- Shakedown: How Our Government Is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights
Human rights are on the Canadian public agenda as never before. In particular, human rights commissions (HRCs)—the official bodies established to enforce federal and provincial rights codes—have recently been facing scrutiny, challenge, and even ridicule. On 11 November 2008, the chief of the federal Canadian HRC laid a wreath at the National War Memorial in Ottawa and her participation was denounced by Globe and Mail columnist Rex Murphy. Our soldiers fought and died for our liberties, Murphy complained, and because HRCs are today "bulldozing away at the basic freedoms," the presence of the Chief Commissioner at a Remembrance Day ceremony was deemed offensive.1 Another columnist has described the Canadian HRC as "an investigative arm headed by Inspector Clouseau, who testifies in a court presided over by the Red Queen."2 Rick Mercer, probably Canada's best-known comedian, has dedicated one of his famous "rants" on CBC television to the derision of HRCs.3 Quality public broadcasters have hosted debates on the question of how and even whether human rights should be protected.4 When the American Political Science Association was planning its 2009 annual meeting, to be held in Toronto, the council was presented with a petition warning that Canada "is subject to a reign of terror due to the excesses of human-rights commissions," and demanding assurances from the Canadian government that academic freedom would be protected for visiting political scientists.5 Most consequentially for public policy, the newly-elected leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party had as a major campaign promise that he would abolish the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal and assign any incidents of rights violations to the criminal courts.6 The Party is in opposition at the moment, but the winner, Tim Hudak, could be the next premier of Ontario.
Something, obviously, is wrong. Ezra Levant, a Calgary lawyer, journalist and frequent agitator for right-wing causes, [End Page 198] claims to have found the roots of the problem. HRCs were established to counter discrimination, but according to Levant, discrimination no longer exists and so the commissions do not have any valid functions. Instead commission staff, to keep their jobs, invent and enforce new rights and new categories of violation that trespass on the very fundamental rights and freedoms they were created to protect. In addition, certain individuals, some of them former commission personnel, lay spurious complaints and then collect "damages" for their hurt feelings. Levant calls them "complainers of fortune." Finally in Levant's argument, fundamentalist Muslims are using HRCs as part of a "soft Jihad," laying complaints against anyone who seems to show disrespect for Islam. He derives this analysis from his own encounter with the Alberta HRC in an episode beginning in early 2006.
In September 2005, the Danish journal Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons representing, and allegedly defaming, the Prophet Muhammad. Following an international tour by some disgruntled imams, mass riots erupted in parts of the Muslim world, Danish flags and embassies were torched, and over a hundred people were killed.7 Disgusted that the mainstream press censored itself by declining to reveal the cartoons, Levant published them in his fortnightly journal The Western Standard (circulation 40,000, now defunct) on 13 February 2006. The cartoons and their aftermath constituted "the biggest news story of the day," he insisted, "and we're a news magazine."8 Almost immediately a part-time imam in Calgary, Syed Soharwardy, filed a formal complaint and Levant was charged under Section 3 of the provincial Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act,9 which makes it illegal to publish any statement, notice, sign, symbol, emblem, or other representation that might be "likely to expose" a person "to hatred or contempt."
Thus it was that after a 900 day investigation, involving fifteen staff members and costing taxpayers $500,000 (Levant's figures), and after refusing a "plea bargain" that would involve his paying several thousand dollars as "damages" to...