By O'Grady, Kathleen
Canadian Dimension , Vol. 33, No. 2
1988 marked the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first international affirmation of the principal rights and freedoms necessary for every individual - irrespective of religion, race, colour, nationality, age or sex - to lead a full and dignified life.
One of the basic rights inscribed in the declaration is freedom of speech. Article 19 of the Declaration states: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
It is well known that as Canadians, we have affirmed this edict in our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that as a society we would, undoubtedly, balk at any attempt to curtail this essential liberty. What is not so well known is that this freedom in Canada is in danger of being compromised.
There is no freedom that should be more greatly treasured than freedom of speech and expression. Former members of the Communist bloc know this well, remembering a time when photocopiers were more valuable in their revolutionary struggles than military weapons. Works by the American writer Allen Ginsberg, for example, circulated widely in communist Prague, despite the censorship of this poet and his subsequent expulsion from the country as a political dissident. The Czech people voted Ginsberg the "King of May," a distinguished national honour, and he, along with native writer Vaclav Havel (now President of the Czech Republic), became steadfast symbols of hope for individual expression.
Political or religious extremists buttress their group identity on a strict conformity of thought and action. Writers and artists threaten the unity of the group by revealing the tenuous foundations for group hegemony. Their artistic productions, both in style and in content, stray from proscribed behavior, thereby validating and at the same time making possible (for others), individual expression. The valuing of difference is anathema to group identity, which resists dissension at all costs. A single voice can destroy the cohesion of an entire group and so that voice must be silenced.
With the recent assassination of the journalist and publisher, Tara Singh Hayer in Vancouver on November 18, 1998, the focus on freedom of speech shifts rather abruptly to Canada.
Hayer was an outspoken journalist who published the Punjabi newspaper, Indo-Canadian Times, and was an unrepentant critic of the Sikh fundamentalist movement in Canada. …