Earlier this week, I launched a lawsuit against my own government for violating our right to free speech.
It started with calls from individuals in Ontario, who were frustrated that they couldn’t submit letters of concern to the National Energy Board’s review of the Line 9 pipeline. They needed to fill out a nine-page application form for approval to submit a one-page letter.
This goes against everything we stand for as Canadians. These rules violate our Charter-guaranteed right to free expression. A right becomes meaningless if a citizen is effectively barred from exercising it; a right is a right precisely because it doesn’t require nine pages of paperwork and a screening process. Freedom of speech means that in a public process, we can speak to all or any of our concerns – not just the ones the government wants to hear.
Last year, in statutes snuck into the omnibus Bill C-38, the Harper government limited the scope of the energy hearings to such an extent that ordinary citizens concerned about the proposed expansion of the tar sands effectively cannot speak in the hearings. Given that new pipeline approvals are necessary only if we are committing to significant tar-sands expansion, these limitations are undemocratic violations of our constitutional right to free speech.
The harsh limitations on what should be an open public process should be of concern to all Canadians. These decisions – along with amendments to legislation that protected our water and fisheries, severe restrictions on federal scientists’ ability to speak freely and Ottawa’s abandonment of the Environmental Lakes Area and the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy – are limiting public debate on issues that are critical to Canada’s future.
Our representatives in Ottawa need to remember that they are accountable to us, the citizens, taxpayers and parents of children who will inherit these decisions. Not to big oil companies and lobbyists.
The Canada I love is a country that encourages public participation and open, informed debate. The Canada I love is a country that addresses serious challenges head on and attempts to balance diverse interests using leadership. Increasingly, it is becoming a country that restricts public participation, pulls out of important international agreements and removes laws that might trigger environmental assessments, for the sake of pushing ahead with major industrial projects. We live in a country that is quickly developing a dependence on polluting industries and turning a blind eye to the environmental impacts, the risks of major accidents and the health of those living downstream.
So we’re fighting back. We’ve launched a lawsuit calling for the Federal Court of Canada to strike down anti-democratic rules in the National Energy Board Act that restrict public comment.
Debates about the future of our energy sector and environment are difficult, charged with scientific, economic, medical and ethical issues. As individuals, we won’t always agree on everything, but as a nation, it is imperative that we find a way forward. That way will be legitimate and successful only if every Canadian who wants to speak to these decisions can. It will be legitimate only if we aren’t restricted from saying what we want to say; this government may want to bury any discussion of climate change, but the vast majority of Canadians do not.
That’s what the Harper Conservatives seem to have forgotten, or perhaps never understood. We’re not asking to dictate the decisions of the National Energy Board. All we’re asking is that the government respect its citizens’ right to be heard.
Regardless of your opinion on tar-sands expansion and the various pipeline proposals, I expect we can agree that in Canada, we have a right to an informed debate, and that the public has a right to engage in a public process.
This is about responsible, democratic government. It’s also about what kind of Canada we’re leaving to our children.
Tzeporah Berman is an author and member of the board of ForestEthics Advocacy.