Friday August 22, 2014

The erosion of freedom of speech


Last week, Dean Del Mastro, former parliamentary secretary to Stephen Harper, did something that has become almost unthinkable for Conservative MPs, government employees and, well, pretty much everybody with the possible exception of media op/ed people. He actually spoke his mind, criticizing Harper, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and the Bank of Canada for devaluing the Canadian dollar.

Granted, Del Mastro is no longer technically a Conservative MP having been forced to resign from caucus over nefarious election spending. And, it is unimaginable to think he would have done it if he were not now sitting as an independent. Still, he continues to be one of the most ardent partisans of the current government and it was refreshing to hear someone such as the member from Peterborough actually express an opinion that is not a canned talking point.

I have written about erosion of free speech on several occasions, most recently at Remembrance Day. If I am not mistaken, this is one of the fundamental freedoms thousands of Canadians have fought and died for over the decades.

I am pretty sure it is a freedom entrenched in the most important legal document this country has, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Every week, however, as I try to gather the quotes that give context to local stories, it seems I am confronted with the tyranny of the organizational gag order, the spectre of fear and intimidation.

What set me off this week was the story about Sobey’s closing down. I tried to talk to the store manager, but, shocker of shockers, he said he was forbidden to talk to the media by head office.

I talked to the manager of corporate communications and, shocker of shockers, she was cautiously vague about the reasons for the closure.

I had a couple of leads on employees who might want to talk, but only if promised anonymity.

I get that there are certain occasions—matters of national security, protection of intellectual property etc.—when, to borrow the World War II idiom, “loose lips sink ships.”

I also get that there are occasions—exposing corruption, malfeasance, criminal activity etc.—when protecting a source’s anonymity is crucial because they may face some real danger.

This is not one of those occasions. This is a simple matter that affects 82 people in our community directly and many others indirectly. Businesses, even big ones such as Sobey’s, succeed and fail every day. Why did this one have to close? Was it just not suited to Yorkton’s demographics? What is the impact on the people and the community? What’s with the secrecy?

On CBC’s Cross Country Checkup last weekend regarding reform and/or abolishment of the Senate, one of Rex Murphy’s guests actually suggested that we shouldn’t keep talking about problems because it makes people think there are problems. I am paraphrasing, but that is what I got out of the remarks.

It is a head-in-the-sand attitude that is, sadly, far too prevalent in the public discourse today. Canada is a great country, yes, but we have problems. Yorkton is a great town, yes, but we have problems. Problems don’t solve themselves, we have to talk about them.

Canadians are opinionated, educated and smart… in private. When are we going to take back the right to be so in public?



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