Inside Politics

SenateWatch: The Finley Freedom of Speech Inquiry gets off to a rousing start!

I wasn't, alas, able to make it the Chamber to witness the opening salvo from Senator Doug Finley on "the erosion of freedom of speech" in Canada, but I did manage to keep one ear tuned to the audio feed, and as soon as it was up, I went straight to the official transcript to find highlights suitable of posting, if only as part of my lonely but relentless campaign to convince the vast majority of my fellow Canadians that the Senate can be every bit as lively as the House of Commons, depending on the day. 

To begin with, Finley's opening speech was filled to overflowing with the colour and flourish for which he has -- actually, come to think of it, never really been known, what with being a shadowy background character until his ascension to the Upper House.

"Censorship," he intoned to fellow senators in his gruff Scottish tones, "reared its ugly head" at Ann Coulter's ultimately aborted appearance at the University of Ottawa last week, as "an unruly mob of nearly 1,000 people, some of whom had publicly mused about assaulting her, succeeded in shutting down her lecture after overwhelmed police said they could not guarantee her safety."

After his introductory remarks had drawn to a applause-generating close, the debate -- yes, as it turned out, there actually was a debate -- got underway.

One of the first senators to rise during questions and comments was former Chretien chief of staff Percy Downe, who wondered whether, given his impassioned defence of Coulter, Finley believed that the government "has made a mistake by restricting people who want to come to Canada to speak by not allowing them entrance to the country?"

Finley's response, and Downe's rejoinder:

Senator Finley: I can certainly appreciate where the question comes from, honourable senators. Far be it from me to argue with my wife, the minister, and the Ministers of Immigration and Public Safety, and so on. It is a fine line. I assume that the honourable senator is referring to Mr. Galloway. I was disappointed that he was not given an opportunity to express himself here in Canada.

I have followed Mr. Galloway's pronouncements, and I do not think it would have taken long for Canadians to realize the manner of the man. However, on balance, the decision to ban Mr. Galloway was probably correct because of incidents and activities in which he has been involved. Although, I was disappointed that he did not get an opportunity to strut his stuff in front of Canadians.

Senator Downe: I thank the honourable senator for that thoughtful response. I found his speech interesting. It will be an interesting debate. I was not referring to the honourable senator's spouse but to the previous minister.

An enlightening exchange, if only for the revelation that it appears neither Downe nor Finley are aware of the fact that the latter's spouse was not, in fact, immigration minister at the time of the Galloway border ban.

After the time for questions and comments on Finley's address had, alas, expired, his Conservative colleague, David Tkachuk, took the floor to denounce the "mob" that "so physically  intimidated the police that the guardians of free speech, the police,  fearing  for Ms. Coulter's safety, advised her against speaking."

He then reminded his fellow senators that, despite UofO president Allan Rock's statement that it was not the university that  stopped Ms. Coulter from speaking, "dictators use paramilitary groups to prevent free speech," which elicited the following outburst: 

An Hon. Senator: Oh, come on!

Senator Tkachuk: I am just stating what happened. You might not like  what I am stating, but I am stating what happened. I am practising free  speech.

Senator Cordy: Were you there?

According to the transcript, Tkachuk did not answer that question, or, for that matter, the following one, which came from Progressive Conservative Senator Lowell Murray:

Hon. Lowell Murray: Would Senator Tkachuk take a question? I
congratulate Senator Finley and Senator Tkachuk on their speeches. My
question to Senator Tkachuk is: If I am not in my seat at the time, will he
agree, in the interest of open debate and free speech, to offer a courtesy second to
Senator Harb the next time he brings in his bill on the seal hunt? Is there an

Some Hon. Senators: Oh, oh.

Then it was over to Senator Mike Duffy, who delivered -- pretty much exactly the sort of speech we've all come to expect from him in his post-journalistic iteration, really, although in fairness, I don't think any of us predicted that Senator Without Party Alignment Anne Cools would attempt to shoehorn one of her pet issues, fathers' rights, into the discussion.

This bit of mischief-making by Liberal Senator Jim Munson, however, shouldn't have come as a surprise, given Duffy's recent, well-publicized musings on the subject:

Hon. Jim Munson: I notice that this notice of motion was under Senator Finley's name and that he will "call the attention of the Senate to the issue of the erosion of Freedom of Speech in our country." Will the honourable senator expand upon his views on critical thinking?

Senator Duffy: Is this question addressed to me or Senator Finley?

Senator Munson: It is for Senator Duffy.

Senator Duffy: I do not think I can do the subject justice in the time available today. That discussion is for another time.

