This post is a reproduction (with permission) of Franke James’ latest visual essay regarding the crushing of free expression in Canada since 2006 when Stephen Harper and his Conservatives first took office. The Franke James story is one of government intervention into an artist’s right of expression and the politics of hate exercised by a tyrannical Prime Minister. (Rolly Montpellier, Editor for Below2C).
How does the Harper government crush free expression in Canada?
It’s all too easy. Mix maniacal message control, far-reaching power, and the politics of hate all together and you have an industrial machine that crushes free expression — and then sweeps up after itself to cover its tracks.
The six tactics used to crush citizen’s rights are:
- Redact the Truth — To Conceal Censorship
- Flag Activists — For Spin Control
- Classify Art — as a Threat to National Security
- Sow Contempt — To Justify Hatred
- Shut Her Down — No One Will Know
- Blacklist Everybody — Who Questions Government Policies
The Harper government targets anyone who thinks differently from them — and has the nerve to express those ideas.
The Six Easy Ways is artwork I’ve created based on my experience of being blacklisted, monitored and censored by the Harper Government in 2011. Prior to that life-changing discovery, I took my right to freedom of expression for granted. After all, I live in Canada! I trusted that I could speak up and voice my opinions. But my experience shows that free expression is at grave risk, as high-ranking government officials including politically-appointed Ambassadors, warned people not to support me because my views on the oil sands run counter to (some) government policies. Their behind the scenes actions resulted in the cancellation of my 20-city art show in Europe — an exhibition which was intended to inspire students to take action on climate change.
And what is very worrying is that the examples cited in Six Easy Ways all happened before the government’s newly expanded powers with Bill C-51. (I am one of 220 Canadian artists who have written to oppose its limits to our free expression.)
Thankfully, BC Civil Liberties and PEN Canada have both supported my right to free expression.
“Six Easy Ways to Crush Free Expression” was first exhibited at My Dangerous Art: Free Expression in a Climate of Fear. Josh Paterson spoke about why the BC Civil Liberties Association was stepping forward to host my ‘Dangerous Art’ event:
“We believe it is a critical time for free expression in this country. In just the last two years, cities have passed laws curtailing the right to demonstrate, scientists in employ of the government have had their voices muzzled, and ‘anti-terrorism’ laws are being used to limit our rights to free speech.
Franke’s work calls on Canadians to engage in an important public policy conversation, and her own story of censorship is an important reminder of why we must work vigilantly to protect free expression. Not only that, but Franke is a fantastic example of how to shine a bright light on censorship, fight back, and come out of the experience stronger than ever.” ~ Josh Paterson, Executive Director, BCCLA
The inside story on “Six Easy Ways to Crush Free Expression”
So let me give you the inside story on the “Six Easy Ways to Crush Free Expression”. Of course there are far more than ‘six ways’ so this new series has lots of room to grow! Feel free to send me your suggestions on how the government tramples on our rights to free expression. Scroll down to read the story behind each one…
“Redact the Truth — To Conceal Censorship”
This poster features a letter from Canadian Ambassador Edwin Loughlin. The Ambassador is extending his ‘sincere’ regrets to Sandra Antonovic (my curator) that he could not support my climate change art show. In the top version of the letter, the reason he declined support has been hidden under a high-level clause. The Department of Foreign Affairs claimed that it was ‘redacted’ because it contained advice to a Minister or advice about government policy (S.21.1.a and b). But after I complained to the Office of the Information Commissioner, the OIC launched a high-level investigation. Two years elapsed before I received any findings — probably because the OIC’s budget has been slashed and there are only eight investigators who can peek under that high level of redaction. In the spring of 2015, I received Loughlin’s letter, unredacted*.
*The OIC cannot order the government to remove the redactions. The only ‘stick’ the OIC has is that if they cannot mutually agree, the OIC can take the government to court. The OIC — our watchdog on access to information — needs to be given teeth that can bite!
So what was that advice from the Ambassador that was so serious it had to be hidden?
“The reasons for this decision are not something we are able to provide in writing.”
