Freedom to Read 2013: Return of the Blacklist
by Franke James
Will the Harper Government rush to snap up the new Freedom to Read magazine and posters? They could learn about current censorship issues in Canada — including mine! “Freedom to Read 2013 explores the shifting forces that threaten our free expression and celebrates those who defend our rights.”
I am honoured to have my dilemma featured in the Freedom to Read magazine. The reason I was censored should make all Canadians angry — because it threatens the very essence of democracy: our right to speak up and disagree with our elected government! Since August 2011, I have obtained over 2,000 pages of government documents through access to information laws. Many pages are redacted for reasons of “international security” and conversations with a Minister, but some reveal the startling truth as to why they interfered behind-the-scenes…
In an internal government email, Jean-Bruno Villeneuve, Government Spokesperson at Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada explains, “the artists’ work dealt mostly with climate change, and was advocating a message that was contrary to the government’s policies on the subject.” (ATIP document: A-2012-02002_2012)
Charles Montpetit wrote about my art censorship case in Return of the Blacklist (see the full article below). Appropriately, Montpetit is the freedom of expression co-ordinator at UNEQ. He contacted me as soon as the news broke in July 2011, and followed the story as it evolved, even coming to show his support at my Banned on the Hill exhibit in Ottawa in November 2011.
Return of the Blacklist
By Charles Montpetit
or most creators, a touring exhibition in Europe might seem like a pipe dream. Yet in the Spring of 2011, that’s exactly what the Croatian organization Nektarina Non Profit offered Torontonian Franke James, who had penned and illustrated the award-winning books Bothered by My Green Conscience and Dear Office Politics. In addition to purchasing the displayed artwork, Nektarina would even organize seminars pertaining to James’s social concerns.
But there was a rub: James had posted on her website a visual essay, entitled Dear Prime Minister, which asked why Stephen Harper’s stance against penalizing ecological offenders was “making us choose between the economy and the environment.” It also pointed out that the tar sands were Canada’s “fastest growing source of pollution” and queried, “Why are we giving the oil industry a free ride?”
This kind of irreverence didn’t go unnoticed, and an official informed Nektarina’s exhibition organizer, Sandra Antonovic, that “this artist speaks against the Canadian government” (even though the offending essay wasn’t part of the show). Meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade vetoed a $5000 grant which had been in the pipeline to support the tour, arguing that “funding was never withdrawn nor was it guaranteed.” Canadian embassies throughout Europe cut off communications with the author and, according to Nektarina, a corporate sponsor who had pledged $75,000 in funding was soon persuaded to do the same. In the end, the group had to cancel the entire project.
Franke James was aghast. The problem wasn’t the loss of a token government grant, wrote in her blog. The deeper issue was tolerance of dissent in a democracy: “I thought the Canadian embassies were there to help all Canadians… The government should not be telling anyone not to exhibit my art, just because I disagree with unethical oil.”
She first vented on Twitter, which led to significant coverage on the websites of Greenpeace, Care2 and The Tyee, B.C.’s online news journal. The story snowballed to dozens of Canadian dailies — Montreal’s La Presse devoted two entire pages to it, and then spread to such international venues as the India Times, the Brazilian Estadão and The New York Times.
James also hit Foreign Affairs with an access to information request that yielded no less than 1500 pages of internal documents about her, including one which contradicted the department’s denial of interference and traced the funding cancellation back to one Jeremy Wallace, Deputy Director for Climate Change.
Things did not stop there either. That summer, the artist was referred to San Francisco’s Colin Mutchler, co-founder of the crowdfunded media buying platform Loudsauce.com, primed for its first foray on Canadian soil. He suggested using either a billboard or street-level ads to showcase James’s banned works in the national capital. “Wouldn’t it be funny to put your art in Ottawa,” he said, “right where the Prime Minister can see it?”
James had to laugh at the simple audacity of the concept. Loudsauce’s forum enables anyone to submit a project description, complete with the amount of money needed and a deadline by which the sum has to be raised. Visitors respond with micro-pledges of support, and in return, the creator can offer rewards to match each donation level, say signed books or lithographs. The pledges are only cashed in (and the incentives delivered) if the stated goal is reached when the deadline rolls around.
