When Not To Throw Your Weight Around

The case of the Canadian government against Franke James (via Dr. Dawg and Dammit Janet) disturbs me.

For those of you who don’t know Franke James (and given that I hadn’t heard of her until today, that’s probably a lot of you), she is an artist and a Canadian citizen who is putting together an art exhibition touring twenty cities in Europe. Her exhibition criticizes the Canadian government’s position on global warming. What’s disturbing is the government’s response. Rather than rebutting the criticism, or even just ignoring it, the government appears to be taking steps to try and shut it down.

According to the artist, the government’s actions have included the following:


    This past May, a Canadian Embassy official met with the show’s organizer, Nektarina Non Profit, in Croatia. She advised them to abandon the show because my Dear Prime Minister visual essay — created independently by me for the 2008 Federal Election - offended the Harper Government. It did not support any political party. It only asked that carbon polluters pay. (See my press release from 2008.)


    On July 11th, the show’s corporate sponsor was called by a Canadian official in Ottawa and advised to withdraw their support, lest they lose millions of dollars in contracts. They cancelled their sponsorship the same day. Nektarina Non Profit is now missing $75,000 it needs to make the show a success.


    On July 13th, a Canadian Embassy official called Sandra Antonovic at Nektarina, and pressured her. The official reminded Sandra that she could apply for more grants in the future — and said that it was the artist (Franke James) they objected to.

It’s point number two that disturbs me the most.

If this was the case of a government pulling a grant, or refusing to provide a grant for something, I would not complain. When it comes to how the government spends government money, that’s the government’s business, and something that should be debated within parliament. However, if this story is accurate, calling an independent corporation and threatening them with millions of dollars in retaliation over a $75,000 business donation is a disturbing case of government overreach.

It’s a principle of our democracy that we are free to say what we please, spend money how we please, and to criticize our government as we see fit. Where some artists and others sometimes get confused is in their belief that the government is obliged to support them in their speech. That’s not the case. If Franke James put together a grant application to the federal government to fund an art exhibition criticizing the federal government, she should not be surprised to see that grant application denied.

But she didn’t do this. From what we’ve seen, her art exhibition was put together without direct tax subsidy. She was able to secure corporate sponsorship for her work. The company that sponsored her was engaging in the capitalist activity of spending its money as it saw fit.

Except that, by doing so, a government official now feels obliged to threaten said corporation with a loss of government contracts — contracts that were presumably awarded for jobs that had nothing to do with the corporation’s charitable activities, and which a vetting process determined that said corporation provided the best value for taxpayers in providing service to the government.

The corporation never put forward a government grant application to support Franke James’ endeavour. The government threat deals with business dealings which have nothing to do with its donation to Franke James’ art exhibition. Except that the government chose to make this an issue. They chose to say that you can’t do any business with the Canadian government if you yourself provide support for the opinion that global climate change is a serious issue, and this government should do more in dealing with it.

Which makes this a government attack on free speech, from a government that supposedly believes in letting businesses do their own thing without nearly so much government restrictions.

Is this a path we really want to follow?

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