First Bill 59, now Bill 74: Quebec's continuing problem with freedom

By Beryl Wajsman on April 11, 2016

"The imposition of moral conformity through legal sanction is the stuff of tyrannies not democracies."

We have written, sadly and far too often, of the institutions in Quebec that have sought to impose conformity and constraint on freedom of expression and freedom of choice. It is a systemic malady. Last year the Couillard government  proposed a law that would allow the Quebec Human Rights Commission (QHRC) to censor speech that promotes "fear of the other." The proposed law is Bill 59. Hearings are still ongoing, but national media and civil liberties groups have called it everything from a threat to free speech to pandering to Islamists. It has shamed Quebec and underscored once again Quebec's continuing problem with freedom.

Now, we see the government proposing another such threat. The proposed Bill 74 would allow Quebec to force internet providers to block online gaming sites that the state doesn't like. Finance Minister Leitao's spokesperson had the temerity to parrot the official line that this was for "public health" reasons since gambling addiction is a problem. Whether it is or is not, is not the business of the state. One thing is certain though. The Quebec state is engaging in coarse and overt hypocrisy. It deems it acceptable to encourage its own casino and lottery gambling as well as it's  online gaming, while limiting the power of adults to make independent choices for themselves. The real reason for this additional intrusion into our lives is that over the past two years Loto-Quebec has lost some $46 million to independent online gaming sites. 

But what is unparalled in this new legislation, is that it would grant Quebec the power to block the freedom of use of the internet. It is not farfetched to see this power go from restricting gaming sites to forcing internet providers to block opinion sites that our étatiste inspectors deem politically incorrect. Perhaps the most odious asoect of this proposed legislation, is that Quebec would become the only jurisdiction in the liberal, industrialized west to have such a state truncheon. It would put us in the esteemed company of China, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. As leading constituional attorney Julius Grey noted on this subject, "Quebec is not a police state - yet - but it is an inspector state."

These kinds of laws are descendants of  "La grande noirceur" of Duplessis and his Padlock Law. They seek to impose a conformity that stifles dissent, free expression and more importantly free choice. And the essence of a free society is the freedom to choose, even to choose badly. We have enough examples from the past few years. In 2007, our Orwellian Quebec Press Council criticized nationally respected columnist Barbara Kay for condemning elected officials speaking at a rally that turned into a pro-Hezbollah demonstration. The council stated that her opinions were an "undue provocation." It said not a word about the screeds of the politicians and other speakers at the rally. In 2011, the provincial government held hearings on its proposed Payette Plan. That plan called for state accreditation and language testing of journalists. I am proud to remember that we led the successful fight to kill the plan. And just last year, the OQLF called for the Pontiac Journal to segregate, yes segregate, English and French content in its pages. M.Couillard has not yet said a word on the latter issue.

These laws do not just continue a troubling trend. They take a quantum slide down the slippery slope of thought control. These bills have that in common. Bill 59 was introduced in mid-June of last year right after Bill 62. The latter's main provision was the disallowance of face coverings in the public sector. As expected, the government faced criticism from certain Muslim groups as well as non-religious critics who felt it unnecessary. In the face of that criticism, the Couillard administration introduced Bill 59. Nothing is more dangerous in any law than general, subjective language. What exactly does promoting "fear of the other" mean? What exactly are "inappropriate" gaming sites in Bill 74? They mean whatever the loudest voice in the room wants them to mean. But 59 seemed a precursor to 74. It would allow the QHRC to pursue internet sites - like Bill 74 - that in its estimation alone violate this restriction.  The judge and jury in the case of Bill 74 would be any of three provincial agencies and departments. 

In the case of Bill 59, Jacques Frémount, the QHRC's President, has stated that he had asked for expanded powers so that the QHRC could sue , "..those people who would write against...the Islamic religion..on a website or on a Facebook page." In the case of Bill 74 the government has gone further. It does not intend to sue anyone. It intends simply to force blockages by state fiat and injunctive orders delivered by inspectors to internet providers. 

What begs credulity even more is that the Supreme Court ruled clearly in Latif v. Bombardier that the Internet falls under federal jurisdiction. Doesn't anyone in the Couillard government know this? Where is the Minister of Justice?

The imposition of moral conformity through legal sanction is the stuff of tyrannies not democracies. Some eight months ago we called on Premier Couillard to end what we termed "the suppression of expression." It was gratifying to see a lead editorial in the National Post credit us and end with our words. They read, "..leaving decisions on issues of freedom to bureaucrats suggests two levels of citizenship on fundamental rights. One level for all of us, another for state agents who can limit our rights." Is this really the kind of society we want to live in? We think not. M. Couillard, get rid of 59 and 74. It is the decent thing to do.


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