‘Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.” –Canadian “Human Rights” Investigator Dean Steacy, responding to the question “What value do you give freedom of speech when you investigate?”
This is the way free speech ends, not with a bang but as the result of an administrative hearing in a windowless basement in Vancouver, Canada.
At least that’s where a “Human Rights Tribunal” is taking place this week that will further solidify the Canadian legal position that the right not to be offended by something you read is more sacred than the freedom of the press.
At issue is a cover story National Review’s own Mark Steyn wrote for the Canadian newsweekly Maclean’s, titled “The Future Belongs to Islam.” An excerpt from Steyn’s bestselling book America Alone, the article highlighted the fact that demographic trends suggest that Muslims may well become a majority in much of Europe and that this obviously represents a threat to Europe as we know it. A few Muslim law students objected to the article and filed multiple complaints with Canada’s national and provincial “human rights” tribunals and presto! Steyn’s opinion and Maclean’s right to print it have now been effectively criminalized.
The fact that a few fringe Muslims have reacted to Steyn’s article by invoking a once-obscure Canadian bureaucratic process to hold hostage the rights of all Canadians only goes to prove that Steyn needs to be heard, more than ever.
So with all due respect to our friendly neighbors to the north, what the hell is wrong with Canada and how did this happen?
In 1977, the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) was founded “to investigate and try to settle complaints of discrimination in employment and in the provision of services within federal jurisdiction.” While their mandate was suspiciously vague from the get-go, even those involved with the founding of the CHRC admit that it was never intended to do anything as abhorrent as regulate speech. At the outset, the commission’s responsibilities were fairly straightforward, e.g. investigating cases of discriminatory hiring practices within the government, discriminatory housing practices, and other cases in which someone might be subject to prejudice in an area under the purview of the federal government.
But with almost Newtonian certainty, bureaucratic power tends to expand over time, and so it was with the CHRC. In 1979, the commission set its sights on John Ross Taylor, leader of the Western Guard Party, an unsavory white-supremacist group. The commission found Taylor guilty of violating Canada’s human-rights legislation for distributing a phone number that provided anti-Semitic recorded messages.
Now whatever you think of Taylor, he wasn’t broadcasting hate speech: One had to make the specific effort to call the number to hear his nasty messages. So Taylor filed an appeal on the grounds that the Human Rights Commission had denied him his right to free speech.
By 1990, the case finally wound up before the Supreme Court of Canada, in Canada (Human rights commission) v. Taylor. At issue were two conflicting pieces of law. First, section 13.1 of the Canadian Human Rights Act:
13. (1) It is a discriminatory practice for a person or a group of persons acting in concert to communicate telephonically or to cause to be so communicated, repeatedly, in whole or in part by means of the facilities of a telecommunication undertaking within the legislative authority of Parliament, any matter that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt by reason of the fact that that person or those persons are identifiable on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.
And of course the Canadian Charter of Rights (similar to the U.S. Bill of Rights), which one would think is pretty clear:
Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
a) freedom of conscience and religion;
b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
d) freedom of association.
Supreme Court of Canada split 4-3 on a decision that declared that section 13.1 of the Canadian Human Rights Act did not violate the charter of rights, and it remains constitutional. Oh sure, the justices in favor made grumblings about applying a high standard when enforcing the Human Rights Act, but despite their admonition, the general interpretation by the human-rights commissions is that they now have free rein to regulate the media. The slippery slope has been a toboggan ride to hell ever since.
What this means is that everyone in Canada now has fundamental freedoms, provided they’re not in conflict with whatever specious definition of “human rights” the CHRC chooses to apply. The threshold for conviction set by the Human Rights Act is incredibly low, because its highly subjective language means that “likely to cause contempt” is as good as a preponderance of evidence establishing guilt. There’s also the matter of the commission’s tribunals, which — unlike legal proceedings — are largely administrative in nature, so there’s little in the way of formal rules of evidence or procedure. There are few things in life more terrifying than being dragged into court knowing ahead of time that truth isn’t necessarily a defense and that the judge is winging it.
