3 min

Why free expression means everything

Canadians have it really good.

We enjoy near-universal health insurance, low infant-mortality rates and long lives. We have high literacy and numeracy rates, and low crime and unemployment rates. We have more than enough to eat, capacity enough to feed generations to come, and energy enough to keep those generations warm and mobile.

We’re a nation with a relatively small population perched atop a gargantuan pile of natural resources. That means the 21st century is likely to be an extremely bright and comfortable one for Canadians.

As nations go, we’re rich.

And perhaps our fabulous good fortune comes not just because of our wealth but also in spite of it. Canadian society has evolved — although not entirely without bloodshed and brutal injustice — into one in which its people are largely good and decent to one another. If our American neighbours have built their society on a foundation of ideology, aphorism and mythological symbolism, we Canucks have more often turned to the practicalities of mutual respect and hospitality. Our bodies of jurisprudence are more often — though not always — expressions of our moralities rather than instruments of control wielded by the few against the masses.

All this is evidenced by the nation’s approach to its gay and lesbian people. Just months before I was born, Everett George Klippert was released from a Canadian penitentiary. He’d been in and out for five years, a dangerous offender, imprisoned indefinitely because he’d told police quite frankly that he’d had sex with other men and was likely to do so again.

Shortly thereafter, the change in our society began to gather momentum, slowly at first, then more quickly, until a mere half-lifetime later, gay and lesbian people have secured for themselves, at least on paper, all the rights, privileges and opportunities enjoyed by their straight counterparts.

It’s a rare nation of rare individuals in which that can happen. A tiny minority of the most marginalized and least respected — criminals — managed in a relatively short period of time to turn the hearts and minds of millions onto another course, a more humane course. They did this in the face of overwhelming opposition from the majority, but they prevailed simply because they had human decency on their side.

But make no mistake. Our Pride celebrations, our rights and privileges, did not spring fully formed from the minds of a loving oligarchy. They were fought for every step of the way. And regardless of how entrenched your comforts appear in the rule of law and in your day-to-day, they are little more than symbolic abstractions, loose agreements, worth more than the paper they’re printed on only at the pleasure of the powerful.

Your liberties as queer people can be twisted, suspended, differently interpreted at a moment’s notice. In the last month, two obvious and startling examples of the fragility of our positions in the world came roaring to the fore.

The first, most clearly, is the appalling state of martial law under which Torontonians lived over the weekend of June 26 and 27. Pile our seeming utopia with the figureheads of global political power, lubricate with thousands of police, and thousands more of the disenfranchised, catalyze with a dose of fear and a pinch of desperation. And poof! Your civil liberties are suspended, your city besieged. Media — your eyes and ears in the wider world — was suppressed, manipulated and censored. Your fellow citizens were corralled, with no avenue for escape, with no cause, no recourse and no appeal. For two days, your civil liberties were virtually completely suspended. 

Some have wondered why the kerfuffle over the near censorship of QuAIA from this year’s Pride parade seemed so important. It’s only a few shrill activists, said some. We can still have a great parade without them. Why should we let this one tiny special interest group be the reason for the destruction of our Pride celebration, the envy of the world?

The answer is simple: because next year it could be another message, then another and another and another, until soon, it seems perfectly reasonable to suppress any view for any reason, no matter how trifling.

But most importantly, it’s that without freedom of expression, the queer movement would never have gained the momentum that made our glorious Pride celebrations possible.