Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, first, I would like to say that I will adjourn this inquiry in the name of Senator Andreychuk, out of courtesy.

Honourable senators, I stand today in support of Senator Cowan’s inquiry to draw attention to the thirtieth anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Like millions of Canadians, I am tremendously proud of the Charter as a reflection of our national identity. This is an excellent inquiry.

Senator Cowan and other honourable senators who have spoken so eloquently about the Charter have inspired me to give fresh thought to what is great about this country.

I am pleased to keep the celebration going with my own reflections on the rights and freedoms enshrined within our Constitution, in particular, freedom of the press.

Senator Mercer: Hear, hear!

Senator Munson: As a reporter stationed in China in the 1980s and early 1990s, I encountered situations that could never take place here. Since I was the president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, which the Chinese referred to as an “outlawed” organization, the foreign ministry periodically called me in on the carpet for my own stories, as well as those produced by my American colleagues.

Many of my stories were about political dissidence, but they were hardly a threat to the Chinese government. Chinese citizens never actually saw any of these stories, even though they were accounts of events and issues impacting them directly. I was allowed to send my work outside Chinese borders, but no one in China ever saw it. It was like straddling the realities of two worlds. In one, freedom of the press was a value; in the other, free expression could land you in prison for a long time.

During those awful, tense days leading up to the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Chinese government declared martial law. Under force, China Central Television reverted to being the propaganda arm of the government. The People’s Daily and other papers that hinted at any sympathy for students’ causes were effectively gagged. To ensure that the world would bear witness to what was happening, foreign correspondents had to sneak stories out of China with tourists or business people travelling to Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Freedom of the press did not exist in China then, nor does it exist in China today.

In Canada we take our freedom of the press for granted. We should not. Our own history tells us it has been a difficult struggle, with lives ruined along the way. Freedom of the press is a necessary instrument for government accountability and social change. It matters today; it has mattered throughout Canadian history, even before Confederation.

In 1835, Joseph Howe published a letter in The Nova Scotian accusing Halifax politicians and police of pocketing public money. Nova Scotian politicians were outraged and charged him with libel. In those days, publishing a letter could lead to a serious criminal charge; yet truth was not a defence.

There are times when the absence of justice can bring out the advocate in a person. This was one of those times. For more than six hours, Howe stood before a jury, citing case after case of government corruption, all building toward a plea for freedom of the press. His concluding request to jurors was this: “To leave an unshackled press as a legacy to our children.”

Though Joseph Howe was found guilty, the jury voted shortly thereafter to acquit him.

An Hon. Senator: Hear, hear.

Senator Munson: In the 1970s, with my career as a reporter just beginning, I was alerted to the examples set by journalists I admired. Though she lived and wrote her outspoken editorials for British Columbia’s Bridge River Lillooet News before I was even born, Ma Murray was one such journalist: rough, forthright and honest in her editorials. She empowered readers with information on politics and other issues of the day.

Bruce Hutchison, the former editor of the Victoria Times, was another journalist I have long admired. In 1960, he testified before a royal commission on the vital role of the periodical press in strengthening our national identity. He argued that by offering balanced, detailed coverage of national issues, periodicals played a crucial role in preventing this country from being overwhelmed by U.S. pressures. He said:

The Canadian people are not getting softer but if anything harder in their distinct identity. The best proof of this fact is the present general state of alarm about the nation’s future — an alarm which I consider the most healthy sign in Canada today.

Social justice, individual and civil liberties, communities and civic engagement — these are among the Toronto Star’s long-time guiding principles. It is fitting that the likes of the late George Bain and my good friend, the late Jim Travers, were once columnists and editors there. They too are, for me, iconic defenders of press freedom.

In undemocratic, corrupt countries around the world, journalists are killed and made to suffer for seeking and exposing truths about their leaders and governments. Freedom of the press is recognized by all sides as the precursor to democracy. To the rulers of these countries, it is a threat to the status quo. For citizens who are poor and lacking a voice in how their countries are run, it is an aspiration.

In Ethiopia, two Swedish journalists were recently sentenced to 11 years in jail for allegedly entering the country and supporting terrorism. According to Rona Peligal, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Africa, the supporting terrorism clause in the country’s anti-terrorism law was deliberately worded so as to suppress the legitimate work of the media.

PEN International has offices throughout the world that celebrate writers and journalists and promote freedom of expression. PEN Mexico recently held PEN Protesta! to bring together writers from all corners of the world, to lift their voices against violence and its threat to freedom and the country’s democracy. Jennifer Clement, PEN Mexico’s president, has described the dehumanizing effects of censorship, punishment and persecution on Mexican citizens: “If out of fear we no longer publish the news, we lose not only our democracy and freedom, but our history.”

