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Peter Menzies: Canada’s proposed speech and media bills are a buffet of bad ideas

Commentary

Already famous for cracking down on dissent, Canada is poised to become a global leader in restricting online speech and meddling with news media.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government gained fame this winter when protestors opposed to COVID-19 restrictions took over the streets of the nation’s capital. Ottawa police were unable to cope with what became an entrenched, irritating, noisy but largely peaceful protest involving a great many big rig trucks. And lots of honking. In response, the Trudeau government used the Emergencies ActWith the Emergencies Act invoked, we wait to see how the sledgehammer hits the peanut—giving it powers designed for wartime—to disperse the protestors.“Trudeau named Justice Paul S. Rouleau to lead the Public Order Emergency Commission, which will ‘examine the circumstances that led to the declaration being issued and the measures taken in response to the emergency.'” https://www.politico.com/news/2022/04/25/canada-emergency-laws-inquiry-trucker-convoy-00027520 Assertions of a seditious white-supremacist-led insurrection have to date proven unfounded, no weapons were found, and the government is still struggling to explain why it had to take such drastic action.

Unrepentant and undeterred, Trudeau and his Heritage Minister, Pablo Rodriguez, are moving forward with a buffet of speech and media legislation.

The Online Streaming Act places the internet under the authority of the Broadcasting Act and Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which is best known for enforcing mandated levels of Canadian content (Cancon) and ensuring that which it governs is “of good standard.”“On February 2, 2022, the Government of Canada introduced the Online Streaming Act to update the Broadcasting Act for today’s digital world. The legislation clarifies that online streaming services fall under the Broadcasting Act and ensures that the CRTC has the proper tools to put in place a modern and flexible regulatory framework for broadcasting. These tools include the ability to make rules, gather information, and assign penalties for non-compliance.” https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/services/modernization-broadcasting-act.html Rodriguez says the aim is to make streaming companies such as Netflix, Disney Plus, Pornhub, and Amazon Prime pay into funds used to make Canadian films and television programs. But the legislation gives the CRTC powers far more sweeping than those that are necessary to achieve those relatively straightforward goals. The regulator will not only get money for the funds, but it will also be expected to force YouTube et al. to give priority to approved content as well as governing TikTok, podcasts, and social media posts. The impact on consumer freedom, preferred speech, online creators, and what has been a flourishing film and television sector fuelled by foreign investment is expected to be significant.

Next up is the Online News Act, which forces American companies such as Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, etc to make payments to Canada’s struggling news industry, which insists it should be compensated for the value its posts add to social media.“Today, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Pablo Rodriguez, introduced Bill C-18, the Online News Act, which would establish a new legislative and regulatory framework to ensure fairness in the Canadian digital news marketplace and for independent local news businesses, including rural and remote news organizations, by ensuring that news media and journalists receive fair compensation for their work.” https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/news/2022/04/government-introduces-a-bill-to-ensure-fair-compensation-for-news-media-and-the-sustainability-of-local-news.html Facebook and the others believe the value they provide to news organizations (free access to billions of eyeballs) is much greater than any they receive but, regardless, Trudeau’s government is anxious to send revenue the publishers’ way. In doing so, it has again gone over the top. Despite the fact the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that hyperlinks do not have a commercial value, Bill C-18 nevertheless insists that they do—something no other country has done.

The overreach doesn’t end there: the money comes with catches. Newsrooms wishing to benefit must be approved by a government-appointed panel that assesses applicants’ bona fides and also approves which media may (or in the case of Rebel News who may not) qualify for a tax credit which is not to be confused with another panel that doles out funds to pay reporters on panel-approved beats. (This year, one of those beats involves enhanced coverage of the Trudeau government’s presence in British Columbia). A digression, for sure, but one that fills out the picture.