~ Ambassador Edwin Loughlin
I must say when I read that line, I burst out laughing. But, aside from the utter stupidity of Loughlin writing down that he can’t write it down, we have a more sinister fact. Ambassador Loughlin was telling my curator — without my knowledge — that the government’s decision not to support my art show could not be put in writing for mysterious reasons that he couldn’t even write down! Wouldn’t that scare the bejeezus out of you? It smells like a smear tactic to me but the warning was unmistakable: What’s going on behind the scenes between Franke James and the Harper Government is so serious we can’t even talk about it! No wonder Antonovic published this “Bully in the Playground” statement on the cancellation of my art show saying she’d been intimidated by the Canadian government.
“Flag Activists — For Spin Control”
Thanks to the OIC investigation, the Canadian Trade Commissioner Candice Rice’s 2011 email was released to me in unredacted form in 2015. Commissioner Rice wrote, “You will recall email from [Ambassador] Scott Heatherington indicating due to the artist’s views on the oilsands he would not agree to holding a press conference at the Embassy.” (Backstory – I had asked to rent space at any Canadian Embassy in Europe where my show was going to be. Canadian artists, authors and musicians are frequently welcomed to showcase their talents at Canadian Embassies — but apparently not me!)
This poster is called “Flag Activists” because that is what Commissioner Rice is doing — she is flagging me for spin control because of my views on the oilsands. Her email asks that the Canadian Government’s Communication team in Ottawa be alerted. This is a prime example of a government so hell-bent on message control they will even target “views” which are contrary to government policy.
It’s also important to note that this email was written four years ago. When I originally got Rice’s email her statement “due to the artist’s views on the oilsands” was hidden under a high-level clause. If it wasn’t for the OIC’s efforts, it would never have been released to me in 2015. The government was purposely misusing its censorship powers to silence me.
Ian MacLeod at the Ottawa Citizen interviewed me and I told him, “It’s very Orwellian to see that I was being censured because of the way that I thought.”
Which then inspired me to create this new “Do Not Think about Climate Change” poster which features the Parliament buildings on a drilling rig in the Arctic. The photo of the emaciated polar bear was taken by Norwegian photographer Kerstin Langenberger and helps to communicate the threat posed by climate change…
The inset text is from Ian MacLeod’s Ottawa Citizen article about the Security Redactions…
“James complained to the Office of the Information Commissioner. The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development recently relented and removed some of the redactions. The new versions of the documents show that much of the official concern over funding James and promoting the European art tour was based on the polarizing politics of climate change. In one, a departmental trade official notes that a Canadian diplomat in Europe would not help promote the show because of ‘the artist’s views on the oilsands.’”
“Classify Art– as a Threat to National Security”
Classifying art as a ‘threat to National Security’ is the unbelievable and scary tactic the government is using to crush free expression. This poster features a heavily redacted email by Thomas Marr, the former Ambassador to Croatia. The email has the very undiplomatic subject line “Franke James is your fault?” See my visual essayabout this extraordinary email and the creepy interference by Canadian bureaucrats.
The shocking fact is that the Office of the Information Commissioner could not get this email unredacted — not even one word. The Harper government is still claiming that there would be injury to Canada if it was revealed what’s under those black redactions. This is ridiculous considering the “Franke James is your fault?” subject line — and it is chilling. When you know that Bill C-51 includes “economic” damage under the definition of security, you can begin to imagine what the government will do now that Bill C-51 is law.
“When you think of being secure, you likely think of being safe from physical danger. But Bill C-51 defines security as not only safeguarding public safety, but also preventing interference with various aspects of public life or ‘the economic or financial stability of Canada’.” BCCLA: 8 things you need to know about Bill C-51
“Sow Contempt — To Justify Hatred”
I imagine the Communication’s office in Ottawa toiled long hours to craft Foreign Affairs’ spokesperson Chris Day’s sound bite. His blanket statement that my claims are a “fantasy” is a devious attempt to sow contempt for me and justify hatred by the reader. Access to information documents revealed the sordid truth: high-ranking officials, from Ambassadors to Cabinet Relations bureaucrats were busy meddling behind the scenes. Foreign Affairs had cancelled funding for my show because my work dealt mostly with climate change and was advocating for a carbon tax and reduced emissions — anathema for Harper!
