Thursday, 7 February 2008

sticks and stones may break my bones...

...but names will never hurt me.

This bit of elementary school yard wisdom was my first exposure to fundamental human rights. In its simple way it underscores one of our most treasured rights, that of freedom of expression. It acknowledges that the conditions that allow for good speech must, by necessity, also allow for bad. But it implicitly suggests that in the long run this is a better state of affairs than putting curbs on people's abilities to air their views.

Moving from elementary school to more lofty levels of academe, we find this same homely wisdom in an open letter from the president of the University of Toronto to senior officers of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies. It appears in the February 27, 2008 edition of the National Post, p. A16. It is reproduced in whole, and any emphases placed in italics are those of the writer:

February 7, 2008

Mr. Avi Benlolo
President and CEO, Canada
Mr. Leo Adler
Director of National Affairs
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre
for Holocaust Studies

Dear Messrs. Benlolo and Adler:

On February 5, you addressed an open letter in these pages to me, as the president of the University of Toronto, regarding a series of events entitled "Israel-Apartheid Week" sponsored by a small student group.

The University does not sponsor, organize, or even implicitly endorse these events. We do, in fact, recognize that the term "Israeli Apartheid" is upsetting to many people. We also recognize that, in every society, universities have a unique role to provide a safe venue for highly charged discourse.

U of T's approach works. Year after year, events on our campuses have been far quieter than the storm surrounding them outside our community.

Why does U of T's approach succeed? It succeeds because we work to help student organizers understand the difference between free speech and hate speech and monitor events very closely if there is any chance they will cross the line. It succeeds because we have the resources to respond to complaints of racism promptly and thoroughly, and because our policies prioritize safety and are based in Canadian and Ontario law.

Our approach also works because we do not, in fact, simply refuse controversial bookings. Cancelling events because of anticipated controversy rapidly changes the nature of the debate. Instead of public attention focusing on the actual positions of the speaker or sponsoring group (sometimes extreme and therefore lacking broad appeal), the focus shifts to the abrogated free speech rights of the affected groups and can create publicity and even sympathy for an extreme view.

We remain committed to the principles and policies that have made the University of Toronto a highly inclusive environment where ideas are exchanged, challenged and debated with mutual respect, tolerance and civility.

Yours sincerely,

Professor David Naylor, O.C.

The views expressed by President Naylor are in the finest traditions of the university world's commitment to freedom of speech, academic freedom, and so on. I applaud him for taking his stand.

Now compare this open-minded and mature attitude with that of another player in the Canadian university scene, that of the Canadian Confederation of Students. The source is the student newspaper of the University of Western Ontario, the gazette. In this case, emphases in italics are mine.

CFS-Ontario passes pro-life ban motion, Jay LaRochelle, Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The always-controversial abortion debate is heating up across the province after the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) of Ontario passed a contentious motion. At a conference in January, CFS-Ontario approved a motion to support student unions that wish to ban pro-life groups from their campuses. The motion was brought forth by the Lakehead University Student Union, that wished to deny official club status to the group Life Support.

Concerns CFS-Ontario would support student unions targeting religious groups that oppose abortion were raised by a representative of the Ryerson Student Union (RSU), who was in attendance at the conference. Heather Kere, RSU VP-education, proposed an amendment to the motion on the basis the definition of an “anti-choice” group was not clear. The amendment was not passed.

“The amendment was to clarify the language around the past actions of the group that would be denied space,” Kere said.

Kere noted pro-life groups should not be banned unless they are harassing students or using sensationalistic imagery. She added the group at Lakehead had behaved inappropriately in the past.

Sandy Hudson, the CFS-Ontario Women’s Commissioner, said while the motion is not meant to target religious groups, groups that oppose abortion should not be funded by students. When asked whether Ryerson students should be exposed to both sides of the abortion issue, Hudson said allowing an anti-choice group would be like allowing a white supremacist group on campus. Hudson added the literature distributed by Life Support likened abortion to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the Holocaust.

The CFS-Ontario decision is welcome news for Joyce Arthur, coordinator of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. Arthur believes pro-life groups should not receive support from student unions because they seek to repress human rights. She said these groups are comparable to Neo-Nazi movements.

Jakki Jeffs, executive director of Alliance for Life Ontario, asked why pro-life groups are being targeted by student unions.

“What is so different about a pro-life group other than it is politically incorrect?” she asked.

Although Western’s main campus does not have a pro-life group at present, there is one at King’s University College. According to Nathan Welch, a member of King’s Live for Life, a pro-life group at King’s, the University Students’ Council will review an application by students at main campus to establish a pro-life group in the next two weeks. He said such an application was turned down by a previous council.

