December 19, 2007
Human Rights Commissions' Time has Passed
The Canadian Islamic Congress has just persuaded the Human Rights Commissions of British Columbia and the federal government to investigate complaints against Maclean's magazine and Canadian author Mark Steyn. Proceedings have also been initiated in Ontario. At issue is an excerpt published by Maclean's last year, from Steyn's bestselling book America Alone. According to the CIC, the excerpt exposed Canadian Muslims to "hatred and Islamophobia."
One of their representatives claims a loftier goal for the complaints, nothing less than to "protect Canadian multiculturalism and tolerance." This is a type of protection Canadian virtues can do without. If the Human Rights Commissions pursue this matter, the decision will confirm that such commissions are obsolete and should be abolished.
Provincial Human Rights Commissions were created in the 1970s with the best of intentions. In a society still marred by real bigotry, their mandate to advocate on behalf of victims without the means to seek justice made sense. In true Canadian fashion, these Commissions sought to redress discrimination without the acrimony that marked the civil rights movement in the United States.
Today's Canada is very different. Women and minorities are not kept out of universities by quota; on the contrary, many spots in professional programs are reserved for such groups. Minority religions have attained full recognition, as have the rights of those who practice no religion. In a country with Sunday shopping, abortion rights and same-sex marriage, it would be hard to argue that our nominal religious majority imposes restrictions on anybody. Canadians of all ethnicities, creeds and sexual orientations are guaranteed equal treatment under the law. Human Rights Commissions are vestigial organs, an historical correction that no longer serves any useful function.
Unfortunately, governments have difficulty admitting the obsolescence of existing programs. On the contrary, with so very few instances of actual discrimination, and the option of civil suits for those that may occur, these Commissions have taken on a new role. No longer do they seek just to defend legal rights, but to protect people's feelings. This is not an appropriate extension of state power.
Had Steyn or Maclean's advocated violence against Muslims or their property, they would quite rightly be facing criminal charges. They did nothing of the sort. Had they slandered any actual Canadian Muslims, or Muslim communities more broadly, they would be ripe targets for a civil suit. They did not. Because they committed no crimes and published no libelous material, they are rightly beyond the reach of the Canadian judicial system. Nor have Steyn's many critics, the vast majority of whom can express their disagreement without recourse to quasi-judicial bodies, been able to show that Steyn is actually wrong in the facts he cites while making his argument.
The Human Rights Commission, though, has the power to embroil Steyn and Maclean's in paperwork, to force them to pay for legal representation in this process, and even the power to fine them and force them to agree to terms satisfactory to the CIC. The CIC's real goal seems to be not justice, nor the pursuit of truth, but the abolition of public discourse that is critical of Islam. The organization has as much right as anyone else to promote absurd goals using democratic means, just as the Marijuana Party has the right to promote its offbeat agenda through accepted channels. Where this particular interest group parts company with other Canadians with bizarre ideas is in its attempt to force a new speech code into de facto law by using a Human Rights Commission to do its dirty work.
Legislatures accountable to Canadians would never sanction such flagrant suppression of free speech. The judiciary, constrained by law and preecdents, will not help the CIC achieve its goal. Human Rights Commissions, extra-judiciary groups unaccountable to voters, just might.
The law does not protect Canadians of any group from having their feelings hurt, or from reading things they find disagreeable. Our criminal codes protect all Canadians from actual hatemongering; the civil courts provide ample remedy for Canadians who find their reputations harmed by published or broadcast untruths. Those who can demonstrate actual harm suffered as a result of bigotry or discrimination are well protected by our judicial system.
Human Rights Commissions are obsolete bodies whose moment has passed. That they can be exploited by a narrow lobby seeking to impose its doctrine upon other Canadians is a serious problem. That the CIC can do so at the expense of Canadian taxpayers, while Macleans and Steyn must spend their own money to defend themselves, is a travesty of justice. Do we still need Human Rights Commissions, or have they outlived their usefulness to the point that they are used to inflict, rather than remedy, harm?
was the lead researcher on the Canadian Healthcare Consumer Index, and the lead Canadian researcher for the Euro Canadian Healthcare Consumer Index in 2007 and 2008. She has an MA in political history from the University of Manitoba.