The Senate Bill C-10 debate wrapped up yesterday with several speeches and a vote to send the bill to committee for further study. Given that the Senate declined to approve summer hearings for the bill, the earliest possible time for the study to begin is the week of September 20th. If there is a late summer/early fall election as most observers expect, Bill C-10 will die. Without an election, Bill C-10 will be back for Senate hearings in the fall with many Senators emphasizing the need for a comprehensive study that features the myriad of perspectives that were excluded from the failed House review.
While the debate in the Senate was marked by consistent calls for more study (my recap of day one, day two), the final debate was punctuated by a powerful speech from Senator David Adams Richards. One of Canada’s leading authors, Senator Richards has won the Governor General’s Award for both fiction and non-fiction, the Giller Prize, and is a member of the Order of Canada. Senator Richards, appointed by Prime Minister Trudeau to the Senate in 2017, warns against government or cultural decision makers and the parallels to Bill C-10:
The idea that I was ever included in the grand pan-Canadianism that afforded an outlet to Canadian writers was nonsense. That my work was embraced because I was of a certain ethnicity or background was and is entirely bogus. For years, I felt the Canadian literary world and the world promoted by the CBC had little or nothing to do with me or where I lived.
I never finished university, never joined PEN International or The Writers’ Union of Canada. I was invited to one PEN International conference where people – mainly tenured academics from Toronto – sat on stage and shouted at each other about who should be allowed to write what about whom. They were the authoritative, cultural decision makers of Canada, many who had never written a book. I see them somewhat today in the angst over this bill.
In my life, I have edited over 100 writers. They sent me their books. I never asked them their race or creed or where they stood on any subject. It was only the work that mattered. I have read and offered advice to Christians, Muslims, Jews, First Nation men and women, atheists, secularists and hedonists. Only the work mattered. That is the content of the character, not the colour of the skin.
At that PEN International conference awhile back, where they shouted and insulted one another about how inclusive they all were, they had cheapened and reversed Martin Luther King Jr.’s great axiom in the name of freedom.
I’m worried that this bill might do the same.
Richards continued with concern about limits on freedom of expression, closing with perhaps the strongest statement to date about what to do with Bill C-10:
Some years ago, I was at a dinner with some very important, famous people. One academic mentioned that he had given his entire life for Canadian literature. Others there applauded him for doing so. When I was writing my fourth novel, we sold our 20-year-old car to pay the rent; and my wife, to keep us alive, was selling Amway door-to-door in the middle of winter. I believe she gave her life for Canadian literature as well, but she didn’t get to that dinner.
For that reason, in her honour, I will always and forever stand against any bill that subjects freedom of expression to the doldrums of governmental oversight, and I implore others to do the same. I don’t think this bill needs amendments; I think, however, it needs a stake through the heart.
After months of Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault invoking the names of cultural lobby groups as evidence of support for Bill C-10, it took one of Canada’s most celebrated authors to set the record straight and bring the debate to a close.