There have been many requests for information on the ‘Gag Laws’, their effects on pro-life efforts, and why people were unaware of them.
The two gag laws, C169 and C114 illustrate how easily citizens can be robbed of their democratic rights.
Bill C169: October 25, 1983
On its face Bill C169 was a dull series of amendments to the Election Act, mainly regulating election expenses and broadcasting time. With the consent of all parties, and in the space of only 40 minutes, the Bill was rushed through its second and third Readings in the House of Commons and was on its way to the Senate. There was no recorded vote. The media was silent on the issue, and yet a few months later two law professors from Saskatchewan condemned Bill C169 as “the most illiberal piece of legislation ever put forward by a supposedly democratic legislature.” (Globe & Mail, March 13, 1984).
The Prolife Role
The first warning of danger came from a prolifer who always read Hansard. He noted that in the debate, Chuck Cook (P.C.) had mentioned a “controversial amendment” which would “eliminate third party or special interest group [e.g. pro-life] advertising during the election period,” and which “undoubtedly…will end up being tested in the courts.” He phoned Campaign Life’s legal counsel, Gwen Landolt, and then obtained a copy of the bill for her. By chance, the next day, Gwen was attending Campaign Life’s AGM in Edmonton where the issue was discussed.
Section 72 of the Act made it a criminal act, subject to a fine of $5000 or five years imprisonment to “advertise in the print medium during an election campaign without authorization of a registered agent of a party or an official agent of a candidate.” The Bill said: “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” must be authorized under penalty of fine or prison.
Campaign Life decided to alert other special interest groups and the media. Their efforts met with a deafening silence—but with one exception, the National Citizens Coalition.
The National Citizens Coalition (NCC)
The NCC decided to challenge the law in court. They waited until Parliament reconvened in the New Year, and then stunned the country by full-page advertisements in newspapers nationwide, explaining how Parliament, in Bill C169, had taken away their freedom of speech, and asking for help with court costs. The results were all they could have wished; the people and the media were outraged; MPs ran for cover; and the funds rolled in.
The case was heard in the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary, and Mr. Justice Medhurst struck down the offending sections of the law. An election was imminent and MPs did not wish to add to the people’s anger, so the government did not appeal.
Bill C114: April 2, 1993
Bill C114 was a second attempt of Parliament to muzzle Canadians, Section259 of the bill threatened citizens with up to five years’ imprisonment if they spent more than $1000 individually or as a group to support or oppose parties or candidates during elections. Section 213 was even more draconian; it made it a similar offence to spend any money at all to support or oppose parties or candidates—directly or indirectly—for the first 18 days of the election period. (Only political parties were free to speak). All parties agreed to restrict debate on the Third Reading of the bill to 21 minutes, and the bill was passed at 5:55 p.m. on Friday April 2, the last day before a two-week recess of the House of Commons.
This time NCC was prepared. By 10:00 a.m. Monday, April 5, the lawyers were preparing their challenge, once again in the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. On June 25, 1993, Mr. Justice MacLeod ruled that three sections of the new law were in breach of one or more sections of the charter of Rights and Freedoms “and therefore all are of no effect.” He said a right to vote means an informed vote, and “I think it apparent that voters are effectively precluded from receiving third party views from other parts of the country.”
The Liberal government is going to contest this judgment in the Supreme Court of Canada, but this time the NCC will be supported by other parties. The media (e.g. The Globe and Mail) see that free speech is under attack. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance: and one prolifer saved Canadians’ freedom to speak.