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MacDonald Laurier Institute

Liberalism’s civil war in the reaction to Hamas’ attack


11 minute read

From the MacDonald Laurier Institute

By Michael Bonner

Where is the “fine line” between free speech and offence or hatred and what does it mean not to feel safe sharing an opinion?

Are we living through an illiberal or anti-liberal moment? Observers on both poles of the political spectrum say that we are. They cite things like pulling down statues, cancel culture, contests about pronouns, online or in-person mobs, campus social justice crusades, and so on. Leftists are “woke authoritarians”, and the Right are all inspired by Hitler. Both sides assert their positions are nothing more than a defence of fundamental freedoms and accuses the other of trying to crush it. Words like “fascist”, “communist”, and “Nazi” are thrown about without clarity or precision, and each side accuses the other of undermining liberal democracy.

Now, each side in this contest is right that liberalism is under strain, but not in the way they think. Or at least, not always. Most of the strife that we have been witnessing for the past decade is not a barbarian horde hammering away at the outer defences of the liberal empire, but a civil war unfolding within it. Those on the Left who demand “safe spaces”, trigger warnings, deplatforming speakers, or cancelling of opponents with views deemed offensive often do so in the name of protecting of individual freedom or autonomy, as they understand them. And their antagonists do not oppose those things because they reject individual freedom. Far from it. Their opposition amounts to asserting other liberal values, most especially free speech and academic freedom. The outcome is a conflict between antithetical visions of liberal freedoms.

Ideally, the liberal civil war could be ended easily. Everybody would accept some reasonable limit on his or her own personal freedoms, and respect those of everybody else. Those reasonable limits used to be determined by inherited custom and habit — what some people still vestigially refer to as “norms”. You should be able to say and do what you want, but there were things that you ought not to want to say or do. Consensus held that deliberate obscenity, blasphemy, insult, and so forth, should be avoided. Such things did not always need to be outlawed; but, if they were, it was simply because law aligned with custom.

Now, it is doubtful whether any such consensual norms still exist in the postmodern West where so much emphasis is placed on individual preferences to the detriment of a harmonious society. Or, if norms still obtain, their power to shape public morality and behaviour seems greatly diminished. In the absence of shared norms, the purpose of the law becomes simply to punish the infringement of a code of conduct which a society, or a part thereof, is incapable of understanding or doesn’t see any valuing in adhering to, and this is a serious problem.

We have a symbol of this problem in the reaction to Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 last year. Governments, police, and university authorities have struggled to differentiate between antithetical, but equally permissible, political views and expressions of hatred or efforts to intimidate others. Former president of Harvard, Claudine Gay, was asked at an American congressional hearing whether a hypothetical call for the genocide of Jews would be a violation of Harvard’s code of conduct. “It can be, depending on the context” was her answer, and this can be taken as the high-water mark of the confusion — especially in contrast with Harvard’s iron-fisted policy on “sizeism,” “fatphobia”, “cisheterosexism,” and Hallowe’en costumes. An ever-expanding list of new crimes that no one had heard of a few years ago must always be punished severely, but a demand for mass-murder may be allowed in certain contexts, apparently.

In Canada, we have seen many emotive reactions both to the attack of October 7 and Israel’s campaign against Hamas. The death of civilians has provoked disgust and condemnation, and there have been many public protests. But some of these seem to have less to do with sympathy for victims than hatred for the other side, and their form and venue are wholly inappropriate. Ostensibly pro-Gazan demonstrations have been directed at Jewish community centres, schools, and restaurants which have no connection with Israeli military policy. A protest on the overpass at Avenue Road and the 401 in Toronto was effectively a blockade of a predominately Jewish neighbourhood.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Senate recently released a report alleging a substantial rise in incidents of Islamophobia. A mosque in Toronto was vandalised, and faeces was smeared on an Islamic centre in Ottawa — two institutions that have no connection with Hamas.

Observers unsurprisingly demand moderation. Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has called for “reasonable limits” to public protest, so as to exclude deliberate intimidation. Israel’s ambassador to Canada has warned of a “fine line” between freedom of speech and what he calls “freedom of hate.” And Amira Elghawaby, Canada’s federal Anti-Islamophobia Envoy, seems to encourage a renewed commitment to free speech, which seems to have been stifled, since “Canada’s Muslim, Arab and Palestinian communities right now do not feel fully safe to share their views on what’s happening in Gaza”.