As a long-time academic, I do shake my head in wonder at people who claim a kind of moral high ground, and the cloak of academic respectability, resorting to the very kind of language that President Naylor decries. Pro-life supporters are like white supremacists? Neo-Nazis who seek to suppress human rights?

What awful, inflammatory comments! I wonder how my elderly father, who fought in the battle of the Atlantic in World War II to preserve our way of life, including freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and is pro-life, feels about being compared to a Neo-Nazi? I wonder how some of my Indo-Canadian and African-Canadian colleagues in the right to life movement like being compared to white supremacists?

Such hatred and discrimination is widely held in the academic world and the media, of course. At an event celebrating the Morgentaler decision by Canada's supreme court, writer Heather Mallick expressed approval of student associations that cut off funding to pro-life groups — because the rights of Canadian women “are not up for debate.”

If Ms Mallick were to stick her head out of the world of groupthink in which she lives and look at the diverse body of opinion and literature that exists under the pro-life umbrella, she would find that many of us do not disagree with the notion of women's rights. We are just more committed to choice for women than she is. We think all sides of the debate should be aired. She doesn't.

I must call my friends at Jews for Life and break the news that they are Neo-Nazis.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Dissenting priest and separatist member of parliament

Raymond Gravel: Nov 27, 2006: "If the question is directly asked: 'Are you for or against gay marriage?' then as a Catholic priest I would simply abstain from voting."

Raymond Gravel: Dec. 13, 2007: "When a pregnant woman is assaulted or killed and her fetus is killed at the same time, I agree completely that it is an abominable crime. It is revolting, but at the same time I believe that when the fetus is in its mother's womb, they are one being. Only when it leaves her womb does it become a child."

A little background for non-Canadian readers. Canada is composed of ten provinces and three territories. One of those provinces, Quebec, is primarily French-speaking and has a culture which is in many ways unique in North America. One of Quebec's provincial political parties, the Parti Quebecois, is committed to Quebec sovereignty as an independent country.

Its federal counterpart is the Bloc Quebecois. It is composed entirely of Quebecois (or Quebecers as one might say in English) who rarely speak anything but French in Canadian Parliamentary debates and committee meetings. Of the 303 Members of Parliament, the Bloc comprises 50.

Despite Quebec's traditional Catholic heritage, the province has become one of the most secular in Canada. A minority of the Bloc M.P.s define themselves as Roman Catholics. However, one of them is a priest--Raymond Gravel.

That valuable resource, Wikipedia, has the following entry for Father Gravel:

As a youth, Gravel had worked as a male prostitute and in a gay leather bar. He left home to be a male escort at the age of 16 in Montreal. After working in two gay bars, he decided to enter the seminary in 1982. He is currently the priest at St-Joachim de la Plaine Church in La Plaine, Quebec.

The Montreal Gazette (Oct. 25, 2006) adds:

As a priest, Gravel has been an outspoken critic of the church's opposition to same-sex marriage. In February, he was one of 19 Roman Catholic priests who signed an open letter, criticizing the church's stance on the issue and its opposition to the ordination of active gays into the priesthood.

Now I'm presently a Baptist (however reluctantly) myself, but it seems to me that the honorable member (as parliamentarians are called) is off on a tangent that few priests would follow. While he is not the only R.C. member of Parliament who has voted in favour of a so-called "pro-choice" positions and same-sex marriage, he is the only clergyman from a church that opposes these positions that has done so.

I would say that this makes him a unique Canadian politician.

What is this free thinker's view of the pro-life/pro-abortion impasse? This can be gleaned from a debate in which he participated in Parliament in December 2007. The bill in question is called C-484 Unborn Victims of Crime Act. It is similar to legislation in the U.S. entitled the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Presently in Canada, if a pregnant woman is killed and her unborn child also dies, the murderer is charged with only one crime. Under this bill, the death of the fetus would be considered a second murder.

The parliamentarian who has put the bill forward for debate, Mr. Ken Epp, has attempted to make it abundantly clear that the act does not impinge on a woman's right to choose. As is found on Mr. Epp's website:

The Unborn Victims of Crime Act has nothing to do with elective abortion. This Bill is totally focused on protecting the choice of a pregnant woman to carry her baby to term and to give her child life. Elective abortion is explicitly excluded. The Bill uses terminology that describes the injury or death of the unborn child during the commission of a crime against the mother. Elective abortion is not a crime in Canada. The Bill goes on with explicit language: “For greater certainty, this section does not apply in respect of … conduct relating to the lawful termination of the pregnancy of the mother of the child to which the mother has consented.”