The Online News Act also makes the CRTC responsible for appointing arbitrators when needed and approving agreements that must detail how newsrooms spend the dollars they obtain. According to the Act, the money must be spent on coverage that is local, regional, or national—yet another unnecessary intrusion. After all, if the agreements to be reached are truly commercial, what business is it of the government how news organizations spend the money? The chill created by government involvement in newsroom decisions (Canada is going far beyond legislation elsewhere in the world, including Australia) has already been pointed to by experts such as Michael Geist who say op-eds critical of C-18 have been spiked by nervous editors. And, when last checked, only one columnist from media standing to benefit from what critics are calling a shakedown—Andrew Coyne—has published an objection to his industry’s pending subservience. Editorial boards have been unanimous in their approval.

Meanwhile, a bill amending the definition of hate speech, an offense within the Criminal Code since 1970, is also underway.“Hussen said the government will shortly reintroduce a new version of Bill C-36, an anti-hate law that died when the election was called. The bill will include the creation of a peace bond to prevent people from continuing to make racist comments or from carrying out hateful threats. The court order would be designed to prevent a hate crime from occurring and would include penalties if it is breached, including up to four years imprisonment.” https://globalnews.ca/news/8595683/anti-hate-bill-c-36-liberals/ The original law set a very high bar, targeting only speech likely to incite a breach of the peace against members of an identifiable group and/or that willfully promotes hatred against the same. Going forward, hate will be further defined as an “emotion that involves detestation or vilification and that is stronger than dislike or disdain.” More significantly, the new Act will allow for pro-active censorship, albeit with court approval, by anyone who “fears on reasonable grounds that another person will commit . . . an offence motivated by bias based on race, national origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression or any other similar factor.” It remains unclear precisely what problem the government is addressing with this change, although that may become more obvious within its next piece of legislation.

Waiting in the wings is the Online Harms bill which is, we are told, needed to deal with terrorism recruitment, unauthorized sharing of intimate images, child pornography, hate speech, and perhaps also the spread of misinformation and disinformation, about which the Prime Minister and cabinet members complain frequently.“The online harms bill would take aim at online posts in five categories — terrorist content, content that incites violence, hate speech, intimate images shared non-consensually, and child sexual exploitation content. Platforms would be required to proactively monitor posts and given 24 hours to take down illegal content after it was flagged. The bill would create a new regulator called the Digital Safety Commissioner of Canada that would be in charge of enforcement.” https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/liberals-proposed-online-harms-bill-slammed-in-secret-submissions-from-tech-companies-telecoms All of those are already illegal. Nevertheless, Rodriguez’s department initially envisioned creating a new online regulator with powers so extreme they were denounced across the board by civil rights organizations and many others. Twitter, for instance, referred to the government’s desired control over internet speech in the name of public safety as similar to authoritarian regimes such as Iran, North Korea, and China.

Still, instincts die hard when you are convinced of your virtue and Rodriguez has appointed an expert panel to help figure out how to achieve his desire to control speech (types of which, remember, are already illegal) on the internet and still survive the inevitable court challenges.

It remains unclear whether these measures will be broadly debated, let alone opposed in the public square. At the moment, the only venue available for Canadians wishing to do either is via the free and open internet where, if Trudeau and Rodriguez have their way, they will soon be communicating only in manners of which their government approves.

Howard Anglin: Two cheers for a little turbulence in politics—A response to critics of the CPC leadership campaign

Commentary

The first unofficial CPC leadership debate in Ottawa last week brought out the Victorian spinsters of the Canadian media. 

At the usually unshockable Sun tabloid, Brian Lilley deemed the debate “[a]ngry, confrontational and at times bitter” and singled out Pierre Poilievre for being “chippy” and “angry” as well as “petty and sophomoric.”

Over at the Star, Susan Delacourt speaking on behalf of the legacy media, elites, and anything else deemed liberal, sniffed about candidates who would dare to “whip up rage against ‘legacy media,’ elites and anything else deemed ‘liberal.’”

Even the crusty cynics on The Curse of Politics podcast seemed genuinely aghast, joking that they were “still cleaning the blood off the floor from the CPC debate” and gabbling like wide-eyed postulants at a peeler bar that it “was so raw, so raw.”

