In Blog

Somebody Should Say Something

By Franke James

Does it make you angry when you hear that the Canadian government is blocking scientific research? Do you recoil at the thought of a government that routinely prevents its scientists from speaking to the media? Do you feel strongly that somebody — somebody — should step up and say something?

Maybe that “Somebody” could be you?

When I discovered that my climate change art was being censored, it came as a nasty surprise. Wham! I never saw it coming. After all, this is Canada, not China or Russia.

It may seem laughable, but I never imagined that telling Harper we should make polluters pay by implementing a carbon tax — or depicting Canada as the “dirty old man of the climate world” — would get me into trouble. I felt that what I was doing was fair game. I was expressing myself freely and openly as so many artists, political cartoonists and opinion columnists do around the world. I never expected the Canadian government would take serious offence. And I never expected they would secretly warn people — as far away as Europe — not to show my art.

But that was four long years ago. Anyone surveying the Canadian landscape now will see that I have lots and lots of company in being censored. It has become a war on knowledge.

A useful tool to understand the scope of the problem in Canada is Censorship Tracker, which houses reports covering a wide range of issues, “including the silencing of federal scientists, civil injunctions against protesters, and a number of defamation suits, the initiative clearly demonstrates that individuals from all walks of life are affected by attempts to curb free expression in Canada.”

The tracker was developed by PEN Canada, the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). “Recent incidents where expression has been controlled, prevented, or silenced have made national headlines,” said Tasleem Thawar, Executive Director of PEN Canada. “The silencing of scientists, the auditing of charities for political activity, and the rise in SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation) are just a few examples of what has brought our organizations together to create this tool.” Its aim is to be an accessible public resource that will grow as more people file reports.

I can tell you that being censured turned my life upside down. All of a sudden I had to strategize how to defend my right to free expression—a right I had always taken for granted. It’s a battle that I never anticipated fighting and – in a true democracy – should never have had to fight.

Ironically, the government’s efforts to censor my art did the exact opposite. It amplified my story into national and international news. In May 2013, when my book “Banned on the Hill: A True Story About Dirty Oil and Government Censorship” was published, the Guardian UK announced it with the headline: “Artist finds inspiration in Canadian government’s attempt to silence her” and declared: “There is apparently one woman whom the government can’t shut up.”

And that is the funny truth. Being told not to talk about climate change just inspired me to talk about it more. Yes, the government managed to stop my physical art from hanging on walls in Europe. But they could not stop me from taking my art to the streets (on bus shelters), sharing it on social media, writing a book, and speaking publicly about art, censorship and the muzzling of voices demanding that we pay attention to the science on climate change.

However the story is not finished yet. 

The Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) launched an investigation into the legitimacy of the redactions that the Department of Foreign Affairs used on my file. They found that the government had misused high-level security clauses to hide embarrassing and partisan comments. The Ottawa Citizen reported on it: “The new versions of the documents show that much of the official concern over funding James and promoting the European art tour was based on the polarizing politics of climate change. In one, a departmental trade official notes that a Canadian diplomat in Europe would not help promote the show because of “the artist’s views on the oilsands.”

This shows that the government is not content with merely censoring what we create and publish, but it is actually censoring us for our thinking too. They are telling us “Do Not Think about Climate Change: Your views may be a threat to Canada’s security.”

And that presents a whole new level of danger.

I contacted Kevin Walby, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at University of Winnipeg for his thoughts on the OIC’s investigation. “The findings show that exemption clauses are not strictly followed and instead are applied to material simply because it does not fit into Stephen Harper’s vision of Canada,” he said. “There is blatant evidence here of trying to protect the vested interest that Harper’s Conservatives have in the oilsands… Here we have abuse of access to information process, we have censorship, we have tyrannical information management, and all of those things are an affront to the idea of democracy, transparency and accountability.”

Somebody, somebody — should really step up and say something don’t you think?

Are you ready to be a “Somebody”?

Fight the war on knowledge. Talk to your friends and family about censorship. When you read about it in the media, check to see if there is a news link on Censorship Tracker. You can submit a link on their site or through Twitter to @PENCanada.

Most importantly, if you experience censorship yourself, remember this is your opportunity to  be a “Somebody”. File that report on Censorship Tracker.

And then tweet it to my attention @FrankeJames. Together we can use our voices to blast the censors and amplify scientific knowledge.

Franke James is a Canadian artist, author and activist who has drawn inspiration from the Canadian government’s attempts to silence her. In 2014, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association presented James with their Excellence in the Arts award for her creative fight for free expression and social justice.