As I write today, our American cousins are commemorating MLK Day, in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his courageous battle for equality of civil rights south of our border. From marches, through non-violent sit-ins and protests, powered by inspirational eloquence and undaunted perseverance, Dr. King and his followers moved concern for basic freedoms into the centre of mainstream political life in the United States.
As a boy, I was moved to admiration of Dr. King and his dream of freedom for all. I never suspected that I would find myself living in a Canada where those very ideals would be openly questioned!
Because those whose basic freedoms were suppressed were a minority without power in a nation divided by racial fear and hatred, the majority of Americans turned a blind eye for many years to abuses of power directed against those persecuted people. Those in positions of power were able to enact regulations with the patina of official sanction to hinder the exercise of basic freedoms by African-Americans, for no other reason than the colour of their skin, to “keep them in their place,” Such regulations were simply an exercise in demonstrating power for power’s sake.
If this sounds familiar to us in Canada today, it should! Except that our discrimination isn’t always about race, official abuse of power suppressing the basic freedoms of minority groups who threaten those who govern us has become the new normal in Canada.
Dr. King and his followers vocally, visibly and repeatedly took their stand in defence of basic freedoms in the United States. Although it took years, and exposed them to considerable hardship, they eventually succeeded in reminding Americans of the importance of genuine democracy, starting from the premise that every individual possesses equal worth and dignity. They inspired a groundswell of public support for that basic democratic principle that compelled elected politicians to stop ignoring abuses of power.
This is a heritage well worth commemorating.
Canadians would do well to adopt Dr. King’s strong and courageous dedication to basic democratic freedoms by opposing in Canada the ongoing elimination of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of belief, freedom of conscience, and other basic freedoms.
Perhaps, ironically, Canada’s historical commitment to equality, to diversity, and to tolerance (even acknowledging that it was never entirely spotless), make it more challenging for Canadians to respond to the ongoing elimination of freedom we’ve witnessed in recent years. You may be so accustomed to the official endorsement of freedom and its twin, diversity, that you can hardly believe your eyes when you see freedom and diversity being eliminated!
In the U.S., inhumane treatment of the powerless was the historical starting point, and awareness of abuse of power was never far from the surface. Developments there moved away from tyranny toward greater freedom, as in Canada until recent years.
Perhaps it’s more difficult to recognize the creep away from freedom toward tyranny. For one thing, those who suppress basic freedoms in Canada today have so far shielded their iron fist in a velvet glove. We see no examples of outright brutality. The exercise of freedom isn’t yet often punished in Canada by imprisonment, torture or death, the tools of oppressors in days past. Instead, with rare exceptions, those who abuse their power to suppress freedom in Canada today punish the exercise of freedom simply with fines, suspensions, denial of livelihood, and exclusion from participation in community. These less dramatic tools are, perhaps, less recognizable as what they really are – instruments of tyranny!
It is reminiscent of the old saw about how best to boil a frog. Putting a frog into a kettle of hot water will merely cause him to jump out. Instead, clever tyrants start the public frog in comfortable water and gradually turn up the temperature so that you and I are cooked by imperceptibly increasing degrees of heat.
Make no mistake – those who are cracking down on basic freedoms in Canada today will increasingly resort to harsher penalties if their power is threatened by continued resistance! Let’s not wait for those worse measures to emerge. The time for you and I to stand up in defence of basic freedoms in Canada is now – when the worst that will be done to us are fines, suspensions and exclusion!
I ask each of you to join me today in a moment of thanks to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his inspirational dedication to freedom, and to take that moment to re-dedicate yourself to defend the basic democratic freedoms for which those who came before us sacrificed so much.