Acclaimed authors talk freedom of expression

Lawrence Hill, Mark Bourrie and Marion Botsford Fraser discuss whether Canadians care about social issues

From left: Carol Off speaks with writers Mark Bourrie, Lawrence Hill and Marion Botsford Fraser about freedom to write about social issues in Canada.
From left: Carol Off speaks with writers Mark Bourrie, Lawrence Hill and Marion Botsford Fraser about freedom to write about social issues in Canada.
Supplied by Bernard Clark

The muzzling of free press, the dismissal of media and the act of writing as activism were topics of a Kingston WritersFest discussion on Friday night.

The panel event, entitled “Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Act”, was one of over 50 events taking place last weekend. The events are part of Kingston’s annual literary festival for both readers and writers, the Kingston WritersFest.

This panel featured renowned Canadian authors Mark Bourrie, Marian Botsford Fraser and Lawrence Hill of internationally acclaimed The Book of Negroes.

Each author was asked about their respective books, all of which touched on issues of social and political issues. The discussion used these books as a jumping off point for a wider conversation about activist writing and freedom of expression.

In conversation with co-host of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, Carol Off, the authors took their places on stage to a room buzzing with excitement.

After introducing the writers’ panel, Kingston WritersFest Artistic Director Barbara Bell gestured to an extra chair placed to the side of the stage.

“That chair is the symbol of the extinguished voices of writers … who have been imprisoned and killed for exercising their right to free expression,” Bell said.

Off began by asking for a summary of their respective recent publication about speaking out against political and social injustices.

The books varied in their exploration of freedoms and rights, from Bourrie’s Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, to Fraser’s Acting for Freedom: Fifty Years of Civil Liberties in Canada, to Hill’s Dear Sir: I Intend to Burn Your Book.

The discussion eventually led to the Harper government, which the panelists said has left Canadians unable to respond to significant social issues, including the recent Syrian refugee crisis. To address this, Off posed a question that warranted a dialogue on its own.

“My question is: do Canadians even care?” she asked. Each author answered with particular depth.

Marian Botsford Fraser, whose book centers on a history of civil rights activism in Canada, said it sometimes takes a particular series of events for Canadians to realize something is unjust.

(Graphics by Ashley Quan)

 “My small community in Toronto, the street that I live on had a long conversation about how to welcome Syrian refugees into our community,” she said.

“I think at the grassroots, community level, Canadians get very anguished about these injustices. But often that frustration doesn’t translate well into political polls of the masses.”

Lawrence Hill’s Dear Sir: I Intend to Burn Your Book touches on the backlash he received from a community in the Netherlands regarding his internationally renowned novel The Book of Negroes.

A man from the community emailed Hill in 2011 to inform the author that he and other members of his community would be burning copies of the novel. His book explores what could have led this man and his community to act in this way.

As an answer to the question, Hill said the dehumanization of “the other” is the key to making people feel they don’t need to care.

He added that people often wish to echo the majority sentiment for the false sense of safety.

“In 1984, I was given hell by my editor at the Winnipeg Free Press for [wanting to] interview every Liberal leadership candidate about their perspectives on reparations for Japanese Canadians,” Hill said.

“A year later, the Conservative government offered reparations to Japanese Canadians.”

Mark Bourrie, an award-winning Canadian journalist who was a Parliamentary correspondent for the Law Times from 1994 to 2006, said the issue of caring or not caring about social injustices comes from a problem in the media.

“There are a core of really good reporters in this country, but the business in journalism is bad. A lot of us are one phone call away from never working in journalism again,” Bourrie said.

He said most journalists who attempt to reveal the truth about social injustices are risking their careers due to the difficulty of accessing information in the current political landscape.

“There is an overall theme in Ottawa of reporters not being allowed to access vital information that is critical to the Canadian public,” he said.

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