Travelling through North America one summer several years ago I spent several relaxing days in the fine city of Winnipeg. During one lazy stroll along the river and around the historic Exchange District I had the good fortune of stumbling across the marvellous Mondragon restaurant and bookshop. Eating a vegan lunch and browsing through the radical literature in this worker’s cooperative not only enlivened my mind – deadened after many hours on the road – but also gave me a fascinating glimpse of a part of the local culture which I suspect is not widely known to tourists.
Of course I’m not naïve enough to believe the rest of Canada is some kind of revolutionary socialist utopia, but it seems to me that Mondragon is indicative of the best of what many people around the world see as especially Canadian values – liberalism, free-thinking, tolerance and freedom of expression. I’m thinking of the kind of open-mindedness that has led to Canada being a top destination for immigrants for decades, making cities like Toronto and Vancouver two of the most multicultural in the world. Or the way Canadians welcomed tens of thousands of Americans in the 60s and 70s who were opposed to the Vietnam War.
So, bearing in mind this humane and welcoming history, I’m sure I’m not the only one who was completely baffled by the Canadian Government’s recent banning of George Galloway, who was scheduled to speak at several anti-war meetings in Ontario and Quebec. For those who don’t know, Galloway is one of the most recognised, and yes also one of the most divisive politicians in Britain. Like Marmite it seems that everyone either loves or hates the five times-elected MP and former Celebrity Big Brother contestant, who has also been one of the most prominent members of the anti-war movement that continues to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Colourfully describing Galloway as an "infandous street-corner Cromwell", a spokesman for Canada’s immigration minister said he would be refused entry because he "brags about giving ‘financial support’ to Hamas, a terrorist organisation banned in Canada".
Presumably the Government mandarin is referring to the recent Viva Palestine aid convoy Galloway organised from Britain to Gaza, following the Israeli bombardment and invasion that killed over 1,400 Palestinians. So if Galloway can be said to be supporting Hamas – the democratically elected government in Gaza, let’s not forget – then he is largely supporting them with ambulances, medicine and other essential humanitarian equipment.
Interestingly, while Galloway (and the majority of world opinion) is clearly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, in contrast last year Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised his "unshakeable" support to Israel, a nation that has been illegally occupying Palestinian lands since 1967, according to the former United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan.
No doubt this "unshakeable" support continued while Israel committed "a war crime of the greatest magnitude" – the words used by Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, to describe its winter assault on Gaza, according to. Falk noted "some governments of the world are complicit by continuing their support politically and economically for Israel’s punitive approach." Harper should be hanging his head in shame.
Despite international outrage the Canadian Government held firm, and Galloway was forced to make his speeches via a video link-up from New York (who would have thought the United States – home of the draconian Patriot Act – would trump their northern neighbour on civil liberties?)
But rather than the red-herring of Gaza, I suspect the Canadian Government was far more concerned about the reference to Afghanistan in the title of Galloway’s talk: ‘Resisting War from Gaza to Kandahar’. Indeed, according to a September 2008 CBC poll "the number of Canadians who disapprove of the country’s military action in Afghanistan at its highest point since 2002" – 56 per cent of respondents. The last thing the Canadian Government wanted is Galloway – a fearsome debater and effective and eloquent public speaker – stirring up Canadians against the continuing occupation of Afghanistan.
However, a fully-functioning democracy requires an informed public with access to a wide range of information and opinion. A government that curtails free speech should be treated with the utmost contempt and be challenged at every available opportunity. As US dissident Noam Chomsky said, "Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely for views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech." By banning Galloway, it seems the Harper Government has fallen in with some very disreputable people.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected]