Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

The Human Rights Commissions Debacle

October, 2008

Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value. (Dean Steacy, CHRC investigator, May 10, 2007) 

Human rights have become a weapon. A potent force for denunciation and defeat – not in the hands of the abused, but in the hands of the abusers. Those powerful few who know little – and want even less – of freedom or equality. (Anne Bayefsky, “Lethal Politics: Antisemitism as Human Rights.” July 6, 2008) 

Canadian Human Rights Commissions have been much in the news lately. And for good reasons. As long as their victims are obscure teachers, pastors or small businessmen with little financial clout, their misfortune receives little public attention. But when the human rights enforcers take on a highly public organization such as Maclean’s magazine, or a popular and prolific columnist such as Mark Steyn, sparks start to fly and many more begin to pay attention. 

Muslims Protest

Maclean’s was hauled before no fewer than three Human Rights Commissions (Alberta, B.C. and Canada), charged with violating the human rights of Muslims. This complaint resulted from the magazine’s decision to publish Steyn’s article, “The Future Belongs to Islam” an excerpt from his book America Alone.  The B C. Human Rights Commission conducted a hearing in early June where the chief complainant (Canadian Islamic Council president, Mohamed Elmasry) did not even bother to show up.  

The magazine insisted that it had merely exercised its constitutional freedom of the press. But it did not use this occasion to mount a vigorous defence by exposing the travesty of using human rights enforcement to destroy one of the basic freedoms enshrined in Canadian law. (Perhaps it expected that the farcical nature of the hearing itself would prove that these charges were totally groundless.) 

Mark Steyn has not allowed himself to be intimidated and silenced. In fact, he managed to get at the heart of the issue at stake in this dispute when he summarized his position:  

Just for the record, my book is not about Islam, not really. Rather, it posits Islam as an opportunist beneficiary of Western self-enfeeblement. The most important quotation in the entire text is…a bald statement by the late historian Arnold Toynbee: ‘Civilizations die from suicide, not murder.’ (Maclean’s, January 14, 2008) 

The pace of publicity picked up when the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission (AHRCC) decided to prosecute Ezra Levant, a Calgary-based lawyer. While serving as the publisher of the now defunct Western Standard, Levant reproduced the Danish cartoons in February 2006. 

The Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities, and Syed Soharwardy, a Calgary imam, launched a human rights complaint against Levant. Rather than meekly accepting the findings of the AHRCC, Levant fought back with gusto. (Soharwardy later abandoned his complaint, explaining that he had changed his mind – though he offered no reimbursement for Levant’s extensive costs.) 

Here was a publicity-savvy, articulate and fearless defender of his freedom as a Canadian citizen. And when Levant finally had his turn before a Human Rights officer, he proceeded not only to defend his rights as a free citizen, but he argued that there is no basis in law for the very existence of these misnamed state agencies. He followed this up by using the Internet to broadcast his reasoned opposition to this abuse of governmental powers. (www.ezralevant.com) 

A Strange Place Indeed

Almost two years after Soharwardy had lodged his complaint, Levant appeared before a human rights officer who conducted a 90-minute interrogation. He wrote about his impressions of that encounter under the heading: “What a Strange Place Canada is.” (Globe and Mail, January 21, 2008). After asking Levant what his intention and purpose of the offending article was, he reported: 

Officer McGovern said it as calmly as if I had asked her what time it was…. It was so banal, so routine. When she walked in, she seemed happy. With a smile, she reached out her hand to shake mine. I refused – to me, nothing could have been more incongruous. Would I warmly greet a police officer who arrested me as a suspect in a crime? Then why should I do so for a thought crime? This was not normal; I would not normalize it with the pleasantries of polite society. 

This was not a high-school debating tournament where Human Rights Officer McGovern and I were equals, enjoying a shared interest in politics and publishing…. I told her that the complaint process itself was a punishment. Even if I was eventually acquitted, I would still lose – hundreds of hours, and tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills. That’s not an accident, that’s one of the tools of these commissions. Every journalist in the country has been taught a lesson: Censor yourself now, or be put through a costly wringer…. 