As a result, the Canadian Human Rights Commission is stunningly effective: In its 31 years of existence, not a single complaint brought before it has been dismissed. That’s right: Everyone is guilty before God and the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
But that’s only half the story. With the legal hurdles cleared, the national commission wasn’t alone in being empowered — the regional Human Rights Commissions and their corresponding tribunals were too. There’s a labyrinthine series of these kangaroo courts in Canada; there are also the provincial human-rights commissions and their corresponding tribunals, each with its own differing laws.
So when a group of Muslim law students filed suit against Steyn and Maclean’s, they didn’t just go to the CHRC. They also went jurisdiction-shopping. In addition to the national complaint, they filed complaints with the British Columbia and Ontario tribunals as well, as those were the two provincial commissions whose laws they felt would be most favorable to their case. That’s how this week’s hearing in Vancouver got underway, and the national tribunal is pending.
Ontario ’s commission said it would decline to take the case because Ontario’s Human Rights Code “does not give the Commission the jurisdiction to deal with the content of magazine articles through the complaints process.” But in their statement, they took the opportunity to condemn Steyn and Maclean’s because they have “a broader duty to express [their] opinion regarding issues that are brought to [their] attention which have implications from a human rights perspective.” They continued:
The Commission is concerned that since the September 2001 attacks, Islamophobic attitudes are becoming more prevalent in society and Muslims are increasingly the target of intolerance, including an unwillingness to consider accommodating some of their religious beliefs and practices.
Unfortunately, the Maclean’s article, and others like it, are examples of this. By portraying Muslims as all sharing the same negative characteristics, including being a threat to “the West,” this explicit expression of Islamophobia further perpetuates and promotes prejudice towards Muslims and others. An extreme illustration of this is a “blog” discussion concerning the article that was brought to the attention of the Commission which, among many things, called for the mass killing, deportation or conversion of Muslim Canadians.
So Steyn and Maclean’s are thus responsible for a “blog” discussion they had nothing to do with about killing Muslims? Can I file a complaint with the Canadian Logic Commission?
As ridiculous as the complaint against Steyn and Maclean’s is, it’s performing a valuable service in bringing some much-needed attention to the problem of these commissions. For far too long they’ve been empowered to run rampant. Recent “human rights” cases include:
‐ Earlier this year, former CHRC employee Richard Warman went trolling for an open wi-fi connection in Ottawa so that he could post racist comments under assumed names on an allegedly racist website and then lodge a complaint with the CHRC charging the site owner with, well, being racist. Warman had appeared before the CHRC 12 times before, and wouldn’t you know it, the CHRC ruled in his favor 12 times. Talk about a racket. Except this time there was collateral damage: The name and address of the innocent sucker with the open wi-fi connection was read aloud during the court proceedings and made its way into the newspapers as being the origin of the racist comments. He was not amused.
‐ In 1999, a Christian printer was fined $5,000 for refusing to print a series of pro-pedophilia essays. He spent $40,000 in legal fees trying to defend himself.
‐ In 2005, the Knights of Columbus of Port Coquitlam, B.C., were fined for refusing to rent their hall for a lesbian wedding.
‐ There’s simply no point in naming all of the clergy that have been brought up on charges for preaching against homosexuality. Suffice to say it’s more than a few.
‐ In 2002, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission ordered the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and Hugh Owens each to pay $1,500 to three complainants for running an ad that quoted Bible verses condemning homosexuality. The decision was overturned by an appeal court . . . four years later.
‐ In January of this year, Ezra Levant, publisher of Canadian conservative magazine The Western Standard, was brought up on charges for publishing the infamous Danish Muhammad cartoons as a matter of informing his readers what all the fuss was about. Since then another unrelated complaint has been lodged against him — and, as near as I can tell, the entire conservative Canadian blogosphere — by none other than serial crank Richard Warman.
This kind of nonsense on stilts is now the accepted norm in human-rights tribunals. With Steyn and Maclean’s involved, supposedly enlightened liberal Canadians — who needs free speech when we have socialized medicine?! — may not be able to dismiss the victims of the injustice this time around as merely neo-Nazis or those backward Christians. Steyn’s fame precedes him, and Maclean’s is a beloved national institution in Canada, with ample resources.
In fact, according to Andrew Coyne of Maclean’s they’re hoping to lose the case in Vancouver this week so they can bring it to a real court of law, and possibly set a precedent that could be the beginning of the end of Canadian “human rights” tribunals. Here’s hoping.
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.