Few observers would ever describe Canada as a shining beacon of light for free speech. While the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms may depict this democratic right as a “fundamental freedom,” my country nevertheless places strict limitations on speech which makes it far less free here than in the United States.
But strange things can happen in what is affectionately known as the Great White North. For one brief stretch, Canada actually rolled out the proverbial red carpet for free speech by embracing the admirers and crushing the spirits of the haters.
This all happened during the Nov. 2 debate between Steve Bannon (former senior adviser to President Donald Trump) and David Frum (columnist, ex-speechwriter for former President George W. Bush) at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. Organized by the respected Munk Debates, the two combatants would verbally joust on the following question, “Be it resolved, the future of western politics is populist not liberal.”
Unsurprisingly, several hundred anti-free speech activists mobilized outside the venue. A typical gaggle of radical left-wing protesters showed up, including the barely-breathing Communist Party of Canada. A large purple banner with the phrase “Shut Down Hate” was displayed, along with smaller placards declaring “No Platform for Racists,” “Alt-Right Delete,” “Ban Bannon” and identifying the “fascist scum” among us.
Twelve protesters were arrested that evening, and two police officers received minor injuries. Pepper spray was used in several instances to keep the angry left-wing mob under control.
The good news was that there were far more people (roughly 2,500) attending the debate than protesting it. Ticket holders had different reasons for wanting to be a part of history, from intellectual curiosity to promoting intellectual discourse. And the only thing the protesters accomplished was delaying the start time.
Free Speech 1, No Platform 0.
One protester got into Roy Thomson Hall, however. She attempted to disrupt Mr. Bannon’s opening remarks from a balcony, and rolled down a banner to show her disgust for his participation in the debate.
Rudyard Griffiths, chair of the Munk Debates, used a remarkable technique to stop the shouting protester dead in her tracks. He actually congratulated her on exercising free speech, along with the people protesting outside. The entire room launched into applause, drowning her out and moving the needle back in the direction of free expression.
Mr. Griffiths then gave the protestor the option of being quiet, or she would be escorted out by police. She meekly said yes to the former, started to act up again within seconds, and was booted out of the room. Crisis averted.
Free Speech 2, No Platform 0.
Who emerged as the debate winner?
Pre-debate, the room was 72 percent to 28 percent in Mr. Frum’s favor, but the post-debate result was announced at 57 percent to 43 percent for Mr. Bannon. Had Torontonians abandoned Mr. Frum, a native son, and been won over by Mr. Bannon’s engaging defense of populism? Many didn’t believe it, including TV Ontario host Steve Paikin, who amusingly tweeted, “I’m convinced the Russians hacked the @munkdebate computers.”
The Munk Debates ultimately declared the debate a draw, and that the room somehow remained at 72 percent to 28 percent. The Russians failed again, it seemed. But the real winner was Free Speech, which had refused to back down to its adversaries and succeeded to make its case with intelligence, confidence and a dash of creativity.
Hmm. Is this the start of a free speech revolution in Canada? Let’s hope so.
• Michael Taube, a syndicated columnist and frequent contributor to The Washington Times, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.
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