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Forcing an opinion on someone, or putting words in their mouth, is a violation of their liberty, freedom of thought, association and expression.  When someone does it from a position of power, it is demeaning and an abuse of authority. When a government does it to their citizens, I’m grateful that we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protects us against such a fundamental wrong.

Among the changes the government of Ontario has incorporated into the budget is a new requirement that gas retailers display a notice about the impact of the federal carbon tax on gas prices. Touted as a transparency measure, the requirement is, in fact, a way of forcing private companies to peddle government propaganda. It is compelled speech and it goes against the fundamental protection provided for freedom of expression in our Constitution. We need to fight it.

The notice required by the province doesn’t simply break down the costs of gas and where different portions go. That, like the requirement to include ingredient lists and calorie counts on food packaging, might be acceptable. Instead, the notice is a part of the provincial government’s arsenal in the war on the federal carbon tax measure. That is a war the province may be entitled to wage – but they should not be able to conscript Ontarians into fighting it for them.

It does serious damage to our democracy when the government starts forcing people to spread political messages for them. This measure dictates not only the message but also the precise means by which it has to be delivered. While there is a strong argument that the notice misrepresents the true cost of the carbon tax (by failing to mention the available rebate), the question of accuracy is not even close to the most troubling aspect. Simply put, the notice is a commercial for the provincial government. In addition to a little bar graph/arrow graphic on price increases over the coming years, it invites people to visit the government’s website on the carbon tax to “learn more about taxes on gas”. But the website devotes little time to gas prices and much more to explain why Ontario has a “better way” of fighting climate change than the federal government.

The provincial government has managed to require private companies to advertise for them and, more specifically, advertise against the federal government of a different political stripe. Not only is this advertising free for the government – they can earn money for every retailer who fails to comply (retailers who fail to post the notice face fines of up to $10,000 per day). They have turned gas retailers into their PR firms and turned compelled speech into a revenue stream.

Regardless of the views that one has on the carbon tax issue, we should all worry when the government starts using the law to force private entities to the tow their line. CCLA will fight against this proposal and any other attempts by the state to conscript Canadians into spreading messages for them. Freedom of speech means freedom from unreasonable government restrictions on our speech, but it also means freedom from unreasonable government compulsion. The new carbon tax measure in Ontario has crossed the line.

About the Canadian Civil Liberties Association

The CCLA is an independent, non-profit organization with supporters from across the country. Founded in 1964, the CCLA is a national human rights organization committed to defending the rights, dignity, safety, and freedoms of all people in Canada.

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