Stephen Harper used to have very clear—and colourful—ideas on human rights commissions and what should be done about them.
“Human rights commissions, as they are evolving, are an attack on our fundamental freedoms and the basic existence of a democratic society,” he said in a 1999 interview with Terry O’Neill of BC Report newsmagazine.“ It is in fact totalitarianism. I find this is very scary stuff.” He went on to complain about the “bastardization” of the entire concept of rights in modern society.
Of course, that was back when Harper was president of the National Citizens Coalition. Today he’s Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister. And he appears to have lost his fear of totalitarianism.
In an interview this past January with Maclean’s, the Prime Minister was asked what, if anything, he intended to do to halt the encroachment on individual freedom by the Canadian Human Rights Commission in the name of regulating hate speech.
It is an issue of crucial importance to this country and our strongly held traditions of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
This magazine understands only too well the dangers involved in putting those rights at risk. Following a 2006 cover story by columnist Mark Steyn titled “Why the future belongs to Islam,” we were visited by a group of law students from the Canadian Islamic Congress. We were given the option of handing over editorial control of our pages for a rebuttal to Steyn’s piece or face a series of human rights complaints. As the first option was anathema to our obligations to our readers, the students launched their complaints.
That we were vindicated in all instances, notwithstanding the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s attempt at an unofficial smear, is beside the point. Under the guise of human rights, the ability of any news organization to produce truthful and reasoned articles was questioned by a variety of government bodies. Scary stuff indeed.
So we asked Harper if he intended to correct this threat to the basic existence of a democratic society.
“The government has no plans to do so,” was his casual reply. “It is a very tricky issue of public policy . . . It’s probably the case that we haven’t got the balance right, but I’m not sure the government today has any answer on what an appropriate balance would be.”
To summarize: the issue of human rights commissions running amok over Canadians’ basic rights and freedoms is something Harper has followed—closely and with obvious passion—for at least a decade. As Prime Minister he admits it is still a problem. And he says he doesn’t have a clue how to fix it.
We do. He should repeal Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
A wave of informed opinion and public sentiment is in agreement that the CHRC and other provincial rights bodies have become a menace to many of the freedoms Canadians consider central to our way of life. Besides, even if we are concerned with the possible proliferation of hate speech, Section 13 is wholly unnecessary.
In 1970 the Criminal Code was amended to outlaw the promotion of genocide and the distribution of hate propaganda. Penalties of fines and jail terms were established, but the rights of the accused were also protected through due process, a need to prove intent and, crucially, the defence of truth.
Parliament later created the Canadian Human Rights Commission to cover a variety of potential discriminatory practices in Canada. Section 13 of the act deals with the transmission of materials “likely to expose a person or persons to hatred.” As this body was intended to be conciliatory and to rely on cease and desist orders for enforcement, its legal standards are set lower than in the Criminal Code; due process is missing, intent is not necessary to prove, and truth is not considered a defence for the accused.
The constitutionality of Section 13 was tested in 1990 in the Supreme Court’s Canada v. Taylor decision. A narrow split decision found that due to the CHRC’s remedial nature, it was not a threat to free speech. A dissenting opinion, however, written by current Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, worried that Section 13 was “too broad and too invasive” and so “intrudes on the fundamental freedom of expression.”
Since then, the scope of the CHRC has grown in many worrisome and unexpected ways. In particular, it can now levy fines and impose other punishments. And the CHRC staff has become fixated on aggressively pursuing Section 13 cases. Approximately 11 per cent of all complaints made to the CHRC are sent to a tribunal for a hearing. The rest are dismissed or settled “out-of-court.” Among Section 13 complaints, however, 68 per cent are sent to tribunal.
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