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The Slow and Painful Death of Freedom in Canada

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Less than a generation ago, Canada was a world leader when it came to the fundamental democratic freedoms of assembly, speech and information.

In 1982, Canada adopted the Access to Information Act -- making it one of the first countries to pass legislation recognizing the right of citizens to access information held by government, and as recently as 2002, Canada ranked among the top 5 most open and transparent countries when it came to respect for freedom of the press.

Fast-forward a decade, and we've become a true north suppressed and disparate -- where unregistered civic demonstrations are inhibited and repressed, rebellious Internet activities are scrutinised and supervised, government scientists are hushed and muzzled, and public information is stalled and mired by bureaucratic firewalls.

In the 2013 World Press Freedom Index -- an evaluation done by Reporters Without Borders on the autonomy of a country's media environment, Canada came in at a paltry 20th, putting us behind liberal-democratic powerhouses such as Namibia, Costa Rica, and the Western Hemisphere's new champion of free media -- Jamaica.

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Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index 2013
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So what the devil is going on?

According to page 8 of the report, this uneasy drop "was due to obstruction of journalists during the so-called 'Maple Spring' student movement and to continuing threats to the confidentiality of journalists' sources and Internet users' personal data, in particular, from the C-30 bill on cyber-crime."

Yet perhaps more distressing than the consistent during Quebec's Maple Spring has been the abrupt confiscation of the right of citizens in the province to spontaneously demonstrate and protest in public spaces -- seen recently at the totalitarian debacle known as the Anti-Police Brutality Protest, where over 250 people were arrested for failing to register with authorities before assembling.

Passed last May by the National Assembly of Quebec in the midst of the student upheaval, Bill 78 requires organisers of assemblies involving 50 or more people to register the details of any demonstration with the police at least eight hours before it begins. Anyone who does not comply with the law faces a fine from $1000 up to $125,000 depending on his or her involvement and leadership in the protest.

Not to be outdone by Quebec's anti-demonstration legislation however, the federal government decided to continue the trend with Bill C-309 -- criminalising the act of covering one's face during any sort of display of civil disobedience. And as opposed to the customary fine, the bill carries with it a penalty of up to five years in prison.

But don't worry -- it's for our protection.

Speaking of our "protection," Bill C-30, or the Lawful Access Act -- proposed by the Harper government in February of last year, attempted to grant authorities the power to monitor and track the digital activities of all Canadians in real-time.

This internationally-condemned Orwellian "cyber-crime legislation" planned to force service providers to log and surrender browsing information about their customers upon government request as well as permit the remote access to any personal computer in the country -- all without the need of any sort of warrant.

And while Bill C-30 has been tabled for the time being, Bill C-12 -- which similarly authorises the warrantless acquisition of customer information from ISPs, email hosts, and social media sites on a voluntary basis, looks poised to creep in and achieve many of Bill C-30's initial objectives by reducing the need for warrants, and gradually circumnavigating safeguards that protect our personal information online.

Of course we've all had the rhetoric jammed down our throats -- these adjustments to a citizen's right to public assembly, defiant anonymity, and digital privacy are the necessary sacrifices we must be willing to make in order to shelter ourselves from half-heartedly articulated illusory threats such as "terrorism" or "extremism".

But the undemocratic stifling doesn't stop here either. Even our taxpayer-funded government scientists -- the last line of defense against ignorance and uncritical thinking, are increasingly coerced into suppressing unwelcome findings.

According to a report by researchers at the University of Victoria titled Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy, "the federal government has recently made concerted efforts to prevent the media - and through them, the general public - from speaking to government scientists, and this, in turn, impoverishes the public debate on issues of significant national concern."

When Canadian scientists are permitted by their handlers to speak to journalists or international colleagues, they are forced to regurgitate pre-approved party findings that rest neatly within the confines of official government policies -- regardless of what the yields of their research and expert opinions may actually be telling them.

What's even more concerning is that in a recent study by the Center for Law and Democracy -- which classifies the strength and effectiveness of access to information laws in 93 countries, Canada ranked an utterly humiliating 55th, thanks in large part to the bureaucratic red tape that smothers requests for access to public records.

So perhaps it is time for us Canadians to wake up and smell the suppression -- no longer are censorships solely the purview of tin-pot dictators in far away regimes.

These seemingly gradual erosions to the freedoms of assembly, expression and information in Canada are all very real -- just last week, Parliament actually struck down a bill claiming that "public science, basic research and the free and open exchange of scientific information are essential to evidence-based policy-making."

And I have the sinking suspicion that whichever party is in power, these rights will continue to decompose unless the citizenry is willing to vocalise this as a major election issue. After all, even in democracy new governments seldom willingly return rights and freedoms back to the people once in office -- power can be just too enticing.

One day it's the right to spontaneously demonstrate, next it's the right to wear a mask well doing so, then Internet privacy, scientific inquiry, public records, and so on as the vice compressing freedom and civil disobedience slowly tightens on us all.

But then again, this is Canada. That sort of thing could never happen here, right?