After Duffy sat down, it was Senator Pam Wallin's turn at the microphone. Like Duffy, she made repeated reference to her past journalistic career -- although it bears noting that her particular past is distinctly more distant than his -- and prompted the following comments from Liberal Senate Leader James Cowan, who suggested that the discussion, perhaps, should be broadened beyond the Coulter Affair:

Senator Cowan: Honourable senators, I am sure all of us in this chamber welcome Senator Finley's inquiry. Many of us are anxious to participate in the debate. My question relates to the particular focus of not only Senator Wallin's speech but a number of other speeches, and that is what I might call the Coulter incident.

Is it the honourable senator's belief that the censorship and improper conduct in relation to that incident is based on the university preventing her from speaking, which has been reported, or based upon another report that Coulter's own organizers shut it down and requested that she not go forward?

I was not there; perhaps the honourable senator was, but there were two different reports. From the tenor of some of the discussion today, it seems that the focus of this, which I think should be broader --

An Hon. Senator: Oh, oh.

Senator Cowan: Perhaps Senator Comeau was there and he can speak. Perhaps the honourable senator should speak on this; it is an important issue.

I would like to hear from Senator Wallin whether she knows which of those two possible explanations is, in fact, true.

Senator Wallin: I thank Senator Cowan for the question. I do not know what is ultimately true. The reports I read indicated that her organizers decided to pull her away from the event in conjunction with conversation with university officials. It is a chicken and egg scenario in my mind. It is simply one example. We can pick others and my colleague, Senator Duffy, mentioned others in this country. [...]

Wallin was then quizzed on Israeli Apartheid Week by Liberal Senator Art Eggleton -- should it be banned? She doesn't know -- as well as "freedom of speech for senior public servants" who are, Downe pointed out, sometimes threatened with loss of legal fees, or even their jobs, for speaking before parliamentary committees:

Hon. Art Eggleton: My question to Senator Wallin centres on a controversy that has existed on campuses in Canada for the last couple of years about the Israeli Apartheid Week that upsets many people in our communities as being anti-Semitic. If it is not directly anti-Semitic, it is close to it.

How do the honourable senator's comments relate to that particular annual event which offends many people in this country?

Senator Wallin: I thank Senator Eggleton for the question. I did not cite that as an example, and I have certainly read about those situations on campus. The larger point is what is troubling me, and I say this also as a chancellor of a university: It should be of interest to us what that next generation out there is thinking and doing on university campuses. We might be well served to educate ourselves about debates being held on that topic, those that my colleagues raised today and that I did as well.

Senator Eggleton: The honourable senator would not suggest, as some people do, that those debates be banned?

Senator Wallin: I cannot tell honourable senators whether or not I think they should be banned. I have done some reading on that, but not in depth. If they fall under the purview of hate speech, and I cannot answer that specifically, if that is happening, then we have some laws and regulations to address that. I do not know enough of the circumstances to tell honourable senators what I think should be done legally.

Senator Downe: Will the honourable senator tell us her view on the subject of freedom of speech for senior public servants, some of whom -- when they appear before parliamentary committees or in other forums where they must relate what the facts are -- are sometimes threatened that their legal costs will not be covered for any lawsuits that come out of it? That is against the tradition where legal costs are always covered for public servants and parliamentarians. In one case, a head of an agency lost her job.

What are the honourable senator's views on freedom of speech for senior public servants?

Senator Wallin: I have had experience with that on all sides of the coin, as someone who was the consul general in New York, when I had to seek legal support for some of my staff members during a particular incident. I have looked at this issue as a journalist from many sides. This is precisely the point: let us look at some of these issues and find a constructive way to approach this subject.

There are obvious reasons of national security for which some people will be restricted from speaking. I do not think that would be challenged by anyone. We cannot share every secret, and we also must take into account the context in which people make the comments that they do and check out the actual allegations as to whether they had other forums or other ways to share their information.

These things are never as simple as they appear in a news story of four or five paragraphs. These issues are complicated, and that is exactly why we have raised this. It is a good time for all of us to reflect. There have been many changes in the way information is spread these days. This is a good time to inquire into that situation.

As the time allotted for the inquiry drew to a close -- fear not, not forever; just for the night -- Munson popped up again to suggest that the inquiry be expanded to cover the erosion of freedom of speech in the United States: specifically, an incident that, like the Coulter non-apperance, occurred last week, wherein "David Frum exercised freedom of speech and lost his job." Wallin told him that Canada should "clean up its own backyard" before turning its eyes southward.

With that -- well, with that, and another appearance by Cools, who brought up the case of Dr. Norman Finkenstein, a Norman Finkelstein, "a Jewish academic, whose very parents were victims in the Holocaust, and who is critical of Israeli aggression against the Palestinians" yet who, she claimed, "is under fire for speaking out against Israeli aggression" -- the Chamber moved on to its next order of business: whether or not to televise Senate proceedings. All in all, it was every bit as substantive and provocative a discussion as you can find down the hall in the Other Place on the best of days -- and I'll definitely do my best to be in the gallery for the next installment. 

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