Honourable senators, did any of you notice that on the very day Senator Cowan launched his inquiry on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Senator Fraser stood, as she annually does, to bear witness to the journalists and media workers who died last year because they were journalists? There were more than 50 journalists in 2011. In Senator Fraser’s words, “Every one of them died in the service of bringing the truth to the rest of us.”

Last month, Ryerson University in Toronto hosted a conference called “Press Freedom in Canada.” Journalists, lawyers, scholars, students and members of the public assembled to assess the state of freedom in the press. The consensus was that it is in pretty bad shape, reduced by a mix of factors. In a Toronto Star editorial entitled “Canadian Charter of Rights: What is the status of press freedom in Canada?,” Kathy English warned journalists and Canadians in general to resist being smug and taking for granted this fundamental freedom. She said:

In Canada, judges still impose too many publication bans that stop journalists from reporting on public court proceedings; bureaucrats routinely block requests for public information; control-mad governments shut down access and politicians refuse to speak to journalists, who seek to hold them to account on the public’s behalf.

Just a few days ago — and I hope they do not get too upset on the other side — the Harper government won the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Code of Silence Award for keeping facts on files out of public hands, avoiding questions at media events, and restricting public and media access to contentious information.

Some Hon. Senators: Shame!

Senator Munson: Bans, restrictions and secrecy hold a lot of responsibility for the weak state of press freedom, but there are also a number of other factors to blame. The situation is made worse by profit-driven changes in the media and communications industry; media empires squeezing out smaller, alternative outlets; fewer and fewer journalists to cover more and more information; the eclipse of objective coverage by opinion pieces and social media content. Exacerbating the situation still more are the journalists themselves. They are simply not trying hard enough and, as the Toronto Star’s Michael Cooke observes, “are far too knee-bending to political and judicial elites . . .”

Answering a challenge to conference-goers to explain why freedom of the press matters, the University of King’s College Professor David Swick wrote an editorial in the Halifax’s Chronicle-Herald saying:

You care about press freedom, because you care about many things. Food, animals, education, crime, the Internet, water, war: Important decisions on all of these things are being made by a government (or corporation, or NGO) near you. If that government can keep you in the dark, and do whatever it likes, it might.

Deeper in his editorial, Mr. Swick makes a particularly compelling remark:

. . . consider that the obvious is often easy to ignore.

Ignoring the obvious — that is how I would explain the failure of many in the media to take to task a government that decides it would be inappropriate to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That is also how I would explain the lack of public debate and discussion around the decision and the reasons for it. A celebration would be insensitive to the concerns of people in Quebec: This is what our Prime Minister tells us. Are you kidding me?

With CROP poll results from 2011 showing overwhelming support for the Charter across the country, including Quebec, this is what our Prime Minister tells us. Not to mention that the government puts out one of the smallest, most uninteresting news releases I have ever seen; almost as long as the lead paragraph, the release title reads:

Statement by the Honourable James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, and the Honourable Bob Nicholson, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, on the 30th Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Constitution Act of 1892.

All those words, and the title does not even refer to the Charter.

A meaningless news release — that was it; nothing more. A Charter that is viewed as a beacon of rights around the world; a Charter that is worth more than a one-day news release; a Charter that no government can ever, ever ignore. You cannot erase history.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Munson: In a piece published in March by the Toronto Star, Irwin Cotler describes the Charter as “one of the most important advances in the promotion and protection of human rights both domestically and abroad.”

In Canada, this is a widely shared belief, and it is a source of pride and inspiration for millions of people around the world. Leaders of democratic countries and rights advocates from all corners of the world also share this admiration and respect for our Charter.

In the universal context of the Charter’s great influence on human rights, the only voices I have heard speaking disparagingly about it come from within our government. It shows flagrant disregard for the interests of the majority of Canadians. It is an absurdity — typical of our government’s leadership approach. It has rendered our society baffled and apathetic and has immobilized our journalists, leaving them at loose ends over just what freedom of the press actually means. Not so long ago there was one person who knew what freedom of the press meant.

An experienced reporter, editor and politician, Grattan O’Leary was clear-sighted in his assessment of why press freedom matters. This is the same Conservative senator, Grattan O’Leary, who was appointed to the Senate in 1962 by our Bill of Rights Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker. O’Leary’s words, taken from a speech he delivered in 1937, provide timely and much-needed wisdom to us now. I met this man in the middle 1970s. I admired him so much. Here is what he said:

There are newspaper publishers and editors in this country, apparently, who think that the freedom of the press was won for the sake of the press. Well, it wasn’t. The freedom of the press was won for the sake of the people, and if the newspapers of this country are not prepared now to put aside party considerations and fight for that greater thing, the freedom of the individual, freedom for the ordinary man, then the day will come when the ordinary man will not fight for the freedom of the press.

