Editorial: Upholding freedom of expression in face of offensive speech

January 14, 2015

University of New Brunswick sociology professor Ricardo Duchesne has upset Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang with his comments about Vancouver’s Asian character.

That’s the thing about opinions; they anger some people.

Imagine if society censured everyone with an opinion.

Given that universities are places for the testing of ideas, it would be particularly inappropriate to attempt to silence Duchesne. The world learned a lesson recently, in Paris, about how fragile freedom of expression can be in the world we live in today.

Here is what the fuss is about: Duchesne, from Puerto Rico, argues that Asian immigration to Vancouver has changed the city so thoroughly that its British character has been damaged.

“Within a matter of years, a very British city, a beautiful British city, took on a strongly Asian character,” he said.

More broadly, Duchesne believes that overwhelming numbers of immigrants are threatening Western culture.

“Sweden had practically no rape. Suddenly, they open their borders, (and now) they have one of the highest rape statistics in the world. In Norway, it’s happening, the same thing,” he has said.

Jang has interpreted Duchesne’s remarks as drawing a comparison between Vancouver and “teeming, dirty cities” such as Hong Kong or those in Japan. He is “saying all Asians are dirty.”

Jang, who in addition to his council duties teaches psychiatry at the University of B.C., called on UNB to review the professor’s course work. “Quite frankly, I don’t think he should be teaching.”

Chinese immigrants have been settling in Canada for hundreds of years. They headed to B.C. for the gold rush, helped build the railway to the west coast following Confederation, and have been part of the fabric of the city from the day Vancouver was incorporated in 1886.

The city today has one of the highest concentrations of ethnic Chinese on the continent, with 30 per cent of residents being of Chinese heritage.

Change has come more rapidly in recent years, as Duchesne suggests. Just seven per cent of Vancouverites belonged to a visible minority in 1981. That number as of 2008 had climbed to 51 per cent.

Vancouver has become an incredibly interesting, highly multicultural city, where different ethnic groups mostly interact pretty well with each other.

Some would doubtless agree with Duchesne’s perspective on Canada’s liberal immigration policy and lament the loss of the more uniform nature the population once possessed.

The great thing about living in a country such as Canada is that both viewpoints on immigration can be freely discussed and debated. That surely is something Jang can appreciate.

The University of New Brunswick, meanwhile, has spoken in support of its professor.

UNB vice-president Robert MacKinnon said Jang’s complaint had been reviewed and the university’s values and mission support free thought and expression.

The university is to be commended for striking the correct balance in defence of free expression and academic freedom in the face of a potentially offensive opinion.

By The Vancouver Sun