Baby steps

  • November 27, 2008
{mosimage}Sometimes progress has to be measured in baby steps. Sometimes, it’s a bit of a dance, two steps forward, one step back. That’s how Canadians could view the state of free speech in this country. In late November, there was a bit of progress, along with evidence that one of our most cherished freedoms is still under assault.

We’ll get to that, but first a bit of backstory. Despite what you may think — and what our Charter of Rights and Freedoms says explicitly — freedom of speech has been eroded in recent years. Human rights tribunals, unaccountable quasi-judicial bureaucratic bodies charged with ensuring we all live in harmony, have been slowly expanding their turf. From originally being concerned with rooting out discrimination in job markets, housing and other essential parts of life, they have moved into adjudicating between various people who have found ways to offend each other with their words. Their rationale for moving in this area can be found in Sec. 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
The best known examples of public figures pilloried for saying unpopular things are Calgary Bishop Fred Henry and Maclean’s columnist Mark Steyn. Both were taken before human rights tribunals for writing articles that offended different groups — gays by Henry; Muslims by Steyn. There have been others less heralded: Fr. Alphonse de Valk, C.S.B., and Catholic Insight, for challenging same-sex marriage is only the most recent.

Human rights tribunals can be Kafkesque affairs and plaintiffs, even when they win, come out shaken and much poorer. For defendants there is no risk; they make the complaint and the tribunal takes it from there, covering costs, prosecuting and deciding. The result has been untold grief and expense for plaintiffs even when the complaints are rejected, as they were for Steyn and Catholic Insight (Henry’s was settled without a hearing while the Catholic Insight decision is being appealed).

Fortunately this injustice is now getting some proper recognition. The recent Conservative party convention in Winnipeg passed a resolution calling for the repeal of Sec. 13. A report for the Canadian Human Rights Commission, released Nov. 24, recommends the same action (see article on Page 3).

Meanwhile, the one step back occurred at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., where the administration has launched a team of speech busybodies — young people who eavesdrop on private conversations and butt in when the language veers out of the acceptably politically correct. It brings the notion of “thought police” to new levels.

But why should Christians care? After all, we are all in favour of being kind, sensitive and compassionate towards each other’s differences. We are all opposed to speech that incites hatred and violence against others. The danger lies in that Canada’s pluralistic society is rapidly becoming much less tolerant of our own traditions and beliefs. If our Constitution cannot protect our speech, our beliefs are subject to whatever wind blows from the self-appointed arbiters of proper thought. When we stand on guard for the free speech of others, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

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