“Shut Her Down — No One Will Know”
In fact I would never have known that the Canadian Government was warning the Croatian curator Sandra Antonovic at Nektarina not to show my art — if she had not courageously told me. Sandra’s “Bully in the Playground” 2011 letter announcing the cancellation of the planned show reveals how passionate she was about free expression…
“When Nektarina decided to present Franke’s artwork in a series of exhibitions in Europe and Central Asia, we felt confident of the support of Canada – Franke’s homeland. Regrettably, the Canadian Government has since declined support for the project, verbally explaining that “She (Franke James) speaks against the Canadian Government”. Nektarina Non Profit was deeply surprised and disappointed by the reaction of official Canada, yet we decided to carry on with the project.
Nektarina Non Profit believes that it is the right of every person – artists and intellectuals in particular – to freely express their opinion and to be able to pose the question about their government’s accountability on specific decisions. This is all the more important when such governmental decisions potentially impact the welfare of a large demographic, natural resources or both.
In the past few months we have encountered many difficulties in organizing the exhibitions, usually connected to interventions of the Canadian Government or institutions under Canadian governmental control. We continued to look for ways to collaborate with the home land of the artist, although at times we felt patronized and even intimidated, as a small NGO trying to reach an understanding with a powerful state.
This was most surprising given Canada´s reputation over many decades as a leader in promoting democratic freedoms, the right of free expression and also supporting the international community (through its role as a peace keeper and in many other ways)…” Sandra Antonovic, Nektarina
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Sandra expressed her surprise at the Canadian government’s lack of respect for freedom of expression and their suppression of an artist’s voice, “I would expect that from the Putin government or a country like Kazakhstan, but I didn’t expect that from Canadians.”
“Blacklist Everybody — Who Questions Our Policies”
In 2013, the news that the Harper government had compiled “enemy” lists made headlines — of course the government refused to disclose exactly who was on it.
As the ‘blacklisted’ author of Banned on the Hill: A True Story about Dirty Oil and Government Censorship, it did NOT come as any shock to me that Prime Minister Harper keeps an Enemy List. Putting people and organizations on a blacklist is an easy way to crush free expression because it has a ripple effect. There are many people and organizations who will keep their distance from anyone who is ‘blacklisted’ lest they be targeted too.
In Freedom to Read 2013, the Governor General award-winning author and free expression expert, Charles Montpetit wrote “Return of the Blacklist” which discusses my case and goes on to cite others who have been muzzled, defunded, shut down or vilified by the Harper government. He points readers to Murray Dobbin’s extensive essay, Stephen Harper’s Hitlist: Power, Process and the Assault on Democracy and Mark Kennedy’s article “Harper’s Growing ‘Black List’ a Threat to Democracy: Critics“.
Crushing Free Expression in Canada is Way Too Easy!
So what are YOU going to do?
How do we defend our right to freedom of expression when it is so very easy to crush it?
We need a new government in Ottawa that is truly committed to allowing freedom of expression. But which party will stand up and protect our Charter right?
Luckily — just in time for Canadians to vote on October 19, two non-partisan advocacy organizations have scored the parties on free expression.
The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has created a Free Expression Report Card: 2015 Federal Election Edition.
The CJFE focused on six key aspects of freedom of expression “to lift the veil of secrecy that has descended on government and restore accountability and trust to our democracy”. They are the (1) Public Right to Know, (2) Bill C-51, (3) Privacy Rights, (4) Muzzling of Scientists, (5) Whistleblower Protection, and (6) Charitable Audits. Read their report.
OpenMedia has also graded the parties on their commitment to freedom of expression. Their scorecard rates them on three points: respecting creator’s rights, prioritizing free expression and respecting the democratic process. Key policy issues were the parties stances on Bill C-51, the Trans Pacific Partnership, and Copyright.
Both the CJFE and Open Media ranked the Conservatives at the bottom of the class (ranging from D to F) on all points. The NDP and the Green Party averaged the best scores.
But the Gold test for free expression is how the parties behave in the real world.
Four years ago when I contacted the three opposition parties seeking their non-partisan help, the ONLY political party to speak up on my behalf was the Green Party of Canada…
“Franke James’ commitment to art, free expression and political commentary put her in the cross-hairs of the Harper Government. Come and see what the government didn’t want the world to see.” ~ Elizabeth May, MP, and Leader of the Green Party of Canada
I would like Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau to tell us where they stand on freedom of expression because as the BCCLA says…
Dissent is Democratic: Free Expression is at the Heart of our Democracy
I wonder what our next Prime Minister will say to this question…
“Do you think a government has the right to censor an artist’s work if it makes the government look bad?”
Thankfully the next generation is debating it in schools.
Credits, Related Links and Media
Art and writing: Six Easy Ways to Crush Free Expression, copyright 2015 Franke James
Repression-proof artist, Franke James, celebrated by BCCLA | Anne Watson, Vancouver Observer
“This is so fun,” said James repeatedly. Standing in front of a bright pink maple leaf with a swirl of words inside, one of her six new posters about government repression.
“Flag activists for spin control,” she said, reading the words on the poster. When foreign affairs said there was no political interference in this decision to cancel the show, they were spinning a story.
They were saying, ‘This lady is a flake,’ and discrediting me.”
Then James stepped in front of the next poster, “Sow contempt to justify hatred.” This is the cool thing. I’m making these posters to say what’s happening,” said James. Pointing to a poster that reads “Classify art as a threat to national security,” James said, “This is really relevant to what is happening to bill C51. The government was hiding stuff about me under this clause of national security. And national security is not just about what you would think about safety and violence, it is also defined as any threat to the economy.”
Ian MacLeod, Ottawa Citizen, March 23, 2015:
“A British Columbia artist and environmental activist accuses government of misusing its censorship powers to hide a politically driven effort to silence her because of her views on climate change and the oilsands…”
Franke James letter to Suzanne Legault, OIC
“The reason I was censored should make all Canadians angry”
“Franke James is Your Fault?”
Scholastic Book: Censorship
Do you think a government has the right to censor an artist’s work if it makes the government look bad?
Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian UK Artist finds inspiration in Canadian government’s attempt to silence her
“What can one person do?” (pdf) proposed European art show in 2011, curated by Nektarina Non Profit.
Nektarina Proposal to Canadian Embassy in Croatia. Source – ATIP_A201100802
Nektarina’s statement on the cancellation of the show:
“In the past few months we have encountered many difficulties in organizing the exhibitions, usually connected to interventions of the Canadian Government or institutions under Canadian governmental control. We continued to look for ways to collaborate with the home land of the artist, although at times we felt patronized and even intimidated, as a small NGO trying to reach an understanding with a powerful state. This was most surprising given Canada´s reputation over many decades as a leader in promoting democratic freedoms.”
Media Campaign: Crowdfunding Puts Do Not Talk Posters Up in Ottawa, Calgary and Halifax.
Banned on the Hill’s Indiegogo Updates 2013- 2014
Video 2011: Banned on the Hill (and in Europe!)
Art show 2011: Victory! Banned on the Hill Opening in Ottawa
Press release: PEN Canada and the Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) issued a press release, expressing concern over Government interference: “The government of Canada has no right to determine what is an acceptable opinion for an individual citizen, on climate change or any matter of public interest,” said Charlie Foran, President of PEN Canada, “To do so is clearly not in the spirit of the Charter and the long history of freedom of expression in Canada.”
More Reading on Free Expression in Canada and C-51:
Open Media Free Expression Report Card
Mark Bourrie: Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know: a scathing indictment of the Harper government and what they will do to silence dissenting opinions and keep the Conservatives in power.
Toronto Star July 2013: Conservatives won’t say who is on “enemy” lists
About Franke James:
Franke James, is the author of Banned on the Hill and the winner of the PEN Canada / Ken Filkow Prize and the BCCLA 2014 Liberty Award for Excellence in the Arts. Franke’s experience fighting government censorship is being used to teach grade school students about government censorship. She is contributing a chapter to a new anthology entitled “Access to Information and Social Justice” by Kevin Walby, University of Winnipeg and Jamie Brownlee from Carleton University.