Harper and Political Expression

In India for talks on trade and general international issues, Stephen Harper stood up for freedom of political expression.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday he won’t “interfere” with the political rights of Canadian Sikhs who advocate a separate state in India — even though his government firmly opposes the idea.

However, Harper indicated the Conservative government would take action if it detects that those Sikhs turn to violence to advance their cause.

This is exactly the correct approach. The government is entitled to their opinions on international matters, but that should not interfere with the right of people to express their differences with this policy. That is the essence of freedom of expression.

Unfortunately, this is at odds with Harper’s record of silencing critics here at home. His tactics do not include jailing or otherwise physically intimidating opponents as is so common in some parts of the world. Rather, he uses control government over the public sector and selective removal of financial assistance to non-government agencies.

For example, in 2011, Rob Nicholoson. the Minister of Justice and Attorney General, stated that “We’re not governing on the basis of the latest statistics“. Subsequently, they ceased the mandatory aspect of the long form census without replacing it with other data gathering tools.

The Canadian government has also come under fire from scientists worldwide for denying the ability of government employed scientists to speak freely on their research.

Researchers who once would have felt comfortable responding freely and promptly to journalists are now required to direct inquiries to a media-relations office, which demands written questions in advance, and might not permit scientists to speak. Canadian journalists have documented several instances in which prominent researchers have been prevented from discussing published, peer-reviewed literature. Policy directives and e-mails obtained from the government through freedom of information reveal a confused and Byzantine approach to the press, prioritizing message control and showing little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge.

Back in 2006, the government removed funding from an organization that funded court challenges to discriminatory practices.

The Harper government has systematically eroded the ability of equality-seeking groups to exercise their Charter rights by dramatically defunding human rights organizations advocating on behalf of such groups. An early indication of the government’s stance on advocacy came in 2006 when it discontinued the Court Challenges Program. For over 20 years, that program had been advancing the rights and equality of women, immigrants and refugees, gays and lesbians, and other disadvantaged groups by funding the costs of challenging discriminatory laws in court.

Interestingly, shortly after assuming office in 2006, the conservatives established the position of Parliamentary Budget Officer; an official who would answer to Parliament rather than the PMO. This office provides economic and fiscal as well as expenditure and revenue analysis of government programs. Currently the officer, Kevin Page, is looking into his legal options to force the government to provide the documentation he claims is essential to fulfilling his mandate.

At this writing, the Bill titled “Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act” has passed in Parliament and is in first reading in the  Senate. For those outside Canada, the our Senate mostly provides a rubber stamp to government bills. This bill outlaws masks and other forms of concealing identities at any gathering the government deems unlawful. Unfortunately, the definition of what is a lawful vs unlawful assembly is amorphous and subject to government interpretation.The Globe and Mail reports that unlawful assembly includes:

any group of three or more people who provoke fears or have intentions of disturbing the peace “tumultuously.”

Given the recent government approach to the Occupy Movement (in some instances), this bill certainly raises concerns.

Despite a recent Supreme Court decision denying warrant-less wiretaps, the government is seeking to remove accountability from

Given the court’s emphasis on notice, it is striking that Bill C-30 moves in precisely the opposite direction. As David Fraser has discussed, the lawful access bill has a gag order the explicitly prohibits disclosure of the warrantless disclosure. The provision is designed to stop telecom and Internet companies from disclosing their mandated disclosures to affected subscribers, even if they ask. In fact, the lack of accountability extends beyond just the statutory gag order on notice. Law enforcement officials – including Competition Bureau investigators – can demand subscriber data without a warrant and without any justification for the demand.

While Stephen Harper talks the talk in India, I’m not so sure he is walking the walk back home in Canada. His earlier campaigns against the Liberals included a lot of rhetoric about government transparency and accountability, he certainly has not followed through on those issues.

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