Shaking up Canada's human rights commissions
Shakedown: How Our Government is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights
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Reviewed by Dan Shapiro, Policy Analyst, Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership
How Our Government is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights
By Ezra Levant
Published by McClelland & Stewart
Ezra Levant, accused of violating human rights law for publishing the infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, has written a book which tells of his experiences in the maw of the Alberta Human Rights Commission and makes a principled case for better protecting freedom of speech in Canada.
Using rulings from several jurisdictions, Shakedown: How Our Government is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights,depicts Canada’s Human Rights Commissions (HRC) as a “grievance industry,” – a weed, you might say – soaking up taxpayer dollars to combat fictitious discrimination.
And Levant yields his weed wacker with abandon: rather than pruning out only some of the Commissions’ powers, he indiscriminately razes the flower bed itself.
If you are a “pruner,” you will be convinced - as I am - that the hate speech provisions in federal and provincial human rights acts should be repealed. If you are a “weeder,” you’ll favour abolition of all HRCs. Levant’s case for the former is sound, but he fails on the second front.
It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that, in a democratic society, a right to “not be offended” cannot exist, and no one’s religious beliefs should be insulated from criticism. It also should go without saying that HRCs should not have the power to oversee the editorial decisions of newsmagazines.
Whether or not Levant needed to publish the cartoons in order to comment on a major news story - the riots in response to the cartoons - is beside the point. What was at issue was his right to publish free from government interference. The fact that Levant faced two complaints before Alberta’s HRC for publishing a news story is outrageous. He writes that the process cost him $100,000, lasted 900 days, and employed 15 government bureaucrats.
Indeed, one of Levant’s most powerful arguments against HRCs is that the process is punishment in itself. While complainants do not pay costs (unless they feel compelled to hire legal counsel, which many do), respondents pay no matter the outcome. Even the threat of a nuisance complaint is enough to chill legitimate speech on controversial issues and is thus an unconscionable restriction on freedom of speech. Levant is right: the speech provisions have to go.
As he correctly writes, free speech is a powerful weapon in the hands of the weak. For example, civil rights movements would have been impossible without the power of speech to offend the moral and legal status quo. But free speech must be for everyone: we must protect the right of those even at the margins to express unpopular opinions without fear of being silenced by an “offended” majority (except, perhaps, speech which is addressed by the Canadian Criminal Code, such as advocacy of genocide). In a choice between “individuals using their freedom of speech hurtfully and an all-seeing Big Brother watching our words and thoughts,” I will, like Levant, take the former every time.
Since posting a video of his Alberta HRC interview online, Levant has been waging - and winning - a public relations battle with Canada’s HRCs. He and other HRC critics’ exposure of corrupt practices at the federal level, which include bureaucrats hacking a private citizen’s internet connection and posting illegal hate speech online to entrap racists, are shocking examples of the need for closer scrutiny of Commission practices.
Some of the more bizarre HRC incidents and rulings he documents expose a pressing need to implement better processes and more formal legal procedures. Unfortunately, by emphasizing the bizarre Levantobscures the fact that most HRC complaints concern employment discrimination (more than 80%) and not speech (typically 1 to 3%) and are resolved without going to a Tribunal. Most also result in fairly simple remedial judgments, such as reinstatement to a job denied because of gender or another protected ground.
The lack of any references documenting Levant’s extensive research makes this obfuscation difficult for the average reader to notice. Moreover, his use of loaded terms such as “kangaroo courts” and “interrogators” furthers his agenda but must be taken with a grain of salt. His argument that it’s time to get rid of HRCs as 1960s “relics” glosses over the persistent reality of everyday discrimination in Canada.
Shakedown is nevertheless a deeply troubling book: it exposes the threat to freedom of speech posed by some HRCs. The book is also testament to how much a motivated - and rightly angry - citizen can move public opinion in the internet age when he feels his rights to free speech and natural justice have been violated. Shakedown is proof of the power and importance of free speech.
But Levant’s claim that the days of mainstream racism, sexism and homophobia are over is false. His stated intent to “denormalize” the HRCs by focusing solely on their warts obscures this fact.
Dan Shapiro is a research associate with the Calgary-based Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. The Foundation recently released Toward Equal Opportunity for all Albertans: Recommendations for Improvement of the Alberta Human Rights Commission.