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Pana Merchant

The Hon. Pana  Merchant, B.A. Appointed to the Senate by the Rt. Honourable Jean Chrétien, Senator Pana Merchant represents the province of Saskatchewan and the Senatorial Division of Saskatchewan. She has served in the Senate of Canada since December 12, 2002.


Demanding true freedom of expression

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Published by Senator Serge Joyal on 08 October 2008

Here is the full text of the speech given on Monday by Serge Joyal to a workshop on cultural governance at the Entretiens Jacques-Cartier

All of us here share a conviction that provides the foundation for the actions of each one of us. This conviction is that artists, writers, authors, composers, screenwriters and actors must be able to practice their art in complete freedom. They should not have to worry at all whether “The Man” is pleased or displeased; they must be protected from intimidation or from simplistic analysis by public authorities.  

Culture only exists when it can be expressed in complete freedom. We believe, perhaps naively, that, after a hard-fought struggle, we have won this basic freedom of expression, and that without it, the expression of culture would be no more than a mockery of thought.  

We have to face the facts; “The Man” in our life is preparing a crackdown, a retroactive limit on freedom of expression for film producers:

- that will restrict their freedom to create in new experimental fields;

- that will marginalize any art that does not conform to his religious views or that does not break even. Art will thereby be reduced to the level of public entertainment, to triviality.  

So who are all these artists who preen themselves at galas at taxpayers’ expense and who feel that they can then bite the hand that feeds them their rich diet of public grants?

Tell me I am dreaming! Please tell me that we are not back in the Great Darkness when a tyrant right out of the land of the Philistines felt that art was for the “airy-fairy” and urged us not to get “too much education” because our little heads could not handle it. 

Thoughtful and creative art is a noble human endeavour. Yet here it is reduced to an activity for those on the fringes of society and driven to the uttermost ends of public interest.  

“If the people want it, let them pay for it”, says “The Man”. This authoritarian paternalism, which sees cultural activity in the same light as a sporting contest, is threatening to degrade our society that considered the life of the imagination as one of the noblest human undertakings.  

“The Man” is stirring up public anger against all those freeloading grant recipients, in their tuxedos and their sequined gowns, while the poor taxpayer in the street is held captive by rising gas prices and is powerless in the face of Stock Market machinations that gamble with his retirement funds and his family’s future.  

In a country that prides itself on teaching the principles of modern democracy to developing countries, we have rarely seen such seeds of moral violence and public decay.  

Though we do not want to believe it, we are finding that it is a poor joke, the “Candid Camera” of public life. When we have been made fools of, the producer will come out from behind the screen and tell us how funny it all is.  

Freedom is threatened

Let us make no mistake: this kind of stupidity is taking hold. In fact, it is trying to take root and we are going to have to come to grips with it if we do not want it to undermine the very foundations of our freedom. Remaining silent today would be like holding the door open so that tomorrow it can ransack Radio Canada and who knows what else.

There are times when we must stand tall and hold our heads high if, in the future, we do not want to end up living abjectly on our knees.  

We need air to breathe; we need our theatre to leave our borders, to measure itself in front of other audiences, so that its universal nature can be revealed.  

We need our motion pictures to carry their images and their unique approach to foreign screens so that its countless facets of human drama can be displayed.

We need our dancers to launch us into unknown realms where infinite movement searches for other voices so that, through physicality, our questions can be answered.

We need air, the air of freedom, in the country that boasts that it is “the best country in the world”. Perhaps we have forgotten that freedom has to be earned and that an artist’s dignity sometimes comes at a high cost.   

Perhaps we live too much in the present; perhaps we have taken too much for granted the generation that went before us and that had to struggle with the Great Darkness. The darkness that pits citizen against citizen; that reduces artistic creation to a meaningless, almost frivolous pastime; that takes unto itself the right to censor both the morality and the true utility of art; that creates a suspicion that one has to please in order to be recognized; in a word, that puts creative activity under the heel of the one who says yes or no.  

Now the State is a censor again. Now the State is once more the arbiter of morality and good taste. Now the State is taking over your role and is imposing on you, anything but subtly, its way of seeing things and its way of interpreting the world.

Freedom of expression

Did you notice who cheered at this way of controlling the “public space”? Groups on the right who are fuelled by evangelism, tub-thumpers in mass-market radio stations, spineless people who do not dare to criticize “The Man” but whose main idea of culture has always been that what sells is what the public wants and if the public wants it, it is because it is for sale.  So, will that be cash or charge?

The abstract for this workshop is our watchword. Here’s what it says. “Commitment, action, and cooperation from everyone involved in cultural development are needed more than ever.”!  Well said indeed. Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre denounced this neo-fundamentalism as morally doctrinaire. Mayor Gérald Tremblay stood shoulder to shoulder with his counterpart in Toronto: they held their heads high. This is what men and women of substance should be doing. Good cultural governance begins with a demand for freedom of expression, for the equal treatment of all art, be it shocking, difficult to understand, avant-garde, even provocative.  

Attacking creative freedom, threatening to withhold access to public funds for no other reason than to satisfy the religious right, taking on the role of the “censor” of virtue, intimidating all those who work in the public domain, all serve to spread the subtle threat that only one moral path is possible, the path set by “The Man”, who stands with his fingers on the cash register containing your taxes and mine.  

He gives himself the privilege of deciding “ultimate” morality as once he decided ultimate justice; he does so with the threat of distributing public wealth according to his idea of morality and good taste, all the while insisting that he does not care much for culture and that taxpayers should not worry about it.

A shameful position

I am ashamed of “that” Canada, the Canada that boasts of being one of the best countries in the world and that gives lessons on democracy to developing countries so that they can share our principles of “proper” public governance.  

I dare to hope that you share the conviction:  that retroactively censoring films, that cutting works that do not meet with the approval of the politicians “du jour”, that curbing freedom of expression on public airwaves, in galas, or in any other forum, that all those things are odious, unworthy of a free society and inappropriate for the government of a country that boasts of being a model of democracy.  

I would not have done this forum justice if I had not expressed my deep conviction that we must always demand freedom of thought and that, without freedom of expression, it is meaningless.  

I have made my choice. I will take the other road, the road on which loud and powerful voices are raised to condemn this position as shameful, as unworthy of true freedom and as a position that must be resisted with all our strength if we are to conserve our humanity.  

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