Welcome to Canada, indeed
By Daniel M. Ryan
Thanks to an officious letter sent to her by University of Ottawa provost François Houle, Ann Coulter has gotten into another controversy. I have to admit that being informed of possible legal penalties is not exactly a welcome mat, let alone a fruit basket, but Houle is basically right about the legalities. Relatively restrictive laws on free speech is one of the differences between Canada and the United States.
There are others. One of the characters in Michael Moore's movie Sicko was a near-cousin of his, a born Canadian, who was both a Conservative and a supporter of government-provided health care. The point Moore was trying to make backfired somewhat, as it merely showed another difference between Canada and America.
I have a third one that's homier but still telling. Back in my university days, I affiliated with the then-Progressive Conservative student group. Brian Mulroney was the Prime Minister at the time, and the meetings were filled with stats showing the good job the Mulroney government was doing – particularly, with regard to the deficit. Back in those days, Canada was running permanent deficits; one of the posters showed a structural surplus, or surplus when interest payments were factored out.
Once, I buttonholed a more experienced member about libertarianism. His answer said quite clearly that he thought libertarians were a joke. No words about them having their good and bad sides, no crediting of them for being right on certain economic matters, no mention of them as a threat of any kind. To him, they were just risible and not worth thinking about.
Try that at any student Republican meeting in the United States. I'm sure that there will be opinions both favourable and unfavourable, given the Ron Paul is somewhat of a lightning rod, but I'd be surprised if any experienced young Republican would simply brush their existence aside as if they were flecks of dirt on his jacket. And yet, that's what I got in Toronto, Canada from a fellow who's much more Tory than I.
Free speech is a differentium because its existence was never necessary for the survival of Canada as a nation. Just before the American Revolution, Committees of Correspondence gathered grievances and solicited support for standing up to the Crown. When the Revolution came, they provided a necessary communications infrastructure that abetted the U.S.' victory immensely. Consequently, although the right of free speech isn't particularly "owned" by any country, a patriotic American is far more likely to feel the need for that right. "If free speech is infringed, the tyrants win" became a mighty tradition that resonates profoundly with an American because of the Revolution. In Canada, without any such crucible, free speech is just one right among many. When it comes down to brass tacks, Canadian freedom and democracy owes more to Lord Durham than free and unrestricted speech.
It may seem like the hate-crime laws and the speech-restricting provisions of the Human Rights Acts are the result of "Soviet Canuckistan" showing its colours. Its antecedent, though, is one of Canada's inheritances from British culture: more restrictive libel, slander and defamation standards. Current Canadian law in those areas is a lot like U.K. law, and quite unlike American law. There is no difference between a private person and a public figure. Publishers can be charged along with authors if a libel case is brought at the criminal level; the same applies to all three at the civil level. If "hate speech" is seen as a kind of libel, slander or defamation, then the speech restrictions in the Human Rights codes can be seen as extensions, whether overbearing or not, of Canada's very British restrictions on defamatory speech.
Canada has a civil liberties group, but it has a far lower profile than the ACLU's. Unsurprisingly, it's far less bold in its actions.
Speaking Of Hate Crimes…
People who are not fans of Ann Coulter may dismiss her claim of being the victim of a hate crime, at the hands of the U. of Ottawa, as silliness or grandstanding. However, it shows her legal training and might be based in it. To a lawyer, the laws are tools used to defend rights or assert claims. The Human Rights Act is one of those tools. Since Canadian law permits one to file a complaint, so reasons a lawyer, one should if there are sufficient grounds to.
It also shows her Americanness, in the sense of her not being a Canadian. Her likesakes on this side of the border typically regard the Human Rights Commissions as overbearing or tyrannical. It would be a difficult chore to find one Canadian social conservative who would file such a grievance, if there were real cause, because it's more Canadian to distance oneself from an institution deemed illegitimate. "Have nothing to do with those people" trumps "Give their hangers-on a taste of their own medicine" in Canada. That's why Coulter's lead in the matter is unlikely to be followed by Canadian conservatives, even of her stripe.
However, as a disguised suggestion, it does have some merit. Take, for example, the military. A certain word beginning with 'n' is rooted in a similar spitefulness that another word beginning with 'n' does with respect to African Canadians. The latter n-word is well recognized as an expression of hate speech. Why isn't the former? It does single out an identifiable group – Canadian military members and veterans – in a hostile way. Given Canada's role in World War II, and traditions built upon, there's a case to be made that the use of the former n-word does subject a person trained by the Canadian military to abuse, hatred and/or contempt.
Canadian conservatives aren't likely to take a cue from Ann, but certain affiliated groups may apply the medicine in an underserved direction. Not just the military, either...
Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.