Unfortunately, such exhortations, well-meaning and reasonable though they may be, will probably not have any beneficial effect. No moderation or limitation will be possible unless people can agree on where that “fine line” is, what it means to be “fully safe”, what public protest ought to look like, and where it should take place. In the absence of public consensus on those matters, governments may be forced to legislate. Karamveer Lalh has argued that spontaneous protest could be restricted to areas around government buildings and possibly forbidden elsewhere without a permit. Such a policy would not be above criticism, but it would at least attempt a balance between civil liberties and the state’s duty to protect its citizens. But if this failed, as it very well could, more draconian measures would surely follow.

Increasingly rigorous guidance and crackdowns on the location of public protests, though, would not address the other questions. Where is the “fine line” between free speech and offence or hatred and what does it mean not to feel safe sharing an opinion? Society cannot define and punish mere offence by relying on the subjective experience of individuals, as there is no form of speech that will not potentially offend someone.

Hate speech is a different matter. But the bar for hate speech is already so high that it is not even clear where it is. Our present law is directed against very extreme expressions of vilification and detestation, not mere disliking or antipathy. Obviously, it would be bad to find oneself on the wrong side of this law, but that happens rarely. Nevertheless, the fear that political opinions could potentially be construed as support for mass-murder has been enough to get some people fired or censured. Amira Elghawaby’s implication that one should feel safe to utter an opinion seems reasonable in principle, but this cannot mean that there should no prospect of objection or reaction.

And so, we find ourselves back in the middle of the liberal civil war. Though it is tempting to assert that the main solution to the problem is a renewed commitment to liberal freedoms, this cannot be right. Everyone already seems to believe in one vision or another of those freedoms, even —perhaps especially — when they conflict. The law may succeed in punishing people, and it may even reimpose order for a time. But can it teach us to be civil and to disagree peacefully? We are going to find out soon.

Dr Michael Bonner is a political consultant and former Director of Policy within the Government of Ontario. He is also a historian of ancient Iran and is the author of the new book In Defense of Civilization: How Our Past Can Renew Our Present.

MacDonald Laurier Institute

Anti-Jewish campus protests reveal ugly double standard when it comes to policing “free speech”

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From the Macdonald Laurier Institute

By Kelsie Walker for Inside Policy

Despite encampments trespassing on private property, and thus being, by all definitions, illegal, they’ve seen practically no disciplinary action.

Following widespread pro-Palestinian protest encampments popping up on American campuses, there was an influx of copycat encampments across major Canadian university campuses, including at the University of Toronto, McGill University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Calgary, the University of Ottawa, and Western University, among others. These encampments are demanding that universities divest from entities associated with Israel, accusing them of supporting apartheid and being complicit in genocide. The protests, intended to express solidarity with Palestinians but also rife with antisemitism and calls for violence against Jews, have sparked intense debates about the limits of free speech and the legal boundaries of protests on campuses.

What began as a story of peaceful activism has quickly turned into lawmakers, universities, and the police selectively enforcing the law on partisan lines, displaying both hypocrisy and inaction when it comes to handling protests associated with the left.

A new poll from the Angus Reid Institute found that two-thirds of Canadians (64 per cent) say the police give preferential treatment to certain groups when dealing with protests. Canadians of all political affiliations largely feel that police response and engagement at protests is not applied consistently, with three-in-five past Conservative (68 percent), Liberal (60 percent), and NDP (73 percent) voters saying so. While they differ on the question of who receives preference, given the recent events at Canadian universities, it is undeniable that left-leaning causes, and more specifically, pro-Palestinian protests, are given unfair leeway in comparison to causes deemed to be right-leaning.

While some have tried to frame the campus encampments as an issue of free speech, in many cases, the protesters are breaking clearly defined and communicated laws. Students are certainly free to protest. However, they must also comply with university policies and Canadian laws. Free speech allows individuals to express their opinions, even controversial or unpopular ones. However, when the expression of an opinion crosses into illegal activity, such as vandalism, trespassing, or the incitement of violence, it is no longer protected under the banner of free speech. Yet, pro-Palestinian protestors are demanding that their protests be held above the law, and such demands are being met.

