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Winnipeg Free Press
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: December 14, 1999

Kids like hugging Winnie, but what if he were called Ursus Americanus?

Ken Gigliotti,
Winnipeg Free Press

WINNIPEG - Just inside the entrance of the city zoo here, stands Winnie, a 3-foot-tall statue of this prairie city's most famous namesake: an orphaned Canadian bear cub that found a home in the London Zoo and 20th-century immortality as Winnie the Pooh.

In silent witness to Winnie's enduring appeal, his bronze metal paws here have been polished gold by the caresses of millions of little visitors. "Winnie," burbled Hayley Gusdal, age 4, as she toddled, bundled against the cold, hands outstretched to the bear statue.

But carried on the political winds blowing out of Ottawa, the argument could be made that since Winnie is a human name, the plaque here should be changed to Ursus Americanus.

In the latest battle between free expression and political sensitivities, the Agriculture Museum, a federal farm museum in Ottawa that draws 140,000 visitors yearly, had banned giving human names to newborn cows, sheep, and horses. The policy was adopted in the spring of 1998, after a woman visiting the site was mortified to encounter a cow bearing her name.

But Canadians erupted with a barrage of telephone calls and letters that eventually forced the farm officials to backtrack, and in October, they repealed the policy.

For many people here, however, the episode was a familiar story of bureaucrats, in their reluctance to offend any constituency, imposing practices that increasingly attempt to turn what could be deemed incorrect speech into illegal speech.

Three months ago, Bugs Bunny escaped -- with slightly singed fur -- from a year-long inquest into a formal complaint that the wascally wabbit had violated Canadian television's Sex Role Portrayal Code.

What brought Global Television's Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show into the dock was a 1954 episode entitled Bewitched Bunny, in which Bugs uses magic to transform a witch into a voluptuous lady bunny. As they walk arm in arm into the sunset, he turns to viewers and says with a wink: "Ah, sure, I know! But aren't they all witches inside?"

Judith Hansel, a viewer from Ontario, wrote to the private television network, saying she was "horrified" by the rabbit's closing line and demanded a televised apology.

After the network refused, she complained to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, the industry's oversight group. After a year-long investigation, the panel wrote that it was "sympathetic" but that there was nothing in the cartoon that "could be broadly interpreted as constituting 'negative or degrading comments on the role and nature of women.'"

In another case, here in Winnipeg, a local radio station, CFST, almost lost its license after two talk show hosts made anti-gay remarks, drawing an investigation from the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission. In a move that would leave many American talk show hosts tongue-tied, the station kept its license by banning on air "badgering, ridicule, or insult" and remarks likely to offend "a considerable portion of the audience."

These kinds of decisions increasingly raise free speech concerns. "Politically, it is a very bad thing when silencing, rather than debate, is the first tactic," Paul Fromm, a director of the Canadian Association for Free Expression, a libertarian group, said from Toronto. "It creates a lot of rage and a stultified body politic."

But such cases are piling up. In Saskatchewan, The StarPhoenix is awaiting a ruling by a Human Rights Commission on a complaint that the newspaper promoted hate by printing an ad that used Bible quotations to condemn homosexuality.

In Alberta, Ted Byfield, a conservative magazine publisher, has been charged with violating the Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act for printing an article saying that while abuses took place at Canada's Indian boarding schools, many Indians were grateful for the education they received there.

In Toronto, an earnest city that once carried the nickname Hogtown, the district school board has prepared a draft human rights law that would effectively ban students from cracking jokes about the city.

And the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the state-run network, recently rejected an American-made commercial that showed a goofy white man in a fake Indian headdress trying to teach elderly people to perform a "rain dance." A CBC spokeswoman said the ad made fun of Indians and old people.

The ad has aired in the U.S., said Harold Mollin, the chief executive officer of World Wide Weather Insurance Agency, Inc. "You would expect this sort of censorship from a Communist country," he complained, "not from a progressive democracy such as Canada."

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