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Canada and Cuba: In some ways not so different

Stephen Gowans

ontario funds Catholic schools, but not Jewish schools, or Muslim schools, or schools of other religious denominations, even though the UN Convention on Political and Civil Liberties, which Canada has signed, and Ontario has assented to, says that if you fund one, you have to fund them all, or none.

Of course, mere piffles like UN conventions aren't going to deter Queen's Park. They didn't stop Ottawa from joining in the drubbing Nato administered to Yugoslavia in 1999, even though that much vaunted and admired institution, international law, and the UN Security Council, said you couldn't. But there are times when civil liberties, international law, and the UN are, well...a pain in the neck.

Practical people have to know when to be flexible with their principles.

Canada Customs routinely opens mail crossing the US border into Canada, despite the objections of the Privacy Commissioner. The government says applying for search warrants whenever it wants to open a piece of mail is inconvenient.

Tear gas and truncheons are used against peaceful demonstrators at the FTAA summit in Quebec City, despite warnings from Amnesty International not to use excessive force to crack down on peaceful dissent.

A prominent dissident, Jaggi Singh, plucked off the streets by undercover police officers, languishes in a Quebec City jail.

Civil liberties, international law, tolerance of dissent. They have their place, right? Absolutely. When convenient. Except where certain other countries are concerned. In their case, adherence to international law, respect for political dissent, and the safeguarding of civil liberties, must be absolute. We insist on it.

So it is, with a prominent dissident held in custody for being seen near a catapult that hurled teddy bears, a Privacy Commissioner sputtering in outrage because the government insists on opening mail without warrants, and peaceful protesters, even bystanders, complaining that riot police gassed them at Quebec City, Ottawa criticizes Cuba for a deteriorating human rights situation and for the jailing of political dissidents.

Is there not something just a little askew here?

A hirsute German philosopher once said, "It's possible to criticize the new regime, without supporting the old regime." Which, in this case, means something like, pointing to the trampling of civil liberties and cracking down on dissidents in one's own country, doesn't imply support for abuses in other countries.

William Blum's wonderfully pithy description of Western democracy as "the three-minute democracy of the ballot-box and tolerance of dissent so long as it doesn't turn into a movement," likewise, doesn't justify the top-down organization of Cuban society, or the Caribbean country's thin list of civil liberties. Just because there are problems here, doesn't mean there can be problems there.

But before worrying too much about Cuba's record on civil freedoms and its muzzling of critics, Canadians might start worrying about their own country's record, of opening mail, building security fences to limit the right of assembly, dismissing UN Conventions of civil and political rights, and snuffing out dissent whenever it threatens to turn into a movement.

And as for muzzling critics, how many dissident critics have you heard who've had access to the mass media? There are more ways of muzzling dissent than throwing dissidents into jail. Free speech, when it's limited to the free speech of the soap box, is no match for the free speech that comes from access to the media and public relations expertise. Dissidents don't have that.

And so dissent in Canada is often muzzled quite naturally. Canadian governments don't have to throw dissidents into jail. Not usually.

And that's why Western governments have the luxury of celebrating their tolerance of dissent, without being inconvenienced by it. It's like making much of your commitment to free speech, when you can't hear the troubling things other people say.

Only when dissent threatens to grow beyond the margins does it become a threat. At that point, governments discover their flexibility. Domestically, anyway.

Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at

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