Once again, the combined mobilizing powers of the social networks, the blogosphere and the press coverage did not disappoint: a few weeks later, enough people had chipped in to rent six backlit sidewalk display cases for the entire month of November on Ottawa’s Bank Street, thereby generating still more articles, interviews and letters to the editors.
“Franke James’ commitment to art, free expression and political commentary put her in the cross-hairs of the Harper Government,” stated Green Party leader Elizabeth May in the event’s press release. “Come and see what the government didn’t want the world to see.”
Since most reports reproduced significant excerpts from Dear Prime Minister (or provided links to the entire series of essays on frankejames.com), it could be argued that, as is often the case with censorship attempts, the author’s message ended up reaching a far greater number of people than the original workshops would have, at a fraction of the cost. Impressed with the network savvy of the initiative, the Toronto Star even featured James as one of “Three Women Who Fought Back against the Conservatives” in a year-end review.
The Tories may not be the only politicians who try to silence dissent, but they certainly covered a lot of ground in this respect when they rose to power. Among other things, they implemented a 2007 protocol forbidding Environment Canada employees from speaking to the media without prior approval from public relations experts — “one department, one voice” they argued. They kept so many researchers from publishing data that the coverage of climate change fell by over 80 per cent, according to their own numbers (Science Magazine, February 2012). This prompted protesters to hold a mock funeral for the “body of evidence” on Parliament Hill in July 2012.
Similar policies were enforced in other domains as well, and applied to regular citizens in addition to government employees. The bilingual website Voices-voix.ca documents such instances in painstaking detail. The list of targeted groups and individuals includes:
- Linda Keen, president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, fired in January of 2008 just before she testified in front of a parliamentary committee in spite of assurances that her office would be free from political interference;
- the Sierra Club of British Columbia, a non-profit environmental organisation, kept in September of 2008 from getting a $100,000 grant that had been formally approved and contractually signed off.
- Rémy Beauregard, president of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, accused of improper management and linked to terrorist factions but entirely exonerated after his death in January of 2010;
- Marty Cheliak, RCMP Chief Superintendent and longtime supporter of Canada’s long-gun registry, removed from his post a few weeks before Parliament started its successful drive to abolish said registry; and
- Sean Bruyea, Gulf War officer, journalist and veterans’ advocate, accused of mental illness after private medical information was illegally accessed, which got him to sue the government and win a rare apology in November 2010;
Voices-Voix hasn’t been the sole chronicler of the rise in blacklisting practices. Over at the Council of Canadians, Murray Dobbin collated the extensive dossier, Stephen Harper’s Hitlist: Power, Process and the Assault on Democracy, in April of 2010 (www.canadians.org/democracy/). And reporter Mark Kennedy chimed in with “Harper’s Growing ‘Black List’ a Threat to Democracy: Critics” (Vancouver Sun, August 18, 2010).
The irony is that the government’s efforts to control its image may actually erode it. Just as we’ve become a “rogue state” on the environmental scene (to quote Steven Guilbault of Équiterre), our nice-guy reputation suffers every time we resort to bullying tactics. As Franke James says, we should “never tell people to shut up—because that’s just not Canadian.”
Charles Montpetit is the freedom of expression co-ordinator for the Union des écrivaines et des écrivains québécois (UNEQ).
About Freedom to Read Week: February 24-March 2, 2013
Freedom to Read Week is an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is organized by the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Book and Periodical Council. See what Freedom to Read Week Activities you can take part in.
My thanks to Ron Brown, whose article “Looking Back: a Report from the Writers’ Union of Canada” shows how TWUC stepped in to help me. “In 2011, when the federal Conservative government attempted to defund an event in Europe featuring artistic works by environmental critic Franke James, union chair Greg Hollingshead chastised the government for its crude attempt at artistic chill.” (see the 2011 press release by TWUC and PEN Canada)