Fighting for Free Expression in a Climate of Fear
by Franke James
BCCLA Executive Director Josh Paterson spoke about why the non-partisan civil liberties association was stepping forward…
“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.”
My Dangerous Art exhibition would never have happened if the Harper Government had not tried to shut me up — and I had not fought back.
On September 24th, over one hundred and forty people turned out to see my “dangerous art” in Vancouver — and to hear how Canadian officials who censored my art tried to hide that they had done so. Performance Works theatrical space glowed with 33 artworks, including the “Dear Prime Minister” series first posted on transit shelters in Ottawa in 2011, and the “Do Not Talk about Climate Change” poster which travelled to Ottawa, Calgary, Halifax and “Oh No Canada!” in Washington, DC, plus a number of new never-before-seen works. The show represented eight years of my work — from 2007 to 2015.
Anne Watson at the Vancouver Observer wrote about the show:
“James’ latest posters, ‘Six Easy Ways to Crush Free Expression’ and ‘Do Not Think About Climate Change’ are more examples of a feisty and fun-loving nature that’s unafraid to go toe-to-toe with Big Brother government tactics.”
“I think [the Harper government] thought, ‘We’ll just shut her down and no one will know,’” said James, smiling. “They never expected that I would dig so hard to find out the truth. But to me, it’s so incredibly shocking even to this day. I mean what the hell were those bureaucrats doing warning an NGO not to show my work. That is unfair.” link
My new series, Six Easy Ways to Crush Free Expression, was debuted that evening. It features the iconic Canadian maple leaf — so there is no question this is about Canada.
The Six Easy Ways artwork is based on my experience of being blacklisted, monitored and censored by the Harper Government. The six tactics the Harper government used to crush citizen’s rights were: 1) Redact the Truth — To Conceal Censorship, 2) Flag Activists — For Spin Control, 3) Classify Art– as a Threat to National Security, 4) Sow Contempt — To Justify Hatred, 5) Shut Her Down — No One Will Know, 6) Blacklist Everybody — Who Questions Government Policies.
I talked about being Banned on the Hill, government surveillance and the nasty games Bureaucats Play.
I read my story with the Canadian diplomat’s odd subject line, “Franke James is Your Fault?” and suggested we turn it around and ask ourselves this question…
Clearly lots of Canadians asked themselves the same question. Twenty-five days later Stephen Harper was turfed out, bringing an end to the Harper government forever.
My enthusiastic thanks to BC Civil Liberties Association for hosting My Dangerous Art: Free Expression in a Climate of Fear.
See More Highlights from My Dangerous Art
The six posters from my protest exhibition “Banned on the Hill” in Ottawa in 2011 were on display at My Dangerous Art event. I hope that Justin Trudeau can do a better job than his predecessors at defending Canadian’s right to free expression. 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.
Elizabeth May, MP and Leader of the Green Party of Canada spoke out strongly in the 2011 media release, saying,
“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
The Banned on the Hill show in 2011 received lots of media coverage — including an interview on CBC’s The Current — The intersection of Government, Art and Politics — which helped to raise awareness of the Harper government’s tactics to silence environmental voices, but it was not enough. Many people remained oblivious to the many ways that freedom of expression was being trampled.
Over the course of the next two years, I wrote Banned on the Hill: A True Story about Dirty Oil and Government Censorship. Within a week of the book’s release Suzanne Goldenberg at the Guardian UK newspaper wrote about it, “Artist finds inspiration in Canadian government’s attempt to silence her”.
Suzanne was absolutely right — being told to shut up about climate change just made me want to talk about it more. It inspired me to create this poster: “Do Not Talk about Climate Change: it is against Canada’s policy.”
Do Not Talk about Climate Change shows the Parliament buildings dropped into the oilsands and features a quote from an internal government email discussing my art.
The government spokesperson’s email — which he never thought I would see — was in essence saying “Do Not Talk about Climate Change”. I launched a crowdfunding campaign saying…
Two hundred and twenty-one people joined in the crowdfunding campaign enabling the posters to go up in Ottawa, Halifax, and Calgary — at the same time as the Conservatives were holding a convention — in 2013.
Do Not Talk about Climate Change became Do Not Think about Climate Change when the Office of the Information Commissioner’s investigation managed to get some unredacted government documents released to me in the Spring of 2015. “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.”
A quote from the Ottawa Citizen’s article is featured on the poster,
“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.”
Oh No Canada! posters from Washington, DC
The Oh No Canada! posters that were shown on bus shelters in Washington, DC in 2013 were exhibited at My Dangerous Art. The posters were also featured in a story, What can “Anybody” tell Obama about the Keystone XL? which was printed, bound and presented with 1,200 signatures to the Whitehouse.
The photo below of my “Do Not Talk about Climate Change” in Washington, DC in 2013, will be featured in an upcoming book on Canadian politics.
The press release from 2013 helped to deliver the message that Canadian’s right to free expression was being crushed by a pro-oil government:
“Canadians’ right to free expression is being quietly eroded by a pro-oil government insistent on promoting tar sands and silencing anyone who might interfere with those plans,” said Franke James. “Rather than the friendly neighbor to the north, Canada has become the dirty old man.”
James is part of a Canadian delegation that will be in Washington, DC next week for high-level meetings and to share the Canadian perspective of the Harper government, tar sands, and climate change.
Under the government of Stephen Harper, Canada has been cracking down on dissenting voices, including scientists, activists, and artists. Documents show that James fell victim to this aggressive censorship when her 20-city European art show was cancelled as a direct result of behind-the-scenes government interference by high-level bureaucrats, including the Deputy Director of Climate Change, Jeremy Wallace, a Canadian Ambassador Scott Heatherington and a Senior Trade Commissioner in Berlin Thomas Marr.
Franke James: No longer the blacklisted artist
The Harper nightmare is over for Canada — and for me as well. I am no longer “the blacklisted artist” — and may actually be welcome on the Hill.
On October 19, 2015, the Liberal Party surfed “a wave of revulsion at Harper’s spiteful governing style”, decisively ending Harper’s nine-year reign.
Battling the oppressive Harper government will forever be on my resume — and something I can be proud of. Ironically, I have their heavy-handed censorship of my art to thank for lighting a fire under me and inspiring me to speak up and fight for my rights. By censoring my art they inflamed my passion and the passion of many people around the world who care about freedom of expression, democracy, civil rights, and the environment.
Harper’s gang unwittingly set in motion an incredible series of events from 2011 to 2015 which culminated in My Dangerous Art: Free Expression in a Climate of Fear — just twenty-five days before the election.
The event attracted an audience of BC Civil Liberties Association members and civil rights supporters who turned out to hear my true-life story of being censored — and see the protest artwork I created to fight back.
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.
Art and writing: Fighting for Free Expression in a Climate of Fear, copyright 2015 Franke James
BCCLA event photography by Sangeeta Sokhi, Zack Embree and Billiam James
Do Not Think poster by Franke James; Emaciated Polar Bear photo by Kerstin Langenberger
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…”
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
Return of the Blacklist, Freedom to Read 2013
2015 posters: Six Easy Ways to Crush Free Expression
Franke James letter to Suzanne Legault, OIC
“The reason I was censored should make all Canadians angry”
2013 Media Campaign: Crowdfunding Puts Do Not Talk Posters Up in Ottawa, Calgary and Halifax.
Banned on the Hill’s Indiegogo Updates 2013- 2014
Chapter from Banned on the Hill:
“Franke James is Your Fault?”
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.”