It is very easy for those of us who work in a ministry that works on a global scale to neglect local issues. While local news is often what interests most people here in Canada, I have to admit that I often find it rather small and boring. This evening, however, as I was reading the local newspaper, I noted a small article announcing that the Mississauga city council had decided to end a 30-year tradition of having a public question period during televised council meetings. The reason for this action, reportedly, was largely due to the persistent, often abrasive questioning of a single citizen named Donald Barber. City council had apparently had enough of Mr Barber and decided to end a practice that had long been trumpeted by our mayor as evidence that city council truly cared about hearing the concerns of Mississauga’s citizen.
This week, however, Mr Barber seems to have exercised his right to freedom of expression too much for the mayor -- so much so, that at one point she is reported to have told him to “be careful…you misuse the freedom that we’ve granted and the leniency that we’ve granted.”
Hold on! As someone who defends religious liberty worldwide, where freedom of expression is often the first right to be suppressed, words like this light up my radar. “Freedom that we’ve granted….”
Mayor Hazel McCallion is a great woman and I hope that she simply misspoke. But we all need to be reminded that freedom of expression is not a right that is granted or given to any human institute or leader. It is a basic human right, recognized by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. No one and no government can grant this right.
Not understanding this is at the root of the suppression of minorities, especially religious minorities, in many societies. Repressive governments often claim that they give their minorities the right to worship as they wish (as Egypt’s government claims, for example). But the problem with this reasoning is that if a right is seen as given or granted, it can also be taken away or restricted when seen to be inconvenient.
Personally, I care very little whether Mississauga city council has a question period or not. Nor is this specific incident particularly earth shattering in its ramifications. It does, however, provide us with an opportunity to reflect on the nature of our God-given human rights at whatever level we experience them. And we also need to remind governments, at whatever level, as I have done this evening with my own city’s dear mayor, that rights are not gifts bestowed by them upon the worthy and cooperative.