Palestine protest in North America. Palestine protest in North America. (Photo by Ted Eytan/Wikimedia Commons)

As Western governments increasingly clamp down on our freedom of speech and right to protest, we must resist moves towards authoritarianism argues John Clarke

Pierre Poilievre, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, recently advanced the ominous sounding concept of ‘ordered liberty.’ This strange term, as a recent article in The Tyee showed, represents a clumsy attempt to reconcile the authoritarian and libertarian sides of conservative ideology.

Sean Speer, who was an aide to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, recently defended ‘ordered liberty’ in an article in The Hub, a decidedly right-wing publication. In it, he proposed ‘a synthesis between liberal ideals of individual autonomy and freedom and traditional understandings of social norms and values.’ It is not difficult to see that this is a dangerous idea being put forward in an even more dangerous context.

‘Individual autonomy and freedom,’ if they are to be worth anything, must include the right to express opposition to the laws and policies that are proposed or adopted by those in power. Similarly, they must not hinder dissenters from combining their efforts and engaging in campaigns and protests. However, any serious application of the principle of ‘ordered liberty’ would necessarily threaten the exercise of these freedoms.

We are approaching a situation where hard fought democratic rights of expression and assembly are only tolerated when they are in line with ‘social norms and values,’ as defined by the framers of the official discourse and the wielders of state power. This represents an attempt to shrink the boundaries of what is tolerated within liberal democracies, at a time when the need to assert and apply democratic freedoms is particularly important.


Poilievre’s counterpart in the UK, Rishi Sunak, struck a similar chord in his Downing Street statement delivered shortly after George Galloway won the by-election in Rochdale. As Lindsey German explained, Sunak ‘took this opportunity to denounce extremism and terrorism, to attack the protests over Gaza and to once again raise his fears over attacks on “democracy”.’

A ‘very chilling edge to Sunak’s speech’ lay in his call ‘for more police repression against the pro-Gaza demonstrations. This followed his meeting with police chiefs… when he said that there was a threat to democracy through mob rule – by which he meant protests and demonstrations.’

It is, of course, perfectly well known that the protests he slandered and threatened have been massive and overwhelmingly peaceful expressions of popular sentiment. Yet, for the British establishment, they pose a huge problem, and a significant number of leading figures want nothing more than to contain or even suppress them. For Sunak, as with the Canadian conservatives, the right to free expression becomes conditional on staying within boundaries that have been shrunk and that can always shrink some more.

It is hardly surprising that opposition to the present genocide unfolding in Gaza has increased the level of interest in restricting protest and dissent within ruling circles. Western support for the reckless brutality of the Israeli assault on Gaza has unleashed a mobilisation of Palestine solidarity at a scale and durability that has shaken political establishments across the world.

Support for the Palestinian struggle was under attack before 7 October, but since Israeli forces were unleashed on the civilian population of Gaza, the attacks have sharpened considerably across many countries, including here in Canada.

Media outlets, especially those that take sharper right-wing positions, have worked to create a climate where pro-Palestinian protesters can be denied normal rights of expression and assembly. We see the Toronto Sun, on 9 October, suggesting that one such protest would be guilty of ‘celebrating the mass murder of innocent people in Israel’.

The Sun article quotes Toronto city councillor James Pasternak, who called for ‘the City of Toronto, Toronto Police and Chief Myron Demkiw to prevent this hate rally.’ Redefining opposition to the deployment of the Israeli war machine as support for anti-Semitism and terrorism has been taken up with increased vigour as the horror in Gaza has continued and people have taken to the streets to express their outrage.


An outright ban on pro-Palestine protests may be a step too far for most political leaders, but it is not inconceivable in the days ahead. In the meantime, police forces are doing their utmost to criminalise and intimidate those who challenge Israel’s crimes.

Though charges were later dropped, Canadian activist Wesam Khaled was arrested last November by Calgary Police for leading a chant of ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.’ He was charged with ‘causing a disturbance’, but ‘officers …tacked on a hate-motivated component to the charge, after consulting with their force’s hate crimes coordinator.’ Police notes regarding the incident described ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ as an ‘anti-Semitic phrase’ and stated that Mr Khaled was ‘encouraging the crowd to follow along’ as he chanted it.

In January, Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw banned pro-Palestine protests at a highly visible overpass based on ‘community safety.’ Supporters of Israel claimed the location was selected to intimidate Jewish residents and Demkiw seemed to accept this false accusation.

The Chief suggested that ‘officers would increasingly be “applying a criminal lens” when policing protests in the city’ and another police spokesperson made it clear that ‘this in no way precludes officers from directing demonstrators off of other overpasses or bridges if they determine that protests are posing an unacceptable risk to public safety.’ The Toronto Police are only too ready to apply the concept of ‘ordered liberty’ in their day-to-day enforcement operations.

While Palestine solidarity is the present front-line struggle over the preservation of the right to protest, the dangers that are currently posed go well beyond it. Writing for Counterfire on 17 March, Lindsey German pointed to Michael Gove’s definition of extremism. It includes the promotion of ideas that ‘undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy.’

Such a definition could be aimed at ‘socialists, climate campaigners, anti-war campaigners and anti-fascists. All reject the idea that change will or can come mainly through parliament.’ A liberal democracy that cannot be questioned is a rather dubious proposition with a decidedly authoritarian streak.

The placing of such limits on permissible forms of opposition takes us in a toxic direction towards a new era of McCarthyism, in which freedom is severely constrained and unapproved dissent is met with accusation and repression.

The right to protest, organise and act collectively to advance demands for change were not given as gifts from on high but were won in struggle. They matter to us, not as a means of saying what is acceptable to those in power, but in order to challenge ruling ideas and governing institutions. Attempts to redefine these boundaries pose a serious threat to our democratic freedoms and must be challenged and defeated.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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