And the good folks of The Line went, if not quite full Hillary, then at least half-Hillary, accusing Poilievre of “ranging tonally into the, dare we say it, deplorable.”

My question for the Canadian media is, where have you been living for the last decade? 

Wherever it was, apparently it didn’t have social media. Compared to an hour scrolling Twitter, what we heard in Ottawa last week was downright genteel. Did our commentariat really think the hyper-partisanship of everyday political discourse could be kept out of our actual political discourse forever? 

The CPC debate is hardly the first time we’ve seen no-holds-barred political rhetoric. Trump’s serial indelicacies need no rehearsal, but before Trump there was Barack Obama, who brought the “Chicago Rules”—high-flown rhetoric punctuated by low blows—to national politics.Obama Played by Chicago Rules As Obama once told a crowd in the City of Brotherly Love, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” Eric Holder—once the nation’s most senior law officer—later echoed his former boss’s street-brawling style: “When they go low, we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about.”

We’ve seen it in Canada before too. Trudeau’s gratuitous smearing of Canadians who refused to get vaccinated as “racists” and “misogynists” during the last election was straight out of the toxic Twitter playbook. So was his dismissal of those who questioned vaccine mandates as holding “unacceptable views.” Why debate when you can denounce? And if you really want to see the pollution of politics by social media, tune in to the vitriol from the Alberta NDP benches in Edmonton or spend a day on #ableg Twitter. It’s gross enough to make the most defiant libertarian reconsider his commitment to free speech. 

The politics of social media was always going to seep into our national politics. There is nothing new about a demotic medium changing both the way a message is delivered and the message itself. If politicians want to be noticed on our screens, they need to speak the way everyone else on our screens speaks. What we saw at the CPC leaders debate was not politics leading our culture astray but politics moving to where our culture already is. If you don’t like it (who does?), you’re going to have to start by changing the culture. Blaming politicians for the tone of politics in a democracy confuses cause and effect. This is on us, not them.

Our society is coarser, angrier, less patient, and more sensitive than it was even a decade ago. Some of this can be blamed on social media’s anger-driven business model (speaking of which, why is no one talking about putting a stop to that, short of Trudeau’s plans to censor legal speech?). But much of it is a reasonable reaction to a hard reality: for the first time in several generations there is a substantial body of Canadians who don’t believe the system works for them. Because it doesn’t.

In 1968, the American political scientist Ted Gurr published a paper called “A Causal Model of Civil Strife: A Comparative Analysis Using New Indices.”A Causal Model of Civil Strife: A Comparative Analysis Using New Indices Gurr believed that civil unrest was related to a psychological condition he called “relative deprivation.” In his stilted academic language, relative deprivation occurs when “actors’ perceptions of discrepancy between their value expectations (the goods and conditions of the life to which they believe they are justifiably entitled) and their value capabilities (the amounts of those goods and conditions that they think they are able to get and keep)” do not align.

In the same year, another American political scientist, Samuel Huntington, published “Political Order in Changing Societies.”Political Order in Changing Societies Like Gurr, Huntington believed that the gap between expectation and satisfaction was a useful predictor of political instability. He added that this instability is related to, and can be exacerbated by, a reduction in social mobility and a hardening of political institutions that makes them less adaptable to social change, less responsive to social needs. 

For anyone under 30, the life their parents and grandparents took for granted is a fantasy. The home they grew up in might as well be a fairy tale castle for all the chance they have of being able to afford anything like it. Their jobs are less secure, raising their children is more expensive, and the steady economic growth (with a few blips) of the last 40 years feels increasingly precarious—a Ponzi scheme they joined too late. Between growing frustration at frustrated expectations and the heightened level of social anxiety post-COVID, it would surprising if our politics didn’t become more urgent and more raw.

