in the U.K, U.S., Australia, and Norway—a sign of the Tamils’ increasing desperation as the Sri Lankan military finds itself on the verge of crushing the Tigers’ 25-year-long separatist rebellion.
At the protests in London, police seized a number of the Tamil flags (which charmingly depict a tiger in front of a pair of crossed rifles with bayonets fixed) on the grounds that they were breaking anti-terror laws that forbid the “glorification” of terrorism by carrying images representing a banned organization. Authorities also treated the protest as illegal because it hadn’t been given prior approval, and repeatedly threatened mass arrests if the protesters refused to disperse.
Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to Canada, Daya Perera, was keen to see our government adopt a similar position toward both the Tamil flag and the protesters in general. “I can’t see how the Canadian government can take the position that it is freedom of expression,” he told reporters. “I’d like to see the government acting properly in this regard and stopping these demonstrations that are, I think, a bane on the citizens of Ottawa.”
His concern for our municipal comfort is appreciated, but unfortunately for Perera, Canada is not the U.K., and our anti-terrorism legislation doesn’t forbid the sort of flag-waving that could count as glorifying terror. The closest law that could conceivably apply is a provision that prohibits “instructing” terrorism, but waving placards demanding an end to a civil war hardly qualifies. A House of Commons committee that recently re-examined our anti-terror law mooted the idea of instituting an anti-glorification ban similar to the U.K.’s, but the idea was dropped because it would almost certainly fail a constitutional challenge under the Charter.
That is why both the RCMP and the Ottawa police were quick to declare that there were simply no grounds for the police to take any action against people waving the flags, and once the protest had moved off the street and onto the sidewalk, there was nothing remotely illegal about the gathering at all.
That position was soundly endorsed by Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon. At a press conference last Thursday, he effectively told high commissioner Perera to get stuffed, saying the federal government had no intention of cracking down on the protesters. “It’s not up to me to put an end to protest. People are allowed to protest in Canada,” he said, adding for good measure: “We live in a democracy.”
It is gratifying to hear such a straightforward and uncompromising defence of Canada’s democratic liberties. It would be far more convincing, though, if our officials had not just gone to great lengths to keep the British MP George Galloway from coming here to speak, on the grounds that his past efforts raising funds for humanitarian relief in Gaza made him some sort of security threat.
It makes one suspect that the equanimity and tolerance with which Canadians have greeted the Tamil protests is not due to any great underlying commitment to free expression. More than likely, it is because the conflict in Sri Lanka is half a world away, and the 70,000 lives it has claimed over the past quarter century have touched only a tiny fraction of this country’s citizens.
Indeed, I’ll bet that if the people massing on front of Parliament were Palestinians marching in support of Hamas, or Taliban supporters demanding an end to Canadian combat operations in Afghanistan, our elected officials would be far less inclined to recite the Constitution, and the public would be far less inclined to tolerate it if they did.
Which leads to the depressing conclusion, for the Tamils anyway, that the reason their protest has been allowed to go on for so long is that it symbolizes their political weakness, not our democratic strength.