Christie Blatchford: Resistance is not futile when it comes to freedom of expression

Published in the National Post, August 1, 2017

It is, as the delightful John Carpay says, “a full frontal assault on the English language”, this insane revocation of a personalized licence plate by Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI).

The plate in question belonged to Nicholas Troller, a Winnipeg resident and Star Trek devotee who in 2015 applied for a plate that read “ASIMIL8”, in honour of the iconic movie and TV series, paid the $100 fee, and proudly framed it in a border that used two famous Star Trek phrases, “We are The Borg” and “Resistance is futile”.

(For those of us, like me, who aren’t Trekkies, “assimilate” is one of the few words The Borg ever speak, as in, shortly before they take over an alien species to add to the collective mind, they say, “You will be assimilated” and “Resistance is futile”.)

In any case, it was crystal clear by how Troller displayed the plate that his context was Star Trek and his use of assimilate was only in that sense.

He displayed it for almost two years and renewed it in 2016 without a peep of complaint from the juggernaut that is MPI, a non-profit Crown corporation with a staff of 1,750 and a self-description on its website that says, “We’re a large company, but we are accountable to you in every way.”

Then in April of this year, Troller got a letter from MPI telling him his plate “is considered offensive”. MPI didn’t say who found it so, why it was offensive, or if there had been complaints.

Troller was ordered to surrender the plate by May 1, and, being offered no course of appeal or recourse, did.

In late May, by which time Carpay and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms he founded in 2010 had found him a lawyer, the lawyer wrote to request the plate be re-instated. More than a month later, a time span that suggests a considered response, MPI told the lawyer it wouldn’t.

The JCCF has now launched a court action seeking a declaration that MPI breached Troller’s Charter right to freedom of expression – under Section 2 (b), in the category of fundamental freedoms, Canadians are guaranteed “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression” — and an order re-instating the plate.

As the JCCF lawyer, Jay Cameron, notes in his notice of application, not only is the Manitoba government required to uphold these basic freedoms, but also, as of 2015, it particularly invites Manitobans to express themselves via personalized plates.

As the MPI website says, “…many people prefer to let their personalized licence plates speak for them…(they) can make a statement about a profession, favourite hobby, status in life or pride in vehicle ownership.”

And what is being a Star Trek fan if not a hobby?

As befitting a faceless bureaucracy, and despite its pledge of always being accountable, MPI hasn’t deigned to offer an explanation.

But the smart betting is that a) someone complained that “assimilate” is associated with the residential schools scandal and b) that the complainant or complainants are not many in number and cannot possibly speak for the diverse Indigenous communities in this country, any more than Black Lives Matter can speak for the heterogenous black communities.

It is because of Jack Hauen, the Postmedia reporter who wrote about this subject Monday, that I can say this with some confidence.

He sought comment from the Indigenous community, and quoted at length a University of Manitoba assistant professor, Niigaan Sinclair, who called the free speech argument bogus.

“If Indigenous peoples feel triggered by a licence plate or a sports logo or the name of an historical figure on a building,” Sinclair said, “Canadians would be best served to listen to why Indigenous peoples are triggered, and show some care and sensitivity when they express themselves.

“You can’t just say whatever you want to say without any worries of consequence or responsibility.”

To this, I’d suggest that if being “triggered” by a licence plate that clearly refers to Star Trek is a genuine concern for Indigenous Canadians, then they are approaching that lucky state where life is sufficiently easy that you can worry deeply about words and feelings. And that can’t be true, given the shameful number of Indigenous citizens who must still boil their water before drinking it, or who live in substandard housing, or whose families continue to suffer the effects of residential schools.

As John Carpay said in a phone interview Tuesday, in this country we live pretty agreeably with certain constraints upon freedom of expression; one can’t expect to have a four-letter word on a licence plate, or to be able to use a plate to denigrate certain protected groups.

But “ASIMIL8” is not that.

Yes, the word can have a negative connotation. It can even be offensive. But the proper response to such concerns must be, “So what?”, because freedom of expression pretty much is about saying whatever you want to say.