Nevertheless, Father Gravel opposes the bill. He feels that it is a back door method of eventually re-criminalizing abortion. Some of his comments are fascinating (not convincing, mind you, but fascinating). But before I reproduce them, I'll just note the remarks of another M.P., Alexa McDonough, a member of the socialist New Democratic Party which favours abortion. I do this because Mr. Gravel says that he agrees with her:

Ms. Alexa McDonough: I do not think there is a single member here, regardless of where they stand on this bill, who cannot empathize 100% with the grief that such a loss would cause an individual and their loved ones. However, it has reminded me that there is a good reason why we do not turn over the drafting, or the crafting or the adoption of laws in a democratic and diverse society to people who are singled out for being grief-stricken by personal tragedy.

I did not expect to say this until I listened to the amount of focus on the issue of grief, but I returned briefly in my own life experience to my period of time as a psychiatric social worker. Grief is a very normal human emotion, and it is something around which we comfort people and support them. However, we also know that grief is almost always accompanied by feelings of anger, despair, rage and quite often revenge.

In our democratic society, we have long decided that revenge is not a proper basis for drafting or adopting our laws. A great deal of psychiatric evidence indicates that if there is a great deal of reinforcement for the notion of revenge, when someone has suffered a loss through a violent, unacceptable act, it impairs the emotional healing process.

I do not want to go further down that road, but my discomfort with the bill, before hearing the comments of the member for Edmonton—Sherwood Park, has been deepened and intensified by the amount of emphasis he placed on the issue of grief, anger and rage. I do not question his sincerity about identifying and empathizing with the grief, but I think it is a very questionable basis for introducing such a law.

Pro-choice activists typically say that only women should be allowed to frame abortion legislation because a man could never know what a crisis pregnancy is like. But in reasoning thus, surely they are including the argument that men have never had to experience the intense feelings of pain, hopelessness and despair that women in crisis pregnancies feel. But in saying this, they are using the opposite argument that Alexa McDonough proposes. She is saying that emotions should be left out of law-drafting. I guess what we need are some emotionless women who have gone through crisis pregnancies with equanimity, or mothers and sisters of murdered pregnant relatives who can view it all from a completely objective perspective.

YMFR can decide for yourself if you find Ms McDonough's arguments, founded as they are on some rather questionable stereotypes and assumptions, convincing. But Father Gravel does.

Mr. Raymond Gravel: I was listening before to the speech by the NDP member for Halifax and I agree with what she said. As a Catholic priest, I find it somewhat difficult to relate to this bill quite simply because the member who tabled it belongs to a pro-life group, the Campaign Life Coalition, which, in my humble opinion, is a fairly extremist and fanatical group. I am pro-life, but I do not belong to that group.

The Hon. Mr. Gravel opposes the bill for the same reasons as Ms. McDonough, and then goes on to say that he also opposes it because he doesn't like the company that Mr. Epp keeps. Normally when a man says that women are too emotional to make good decisions they get lambasted by the nearest female (and rightly so). But now we're seeing it as a argument in Parliament. We are in deep waters here.

But Father Gravel's insightful analysis does not stop there. He also introduces a new definition of pro-life and anti-abortion:

In my opinion, this bill will open the door to re-criminalizing women who have an abortion, and that is not a good thing. I am against abortion, but I do not believe that is how we will deal with the problem of abortion. I have always stated that we need education, support and assistance for women dealing with unwanted pregnancy. In my opinion, the problem of abortion will be solved with these types of measures and not by re-criminalizing abortion. I absolutely do not want that.

When a pregnant woman is assaulted or killed and her fetus is killed at the same time, I agree completely that it is an abominable crime. It is revolting, but at the same time I believe that when the fetus is in its mother's womb, they are one being. Only when it leaves her womb does it become a child. I believe that is the Supreme Court definition of 1969.

I know that killing a pregnant woman, like any murder, is a serious matter. However, I believe it is dangerous to establish a new law that would treat the murder of the fetus and of the mother as a double murder. I believe that it is dangerous and that is not how we will put an end to abortion. Not in this way.

"I am pro-life and against abortion, but when the fetus is in the mother's womb they are one being"? If you believe that the unborn baby is a non-person (as is presently the case in Canada), on what basis do you oppose abortion if the mother wants one? Why is the killing of a fetus abominable? Does anyone else see an inconsistency here?

"We need education, support and assistance for women dealing with unwanted pregnancy." Yes, this is exactly what crisis pregnancy centres provide. Yet pro-choice activists denounce such centres as existing only stop abortion.

Regrettably this is what passes for debate in the Canadian Parliament.