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December 29th 2010 print

James Allan

True north strong and free?

Canada is the capital of political correctness run rampant. You get the newspaper columnist Mark Steyn taken before various Canadian Human Rights tribunals not for the fact what he wrote was false but rather simply because people were offended.

“The true north strong and free”. That phrase is in Canada’s national anthem, or rather in the English language version. And it’s a nice sentiment. But as a native born Canadian, one who hasn’t lived there for 20 years now, I’m not so sure it’s all that applicable, at least to those of us looking at the country from the outside. 

Sure, you can’t beat Canada for fantastic skiing at Whistler or Banff. And the lake and cottage country a couple of hours north of Toronto is so spectacular, that having experienced that the opportunity to spend a few hours at a seaside beach seems a tad insipid and uninspiring.  

But Canada is also the capital of political correctness run rampant, to an extent few Australians would credit as plausible. You get the newspaper columnist Mark Steyn taken before various Canadian Human Rights tribunals not for the fact what he wrote was false but rather simply because people were offended. And then there’s the stand-up Canadian comedian taken before these same officious bureaucrats for hurting the feelings of a lesbian member of his audience. (I know, it’s not really possible to make this stuff up. Apparently you can’t insult people who come to hear you as a stand up comic, you’ve got to laugh with them – I’m not sure, to be honest, at what.) And of course there’s the fact that freedom of religion and religious views seem always to lose out to equality concerns in the Great White North, and I say that as an avowed atheist myself, but one who can recognise when a group is getting a raw deal. 

Put more bluntly, freedom of speech in Canada looks a lot more enervated and emasculated and hedged about with politically correct limits than here in Australia.  

Canada is also a much more top-down, elite driven country. The judges, under their constitutionally entrenched bill of rights, make all sorts of social policy line-drawing decisions that here in Australia would be made by the elected Parliament, on issues related to same sex marriage, immigration, private health care, judges’ pay, abortion, re-writing human rights legislation to add a new ground, and so on and so forth.  

But the latest instalment in the Canadian advancement of political correctness is quite astonishing. You see Canada is on the verge of passing a law that says its top judges, the ones on the Supreme Court there, will have to be bilingual before they can be appointed.  

Now let me put that in context for you. Canada has about 33 million people or so. And of that number, maybe 5 or 6 million are native French speakers. And all told, if you’re generous with how you count, there might be 3 million bilingual Canadians, the majority of whom are probably native French speakers.  

So a new law that said Supreme Court judges would have to be bilingual before they could be appointed would, at a stroke, take the vast preponderance of Canada’s judges and lawyers out of contention. And it would make the pool of potential top judicial candidates very unrepresentative in all the western provinces, the ones with low taxes and higher growth, where more people can speak Ukrainian or Chinese than French. And when I say unrepresentative, I mean more inclined to favour the statist, central government knows best policies that push these sort of diktats and socially engineered outcomes.  

Now some readers will know that Canada has a Tory government at present, one that gets much of its support from those western provinces, and they will be asking themselves how this sort of government could pass this sort of law. The answer is that it didn’t. You see it’s a minority Tory government in Canada right now. So all the opposition parties got together and voted the law through the lower house without a single Conservative MP agreeing. 

At present the Bill is in Canada’s Senate, a wholly illegitimate upper house whose members are not elected but appointed. Think of a collection of party hacks, placemen, and time servers, leavened once in a while by a top sports figure or entertainer or journalist to try to give the body a modicum of credibility and you’ll have the basic idea. And this upper house in Canada is so undemocratic and so illegitimate that it rarely does anything, other than ensure its members collect their paycheques.  

Of course you might also wonder why the Tory Prime Minister, Mr. Harper, didn’t make the vote in the lower house a confidence matter, so that defeat would trigger an election. And here you get into political cowardice, because Mr. Harper needs votes in Quebec if he’s ever likely to win a majority. And Quebecers will do proportionately far better out of this law, should it come to pass. So Mr. Harper decided not to offend, an eminently Canadian reaction.  

Should the Canadian Senate pass this, the end result will be social regulation reminiscent of the sort of thing you find in the European Union. And there will be one delicious irony. Someone might decide to challenge the bilingual judges law as a breach of Canada’s entrenched bill of rights’ guarantee of equality, or more plausibly still on the basis that the Supreme Court Act is itself quasi-constitutional and cannot be changed by regular legislation.  And the top judges themselves would have to decide the outcome of that sort of case. If they strike the bilingual judges law down, democracy is the loser. And if they don’t, democracy is also the loser, in a rather more indirect way. 

C’est bon, n’est-ce pas?