Centennial College in Toronto recently asked me to organize a roundtable discussion during several days of lectures, study and debate on human rights. I agreed and have approached several acquaintances of mine in the federal civil service to participate. I was hopeful, in one case, that an expert on federal law might join the roundtable to offer a Canadian perspective.
“I’d love to, Ted,” he said. “But I’ve been told not to speak publicly on anything.”
“Not you too,” I responded. “Not like the scientists.”
There was silence on the phone. That was as strong an answer as he could give me. By citing scientists I was referring to examples that the national media have recently exposed. The one that sparked controversy last week involved the Harper government’s decision to close the Experimental Lakes Area, an internationally respected freshwater research centre in northern Ontario.
It’s where some of this country’s most renowned water scientists have studied the effects of contaminants such as phosphorus, mercury and acid rain, the Globe and Mail reported last week. In one moment, a spokesperson in Fisheries and Oceans claimed it was all about saving $2 million a year. In the next, it prohibited the scientists affected to speak out about saving the facility or about their views on the sudden closure.
Last year, when the RCMP coped with the appointment of a new commissioner, not to mention a number of tempestuous issues (including alleged harassment of female officers, racism and poor morale) a Canadian senator sought an audience with incoming RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson. When Vic Toews, federal minister of Public Safety, found out about the request, he publicly scolded Sen. Colin Kenny by saying he could only have an interview with Paulson if other political representatives attended (a.k.a Conservative appointees).
“The commissioner of the RCMP will meet with whom he chooses to meet with, and claims that he is being muzzled is (sic) baseless and inaccurate,” Toews told the Toronto Star.
I don’t know about you, but I think I could find citizens of just about every political stripe – left wing and right wing – who all feel that as taxpayers Canadians have a right to know (short of national security) what their public service leaders and rank and file are doing with budgets, departments, research centres and day-to-day activities serving the public good. And if that right appears to be denied, then access to the Freedom of Information Act should be there. But even the FIA appears to be, in the view of the Harper administration, an affront to its right to govern.
If the tables were turned, that is, if I had the power and opportunity to muzzle a few politicians, I can think of a number of them I’d suggest be silenced perhaps for their own good. I don’t think anybody really cared that Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin could “actually see Russia from land here in Alaska,” nor that Reform (Conservative) MP Stockwell Day thought “Lake Erie drains north to south” as a metaphor for the professional brain-drain from Canada to the U.S. And if I were handling the heir apparent in the federal Liberal leadership contest, Justin Trudeau, I think I might have suggested he not resurrect his father’s famous retort to a CBC reporter on Parliament Hill during the FLQ “October Crisis” of 1970.
“How far would you go?” Ralfe asked referring to deploying the Canadian Army.
“Just watch me,” Pierre Elliot Trudeau said.
I’d have muzzled Trudeau Jr. on that one. And I can think of a couple of Toronto mayors who might better have been muzzled than be allowed to comment at will. Mel Lastman’s assessment of a trip to Kenya comes to mind. “I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me,” he declared tactlessly. But that pales in the face of Rob Ford’s phoned-in comment, last Sunday, on CFRB 1010 about the Richard Kachkar murder trial. (I am allowed to quote this since the jury is now sequestered.)
“I’m just really disappointed how the defence is presenting (the case,)” Ford said. “One of our finest got killed…You can’t defend that…If there’s mental illness involved then he’s going to walk.”
The judge could have called a mistrial. He might have charged the radio station and/or the mayor with contempt. At the very least, we all should have called his comments ignorance of the law, disregard for his position as mayor, or at the very least degrading to the memory of Sgt. Ryan Russell, the Toronto officer killed in the incident.
I hope what my examples – government muzzling civil servants and politicians unable to muzzle their sentiments – illustrate is that the public often has more intelligence than those in power give it credit. The public sees muzzling of professionals inside the civil service as oppressive and anti-democratic. And it sees unbridled thinking by officials in high places unbecoming of the institutions they represent.