Saturday, March 03, 2007

Tony Clement's Student Days

I don't normally concern myself with details of the histories of individual right-wing politicians, but I happened across this story when I was wading through old newspaper archives for my work. So I thought I would share it.

Back in the early 1980s, a student society at the University of Toronto law school invited the ambassador from South Africa, Glen Babb, to come and participate in a debate about international law with some Canadian academic or other. At the time, South Africa embraced the vicious apartheid system by which the dominance of the country's white minority was maintained and the racialized majority, particularly the large indigenous African population, was highly restricted in terms of their legal rights, was regularly subjected to nasty state repression and violence, and was forced into situations of extreme economic exploitation for the benefit of (white-owned) South African capital. Black Africans were, essentially, treated as sub-human.

This invitation of an official representative of the apartheid government to come and advocate for apartheid at a prestigious Canadian institution caused an uproar. My interest in the situation is that one of my interview participants, Charles Roach, represented four U of T professors who attempted to get a court injunction to prevent this from happening, though this unsuccessful effort is not the point of this post. What is the point is that in the furor that ensued after this invitation was issued, the society of law students decided to rescind their invitation.

One basis of the objection by the four professors was that "Academic freedom does not include the promotion of criminal acts." The United Nations had designated apartheid as a "crime against humanity" and a U.N. convention adopted in more than 100 countries (but not, at that time, Canada) also made it a crime.

Moreover, at that time Canada had laws against hate speech which had recently been successfully used against deniers of the World War II Holocaust against the Jewish people and others, including infamous names like Ernst Zundel and Jim Keegstra. Around the same time, a community-based committee that Roach was chairing put it this way: "The racist lies of (James) Keegstra and (Ernst) Zundel are attempts to deny the Nazi atrocities of 40 years ago...The propaganda of the South African Government is an attempt to justify the most racist of all present regimes...Neither should be allowed in Canada."

At the time, as always seems to happen, the invocation of "free speech" to support the right of the powerful to speak was done by liberals as well as the right. For example, social democratic icon Stephen Lewis, who today has a reputation, I think deserved, of speaking up to promote the interests of Africa on the global stage, took the "freedom of speech" position, as did the University of Toronto administration. And another example: after this first debate at U of T was called off, CBC radio made it happen on the air instead. The director of information programming at CBC radio at the time, Donna Logan, said, "I think that as long as the man is an ambassador in this country...we would be derelict in our duty not to put him on the air and subject his views to debate." Somehow there was nothing "derelict" about the fact that the CBC did not, merely because they happened to be "an amabassador in this country", provide prime-time platforms for every ambassador from regimes with explicitly anti-colonial or anti-capitalist politics.

At the university itself, two bold, dissident law students took it upon themselves to found a new student society to reissue the invitation to Ambassador Babb. They included statements involving a kind of ritualistic opposition to apartheid, of course, and they based their decision to do this in free speech arguments. But even so, what does it say that, with all the oppressed voices and experiences that routinely get excluded from elite universities and elite law schools in this country even today, the one that prompted them to take these extraordinary steps was the case of the poor, misunderstood ambassador from the apartheid regime? Why was it so important to allow this representative of the powerful, this official mouthpiece for global white supremacy, a chance to promote public policy that routiney dehumanized Black people and a government that regularly tortured and killed them when they insisted that they were in fact human?

One of these two law students so concerned with the rigths of poor Ambassador Babb that he had to take action was Tony Clement -- currently the Minister of Health and Minister for the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario in our federal Conservative government.

Roach asked rhetorically during one of the injunction requests, "Is the unversity really going to be harmed by not hearing a person who advocates genocide? How chilling."

But apparently so, according to Clement.

2 comments:

rabfish said...

wow.

thanks for this information.

Scott said...

No problem!