Can Canada Really Be Scared of Free-Thinking?
It’s a question I have to ask after being denied entry again – this time, ironically, to give a paper on academics and public debate
William (‘Bill’) Ayers in Chicago’s Grant Park, in 2001. Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, spent 10 years as a fugitive, a story he told in his book Fugitive Days. The former university professor has again been barred entry from Canada, where he had been invited to give a conference paper. (AP Photo/Ted S Warren)
In January this year, I was invited by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) to address the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education to be held on 16 June 2011 in Toronto. The topic would be “The responsibility of academics to contribute to public debates in the media.”
I told the organizers then that while I would love to attend, I had been denied entry into Canada twice in the past few years – once in Calgary, and later at Island Airport – and that while lawyers on both sides of the border were engaging the issue, we were being met again and again by bureaucratic gibberish and classic rule-by-no-one. The president of OCUFA sent a letter to the Canada Border Services Agency hoping to resolve the matter, and received a boiler-plate response: “The CBSA is charged to ensure the security and prosperity of Canada by managing access of people and goods.” I explained that my participation in the conference would jeopardize neither, and promised to spend a lot of money while in town, but I got the same response.
I’m in Chicago today, and a video of my talk has been sent to the conference. One irony in this situation is that the injured party in all of this is not me primarily, but the people who, for whatever reason, wanted to engage me in conversation. After all, I will talk to myself all day, and probably disagree and argue with myself as usual. But what of the Canadians who thought it might be useful to have a dialogue? Tough luck: your government is vigilantly watching over your security and prosperity.
There’s another irony, of course, in the government preventing me from exercising the very responsibility I was invited to address. This is a basic issue of free and open debate and the democratic exchange of ideas – not one of a potential threat to the nation’s security.
The technical issue here is that the border guard who turned me back in Calgary said that, according his computer, I had quite a lengthy arrest record. True, I said, arrests from sit-ins, occupations, and antiwar activities 40 years ago, and all misdemeanors. Well, he responded, you have one felony conviction, and that’s why you will not get into Canada today.
But I don’t have any felony convictions. Prove that you don’t have any, he said.
Years and a lot of lawyer’s fees later, I’m still having trouble disproving a negative, if you get the Catch-22 here … but wait! I just realized that some of those fees are, indeed, contributing to the prosperity of Canada! OK, I’ll stay out.
I entered Canada a dozen times in the preceding decade – taking my kids to the Shakespeare or skiing in Banff, attending research conferences, speaking at universities – and have been to scores of other countries from Cyprus to China, Hong Kong to Beirut, the Netherlands to Chile. But perhaps those countries lack the thorough security sense of Canada.
As the public space contracts, the real victim becomes truth, honesty, integrity, curiosity, imagination, freedom itself. When academics fall silent, other victims include the high school history teacher on the west side of Chicago or in central Toronto, the English literature teacher in Detroit, or the maths teacher in a Vancouver middle school. They and countless others immediately get the message: keep quiet with your head down.
In Brecht’s play Galileo, the great astronomer set forth into a world dominated by a mighty church and an authoritarian power: “The cities are narrow and so are the brains,” he declared recklessly. Intoxicated with his own insights, Galileo found himself propelled towards revolution. Not only did his radical discoveries about the movement of the stars free them from the “crystal vault” that received truth insistently claimed fastened them to the sky, but his insights suggested something even more dangerous: that we, too, are embarked on a great voyage, that we are free and without the easy support that dogma provides. Here, Galileo raised the stakes and risked taking on the establishment in the realm of its own authority – and it struck back fiercely.
Forced to renounce his life’s work under the exquisite pressure of the Inquisition, he denounced what he knew to be true, and was welcomed back into the church and the ranks of the faithful, but exiled from humanity – by his own word. A former student confronted him in the street then:
“Many on all sides followed you … believing that you stood, not only for a particular view of the movement of the stars, but even more for the liberty of teaching – in all fields. Not then for any particular thoughts, but for the right to think at all. Which is in dispute.”
This is surely in play today: the right to talk to whoever you please, the right to read and wonder, the right to pursue an argument into uncharted spaces, the right to challenge the state or the church and its orthodoxy in the public square. The right to think at all.
I hold no grudge toward Canada or the Canadian people, and I still hope to return some day to what I always considered the beautiful beacon of freedom and sanity to the north. Well, not as free and sane as I’d imagined, but still …