What, exactly, was the Gag Law? M.S. Nepean

Gag Laws are the attempts by Parliament to muzzle “third parties” such as Campaign Life Coalition, at election time. There have been two attempts: one in 1983, and the one in 1993 which was finally defeated in October 1996.

In essence the 1993 law attempted to shut out all but the elite of registered political parties from the election process, by threatening citizens with fines and/or up to five years imprisonment if they spent more than $1,000 (individually or as a group) to support or oppose parties or candidates during federal elections. As Mr. Justice Kerans said later: You might as well say you can’t spend a penny… it’s a joke.” He added that the government “might as well have said ‘thou shalt not say anything.'”

The election gag law, C-114, was passed late on Friday, April 2, 1993, after 15 minutes of debate, by a handful of MPs representing all three political parties, Progressive Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democratic Party. Three days later, the National Citizens’ Coalition (NCC) supported a constitutional court challenge to the law. The NCC lawyers argued before the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, and on June 25, 1993 Mr. Justice MacLeon struck down several sections of the Canadian Elections Act because they violated constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech, association, and the right to an informed vote.

The governments of Kim Campell and Jean Chrétien decided to appeal that decision in an attempt to reimpose the law. A panel of three justices of the Alberta Court of Kerans (presiding) heard the appeal, and on June 5, 1996, ruled unanimously in favour of the NCC and freedom in a crushing defeat to the government.

The judgment was written by Madame Justice Conrad who wrote that the gag law “ironically alleges to protect the democratic process by means of infringing the very rights which are fundamental to a democracy.” She added: “Certain voters are impressed by the viewpoint of such groups as The National Citizens’ Coalition [substitute Campaign Life Coalition for the NCC]. The view of such a group on the candidates is elucidative. To interfere with such an identification of candidates by such a group is to thwart the free and democratic process. A manipulated communication system favouring the political parties is, in my view, one of the evils from which the constitutional guarantee provides protection.”

Madam Justice Conrad added: “This legislation bans input… its objective strikes at the core of these fundamental rights and freedoms and is arguably legislation which has as its very purpose the restriction of these rights and freedoms, which can never be justified.”

In the days following the judgment, it was said that the Chrétien government would appeal to the Supreme Court, but in October the time allowed for an appeal ran out. Thanks to the NCC, Campaign Life Coalition will be able to raise the issues of abortion, euthanasia, and new reproductive technologies in the next election.