This summer marks one year since the implementation of Bill C-16, the legislation that catapulted Professor Jordan Peterson to fame and galvanized a much-needed discussion about freedom of expression in Canada.
Though we have yet to see the first public prosecution under the bill, its free speech implications are still very much alive.
The bill updated the Criminal Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act to add “gender identity or expression” as protected areas when it comes to hate crimes and purported human rights violations falling under federal jurisdiction.
These protections already existed in Ontario’s Human Rights code, which served as the basis for the federal legislation. The Ontario Human Rights Commission is clear that “refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun” is discrimination.
It was rather suspect that federal lawmakers were so vague about what they hoped to accomplish with C-16 when introducing and passing it. The Human Rights Code already protected against discrimination based on race, sexual orientation and religion, among other identifiers. But these areas are far less subjective and, dare I say, fluid, than gender is.
Take a look at your Facebook account if you want an illustration of how absurd this can get. Facebook offers 71 options for gender, ranging from agender to transfeminine and beyond. Even the most well-meaning progressive will fall short trying to keep track of them all, let alone remembering which pronouns are which.
It isn’t just about him and her. Made-up words like zim and xir, which were once confined to university campuses, now have the protection of the law.
If you work in a federally regulated sector like aviation or forestry and neglect to call your pangender employee by her, erm, xir, or Wednesday pronoun, you could be prosecuted.
The telecommunications sector is federally regulated as well. When I hosted a daily talk radio show, I could have wound up with a fine – or conceivably jail time – if my commentary on these sorts of issues was found to be discriminatory.
Litigator Jared Brown has done tremendous work on exposing what C-16’s monetary and non-monetary penalties can be. Despite the assurances of the bill’s supporters, it’s possible to wind up behind bars as a result of C-16.
This is a new frontier for free expression. Typically, we view censorship– limitation by the state of what can be said – as the prime threat to free speech. With C-16, we have compelled speech, which I view as a fate worse than censorship.
I believe transgender people have a right to live their lives. As a Christian, I’m called to treat anyone I encounter with love and respect. It is paramount that we do this of our own accord, however, and not under the hammer of the state.
Forced tolerance is one of the most intolerant policies a government can impose.
In July, the Rights and Freedoms Institute marked C-16’s first anniversary with a forum at Toronto’s Canada Christian College. The panelists, National Postcolumnist Barbara Kay, litigator Jared Brown, neuroscientist Debra Soh, and free speech advocate Lindsay Shepherd have, among them, spoken for hours and written thousands of words on these matters.
To put this in context, a 2016 Williams Institute study found that 0.6 per cent of American adults identify as transgender. Of those, the vast majority want simply to live as their preferred, rather than biological, sex.
The number of people who want to be gender fluid, or pangender, or “masculine of centre genderqueer” (I wish I made that one up) is so minute it can’t even be quantified.
We must speak up even on issues that appear insignificant, because they are invariably precursors to the bigger issues.
The ‘tolerance’ the federal government is mandating through C-16 comes from the same place as the Law Society of Ontario’s requirement that lawyers submit a “statement of principles” avowing a commitment to diversity and inclusion to keep their law licenses.
It’s the same phenomenon that forces organizations to affirm their support for abortion rights if they want summer jobs funding.
I would love to write a column warning that Canada is headed towards Orwellianism, but I can’t. Because it’s already here. The real question is whether enough people will realize the implications of letting this go unchecked.
All of the recent cases in Canada where free speech has been threatened have a common thread – traditional religious values are the beliefs deemed unacceptable. It’s paramount that all Canadians fight back. If not, we know how that Martin Niemöller poem ends.
Andrew Lawton is a radio broadcaster and columnist. He was the PC candidate for London West in the 2018 Ontario election.