At a breakfast meeting in Toronto a few years ago with the late George Jonas – an author of keen insight and perspicacity – I asked him what it was like to live under totalitarian rule, as he had done under Communism in his native Hungary before escaping to Canada in 1956. I will never forget what he said:
“I felt like I was fleeing a disease. But … it followed me!”
I almost wept for my country to hear such words. I have always loved Canada. For most of my life it has been a relatively trouble-free nation of plain-spoken, sensible people who seem politically and morally a little sheepish, not easily roused, not terribly impressed by the successes of their fellows, more prone to obey than to revolt, but who long before, and certainly since Confederation, have enjoyed a remarkable tradition of freedom.
This freedom – of speech, action, and thought – limited only by traditional bounds of criminal or civil law and custom, was at its high point during the colonial period, when settlers hardly ever saw an agent of government, and was lauded most poignantly in 1896 by Canada’s 7th Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in words that rang throughout the land – and throughout the unfree world – like a proud and resounding gong: “Canada is free, and freedom is its nationality!”
And that is why I almost wept. For we simply cannot speak those words today, because Canada is no longer a truly free country. And I shall say why, in a moment.
Meanwhile I remember, when reading Life magazine in the mid-60’s, staring in disbelief at a large center-fold photo of a million Chinese students in Beijing’s Tiananmen square, each dressed in a severe copy-cat black uniform and hat, all waving Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book over their heads in an apparently genuine delirium of admiration for his orientalized version of Marxism.
I felt a deep pity for those robotic students, because it was clear they were brainwashed and quite frightened to raise an original idea, or to discuss individual freedom. And there was I, sitting in Canada in such full-enjoyment of my manifest liberties that I silently gave thanks for my country.