In 2011, Toronto-based writer, artist and environmental activist Franke James was asked by Croatian non-profit Nektarina to feature her artwork on an European tour. Unsurprisingly, James agreed, only to have the tour cancelled when the Canadian embassy in Croatia withdrew funding that it denied ever giving Nektarina, and made the non-profit aware that James “speaks against the Canadian government.”
James was not one to be silenced, as her new book reveals. Banned on the Hill: A True Story about Dirty Oil and Government Censorship catalogues the entire ordeal of being blacklisted by Harper’s government for speaking out against the tar sands, and puts the paper trail Canadian diplomats left of their censoring ways on display.
DeSmog: You’ve been spreading a message of environmental awareness that runs counter to the Harper government’s pro-oil stance since 2003. Did you have any inkling that something like the government’s squashing of your European tour might eventually happen?
Franke James: No! Who would ever think you could get into trouble for writing to the Prime Minister asking that we make polluters pay? Is this Canada or the Kremlin?
I've been very openly criticizing the Conservatives for their short-sighted 'economy versus the environment' stance for years now. But I never expected them to lash out at me as an individual citizen because we live in a democratic country where free expression is protected under the Canadian charter. When I discovered what they were secretly doing behind-the-scenes I realized I needed to dig for evidence.
And that led me on a two year journey of collecting evidence, applying for access to information documents, and writing Banned on the Hill. This story needs to be told. It's shocking and it's very undemocratic. Canadians need to know the extreme message control that the Harper government is exerting over ordinary, law-abiding citizens. Our fundamental right to speak up and disagree with the government is at risk – and that is so wrong.
DeSmog: You won a big victory against censorship by successfully crowdfunding a campaign to bring your “Do Not Talk About Climate Change: It Is Against Government Policy” posters to the streets of Ottawa, and you’re on your way to achieving stretch goals to bring the posters to other cities. Could you tell us a bit about the posters?
FJ: Thanks! Yes, it's very exciting to see my posters up on the streets of Ottawa – and the animated online ads on The Hill Times. That is the government’s favourite “insider-news” website. So it was a real kick to buy space there and use the government spokesperson’s own very chilling words in the ads, “the artist’s work dealt mostly with climate change, and was advocating a message that was contrary to the government's policies on the subject.”
I’m sure the visual of the Parliament Buildings dropped into the tar sands caused a few Cheerios to be spat out. I made that image to emphasize an important point – if that really was the surroundings for the Parliament Buildings, it would not be tolerated. They would not permit the air and water to be polluted that way because it would endanger the health of the Prime Minister and the MPs.
DeSmog: How do you think crowdfunding changes the face of arts/media resistance to government censorship?
FJ: The opportunity for activists to fight government censorship – and communicate positive social messages – through crowdfunding media space is tremendous.
It's essentially a judo-flip on Big Brother message control.
Our voices joined together have the power to change governments – and by that I mean we can leverage mass media to speak up and tell the government what issues are important to us and why. If we make a big noise that climate change is an issue that voters care about, then our so-called “leaders” will follow and bring in laws to put a price on carbon. That would be a game-changer for every business because it would send a message that they can no longer pollute the atmosphere for free.
And on an individual level, crowdfunding is transformative. People who contribute to a crowdfunded campaign can see that by taking action they can make change happen.
So, crowdfunding is a tremendous activist tool. It gives power to anyone with a message to take it out to the world. It is a very democratic system. The catch is you have to be able to persuade people that your message is worth funding. Before “crowdfunding” existed artists and activists had to rely on funding from government, non-profits and corporations. But censorship is a problem with all of those entities.
DeSmog: On a related note, did you face any government-related intimidation or resistance to the crowdfunding campaign and the outdoor posters in Ottawa?
FJ: The Indiegogo campaign running now in Ottawa is the second crowdfunded show I've done and in both cases I’ve taken measures so that the shows did not get blocked or censored. (I know of climate activist media campaigns in the US which have been censored.)
I did not announce publicly where or when the show was going live. This was a good strategy because I am sure if the government had known the show was going up on November 2, 2011 in Ottawa, they never would have released the first batch of Access-to-Information documents on Halloween, 2011. Those initial 165 pages were extremely advantageous to me when I was speaking to the media, because they proved that the government was not telling the truth about the funding. The funding had been approved internally, but was killed by the Deputy Director of the Climate Change office, Jeremy Wallace. The 2 documents are in Banned on the Hill on pages 174-175 (pictured below).
Also, in my November 2011 outdoor show in Ottawa, I had the creative of six posters pre-approved by senior executives at the outdoor company before I put any money down. This was necessary because they had a clause in their contract that said they could pull the artwork, and you’d still have to pay for the space. For the new show in May-June 2013, there was only one poster design, and that was pre-approved too.
DeSmog: Has their been a positive response to the campaign from the public?
FJ: Excellent response. Lots of people are concerned as I am with the silencing of environmental voices and the erosion of our democratic rights. As of today, 206 people have contributed over $12,300.
DeSmog: Do you have any further plans for the use of crowdsourced funds, aside from putting the posters on the streets of other cities?
FJ: Yes! Some fun stuff is being planned! But right now we don’t know which city is next. Vancouver or Calgary is within reach – and possibly Washington, D.C. if we raise enough money.
There will definitely be fun new ways for people to participate and see their impact. We need to get the message out that it is essential to talk about climate change – and take immediate action.