Grattan O’Leary in 1937 — words that are even more relevant today.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Munson: In all times and in all circumstances, the public has a right to know — to know about the workings of their government, about issues and events in their country, about their world. No law, no barrier and no lie can keep the citizens of Canada from this right.

I began this speech talking about China and the lack of press freedom when I was there in the 1980s and early 1990s and its continued absence today. I think a lot about Tiananmen Square, the sacrifice of young people who hungered for individual expression. Running into the square with my camera crew, I will never forget the voices of one couple pleading to me, “Please tell the world what is happening. We want our voices heard.” It was a mad scene of injustice, and I was but one of many Western journalists who witnessed it.

I had a voice then, as I have a voice now. Seven years before Tiananmen I also witnessed that historic day on Parliament Hill, April 17, 1982, the repatriation of our Constitution and the proclamation of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that includes freedom of the press.

I have said it before and I will say it again: Freedom of the press is a necessary instrument to keep governments accountable, society informed and freedoms in the hands of the ordinary men and women in this country.

Long live the Charter! Vive le Canada!

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Honourable Senator Munson, will you accept a question from Honourable Senator Brown?

Senator Munson: I believe in free speech; yes.

Hon. Bert Brown: I thank Senator Munson for the discussion about the Charter and the freedoms that he so eloquently espoused.

I wonder if the seventeenth amendment of the American Constitution, adopted on May 31, 1913, was somewhat like the freedom that the people of Canada might use — the same freedoms to allow votes to bring more senators to this chamber. Three more were elected a week ago in Alberta.

It is interesting that our two countries are almost exactly one century apart in establishing election for senators. Oregon was the first state to hold illegal and unconstitutional elections for the people to vote for their senators. Alberta was the first province to call for elections in Canada. It appears to be a coincidence or otherwise, the same kind of freedom, the right to vote.

Would the honourable senator agree with these kinds of freedoms that may be used in Canada?

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Honourable Senator Munson, before you begin, the table has just advised me that your 15 minutes of speaking time has expired. Are you prepared to ask the chamber for more time?

Senator Munson: Yes.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Is more time granted, honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Munson: The first thing I believe in, honourable senators, is our Constitution. Governments can change and constitutions can evolve. The example of the United States is an interesting one, but I would rather focus on the idea that no government should go through the back door to try to change what it cannot do through the front door.

What is wrong with talking to the people? What is wrong with referring it to the Supreme Court of Canada? What is wrong with explaining it and talking to the provinces to try to get their agreement? We already have the Quebec court being informed by the Quebec government that it is going to challenge what is happening here.

Why can this government not embrace Canadians in this debate as opposed to doing back door politics by holding elections where no other party is really involved?

Senator Brown: I can assure the Honourable Senator Munson that the government is talking to the people about Senate elections.

Personally, I have been involved for the last 20 years with that issue. I assure the honourable senator that we are going through the front door. The front door to the Constitution in this country is to have seven provinces out of ten representing 50 per cent of the population to agree to a stand-alone constitutional amendment. We are very close to that now.

Senator Munson: Good for you.

I was reading a newspaper article which stated that when Senator Brown retires next year, his will be big shoes to fill. I respect him for what he stands for. That is why we are having this debate in this chamber.

I happen to believe — and this is based on a bit of history — that there was a time in this country when prime ministers, including Brian Mulroney, Joe Clark, Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, actually sat down publicly —

Senator Mercer: No!

Senator Munson: — with first ministers to discuss and debate this issue.

Senator Mercer: Do you have any pictures of that?

Senator Munson: I think that this is something in our history that we should pay attention to, when we can have those kinds of discussions, then and only then. This is not about one government. This is not about one prime minister. This is about Canada.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Brown: I can assure the Honourable Senator Munson that this conversation is going on with the House of Commons right now and will continue until it comes to this chamber.

I wish to remind the honourable senator about one thing with respect to the Constitution of this country: When it comes to a change in the Senate, it has a suspensive veto of only 180 days. It does not have any impact on the Senate. After that, it goes through. He can check on that in the Constitution, if he wants.

Senator Munson: I think I will do the same thing that happens in the House of Commons in terms of the answer to that question. I will do the same thing that ministers do in the House of Commons. I will not answer the question. I will just talk about what I want to talk about, which is Canada and how we can move forward as a nation, how we can take a look at ourselves as a nation, and how we can talk to each other as a nation.

I want to emphasize again that April 17, 1982, was an incredibly historic day in this country and your government did nothing — absolutely nothing — to celebrate that day, where millions of people around the world and millions of Canadians respect —

Senator Mercer: Shame on them.

Senator Munson: Our rule of law is being used because of that Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that is what Senator Brown should pay attention to.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!