Senator David Adams Richards, an acclaimed Canadian author who has won Governor-General Awards for both fiction and non-fiction as well as a Giller Prize, provided the most memorable Senate speech for the ill-fated Bill C-10, stating on the Senate floor in June 2021 that “I don’t think this bill needs amendments; I think, however, it needs a stake through the heart.” Bill C-10 died on the order paper soon thereafter, but its successor, Bill C-11, is in its final stages of debate at the Senate. Yesterday’s first day of third reading debate was notable for several reasons, none more than the re-emergence of Senator Richards, who provided a stunning rebuke of the bill and Canadian cultural policy.
From a policy perspective, the most important development was the seeming acknowledgement from Liberal Senator Dennis Dawson that the compromise amendment on regulating user content is likely to pass the Senate. Given that Dawson is close to the government, that may be a signal that the compromise will pass the House as well. The amendment, crafted by Senators Simons and Miville-Duchêne to scope out user content is discussed in this post and was defended during the debate by Senator Simons.
Senator @paulatics explains why Bill C-11 raises concerns for digital first creators and how her amendment fixes much of the problem. Senator @dennis_dawson indicated earlier he expects the amendment to pass the Senate. pic.twitter.com/2apkskyTAC
— Michael Geist (@mgeist) January 31, 2023
The somewhat begrudging acknowledgement that it will pass the Senate from Senator Dawson involved the following exchange:
Here’s the exchange between Senators @Paulatics and Senator @dennis_dawson on Bill C-11. Suggests that the user content regulation amendment adopted at committee will pass the Senate. pic.twitter.com/mEJY4HrmIi
— Michael Geist (@mgeist) January 31, 2023
While the amendment may the most important substantive development for the bill, the most memorable moment unquestionably came from Senator Richards, who launched a fiery takedown of the bill, raising censorship concerns and of the government’s role in determining what counts as Canadian culture. Richards lamented “that too many in power have no knowledge about these things” and argued “we have filled the world with our talent but not because of the Minister of Heritage. We have spread our books and movies across the world but it is not because of some formula.”
It is fair to say that some Senators disagreed, arguing for the bill and for government support for creators. But Senator Richards stood his ground in his speech with this warning: “this law will be one of scapegoating all those who do not fit into what our bureaucrats think Canada should be.” For the indigenous creators who felt intimidated when they met with Heritage officials on Bill C-11 or the digital creators who fear their concerns have been dismissed, the warning no doubt rang true.
Senator David Adams Richards tears apart Bill C-11, warning against censorship and government dictating what counts as Canadian culture. Powerful speech from one of Canada’s most acclaimed authors, having won Governor General’s Award for fiction and non-fiction and Giller Prize. pic.twitter.com/eU2BYWpeZs
— Michael Geist (@mgeist) January 31, 2023
Hon. David Richards: Honourable senators, I have a good deal of problems with this bill. I think it’s censorship passing as national inclusion. I’m not very savvy with the internet; I never have been. At 72 years old, I doubt if I ever will be, but I do know something about art, a little bit about creativity, so I’ll read to that point.
Honourable colleagues, there is a certain essay by Cicero called Philippic 2, which was written to expose the power of the state against freedom of speech and freedom of thought — and the power of one man, Mark Antony. It is a brilliant proclamation, and it shows Cicero at his best and bravest. It was delivered in the Roman Senate, and Cicero paid for writing it with his life. His hands were cut off and taken to Mark Antony as proof that Cicero would never write again. Cicero lived in a dangerous time.
When Vasily Grossman completed Life and Fate, his grand novel about the Battle of Stalingrad, it had to be sanctioned by the cultural section of the Central Committee, the wise Soviet think tank of art and culture. They took a year to answer and said that it was anti-Soviet. They did not accept it for publication. It is published now and it is, of course, a wonderful book, showing fascism and communism to be mirror images of one another in depravity and contempt for human liberty.
There is a great scene in that book where an elderly babushka seeing a German youth coming out of the last pocket of German defence in January of 1943 is ready to yell and spit and curse him for what he has done to her people and, seeing a 19-year-old boy, a soldier of destiny, now terrified, starving and alone, she stops and says, “Okay, here then,” and hands him a piece of bread.
Nothing in the book is more significant than that moment, for that moment shows it to be absolutely Russian and, for all mankind, absolutely universal that the way to fight such mechanized violence and hate is with simple compassion and forgiveness. That is something all too rare today in Canada and everywhere else.
