Founded in 1967, The National Citizens Coalition has waged a long war (since the 1980s) against repeated attempts by successive Federal governments to impose “gag” laws and other restrictions on free speech on Canadian citizens. It has been an honorable fight waged on behalf of every citizen. The NCC’s vice president, Gerry Nichols, gives an update of the latest clash. This article was first printed in the Hill Times on January 27th, 2003.
Canada’s Chief Electoral officer, Jean Pierre Kingsley, is out to get me.
Well, it’s actually not me personally he’s out to get, but rather the group I work for, the National Citizens Coalition.
The NCC is one of Canada’s foremost organizations for the defence and promotion of free markets, smaller government, and individual freedom.
But that’s not why Kingsley doesn’t like us. He despises us because we keep going to court and shooting down something very precious to him: election gag laws.
Election gag laws, as the name implies, restrict the right to free political expression.
In fact, gag laws make it a crime for private citizens or groups to spend their own money to express their own views at election time.
Imagine sending someone to jail for the “crime” of expressing an opinion.
But a lot of politicians like the idea of gag laws. Officially they claim such laws stop the wealthy from “buying elections.” But that is nonsense. Canadians make their decisions about who to vote for based on facts and issues not on how much money is spent.
And politicians know this. The real reason they like gag laws is simple.
These laws give political parties a monopoly on debate during elections.
Simply put, gag laws enable professional politicians to shut up and shut down voices of the people.
Canada’s first gag law made its appearance back in 1984. It didn’t last long, however, because the NCC went to court and had it declared unconstitutional. The court basically ruled that election gag laws could not be justified in a free and democratic society.
In 1993 then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney came up with a gag law of his own. Once again the NCC challenged it in the courts and once again a gag law was ruled unconstitutional.
Then in 2000 it was Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s turn. He enacted a gag law that not only imposed severe restrictions on what private citizens or groups could spend to express opinions, but also forced those wishing to express opinions to register with Elections Canada, a regulatory process that is intrusive, costly, and burdensome.
Again the NCC went to court to defend free expression. But this time we not only had to contend with the Liberal government but with the Chief Electoral Officer as well.
Jean Pierre Kingsley, you see, demanded the right to intervene in our constitutional court challenge. He appeared as a witness and offered such a one-sided defence of gag laws that one of the journalists at the trial dubbed him “Canada’s Chief Ideologue.”
It is an apt description. Although he is supposed to be an impartial administrator of elections, Kingsley is anything but impartial when it comes to gag laws. In fact, he loves them. For years, he has been agitating from the sidelines urging Parliament to adopt them.
In any event, Kingsley’s testimony clearly put him into a conflict of interest situation. After all, can a bureaucrat who is clearly a gag law advocate be trusted to make impartial decisions when it comes to applying this law during elections?
Well as it turned out the answer is “no he can’t.”
Or maybe it was just pure coincidence that Elections Canada happened to charge the NCC with breaking the gag law during the 2000 federal election.
The NCC’s crime? Well during that election we ran a 15-second TV ad to raise public awareness about our gag law court battle.
A Liberal Party boss saw the ad, didn’t like it, and sent a letter of complaint to Elections Canada.
A little while later, Kingsley’s “Speech Police” burst into our Toronto office to inform us that we had been charged with breaking the gag law.
The charge is a sham. The TV ad in question was not an election ad. It didn’t tell people who to vote for, it did not endorse a political party. It simply asked Canadians to support our court challenge.
Meanwhile things got even more interesting when on December 16, 2002 the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that Chrétien’s gag law was unconstitutional.
For us it was a wonderful victory. Not only had the NCC once again killed a gag law, but we were also sure that Kingsley would now drop the charges against us.
After all, we knew that it had always been Kingsley’s policy not to enforce the gag law if it had been declared unconstitutional anywhere in Canada.
But we were wrong. In what appears a purely vindictive move, Elections Canada ordered the trial to go ahead, court ruling or no court ruling.
The NCC will now be forced into a costly and lengthy criminal trial to defend ourselves against a law which has already been declared unconstitutional in Alberta.
Of course, in carrying out this vendetta, Kingsley has unwittingly provided another reason why gag laws are wrong. Not only do they restrict free speech, they also provide politicians and bureaucrats with a powerful weapon to punish people they don’t like.
Today they are using the gag law to punish the NCC. Maybe tomorrow they will use it to punish you.