Speakers at Day of Dissent stress importance of right to criticize government
At the Day of Dissent, held on the the 64th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, lawyers and activists reminded Canadians of the right to dissent as an indispensable component of a free and democratic society.
The speeches at the SFU Segal Centre were made as Prime Minister Stephen Harper approved the sale of a Canadian oil company, Nexen, to Chinese state-owned oil giant CNOOC, despite widespread public criticism of the deal.
Cameron Ward, a Vancouver-based civil liberties lawyer who represented the families of Robert Pickton's victims at the Missing Women Commission Inquiry, emphasized the right to criticize authorities and express opposing viewpoints, even when -- or especially when -- they were unpopular iwth the public.
"You have the right to dissent, to be annoying, as long as it's non-violent," he said. Ward told the audience that in his view, protests and dissent became ineffective the minute they resorted to violence.
Chief Phil Lane of the Yankton Dakota and Chickasaw First Nations, meanwhile, spoke about government efforts to stifle Aboriginal opposition.
At both the beginning and end of his speech, Lane smiled as he offered Prime Minister Stephen Harper a "heartfelt thanks" for unifying First Nations in opposition to his policies.
"Young (Aboriginal) people are organizing. They all feel the same way," he said. These politically active First Nations, he said, would increasingly play a role in shaping Canada's future because of their young age: the average age of First Nations as a whole is 25, he said, while the average national age of Canadians was over 40.
Lane noted the bills created by the current Conservative government that were directly in violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Canada is a signatory.
In Lane's view, British Columbians in particular have every right to oppose federal government as well as corporations, especially because the land and resources still belong to the First Nations people.
Jason Gratl, a lawyer who represented the Occupy Vancouver activists, said that many of his views about social movements were challenged by of the Occupy movement. He expressed amazement that government did not crack down immediately on the Occupy protesters, and that many were listening to the viewpoints expressed by the movement.
Gratl said that the view that significant social change can only come from protests that escalate into violence -- as evidenced by many changes around the world, from the anti-Apartheid movement to civil rights in America -- was contradicted by Occupy's real social impact despite being a fundamentally non-violent protest.
He also expressed surprise at the unique structure of Occupy in which everyone -- from longtime activist to curious visitors of the Occupy camp -- was treated as an equal, with the same right to express views in a public forum.