I think, overall, we have lately become a land of scapegoaters and finger pointers, offering accusations and shame while believing we are a woke society. Cultural committees are based as much in bias and fear as in anything else. I’ve seen enough artistic committees to know that.
That what George Orwell says we must resist is a prison of self-censorship. This bill goes a long way to construct such a prison.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle was smuggled away from the Soviet Bloc as well. One of the grand scenes in it is of a novelist, a favourite of Stalin, sitting down to write a novel and saying to himself, “I will now write the truth,” but feeling in his mind Stalin’s eyes upon him, he decides that he cannot and says, “The next novel will be the real one.”
The idea of any hierarchical politico deciding what a man or woman is allowed to write to fit a proscribed national agenda is a horrid thing. I am wondering if anyone on the staff of our Minister of Canadian Heritage understands this. In Germany, it was called the National Ministry for Public Enlightenment, and every radio was run by Joseph Goebbels — complete ideological manipulation in the name of national purity.
No decree by the CRTC could, in any way, tell us what Canadian content should or should not be, or who should be allowed to bob their heads up out of the new murkiness we have created. Like Orwell’s proclamation, the very bill suggests a platform that decrees, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” And Bill C-11 certainly spells out who they might be.
I’m not speaking solely of the internet because I am too old to know it; however, this will bleed over into any performance we tend to create, and we will have government officials holding a book of rules telling us if we are Canadian enough or, worse, who can write what about whom.
I’ve faced that before. You see, I’m not Canadian enough; I never have been. I grew up in a place in the east of Canada called the Maritimes and have fought for every inch of soil in my fictional world that, for years, dismissed who I was and especially whom I wrote about. I did so without complaint, but I know who the gatekeepers are. They are still here, telling us in Bill C-11 that we have progressed, that we are more understanding and that our value system has evolved to be inclusive. This statement is a transparent endowment to those whose support they need and whom they desire to influence, but it is a terrible insult to the great writers in my country that I know.
This is not opening the gate to greatness but only to compliance. The writers I know don’t need to advance to fit an agenda, and neither do the songwriters or bloggers. When this bill mentions how we have evolved, it is simply a suggestion to comply.
Some of those who have so evolved into the new Canada have torn away books and slashed many writers whom I have admired — an evolution of sanctimony and an advancement in quelling the voices we might disagree with. By this bill, we have entered the very realms we have fought to depose over the last 70 years. Bill C-11 might be more subtle than the German Stasi or the cultural section of the Central Committee of the former Soviet Union, but never think it is not intertwined.
The very bill suggests a favouritism brought forward by a notional knowledge of what Canada should be and what groups we are now allowed to blame.
It also suggests that there is no communication or interplay between writers of different ethnicities. That identity politics is positive because it teaches a bland society about new voices or about trauma which only certain people are allowed to say they know. It is a balkanization of freedom of expression; is so narrow-minded that it defeats the very thing it proposes and destroys the principle set forth by Terence over 2,000 years ago: “I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me.” That is, we understand because we identify, not because we are being taught a lesson.
One night, after my reading at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, two people approached me. One was the great Irish writer Roddy Doyle, telling me he had long admired my work. The other was the First Nations writer Richard Wagamese, telling me he started writing because he was influenced by my work. Both were very kind, lived thousands of miles apart, one Irish and one First Nations. The writing had little to do with identity politics, but it did have much to do with identifying.
I do not know who would be able to tell me what Canadian content is and what it is not, but I know it won’t be in the Minister of Heritage’s power to ever tell me.
We have yet to make a great movie about hockey for God’s sake, a great movie about Juno Beach, a great movie about Dieppe or a movie about the young Canadians fighting to death in Hong Kong. Our actors, singers and writers too have gone away — because they had to for too many in power have no knowledge about these things.
We have filled the world with our talent, but not because of the Minister of Heritage.
We have spread our books and movies across the world, but it is not because of some formula. We have insulted so many of our authors, singers, actors and painters by not paying attention to them, and then claiming them when they go somewhere else. They come back to get the Order of Canada and to be feted at Rideau Hall.
Drake is known worldwide not because of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC. Thank God Drake was not up to them, or Leonard Cohen or Gordon Lightfoot either.
You see, we have gone back to the age of Cicero without even knowing. In that age, scapegoating was considered a blessing and mob action against one person was considered justice. It was Christ actually who taught us that scapegoating was a great lie and pleaded with us by his death never to return to that state.
This law will be one of scapegoating all those who do not fit into what our bureaucrats think Canada should be. Stalin, again, will be looking over our shoulder when we write.
We have come such a long way from Cicero.
Thank you very much.
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