It was October 25, 1983. The time was 11:00 a.m.; and the place was the House of Commons in Ottawa. The word was out that the morning’s business would be routine – a number of small housekeeping amendments to the Canada Elections Act. It concerned the regulation of election expenses, nothing more.
The Press gallery was almost deserted. There was a quorum in the House, but many members were absent. Things were so humdrum that a procedure was adopted so that, “as agreed (this legislation), will be passed at all stages within the next few minutes.”
And that is what happened. The Bill was presented with a few brief comments. Two rather short speeches followed. Then, the motion was made: “That Bill C-169, an Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (No. 3), be now read a second time and, by unanimous consent, referred to a Committee of the Whole.” (Translation: Bills are given three readings in Parliament. In this case, after the second reading, Bill C-169 was supposed to be sent back to the committee that originally worked on it. That rule could be bypassed by referring it to the whole House in session, that is, “a Committee of the Whole.”) The motion was passed in these terms: “Motion agreed to, Bill read the second time and, by unanimous consent, considered in committee, reported, read the third time and passed.”
Bill C-169 contains many practical and useful things. However, let us look at Subsections 1 and 2 under Section 72. They read:
“1) Every printed advertisement, handbill, placard, poster or dodger that promotes or opposes the election of a registered political party or candidate and that is displayed or distributed during an election by or on behalf of a registered party or candidate shall indicate that it was authorized by the registered agent of the party or by the official agent of the candidate, as the case may be, and bear the registered agent’s name.”
“2) Everyone who prints, publishes, distributes or posts up, or who causes to be printed, published, distributed or posted up, any document referred to in Subsection 1 is, unless it bears the name and authorization required under that Subsection, guilty of an offence against this Act.”
These subsections are zingers! What do they mean? The most obvious interpretation of the law is this: If you have planned a demonstration, public rally or political meeting during an election, all the posters, placards, handouts you use must have the endorsement of one or the other political candidates. Not only that, the candidate will have to accept the printing and publishing costs of these materials as part of his election expenses. The same must be said of the airing of issues in the electronic media during any election. You will be allowed to air issues only in as much as one or the other candidate accepts to make this or that issue part of his/her platform and accepts to make that part of his or her electoral expenses.
What if all your local candidates decide that a given issue such as: acid rain, the cruise missile, economic injustice, pro-life, help for the handicapped or whatever, is not worth airing in an election? Then, you as an individual cannot use the public media to make your views known on this issue, if it can in any way are interpreted as helping or hindering one or the other candidate or party.
Are there alternatives? Of course! If you register as a political party and nominate candidates in at least 50 electoral districts, you can then have your party and your candidates express your views during an election.
Ostensibly, this legislation is designed to prevent single issue groups from using the media to express their opinions for or against any given party or candidate during an election. In reality, under this law, every person who airs his/her views in the public media and pays for that privilege becomes a breaker of the law subject to criminal prosecution.
Freedom has its’ price. If we want to maintain it, we will have to fight for it, beginning with freedom of speech and expression. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to 1984.
Fr. Lalonde is editor of Our Family magazine. This article was his February 1984 editorial.