Fre­edom is as Cana­dian as maple syrup and the Cana­dian Roc­kies. Don’t let col­lec­ti­vi­sts tell you otherwise

By Mark Milke

Ear­lier this year, I stum­bled across a fra­med copy of the Cana­dian Bill of Rights, the liber­ty-expan­ding law pro­mul­ga­ted by then-Pri­me Mini­ster John Die­fen­ba­ker and pas­sed by Par­lia­ment in 1960.

I read the docu­ment years ago but seeing it up clo­se remin­ded me of Canada’s long tra­di­tion of fre­edom, ran­ging from anti-sla­ve­ry efforts in the late 18th cen­tu­ry to Pier­re Trudeau’s defen­ce of indi­vi­du­al rights. The­se reali­ties of Cana­dian histo­ry are too often for­got­ten today.

One reason Die­fen­ba­ker pushed for the Bill of Rights, even tho­ugh it was only an act of Par­lia­ment and lac­ked con­sti­tu­tio­nal gro­un­ding, is that altho­ugh ide­als of liber­ty had exi­sted for cen­tu­ries in both English- and French-spe­aking coun­tries, the­ir appli­ca­tion had been nar­row. Many indi­vi­du­als, if they belon­ged to the ‘wrong’ gro­up – women, for instan­ce, or Chi­ne­se immi­grants – were mostly denied equ­ali­ty or even stan­ding befo­re the law.

My find was time­ly. I bought the fra­med copy shor­tly befo­re the Fre­edom Convoy arri­ved in Otta­wa to pro­test restric­tions on the­ir fre­edoms. Whi­le I sym­pa­thi­zed with the­ir gene­ral pre­fe­ren­ce for a free Cana­da, two points abo­ut fre­edom sho­uld always be kept in mind.

The first is that no fre­edom is abso­lu­te tho­ugh infrin­ge­ment sho­uld be rare. John Stu­art Mill made this point in On Liber­ty over 150 years ago in his famo­us harm prin­ci­ple: that the sta­te sho­uld only use for­ce to pre­vent harm to others.

Thus, people have the right to asso­cia­te and pro­test but not depri­ve others of the­ir fre­edom by inter­fe­ring with tra­de at the bor­der, pipe­li­ne con­struc­tion or com­mu­ting in Van­co­uver, to cite a few con­tem­po­ra­ry exam­ples. I also belie­ve in pro­per­ty rights, but my neigh­bo­ur has no right to poison her land lest she poison mine. This remin­der of the limits on fre­edom annoy­ed some readers who liked the rhe­to­ric of fre­edom but may have for­got­ten its neces­sa­ry twin – responsibility.

My second point – that Cana­da has a long histo­ry of fre­edom – pro­vo­ked just as strong a reac­tion among tho­se who dismiss all ‘fre­edom talk’ as un-Cana­dian, or ‘extre­me.’ In fact, this coun­try has a long histo­ry of both rhe­to­ric abo­ut and com­mit­ment to fre­edom, inc­lu­ding a cle­ar grasp of whe­re rights ori­gi­na­te – with indi­vi­du­als, not governments.

Inspi­red by the Bri­tish par­lia­men­ta­rian and abo­li­tio­nist Wil­liam Wil­ber­for­ce, John Gra­ves Sim­coe, gover­nor of Upper Cana­da betwe­en 1791 and 1796, pled­ged from the start of his gover­nor­ship that any laws or poli­cies that pro­vi­ded a fra­me­work for or sup­por­ted sla­ve­ry would hen­ce­forth be under attack. His first action was to make the impor­ta­tion of more sla­ves ille­gal, a com­mon first step by abo­li­tio­ni­sts in the­ir cru­sa­de aga­inst the tra­de in human flesh.

As for the rhe­to­ric of fre­edom, con­si­der what one par­lia­men­ta­rian told a crowd in Win­ni­peg in 1894: “The good Saxon word, fre­edom; fre­edom in eve­ry sen­se of the term, fre­edom of spe­ech, fre­edom of action, fre­edom in reli­gio­us life and civil life and last but not least, fre­edom in com­mer­cial life.”

Today, tho­se words sound almost Ame­ri­can, only becau­se many Cana­dians have lost the lan­gu­age of liber­ty. But the spe­aker was Libe­ral Leader Wil­frid Lau­rier, who would beco­me pri­me mini­ster in 1896. The spur for Laurier’s fre­edom spe­ech was the Con­se­rva­ti­ve government’s pro­tec­tio­nism, which he relen­tles­sly attac­ked. Lau­rier empha­si­zed fre­edom pre­ci­se­ly becau­se it reso­na­ted with Cana­dians, and he used it to coun­ter the unjust repres­sion of “com­mer­cial life,” i.e. free trade.

Ano­ther pro­po­nent and rhe­to­ri­cal publi­cist for freedom?

Pier­re Elliott Tru­de­au, the pri­me archi­tect of the Char­ter of Rights and Fre­edoms. Tho­ugh a default col­lec­ti­vist on eco­no­mic mat­ters, Tru­de­au well under­sto­od that indi­vi­du­als must have the­ir civil rights pro­tec­ted vis-à-vis tho­se who pushed what he cal­led the “the­ory of col­lec­ti­ve rights.” That’s why Tru­de­au con­si­sten­tly oppo­sed Quebec natio­na­li­sts who discri­mi­na­ted aga­inst English spe­akers, an attack on indi­vi­du­al rights that con­ti­nu­es today.

Why does indi­vi­du­al fre­edom mat­ter, and whe­re does it ori­gi­na­te? In a 1992 spe­ech to a Cité Libre din­ner in Mont­re­al, Tru­de­au expla­ined that “Lar­ger and smal­ler col­lec­ti­ves con­front each other in the heart of one and the same coun­try, and that can even­tu­al­ly lead to civil war. And that’s why the French Revo­lu­tion esta­bli­shed liber­ty as a fun­da­men­tal right.”

He then made cle­ar that altho­ugh col­lec­ti­ves – nation-sta­tes – obvio­usly exist, it was cri­ti­cal to grasp that citi­zens and the­ir rights pre­ce­de the sta­te and that the sta­te must always justi­fy infrin­ge­ments of liber­ty. “©iti­zens, you are all first of all equ­al among your­se­lves, and … your rights take prio­ri­ty over tho­se of the sta­te. … The col­lec­ti­vi­ty is not the bearer of rights: it rece­ives the rights it exer­ci­ses from the citizens.”

This brings us to Trudeau’s son, Pri­me Mini­ster Justin Tru­de­au, and his government’s invo­ca­tion of the Emer­gen­cies Act, which allo­wed for the arbi­tra­ry shut­down of bank acco­unts among other seve­re and unne­ces­sa­ry inju­ries to fre­edom. That was a stark remin­der of why our default prin­ci­ple sho­uld always be that govern­ments must justi­fy infrin­ge­ments on citi­zens’ fre­edom – it’s not for citi­zens to justi­fy the­ir pre­fe­ren­ce for a free society.

Fre­edom is as Cana­dian as maple syrup and the Cana­dian Roc­kies. Don’t let col­lec­ti­vi­sts tell you otherwise.

Mark Mil­ke is exe­cu­ti­ve direc­tor of The Ari­sto­tle Foun­da­tion for Public Poli­cy. His latest book is The Vic­tim Cult: How the Grie­van­ce Cul­tu­re Hurts Eve­ry­one and Wrecks Civilization.

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