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Remarks by the Deputy Prime Minister at the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression Gala

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I wanted to start by thanking everyone at Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CFJE) for inviting me to be here tonight.

Now, I say that with a wry smile, because as everyone here understands very well, there are few places more dangerous for a politician to be than a room full of reporters.

But as I also understand very well, and as everyone here understands: One of the cornerstones of every democracy, including our own, is a free and independent press.

Robust news organizations, free of interference from the rich and the powerful.

Journalists who can shine a light on wrongdoing without the threat of a knock on the door.

Now, that is an easy assertion to make in theory—but a free press is not something we should take for granted.

And we should never forget that a truly free press always faces opposition.

Because a free press is inherently and necessarily uncomfortable.

There is not a politician in Canada—at least not a smart one—who doesn’t worry a little bit when the cameras start to roll.

And we should be a little nervous when you ask us questions. Because your job is to hold us accountable. Your job is to test our policies—to test us, and to probe for weaknesses.

And as someone who has both asked those questions and had to answer them, let me tell you one thing I absolutely know is true: A free press makes our democracy stronger.

Knowing I will face your questions forces me to try to anticipate them. It forces me to double and triple test my own policies, my own ideas, to try to ensure they will survive your scrutiny.

And when I make a mistake and you report on it, it gives me the chance to quickly course correct.

Journalism makes our democracy stronger.

That’s why, throughout history and around the world today, you will not find an authoritarian regime that allows a free press.

Dictators suppress stories and they shutter newsrooms.

They make public enemies out of reporters, and dispatch henchmen to deal with those who still dare to ask questions.

And by silencing those whose job it is to tell the truth, they undermine the idea of truth itself.

Now, Putin has systematically and brutally destroyed Russia’s once vibrant free press.

But the journalists he targets most murderously are the brave journalists of Ukraine.

First, because they are Ukrainian. Because today, everyone in Ukraine is a target of Putin’s illegal and barbaric invasion.

And second, because they are journalists. Because they are journalists who are telling Ukrainians—and the whole world—the truth about this evil war.

Putin knows his war is built on lies. That means those who tell the truth are the enemies he most fears.

Yesterday, I spoke with Mstyslav Chernov and Evhen Maloletka—Ukrainian journalists with the Associated Press.

Mstyslav and Evhen, together with their producer, Vasilisa Stepanenko, have been documenting life in Ukraine and the human cost of Putin’s barbaric invasion for almost a year now.

We’ve seen their photos and their videos: the pregnant woman on a stretcher; the apartment building exploding in a ball of Russian-sent flame.

They stayed behind during the siege of Mariupol—a once beautiful city Putin turned into hell on earth. Hunted by the Russians and surrounded at a hospital, they were rescued by Ukrainian soldiers and whisked, miraculously, to safety.

Their documentary, 20 Days in Mariupol, helped show the world the atrocities that Putin’s soldiers were committing—and it reminded us of both the heroism and suffering of the people of Mariupol.

Bravery in Ukraine has come in many forms this past year.

Battle-hardened soldiers—both men and a lot of women—at the front line.

Baristas and musicians picking up weapons and taking a uniform.

Young mothers escaping to Canada with nothing but their children—and maybe a teddy bear.

A comedian so remarkably leading a nation at war.

And journalists who chose to stay home, armed only with a camera or a phone and an internet connection, to tell the world about what is happening in Ukraine.

When I spoke to Mstyslav and Evhen yesterday, they were a few hours behind the front lines of Bakhmut, where they had been earlier in the day. And that is why they’re not here today—because they felt it was their job. Bakhmut is a town about the population of Belleville, and it has been largely destroyed by months of relentless Russian shelling.

“We work for AP,” Mstyslav told me, “but first we are Ukrainian—and we are telling Ukraine’s story.”

It’s a real honour for me to present the award for International Press Freedom to Mstyslav, Evhen, and Vasilisa tonight—three of the many, many Ukrainian journalists who have risked their lives since 2014, and since February 24th of last year.

“We would trade all the awards in the world for this not to have happened,” Mstyslav told me. “For Ukraine not to have been invaded, and for the people we watched die in Mariupol to still be alive.”

In seeking to erase Ukraine from the map and its story from history, Putin has tried—he is trying—to show that tyranny can defeat democracy, that the truth is what the man with the biggest gun says it is.

The brave people of Ukraine, in their heroic resistance, are ensuring that Ukraine will survive and that democracy will prevail there and everywhere else.

“We have been preparing for eight years,” Evhen told me, referring to Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. “As years have gone by, the war goes on. We hear sad news every day. But we are all reconciled to this reality that each one of us must work in his own place—and our front line is journalism.”

So, it is with a great sense of profound respect that I present the award for International Press Freedom to Mstyslav Chernov, Evhen Maloletka, and Vasilisa Stepanenko.

Three journalists on the front line—and three journalists to whom democracy owes a very great deal.