Justin Trudeau’s inability to not step in political dog shit with every move he makes is fucking mind-boggling to me. Last month he was asked a question by a Quebecois reporter (in French, obviously, that’s why it’s taken me a month to hear about it) about whether or not we still have freedom of expression in this country, and whether or not we have the right to make fun of the prophet Mohammed. Now, not only is this the stupidest question I’ve ever heard—this reporter, as with every Canadian that passed grade 8 social science, has surely read the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—it’s also one of the easiest. But J Troods fumbled it big time.
All he had to say was “yes, but if you do, you’re an asshole and you should really think about why you want to insult Muslims so bad.” Instead what he said was essentially that yes we have free speech in this country but that there are limits, and in a respectful and diverse society we should be mindful of the impact of our words on our neighbors, particularly those that are victims of systemic discrimination. This is a nice message of tolerance and empathy but coming from the head of government, it also sounds like a weird veiled threat against an absolute Charter right. “Yes, but there are limits,” is not a good look.
The part that really bothered me the most about the answer though, was that the reporter was clearly just going for a quick sound bite that his newsroom could run in a story about the recent terrorist attacks in France, which we’ll get to in a second. Instead, the PM gave an answer that opened him up to an entire Montana’s steakhouse worth of Islamophobia-denying National Post and [insert city name here] Sun columnists standing around, jerking off into their thesauri and dunking on the Fisher Price net that is Trudeau’s career.
And worse still is that those who knew what the Prime Minister meant to say, and cared, were left going around like some bootleg volunteer Sarah Huckabee Sanderses trying to get the real point across, which is that just because you have freedom of expression doesn’t mean you should use it to be a dick. Trudeau doesn’t have the power to legislate limits on our freedom of expression but he does have the power to lead a mindful conversation about how we wield it. Instead he gave the talking stick back to the ‘speak to the manager’ brigade.
The context of the question, to which I alluded earlier, is actually quite important and complex, and the fact that the question was asked in French is not insignificant either, so let’s quickly dive in and then I can get back to the toddler dunk competition. On January 7, 2015, the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, were attacked and 12 people were killed. The attack stemmed from an offensive caricature of the prophet Mohammed that the magazine, known for its criticism of religion, had published. Obviously, it was an incredibly fucked up and terrifying event (which I guess is the point of a terrorist attack), and the tragedy hit French society very hard. Chants of “je suis Charlie—I am Charlie” rang out in the streets in front of the office and there was an outpouring of support from across the globe. The event would become a symbol of France’s commitment to freedom of expression and to ‘la laïcité’—secularism, or the separation of church and government. In other words, the removal of religion from public life.
In Quebec, the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre struck a particularly powerful chord for a couple of reasons. One is the obvious language thing, but another is the much deeper connection Quebecois nationalism holds with France. During our country’s six month long 100th birthday celebration in Montreal, the then-president of France, Charles de Gaulle gave a speech that ended in unequivocal support of Quebecois secession. The speech galvanized a separatist movement that was gaining traction in a climate of strong nationalist sentiment within the province following a period of massive economic and social improvement known as the ‘Quiet Revolution.’ These improvements and the success of the Quiet Revolution are credited largely to, you guessed it, the secularization of Quebecois society.
So for Quebec, not only was the Charlie Hebdo attack an attack on the western value of free expression, it was also an attack on the strongly French and Quebecois value of ‘laïcité.’ And recently, those wounds have reopened. On October 16, 2020, French school teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded in the street for having shown the same cartoon in a class on freedom of expression. French President Emmanuel Macron has been steadfast signalling his commitment to those values of free speech and secularism in the wake of the attack and in the face of other attacks that followed that messaging.
French president Emmanuel Macron pays tribute to Samuel Paty
Obviously it is important not to yield to terrorism and I can’t imagine what it must be like to experience the pain and fear that comes after each of these attacks, but I do imagine Macron’s stance would be comforting. The thing is though, Canada isn’t France. We haven’t been attacked, nobody is killing us because of what we have said, so why are the Montana’s people behaving like our freedom of expression is under attack?
In October, Yves-François Blanchet spoke out in support of an academic’s right to use offensive language in class. The statement came after a white student complained that a non-black teacher had dropped a hard R. A complete and utter shitstorm ensued, the teacher was suspended, politicians got involved, open letters were penned, it was a mess. But at the end of the day it’s a simple issue: is that teacher allowed to say the N word? Yes. Should she have said the N word? No. Does the teacher need to have a big think about why she felt the need to say the N word in class? Yessir. Does any of this pose an existential threat to our freedom of expression? Literally not one single bit.
Worse was when Quebec’s nationalist Premier François Legault said that following Trudeau’s clumsy-ass response to the events in France, Macron called him before the Canadian government to thank him for backing the French government’s messaging on free speech. Legault then made a jump from his support of French freedom of expression to his government’s Bill 21, known as the ‘secularism bill,’ which is fully racist. It bans religious symbols, including head coverings, from being worn by government employees, which if anything is a restriction of free expression, so now what are trying to say, Quebec?
Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-François Blanchet
My point, which is the point that Trudeau should have made when he was asked that shitty fucking question in the first place, is that we need to figure out whether we are willing to make Samuel Paty and the 12 victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, and God forbid whoever else is next into martyrs for the freedom of expression. Governments can’t compromise our freedom of speech, but we as tolerant, empathetic, free individuals should make those compromises for ourselves.
We do it all the time; not going around hurting other people with your words doesn’t make you any less free, so what the fuck are we actually talking about when we have a ‘debate’ about free speech in this country? To paraphrase Le Devoir columnist Emilie Nicolas: the freedom of the majority to offend minorities has never been under threat. There is no debate, we still have free speech and we will continue to have it, and we can’t keep framing it as a conversation about the end of democracy in this country. It needs to instead be a conversation about the end of intolerance in this country. Otherwize we’re yielding to all these twats who make a living off of scaring the shit out of Gamgam and Peepaw in the paper every morning, and honestly, terrorizing them while the French live in actual, present fear? It just feels offensive.