One of the complainants against me is someone I would describe as a radical Muslim imam, Syed Soharwardy. He grew up in the madrasses of Pakistan and he lectures on the Saudi circuit. He advocates sharia law for all countries, including Canada. His website is rife with Islamic supremacism  offensive to many Canadian Jews, gentiles, women and gays. But his sensitivities - his Saudi-Pakistani values  have been offended by me.

And so now the secular government of Alberta is enforcing his fatwa against the cartoons. 

Levant concluded his opening remarks with this ringing declaration: “But it is not I who am on trial: it is the freedom of all Canadians.” 

“A Hollow Victory”

On August 1 the AHRCC issued a “confidential report …not for distribution except to the parties of the complaint,” etc., in which it announced that it has dismissed the complaint against Ezra Levant.  

 It is hard to believe that a government agency deciding issues of significance for every Canadian citizen would attempt to keep its decisions out of the public domain. Such secrecy cannot be legal. It ends up looking foolish and sinister, removing any doubt about its true, menacing presence on the Canadian political landscape.   

In any case, Levant blithely ignored this instruction. And promptly wrote a blistering commentary, published in the National Post, entitled “A Hollow Victory.”  He confirmed that he had been acquitted of illegal discrimination in a case that had cost the taxpayers more than $500,000, involving 15 bureaucrats at the Alberta Human Rights Commission, while the cost to him and the former magazine is $100,000. 

He felt no joy or gratitude for this exoneration, though he is happy to be done with this malicious prosecution. But he resents having been forced through this costly and lengthy ordeal. Besides, the decision, based on the advice of the Human Rights director Pardeep S. Gundara, can still be appealed to the AHRCC’s Chief Commissioner. Presumably that would also be at no charge to the appellants. 

If this had been brought in a civil court, the judge would order the losing parties to pay his legal bills, but now they did not have to pay him any of his costs. Levant writes that the secular Alberta government allowed one of its agencies to be hijacked by Islamists whose feelings have been hurt. 

Levant then analyzes the gist of what he terms Gundara’s  breathtakingly arrogant document.” The latter writes that the cartoons are “stereotypical, negative and offensive,” but the offensiveness is “muted by the context of the accompanying article.” Furthermore, Western Standard had published letters for and against in a subsequent issue. The Human Rights director also decided in favour of acquittal because “ the cartoons were not simply stuck in the middle of the magazine with no purpose or related story.”  

Rather than gratefully accepting this acquittal and quietly walking away, as many might have done, Levant explains: 

Let me translate: You’d better be “reasonable” in how you use your freedoms, or you won’t be allowed to keep them. You’d better not run political cartoons “simply stuck in the middle” of a magazine. You’d better have a “purpose” for being “negative” that is approved by a bureaucrat, when he finally gets around to it three years later. 

This is Canada

Levant writes that he has no interest in Gundara’s views about the cartoons. He is not interested in his opinions about what editors can or cannot publish because this is Canada and not Saudi Arabia. He sums up: 

My dismissal is not a victory for freedom of the press: Alberta’s press is not free –it is now subject to the approval of the government. But Canadians have the right to a free press in spite of the government. We have the right to break every one of Gundara’s petty and subjective rules. 

Levant then asks why the AHRCC did not acquit the Rev. Stephen Boissoin, a Red Deer minister, for writing a controversial letter about homosexuality in the local paper. This letter met all the conditions prescribed by Gundara. The difference is that Levant is a “political pain in the neck for the HRC,” whereas Rev. Boissoin was quiet and so he  becomesroadkill. But neither of us are free – we both have to have our views checked out by the government.” 

Levant concludes with information that cannot be described other than shocking. He writes that two years ago the HRC told him that if he paid a few thousand dollars and gave them a page in his magazine, he would go scot-free. He writes: 

Most victims of the HRCs accept deals like that, and it’s certainly cheaper than a 900-day fight. But getting the approval of the HRC’s censor is morally no better than their shakedown attempt. Whether I have to pay off a radical imam or appease a meddling bureaucrat, it’s still an infringement on our Canadian liberties. 

 It takes extraordinary courage and a large dose of stubbornness to stand up to the bullies of the so-called human rights commissions. Not surprisingly, Levant has made a lot of enemies in certain circles. Many have accused him of being arrogant, a self-promoter and publicity seeker. The trouble with Canada is that it suffers from a shortage of people like Ezra Levant, who can read the signs of the time and refuse to sell their souls for a mess of pottage.  

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