Following the cancellation of an Ottawa screening of Iranium, a controversial film about Iran's nuclear ambitions, Rex finds that a little bit of protest goes a long way in this country.  So how does something as fundamental as free speech fall so far out of fashion, he asks.

Please note:  During the broadcast on Thursday night, Rex Murphy mistakenly referred to Queen's University, rather than the University of Waterloo.  We have posted an edited version of the video onine.  Rex regrets the error.

Read the transcript of this point of view

Please note:  During the broadcast on Thursday night, Rex Murphy mistakenly referred to Queen's University, rather than the University of Waterloo.  We have corrected the text.  He regrets the error.

 

Rex Murphy Point of View

January 20, 2011

Iranium is the not too clever, but still appropriate name for a controversial film about Iran's march towards being a nuclear power. (Better than James Cameron's dopey Unobtainium, but what isn’t?)

 

Iranium was scheduled to be shown this week in the very hometown of free speech and open intellectual inquiry – that would be Ottawa -- by no less an institution than the National Archives of Canada. 

 

However, the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa protested - as is their unalienable right. Then, there were a flood of complaints – spontaneous or contrived – it is difficult to tell. There were threats as well - and, even worse, the delivery of suspicious packages or letters at the Archives building. One trusts there are rigorous inquiries underway about these matters.

 

Hardly very Canadian - any of it - especially the threats and suspicious letters.  As a result, the screening of Iranium Tuesday night was cancelled.  

 

I think we should mark this moment. It's becoming more and more the default position on free speech and public expression in Canada that if some group, small or large, mounts enough pressure, or descends to ugly versions of protest, or simply shouts down a legitimate speaker - the authorities, whether government, bureaucracy, university, or police - shut down the event, cancel the film or speech, and hand victory to the bullies and thugs or those who gin up some atmosphere of fear and menace.

 

It was telling that the archives first impulse was to rid themselves of the troublesome screening - just like in something of a parallel case when Christie Blatchford went to speak at University of Waterloo and a trio of anti-free speech types held the stage hostage - the university sent Blatchford home - and effectively gave the night to those who insisted on silencing the speaker.  A travesty.  And it’s one example that can serve as a parable for many others.

 

It's good that government, in the case of Iranium, moved very fast to insist the film be rescheduled - though they have not been nearly as fast in monitoring and resisting this whole trend; very slow in making some principled articulation on our wayward and invasive Human Rights Commissions for example.

 

Our commitment to free speech is, or was, one of the greatest matters of pride in this country. We had, in part, gone to war in defense of that deepest of civic virtues. And it was embedded in our very habits of thought, our civic consciousness, as Canadians.

 

This is less and less true, as protest, threat and the epidemic suffocations of political correctness, more and more limit what can be said and what people are willing to say. The value and understanding of free speech is eroding. For many it's just one grey dated concept among others – rather than – as it has to be understood – the very enabling concept of our entire democracy.

 

For The National, I’m Rex Murphy.