Canadians join the world to speak out for dissent and democracy

By Robert Fox, 11 May 2016
Robert Fox is a founding member of the Voices Coalition and a long-time social justice activist

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Citizens around the world are mobilizing this Saturday to assert their right to speak out, organize and take action. As part of a Global Day for Citizen Action, people will be asked whether they are free to raise their voice and call for change.

An alliance of Canadians from coast to coast to coast is taking up that question, launching a homegrown initiative that day to promote a healthy environment for debate, dissent, diversity and democracy in Canada.

Applying lessons learned from the harsh realities of the past and taking full advantage of the window of opportunity presented by the new government, the Voices alliance is putting forward an agenda for action to create enabling conditions for full, free civic engagement by Canadians from every background and belief.

In Zimbabwe, Honduras, China and too many other countries the risks for those who speak out are huge. Freedom of expression and freedom of association are under attack. Human rights defenders are targeted.

Given this bleak backdrop, some might suggest we have little to complain about in Canada. But the past dismal decade is a sober reminder there’s no cause for complacency. On the contrary. Citizens and organizations critical of the government were dismissed, dismantled, defamed and defunded. Officers of Parliament were silenced as were scientists and public servants. Access to evidence was severely constrained and dissent increasingly criminalized.

If you were from an Indigenous community or Muslim or a climate activist, you were all the more vulnerable to drive-by smears — or worse.

Transformative change is required to our laws, institutions, priorities and political culture. Respect for human rights — both Charter rights and Canada’s international obligations — must serve as the bedrock upon which all policies and programs are founded. And the vital role of civil society organizations in informing public opinion, shaping public policy and generating political will must be respected and promoted.

This is particularly true for groups that represent marginalized constituencies including women, racialized peoples and others who have borne the brunt of cuts, attacks and discrimination. Critically, the Government of Canada must build a new relationship with Indigenous peoples based on rights, respect, cooperation and partnership.

Parliamentary accountability must be strengthened, ending omnibus bills and improving oversight and independent review. Citizens must have ready access to information, including all publicly funded research. And public servants must be encouraged to provide independent advice based on evidence and respect for the constitution and human rights.

The agenda for action is ambitious but vital if we are to have a healthy enabling environment for a flourishing Canadian democracy.

It’s also a living document. The public, parliamentarians, pundits and public interest groups are all encouraged to contribute their ideas and to join in securing the essential reforms we so urgently need.

In its first six months, we’ve seen encouraging signals the government is following through on commitments to increase transparency and accountability. Renewed funding for the Court Challenges program, for example, is a welcome show of good faith.

But we’ve also seen troubling lapses where human rights have taken a back seat and alternative views have been censured, in particular in relation to the Middle East.

And there are major files that remain open, including replacing Bill C-51 with legislation that respects rights and complies with the Charter.

The signal we send and the example we set for advocates of freedom of expression and association around the world are critical if the phrase “Canada’s back” is to have any substance and sunny ways are to prevail – let alone if we are to reinforce these rights so they are stronger here than ever before. There is no better time for bold action to bolster respect for rights and civic engagement than now.

To learn more about the Voices Declaration, and to sign on, visit voices-voix.ca
To learn more about the Global Day of Citizen Action, visit youcanbethechange.com

This op-ed was originally published in The Hill Times (paywall)

Photo: Indigenous land defenders march against Bill C-51 in Toronto. Credit: Kevin Konnyu.

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