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The Washington Post
© December 12, 1999
In Canada, Free Speech Has Its Restrictions
Government Limits Discourse That Some May Find Offensive
By Steven Pearlstein
Washington Post Foreign Service
TORONTO--New Yorker Harold Mollin thought it was a pretty clever way to
market his new "weather insurance" to Canadians planning weddings or
vacations: a 30-second TV spot featuring a huckster dressed in an Indian
headdress leading a bunch of senior citizens in a rain dance.
But to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), the ad was an affront to
Native Americans and the elderly. The government-owned broadcaster
refused to run it.
"This is political correctness run amok," said an incredulous Mollin,
noting that the seniors in the spot included his 89-year-old father, his
aunt and his best friend's parents.
Or take the case of Stephani the cow. This fall, after a visitor to the
government's experimental farm complained that she didn't like sharing
the same name with the animal, the farm's director declared that,
henceforth, government cows would get only names like Rhubarb and
Whether you call it over-sensitive political correctness or an abiding
sense of fairness and decency, Canada has embraced it like a . . . well,
never mind. Through its human rights laws and hate speech codes,
broadcast standards and myriad "voluntary" industry guidelines, Canada
makes no bones about its determination to impose liberal-minded limits
on public discourse.
Although the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms put free speech and a
free press into the bedrock of Canadian law, neither the public nor
Canada's courts views these rights as absolutely as Americans have come
to view the First Amendment. The Canadian Supreme Court has ruled in a
series of cases that the government may limit free speech in the name of
other worthwhile goals, such as ending discrimination, ensuring social
harmony or promoting equality of the sexes.
"In Canada," said Ron Cohen, chairman of the Canadian Broadcast
Standards Council, "we respect free speech but we don't worship it. It
is one thing we value, but not the only thing."
Cohen said that Canada seems to have survived reasonably well without
Don Imus or Rush Limbaugh on any of its radio stations. (Howard Stern is
heard only in Montreal --and then only censored on tape delay.) Last
month, the Global Television network pulled the "Jerry Springer" show
from its lineup after the standards council found that it had violated
the restrictions on sex and violence.
Canada's most powerful tool against politically incorrect speech is its
hate speech code, which prohibits any statement that is "likely to
expose a person or group of persons to hatred or contempt" because of
"race, color, ancestry, place of origin, religion, marital status,
family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation or
age." Prosecutors are not required to show proof of malicious intent or
actual harm to win convictions in hate speech cases, and courts in some
jurisdictions have ruled that it does not matter whether the statements
One person who has run afoul of the code is Hugh Owens, a Christian
fundamentalist who took out a small display ad in the Saskatoon
newspaper featuring a stick figure drawing of two men holding hands
inside a circle with a slash through it--a statement of his disapproval
What made it worse, said the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, was
that the graphic was accompanied by citations from the Biblical books of
Leviticus, Romans and First Corinthians that, in some translations, call
for sodomy to be punished by death by stoning. If a hearing officer
agrees that this display violates the code, Owens could become the first
modern-day Canadian punished by the government for citing the Bible.
"Our position is that you can't rely simply on the free exchange of
ideas to cleanse the environment of hate and intolerance," said John
Hucker, secretary general of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
For the Canadian press, however, a more serious challenge to free speech
is posed by a case brought by the Human Rights Commission of British
Columbia against Douglas Collins, a former columnist for the North Shore
News in Vancouver.
In 1994, Collins wrote four columns that questioned whether as many as 6
million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and criticized Hollywood for
contributing to the "Holocaust propaganda" with movies such as
"Swindler's List," as he called Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List."
Acting on a complaint by the Canadian Jewish Congress, a commission
tribunal ruled that the columns had expressed his "hatred and contempt .
. . subtly and indirectly" by "reinforcing negative stereotypes" about
The tribunal imposed $2,000 fines each on Collins and the newspaper and
ordered the paper to publish a summary of its decision--the first time
that any Canadian government agency or court had dictated editorial
content to a newspaper and ordered that it be published. The case has
been appealed to the British Columbia Supreme Court.
The electronic media operate under even tighter content restrictions.
Last month, in the midst of violent protests in New Brunswick over
Indian fishing rights, CBC reporters on orders from network officials,
began referring to participants as "native fishers" and "non-native
"Why can't we call them what they call themselves?" complained CBC
producer Dan Leger in an internal e-mail leaked to the National Post.
"Mik'maqs call each other Indians. Fishermen call themselves, well,
fishermen." Leger called the new designations "urban, technocratic,
precious, racist and, above all, imprecise."
Failing to follow such guidelines, however, can have consequences. In
Winnipeg last year, radio talk show host John Collison lost his job
after the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) complained to
station owners about his repeated and sometimes salty diatribes against
Glen Murray, who eventually became the first openly gay mayor in Canada.
Collison also used his show to stir up opposition to a program proposed
by some school board members to eliminate homophobia in the city's
Collison concedes he was playing the role of "shock jock." In response
to threats from the CRTC, Collison said, the station not only fired him,
but also gave up its all-talk format in favor of easy-listening music.
"This is the way things run in Canada," Collison said. "There is no way
of escaping the mandarins of political correctness."
Andrea Wylie, a member of the CRTC, disagrees. "We are not the thought
police," she said. "We use our power lightly."
Wylie cited figures showing that the commission and its broadcast
standards council took action in only about a dozen of the 14,000 viewer
complaints lodged last year. While acknowledging that the very existence
of the codes might have a chilling effect on public discourse, she
called it "a reasonable chill," reflecting what Canadians are willing to
"We don't have the hang-up you Americans have with free speech," Wylie
Advertisers in Canada also must adhere to a strict set of guidelines
adopted voluntarily by the industry, but no less effective than the
government regulations. Under their dicta, a national restaurant chain
was recently forced to pull a television spot showing a helpless dad
trying to prepare dinner for the kids (he eventually gives up and takes
them out for burgers and fries). A hearing officer ruled that the
commercial "reinforced negative stereotypes" about men that "cannot be
excused by an attempt to engage in humor."
There are a few Canadians who worry about these limits, but, as Alan
Borovoy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has
discovered, it's a very few. Despite 30 years of crisscrossing the
country warning of the dangers of speech codes and laws, Borovoy's
organization has a mere 6,000 members and a budget of less than
$300,000. Typically, he can take on fewer than 10 cases a year.
Sitting in his cramped office in a rundown office building in downtown
Toronto, Borovoy is philosophical in describing American and Canadian
attitudes toward civil liberties. While Americans are suspicious of
government and rally to the cry of "life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness," Canadians, he said, tend to respect authority and set their
sights on the more modest goals of "peace, order and good government."
"In this country, we give the government too much power and trust them
not to abuse it," said Borovoy, noting that, for the most part, voters
have not been disappointed. "I tell people that Canada is a pleasantly