Despite encampments trespassing on private property, and thus being, by all definitions, illegal, they’ve seen practically no disciplinary action. The majority of Canadian universities are either placating protestors’ demands by offering a list of concessions, or, they are simply letting protests proceed practically unchecked. Police did recently disperse the encampment at McGill University on June 6 – but only after protesters there escalated the situation by illegally occupying an administration building. While most protestors have good intentions, illegal and alarming activity is frequently occurring in protest sites. Encampments have, at times, seen physical conflicts with counter-protesters, the presence of anti-Canadian and anti-police slogans, the refusal of numerous orders to leave, have issued calls to incite violence, and in one instance, have even displayed shocking imagery depicting the lynching of Jews.

Consider McGill’s “peaceful” protest. Launched in late April, it quickly turned into a hotbed of intolerance. Protestors rejected the university’s offer of concessions (despite the offer being similar to those that have led to conflict resolution at other universities) and sent masked individuals to follow and harass senior administrators at their homes and offices. The encampment displayed profane graffiti, and even featured a hanging effigy of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  donning a striped outfit that resembled the uniforms that Jews wore in concentration camps during the Second World War. Are these truly displays of free speech, or something far more sinister?

Many of the encampments are demonstrating a striking intolerance to differing opinions and an unwillingness to reach a compromise with universities, with many protestors refusing to leave until all their demands are met. If the situation was reversed, would a pro-Israeli encampment be met with the same tolerance?

Well, the University of Toronto clearly says no. Recently, a pro-Israel encampment, created in counter-protest to the pro-Palestinian encampment on campus, was removed by campus security within minutes of being established. The justification? Unlike the fully fenced-in and untouchable “Little Gaza” that has existed and grown steadily on the campus for over a month, the counter-protest was simply small enough to remove. So, it turns out, universities are in fact able to remove encampments, but only when they are on the wrong ideological side (or, in this case, the “right” side). This double standard is alarming. Why are universities and the police so afraid to stand up to left-wing protests when they blatantly break the law? If encouraging “free speech” is the justification, then that very speech cannot be encouraged selectively.

While encampments at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta have been disbanded by police, most Canadian universities are not taking any action against illegal encampments. Indeed, some universities have reassured protesters that there will be no punitive actions taken towards them. The University of Toronto, the same university that was so quick to remove pro-Israeli protestors, even began its convocation ceremonies to the backdrop of a large pro-Palestinian encampment.

To be clear, I am not advocating for the forced end of protests. However, the inconsistent application of the law is troubling. This is part of a much wider issue in Canadian society, where there is a clear double standard on this issue. Just look at how the federal government reacted to the “Freedom Convoy” that gridlocked Ottawa in January 2022. In response to the anti-vaccine-mandate protest, the Trudeau government invoked the Emergencies Act and forcibly brought it to an end. Some Freedom Convoy organizers were arrested and their bank accounts frozen. A federal court ruling later declared the use of the Emergencies Act “unreasonable” and a violation of the protesters’ Charter rights.

Ironically, the same people who applauded the crackdown on the Freedom Convoy protesters are crying foul at the very thought of the police disbanding left-wing protest encampments on university campuses. As Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Everyone is in favour of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.”

While free speech is protected, it is not without limits. And it certainly shouldn’t be used as a phony justification for inaction, especially pro-Palestinian encampments make other students and staff feel unsafe on campus. The mobs are especially concerning for Jewish students, faculty, and staff who have suffered instances of anti-Semitic rhetoric, harassment, and exclusion on campus. In the face of such blatant anti-Jewish hate, how can they feel safe, respected, and valued by their institutions?

Protests are often intended to create discomfort; however, universities are sitting by idling while atmospheres of hatred and racism are being strengthened with each passing day. It is so severe that some Jewish students in the United States are taking legal action against their universities, under the claims that the institutions are failing to protect them from discrimination and harassment. If such hostility is allowed to continue unchecked, it is only a matter of time until legal battles emerge on Canadian campuses too. Universities are legally and ethically obligated to ensure that all students feel secure and respected, not allow a select few to run rampant all over university rules. There must be a principled, consistent approach to free speech and legal enforcement – one that transcends political affiliations and ensures that the rights and responsibilities of all citizens are respected equally.

