Canada’s Censorship Culture

The flap over the hecklers’ veto of Anne Coulter at the University of Ottawa is a surprise only to those who haven’t noticed the steady march of censorship in Canada. Canada is “a pleasantly authoritarian country,” Alan Borovoy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, once said. That phrase perfectly captures the cloud of mandatory niceness that hangs over Canadian culture: it is better to stifle and censor than to risk hurting anyone’s feelings particularly anyone in an official victim group.
Canada has a national speech code as well as bureaucrats and elites eager to expand it. That’s why the University of Ottawa Vice President and Provost Francois Houle thought it appropriate to warn Coulter that she might face criminal charges if her speech wasn’t nice enough: “Our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or ‘free speech’) in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here… Promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges.”
It’s common enough to feel contempt for some of Coulter’s ideas. But for a university bureaucrat to threaten her with jail before a scheduled speech is a bit much, even by those low Canadian standards. And it’s worse for a university to avoid providing security, thus letting a student mob decide who speaks and who doesn’t. Sameena Topan, one of the student protesters who helped shut Coulter down, said “we accomplished what we were here to do, to ensure that we don’t have her discriminatory rhetoric on our campus.” Or , to put it more plainly, we won’t tolerate letting other people hear ideas we disagree with.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

3 thoughts on “Canada’s Censorship Culture

  1. Bob Hicks:
    Actually, Steyn and Levant are amongst those who have made the situation far better in recent years, to which they earn my eternal gratitude.
    I did not say the situation is perfect, just not as bad as Leo (or Houle) make out. Indeed, just yesterday I found out that the federal government is closing three HRC offices. It’s a great day for Canada, everybody.

  2. The situation in Canada is not as bad as you make out.
    The courts have interpreted the criminal law against hate speech in a highly restricted manner, and as a result it is almost never invoked. Coulter, for example, was never in danger of being charged – Houle’s threats in this regard were empty, as I suspect he knew. I still don’t approve of the law, but in practice it does little to censor speech.
    The infamous Human Rights Commissions (HRCs) in Canada have been put back on their heels in recent years. There is a now a strong and growing movement to either get rid of or reduce the powers of the HRCs, and any action the HRCs take to censor speech is met with strong resistance and wide publicity. I hope to see government action on this front soon.
    Efforts by students to shut Coulter down are still unforgivable, of course, but this is a problem which plagues universities in America as well.

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