The anti-terror bill criminalizes dissent

Bill C-51 is being pushed through Parliament despite opposition from four ex-prime ministers, hundreds of jurists and tens of thousands of Canadians.

Bill C-51

The French believe in free speech, and now we know how much they charge for it. For controversial comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, four words on a Facebook post cost him $40,530, which turns into two years in jail if he fails to pay.

So about $10,000 or six months in prison — per word.

Dieudonné, let’s be clear, is a racist. I’d no more attend one of his shows than I would attend a white power concert. I find his brand of hatred humour offensive and I have no empathy for the man himself, who courts controversy and probably found the ensuing worldwide publicity well worth the 60,000 euro fine he was issued Wednesday.

I also don’t like the racist statements I’ve read this week from Conservative MP Larry Miller, who told a radio audience he thought that Muslim women who want to wear the face-covering veil known as a niqab, should “stay the hell where you came from.”

Would I like to see Miller fined $70,000 for uttering that seven-word racist trope? Yes, that would be fun. Except that would mean living in a country that represses the free expression of its citizens by fining people for saying things that the rest of us don’t like.

Freedom of expression does indeed have a cost, and that’s the requirement that it be guaranteed for opinions we dislike. Dieudonné’s Facebook post satirized the “Je Suis Charlie” meme that swept the western world following the Jan. 7 French terror attacks, avowing “Je suis Charlie Coulibaly,” a reference to the man who killed a policewoman and four shoppers at a kosher supermarket.

Prosecutors successfully argued that this constituted support for terrorism under a recent French law that bears a striking resemblance to what Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is trying to foist on Canadians under Bill C-51, currently being pushed through Parliament over the protests of hundreds of well-respected jurists, including the last four men to hold Harper’s job, five former Supreme Court judges and even the federal privacy commissioner whom Harper himself appointed just last summer.

(Public support for C-51 is also, happily, in a tailspin, according to new polling data.)

Bill C-51 specifically criminalizes speech that “promotes or glorifies terrorism,” which, under other provisions of the law, can include acts such as indigenous activists who engage in occupations or blockades to protect their lands against resource exploitation.

And what do you think the Conservatives are really more afraid of: a handful of potential Islamic radicals, or the tens of thousands of Canadian activists determined to restrict or shut down the ever-struggling Alberta oil patch that is the base of Conservative money and power?


You don’t eradicate opinions you dislike by rendering them illegal. Rarely in the history of the world have significant belief systems been erased through repression — unless taken to the point of genocide. In a free and democratic state, the most effective means of combatting ideas that are truly repugnant to the population is to allow for debate that exposes them to the light of day rather than drive them farther into the shadows.

That same light is something that has allowed other “radical” ideas to spread from small pockets of activists to entire populations, everything from universal suffrage, to human rights guarantees, sexual equality, same-sex marriage and thousands of other social-evolutionary changes unimaginable just decades ago, and opposed by the progenitors — and some of the current members — of today’s Conservative base.

Free speech is not a threat to the Canadian population regardless of how repulsive some of its content might be. But free speech is clearly a threat to the vested interests that want Canadians to be afraid of ideas that actually have a chance of catching fire, such as weighing the cost of certain forms of economic development against the ecological destruction associated with them.

We are indeed under an imminent terror threat, but it comes from our own government. The Harper Tories are trying to frighten us into hiding under our bed covers, promising to protect us by checking our closets, our computers, our families, friends and neighbourhoods in a search for the bogeyman.

But I think we’ve already found him. “Je suis Stephen Harper.”

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.