Kelsie Walker is a project manager at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute where she primarily assists with the Defending the Marketplace of Ideas project.

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The Trudeau government’s latest assault on transparency is buried in Bill C-69

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From the Macdonald Laurier Institute

By Aaron Wudrick for Inside Policy

The new powers granted to the minister of health under Bill C-69 are considerable. For example, they allow the minister to unilaterally make decisions regarding drug approvals and food safety regulations, effectively pulling products off the shelves of stores without the typical procedural safeguards. This concentration of power in the hands of the minister circumvents much-needed scrutiny and risks politicizing health decisions.

As the Trudeau government scrambles to pass its spring 2024 budget measures through Parliament before the summer recess, most of the media’s focus has centred on the budget’s headline measure, the increase in the capital gains inclusion rate. Unusually, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland chose not to include that change in its main budget bill, saying she would instead soon introduce those measures in a separate bill.

Meanwhile, the remainder of the budget measures are contained in Bill C-69, an omnibus bill that has attracted little media attention. That is a shame, as it contains provisions that warrant closer scrutiny, particularly the proposed changes to the Food and Drug Act. These amendments grant the minister of health sweeping powers, exacerbating the Trudeau government’s longstanding habit of undermining proper procedural channels when it finds them to be inconvenient.

The new powers granted to the minister of health under Bill C-69 are considerable. For example, they allow the minister to unilaterally make decisions regarding drug approvals and food safety regulations, effectively pulling products off the shelves of stores without the typical procedural safeguards. This concentration of power in the hands of the minister circumvents much-needed scrutiny and risks politicizing health decisions. It is not hard to see how such authority could easily lead to arbitrary or politically motivated actions, further diminishing public trust in a health system battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health Minister Mark Holland defends these new powers by arguing that they are necessary for protecting public health swiftly and effectively and suggests that only a “dishonest” minister would misuse such powers. He fails to mention that governance should not rely solely on the personal integrity of individual ministers but on robust, transparent processes that ensure accountability. It is concerning that Holland advocates bypassing established departmental procedures, which raises questions about the motivations behind these proposed changes.

A more appropriate regulatory approach would trust independent agencies, including Health Canada, to oversee the safety of health products. Establishing clear guidelines and procedures for evaluating and removing unsafe products would ensure consistency, fairness, and transparency in decision-making processes.

Unfortunately, this approach contrasts sharply with the Trudeau government’s preference for consolidating power and limiting oversight.

For instance, the Trudeau government has been criticized for its use of secret orders-in-council, which bypass public scrutiny and reduce transparency. These orders often contain sensitive decisions that the government simply prefers to keep out of the public eye.

The government has also allowed the federal access to information system to atrophy, with frequent delays and heavily redacted documents further undermining the principle of open government.

In 2017, the Trudeau government introduced changes that critics argued would limit the independence and effectiveness of the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO). These amendments allowed the government to control the PBO’s work plan and staffing, potentially reducing its ability to hold the government accountable. More recently, the government cut the budget of the Information Commissioner’s office, undermining the capacity of an already overwhelmed independent officer of Parliament to hold the government to account, with the commissioner herself noting that “this reduction in my budget will spell long delays for complainants who are seeking information from government institutions.”

Further examples of this troubling trend include the government’s proposal in the early days of the  COVID-19 pandemic that sought to grant the government extraordinary powers to tax and spend unilaterally – without parliamentary approval – for almost two years. Later in the pandemic, the government faced significant criticism from Auditor General Karen Hogan for the lack of transparency and accountability regarding the allocation and spending of tens of billions in relief funds: “I am concerned about the lack of rigour on post-payment verifications and collection activities,” Hogan said in 2022.

Taken together, a clear pattern emerges of a government that regularly seeks to undermine transparency, limit oversight, and concentrate power within the executive branch, and Bill C-69 is just the latest attempt.

The government should back off and drop these proposed new unilateral ministerial powers. Strong regulatory oversight, coupled with transparency and accountability, won’t impair the government’s ability to regulate health products – all while safeguarding democratic principles and public trust.

Aaron Wudrick is the Director of the Domestic Policy Program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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