The protests we have seen so far in Canada have been tame. Even including the Ottawa Freedom Convoy/Occupation, its local offshoots across the country, and the brief (and peacefully dispersed) blockades at several border crossings, we have seen nothing on the scale of civic disruption that France saw during the Gilets Jaune demonstrations, and nothing comparable to the riots that roiled the United States last summer and left a long criminal tail

If a real protest movement does develop in Canada, we should hope that it is channelled within the political system, rather than against it. The CPC leadership debate may have been a disturbing sight to Canadians accustomed to the sedative tones of CBC political panels, but it was a disturbing democratic sight. This is a good thing. The sparks we saw on stage are preferable to real fires in the streets. 

And if popular frustration does occasionally spill over into the streets? Well, that’s nothing new either. Democracy is about more than casting a ballot once every four years. Protest, including disruptive protest within limits, has always been part of democratic politics. From the Peasants Revolt to the Rebellions of 1837, the people always have reserved the right to express their frustration directly, even—or especially—if they are an unpopular minority. The Left used to recognize this. Heck, they used to celebrate it (and, for their favoured causes, they still do.) We should not expect politics to be drained of emotion, nor should we want it to be. Politics should be about what matters to people, and what matters is sometimes worth raising a stink about. 

Whatever you think of what the Freedom Convoy became, the complaint that sparked it was not unreasonable. Given the vaccination rate and the unchecked spread of COVID in Canada at the time, it made no sense to require Canadian truckers travelling to and from the United States to be vaccinated. Recognizing this and changing the policy would have taken the wind out of the convoy before it arrived in Ottawa. Showing sympathy for unvaccinated truckers would have cost the federal government nothing (and, because the U.S. had the same rule, it wouldn’t even have changed anything). But by then Trudeau had backed himself into an ideological corner from which even common sense offered no escape. 

Nor should we forget that unvaccinated Canadians still cannot travel within Canada by train or plane (which, in a country of our size, effectively means they can’t travel very far at all). And they are subject to a 14-day quarantine if they leave and return to Canada, even though no province requires more than five days of isolation even for a positive test (the U.K., where I am, quietly dropped the requirement to isolate even for a positive test months ago). At this point in the pandemic, these restrictions look less like public health measures and more like petty vindictiveness. Good for the candidates in the debate who said so.

After viewing the passive attitude of the “sheep-like” coal miners of Northern England in 1936, George Orwell concluded bitterly that, “[t]here is no turbulence left in England.”George Orwell: Diaries He believed that a little turbulence—which elsewhere he called “a tug from below” on the ruling class—is a sign of vigour in a democracy. It is especially welcome when the turbulence is motivated by a genuine grievance like the intergenerational injustice unfolding in Canada’s housing market, the unconscionable debt burden the Boomers are leaving for their grandchildren, and punitive travel restrictions on the unvaccinated. 

For people on the wrong side of those divides—which adds up to a lot of Canadians—the frustration with the status quo is much deeper and much angrier than most pundits and public officials seem to realize. In the CPC leadership campaign, we are finally seeing politicians recognize this frustration and respond in the language those voters are already using. If you listen to Poilievre’s message about challenging the gatekeepers and reforming our arthritic institutions, and if you take seriously the warnings of Gurr and Huntington, then you’ll see his campaign is an antidote to the problem, not the problem itself.

The media scolds who cluck their tongues and stroke their beards over the incivility of the Canada Strong and Free debate or the stridency of Poilievre’s rhetoric don’t get it. They sound like those old-time campaigners against media indecency who would write sour letters to the radio station if a band blasphemed. I say this as someone with a healthy skepticism of democracy, who believes that we would have been better off without the invention of television, the internet, and the idiot stream of social media, but these critics are living in an alternate reality. The anger is real and the blame lies with the political class who got us here, not with the politicians telling them to wake up and change course.  

My advice to the ingenues of the Canadian press corps is to stock up on smelling salts. If Ottawa and Bay Street don’t act soon to address the causes of the present discontent—and there is no sign they will—our society and our politics are about to get a whole lot uglier.