Fly on the Wall—When Nuns Fly

Margaret Atwood and Bill C-11

Sally Field was a pint-sized teen actress in the 1960s; she adorably won accolades playing a lovable neophyte surfer named Gidget (the local beach boys dubbed her such because she was a girl and seemed like a midget).  Later in the decade she starred as an equally-short (not all typecasting is avoidable) novice nun embarking on missionary work in the US territory of Puerto Rico.  The TV series was called The Flying Nun and, as the title character, her interactions say much about culture at the time.  When the other nuns notice her playing cards with local orphans they are startled and ask how she came to engage in such an un-nunlike pursuit.  Breezily her reply illustrates how rapidly the 1960s times were a-changing: “It helped pass the time while I was in jail.  I was arrested at a free speech protest” (Slade et al., 1967).

Mic drop, if ever.

In today’s realm of fake news and epistemic suspicion, the concept of free speech sometimes seems like an afterthought.  The general mood is one of disdain for opposing views and a leering desire to silence those who are, supposedly, misinformed.  But is it ever misinformed to allow a proliferation of foolish or misguided notions, when in the end the marketplace of ideas sorts itself out as a political arena?  Presently, our federal government has sent a new law to the senate, Bill C11, that literally allows the government to censor any private post made to a public; that is, social media, place.  Bill C11 is a means of “giving the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission the power to regulate what they call ‘user generated content.’ This means that what Canadians post to places like YouTube and TikTok would fall under government control” (Toronto Star, 2022)  Wryly, some might note that our Prime Minister’s many Prince Selfie photos are likely to remain in the public eye no matter how much of a doofus they make our leading statesman appear! But, then, that’s a matter of opinion.

Historical awareness happily can rescue us from being embroiled in the who posted what to whom realm of censorship.  Governments are prone to a few lies and consequences of their own.  From weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, touted as a pretext for war but later admitted to be illusory, to Hollywood’s 1950s blacklisting of countless artists under the auspices of protecting the free world, and then recanting after scores of careers were ruined, history is a debris field of authorities dishing out punishment for crimes imagined rather than committed.  Clearly, history casts a dark glare at those who side with the silencers.  Even our humble monarchical Dominion has had to come to terms with our historical mistakes: residential schools, the Riel Rebellion, and the murderous suppression of the On to Ottawa trek of 1935 are three examples where intolerance of different ideas and methods led to shameful acts of despotism by our governments.  We don’t want to risk encouraging those who believe that culture and country are a “my way or the highway” type deal.  “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” is a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson (leading figure in early liberalism, as in free markets of ideas and goods) (Berkes, 2010).

Now there are limits to what can or should be said, legally speaking.  C-11 isn’t about egregious offences like libelling your neighbour’s spouse or being a discursive abomination by inciting illegal treatment of minors, minorities, or the elderly.  Or dogs.  Laws in the real world already cover the internet and are enforced; C-11 is about many things but it’s not about protecting innocent victims so much as about encouraging people to think twice before yapping off about topics that appear to have a right and a wrong answer.

C-11 is also about enforcing quotas about who supposedly most deserves to get screen time, and government funding, for their art and music projects.  Just check out a few Research Assistant job postings and read between the lines about the value, rather than merit, of identifying as a member of a favoured identity group.  In terms of free speech, or a lack thereof, C-11 is basically a form of social engineering, sometimes maybe perhaps a good idea (in the 60s many American white kids were bussed to schools in black neighbourhoods to integrate society.  Nowadays it’s not unusual in my town to see an elementary school student sporting a Snoop Dogg t-shirt, so maybe it worked) but generally to be avoided in a free society.  When people feel a heavy hand on their shoulder they tend to shirk and shrug it off and seek to assert their independence, no matter the intent of the parochial figure behind them.

Like not dropping the soap out of instinct, our cultural heritage may be said to recall all-too vividly the many centuries of brutal kings and dictators who served their own interest rather than the people’s, all the while claiming sovereignty in the name of the national good.  As a nation of immigrants, many came here seeking freedom from tyranny that we might embody a freedom to thrive.  Indigenous people are a reminder that, prior to colonialism, many different nations cohabitated without one gaining hegemony over all the rest—at least not for long.  Unity comes from tolerance of the Other, rather than permanent loyalty to those temporarily holding the purse strings of cultural power.  From this broader historical view, C-11 seems like a great idea if a government hopes to avoid any mass popular uprising as regards their policies.

Where intent and verbiage part is a matter of details, where the proverbial devil abides, and a junction where we can appeal again to the sweet innocence of Sally Field.  When receiving an award, she famously glowed and exclaimed “you like me, you really like me!” It matters to feel liked, both for who one is and for being oneself.  If we like being a democracy and a free country we must be on guard when someone, especially our taxpayer-funded government agencies, wish to put a blanket over our ability to express ourselves.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  Margaret Atwood, usually the last word on intellectual righteousness and certainly not one to take authoritarianism lightly (A Handmaids’s Tale, which I read in first year women’s studies at AU, is a forceful engagement with the forces of darkness that often lurk behind the mask of social harmony), joined a chorus of thinkers and creators who expressed their disapproval of Bill C-11:

“All you have to do is read some biographies of writers writing in the Soviet Union and the degrees of censorship they had to go through—government bureaucrats.  So it is creeping totalitarianism if governments are telling creators what to create” (Atwood in Woolf, 2023).

Gazing into her grand dame crystal ball that includes a life where she married a friend so he could avoid the despicable authoritarianism of the Vietnam draft, she concludes in what one imagines to be a calm but stern tone:

“You can’t guess ahead of time what it is going to do” (ibid).

We can only ignore the past as AU students by failing to realize that it will affect our future, and particularly our academic rights and freedoms.

Berkes, A.(2010).  ‘Eternal Vigilance’.  The Jefferson Monticello.  Retrieved from
Postmedia News.  (2022).  ‘Why Bill C11 is a Problem’.  Toronto Star.  Retrieved from
Slade, B., Wylie, M.  & Ackerman, H.  (1967).  ‘The Flying Nun Season 1 Episode 1: Full Transcript’.  Retrieved from
Woolf, M.  (2023).  ‘Margaret Atwood on Bill C11 and Why Bureaucrats Shouldn’t Tell Authors What to Write’.  The Globe and Mail.  Retrieved from
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