Who patrols the limits of freedoms for the citizens?
Troy Media – by Mike Robinson
Those of us who came of age politically in the ’60s and early ’70s remember a great deal of debate and discord about the limits of freedom, and who patrols those limits for the citizens.
I remember attending a speech in Vancouver by Pierre Trudeau, at that time Liberal Minister of Justice, in which he described why he studied law: “Precisely because I wanted to see how far I could push my freedoms; I wanted to know where the boundary was.”
Older talking heads
Forty years ago the media were print, radio or television, and mostly featured older talking heads (think Walter Cronkite) and writers (William F. Buckley Jr. in the National Review) who counseled youth with aphorisms that were rooted in World War Two and the Cold War. We learned, perhaps naively, to question and even distrust their logic, and amongst ourselves wondered if it was possible to trust anyone over 30.
At the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, many of our professors, who were mostly over 30, began to grow their hair long (check out photos of the young genetics professor David Suzuki), and many openly joined in a critical chorus that opposed the American war in Vietnam, nuclear testing at Amchitka Island in Alaska, and leant its energy to forming Greenpeace, gay and lesbian rights organizations, and civil rights groups supporting minorities and people everywhere who were throwing off the yoke of colonization.
To be fair, there were a few old school holdouts, like UBC Classics department head Malcolm MacGregor, who openly spoke against a political role for the university, wore academic gowns to teach, and opposed growing participation of students in university governance. These professors were in the minority, but they frankly made their opinions known as academic citizens. They stood up for their beliefs.
If any of us thought of the judiciary in those days it was because we might have been giving Law School some consideration (in my case because of Trudeau), or someone we knew had just been sentenced for something we thought belonged more in the political realm than the courts. In Canada, many took note of a young Thomas Berger and his evolving role in the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry that, for the first time, was giving aboriginal people a voice in energy development.
Artists were everywhere present in the political life of Vancouver: reading poems at the Stanley Park be-in, openly enjoying free booze at the Jerry Rubin-led 1968 “liberation” (perhaps the first Vancouver ‘occupy movement’ event) of the UBC Faculty Club, creating public murals in Kitsilano and drawing cartoons for the Georgia Straight alternate newspaper. Ian Baxter, Claude Breeze and Robert Crum’s art had strong political overtones that were obvious to audiences. People listened when Bill Reid leant his Haida voice to environmental and social justice issues.
Collectively the boomer citizens who emerged from the above influences in BC, and arguably across Canada, learned that freedom was counseled, debated, taught and ultimately protected by many voices in the media, the lecture hall, the court and the art gallery. We learned to write, think, argue and create from critical thinkers, most of whom were a bit older than us, but who found common cause with our passions and enthusiasms. Best of all – they encouraged us to get involved politically, and to share in the creation of progressive, new approaches to old problems.
I am thinking about those times again because I am starting to feel about now how I felt about then.
Time to question authority once again
Over the past year, I have had a series of déjà vu moments linked to a regressive national political ethos that seeks succour in revisionism, in climate change denial, in old fashioned sabre rattling, in muzzling scientists, in trivializing First Nations’ issues, in controlling political discourse rather than enabling it, in favouring ideology over evidence, and in enabling a political environment that is hostile, partisan and adhominem in the extreme.
I am also starting to feel that my freedom is being encroached upon, and it is time to push the boundaries, just to make sure that the gains of old are not lost. In this cause I think it is of signal importance to support the media; the tenured professors, especially in the threatened faculties of Humanities, the Arts and Social Sciences; the lawyers and judges who act with rigour and critical thought in the cause of our individual and collective rights; and all of the artists whose creative voice emboldens our society with beauty.
In their collective articulation of our freedoms, these writers, intellectuals, lawyers, judges and artists are on the front lines of a new national debate about civility. Just as in the ’60s and early ’70s, it is time once again to question authority that is out of step with society and the commons.
Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in BC. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO. Now back In Vancouver, he is still a cultural CEO, but also has business interests in a resource company and mutual funds. He is an anthropologist and lawyer by training, cuts his own firewood, and wants more time to write.