Guest editorial by Beryl Wajsman, Editor The Suburban
56,59,74: The numeric markers of a failed state
No, the numbers in our headline are not the combination to a safe nor the secret winning numbers for a Loto draw. They are however numeric markers of a society moving to the status of a failed state. They are the numbers of Bills being presented and studied for passage in Quebec’s National Assembly this fall
You have all heard the term “failed state.” It usually refers to an oppressive regime. A state where there is often sectarian violence. Where the institutions of government have stopped functioning, other than to press their heels onto the necks of the people. A state where the economy is in tatters and essential services cannot be delivered. A state that taxes its citizens to the point of ruin. And finally, a state that passes rule and regulation meant to control, command and coerce.
But before a jurisdiction reaches these final stages of decay, there is a form of oppression that precedes the ultimate failure and collapse. That is the oppression of thought and the instillation of fear through “legal” means of passage of retrograde law and legislation. Laws that neuter free expression. Laws that eliminate free choice. Laws that obstruct free access to the elected representatives of the people.
Marilyn Frye, writing on oppression in “The Politics of Reality”, perhaps put it best. She wrote, “The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction. It is the experience of being caged in: all avenues, in every direction, are blocked or booby trapped. ” We have all felt this in Quebec, particularly with the institutionalized prejudice of our language laws. We felt it when we beat back the Payette Plan that sought to give government the power to accredit journalists. We felt it when we beat back Bill 14 that sought to give language inspectors the right to enter your businesses with seizure powers and to pursue you with prosecutorial powers on the sole volition and discretion of the language office. Now we are feeling it again.
Bill 56 would force all citizens, including social workers and volunteers working for charities, to register as “lobbyists” before daring to approach any elected officials particularly Ministers. So if you are helping out at a soup kitchen and want to ask your MNA to seek out some government aid, you can’t simply pick up the phone and call. You would have to put yourself on a register and wait until you have a lobbyist’s status before you are put in communication. The very essence of a democratic society is that elected official work for us. We are their bosses. Now Quebec would have all of us jump through hoops merely to speak with our “employees.” Quebec’s excuse is that this will make for greater transparency and accountability. In fact it does the opposite. It lumps ordinary citizens and community activists in the same category as corporate lobbyists who rightly have to register, and taints all with the same brush so that politicians can use the politics of salissage if they don’t like something you are advocating for. It also actually limits accountability, for how can elected officials be held accountable if their electors cannot reach them quickly and expeditiously? All the government is really seeking to do is to build a moat around its own power.
Bill 59 would give the Quebec Human Rights Commission the power to sue each and every one of us for any use of language – spoken or written – that could be perceived as causing hurt to any individual or group. The Commission would have the power to act against you in its own discretion and without any complaint. And if there are complaints that are anonymous denunciations of you, it will act without ever letting you meet your accuser. Facing your accuser has been a fundamental right of all civilized systems of law since Magna Carta in the 13th century. If you are convicted by the Quebec Human Rights tribunal under this law, you will not only be subject to fines, but have your name on a permanent blacklist of offenders on the Commission’s website. The government seeks to justify this Bill on the grounds that it will bring “social peace.” But who wants a peace of the mute? Did hundreds of thousands not die to protect freedom of expression? Is not freedom of expression a “fundamental right” in both the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights? Yes they are. And it has been our law that freedom of speech is indivisible and that short of clear and overt incitement to violence, all opinions – no matter how odious – must be fought out on the free battleground of ideas. So why this Bill? The Chairman of the QHRC openly admitted he asked for these expanded powers to protect Muslims from slurs. It is fashionable today for politicians to act against anti-Islamophobia rhetoric. And well they should, but not at the cost of our basic freedoms and with a state power that abrogates due process. Since there were twice as many anti-Jewish incidents as anti-Muslim ones in Quebec last year, it is reasonable to ask if this measure is simply a ploy to pander for votes as the governing party has considered the Jewish vote their own for decades.
Bill 74 would give the power to Quebec to block internet gaming sites not under the control of – or operating out of the rules of – Loto Québec. Currently, blocking internet sites is done by China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Cuba. Quebec would be in quite the club wouldn’t it? The government seeks to justify this measure by characterizing gambling addiction as a “public health” issue. But it somehow doesn’t qualify Loto Quebec gaming sites as “addictive.” It claims LQ’s sites are “responsible.” Anybody who believes that should contact this newspaper. We have some swampland for sale. The real reason for this Bill is that Loto Québec is losing revenue to independent sites. And the state wants it all.
Access to our elected officials obstructed. Free expression neutered. Free choice eliminated. What was Marilyn Frye’s phrase about oppression? ” …the experience of being caged in: all avenues, in every direction, are blocked…” But dear readers, it’s not all the government’s fault. Sadly, our politicians try to get away with as much as they can to get more control through stoking the fires of fear. We need to act. We all have a responsibility to tear down these numeric markers of a failed state. Pick up your phones, go on your email or write a letter and let your MNAs know that 56,59 and 74 must never be allowed to pass. And we never want to see their like again. We can win this. We’ve won before.