Fr. Van Hee in 2018. Register file photo.

Peter Stockland: Conscience battle hits ‘cuckoo’ stage

By 
  • June 14, 2019

I can never decide whether it’s the optimist or the masochist in me that believes the relentless assault on conscience rights is set to collapse under its own absurdity.

Maybe it’s both, meaning maybe it’s the Catholic. We are called, after all, to carry our Cross in joyful hope through a world whose conditions can make even mad dogs and Englishmen run for cover.

The last few weeks, however, have brought a fresh threshold that even I never imagined possible, and which would be grounds to despair were despair itself not forbidden to us. The demarcation came with the news that Fr. Tony Van Hee is obliged to fight a Charter challenge against criminal charges laid against him for allegedly violating Ontario’s bubble zone law.

When the legislation was passed in 2017, advocates insisted it was essential for protecting the physical safety and well-being of staff and patients outside the province’s abortion clinics. Angry, harassing, potentially (and actually) violent pro-lifers can be restrained, the argument went, only if the State employs its monopoly on force to enforce a security perimeter around each clinic.

Well. OK. Except that Fr. Van Hee is 83 years old. He protested without incident on Parliament Hill in the nation’s capital for 30 years — 30 years! — without a single discouraging word being heard, much less anything approaching angry, harassing, potentially or actually violent. 

Such a peaceful figure is the good Father that when he was arrested outside Ottawa’s Morgentaler clinic last October, he was not even protesting abortion. Over the course of about four days, he held up two signs decrying — get this — the breach of Charter-guaranteed free speech effected by the bubble zone law. 

As a court application filed on behalf of both Van Hee and the Catholic Civil Rights League put it: “(He) never spoke to or engaged with anyone and never mentioned or referred to abortion services or related issues.”

Yet Ottawa police still were summoned to the corner of Sparks and Bank Street to arrest and charge him. Far worse, no one in the entire justice system has thought since then to say: “Wait a minute, taking an 83-year-old priest to criminal trial for holding up pro free speech signs is — what’s the technical legal term? — cuckoo. Let’s bury this whole embarrassing episode deep in Potter’s Field on a moonless night.” 

Au contraire. Trial time has been booked for July. As in July 2020. A year from now. When Fr. Van Hee will be an 84-year-old priest facing criminal conviction merely for holding up a sign insisting on his Charter-embedded freedom to express his conscientious convictions. You begin to see how despair might slip across the border separating hopeful sanity from utter absurdity.

We can’t allow it to do so, of course. And the sliver of good news is that, according to Van Hee’s lawyer, Albertos Polizogopoulos, it would be premature to give in to it at any rate. The Charter challenge, Polizogopoulos says, will almost certainly delay any criminal trial. Victory could get the charges thrown out entirely, and lead to a striking down of at least the “overbroad” sections of the bubble zone law. That’s why, he adds, “this is a case that will go to the heart of Canadian democracy.”

That is well and good, provided the Charter challenge turns out well and for the good. But even if it does, the question remains as to what is happening to our minds and our souls that such a challenge is even necessary. How is it Canada is suddenly a country whose citizens now must go to court to avoid going to court to face criminal accusations arising from acts our Charter of Rights identifies as a fundamental freedom? 

Clearly, such ludicrous self-contradiction isn’t sustainable. The absurd inevitably gives way to own centrifugal tensions. The optimist in me insists that breaking point is nigh. The masochist, alas, counters that it’s time to bear down even more. Perhaps the reconciliation is the Catholic voice that says: “Carry on. God alone can know.” 

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow at Cardus.)

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