Freedom's foes

  • April 24, 2008

{mosimage}If there is still any lingering scepticism among Canada’s opinion makers about the worrisome ambitions of the country’s human rights tribunals, it should be dispelled by the latest statement from Ontario Human Rights Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall.

In an April 9 statement, Hall announced that her commission had decided not to hold a hearing on a complaint against Maclean’s magazine for publishing excerpts of Mark Steyn’s book, America Alone, under the headline “The future belongs to Islam.” In the article, Steyn uses demographic statistics to argue that Muslims will soon control all of Europe, to the detriment of Western society. In response, complaints were laid before the federal, Ontario and B.C. Human Rights Commissions.

The Ontario commission decided it was not allowed by law to investigate the complaint as it has no jurisdiction over the content of articles in the media. That should have been the end of the matter. But not for Hall and her commission.

Instead, Hall went on to, well, essentially issue a verdict on the complaint. She described the article in Maclean’s “and others like it” as examples of racism and Islamophobia. “The Maclean’s article, and others like it, are examples of this,” Hall’s statement said. “By portraying Muslims as all sharing the same negative characteristics, including being a threat to ‘the West,’ this explicit expression of Islamophobia further perpetuates and promotes prejudice towards Muslims and others.”

This is a shocking statement for a supposedly disinterested public adjudicator to make on a contested issue. Even though there has been no hearing, no opportunity for in-depth examination and argument that would expose the offending article to the kind of scrutiny it would need to truly determine whether it is guilty as charged, Hall decides to tell the world that Maclean’s and Steyn are at fault.

She then argues that her commission has a duty, though there is nothing in legislation to support this, to leap into the fray of public debate on such issues and pursue them.

This is a scary thought for those who cherish free speech. As anyone who has run afoul of these thought police knows, the deck is stacked heavily against the defendant. Just ask Fr. Alphonse de Valk, editor of Catholic Insight. This tiny magazine has already spent $6,000 and countless hours of work to defend itself against accusations before the Canadian Human Rights Commission that it has printed material likely to stir up hatred against homosexuals. That may not be much to big publications, but for a small monthly magazine, it is an incredible hardship. And Fr. De Valk has not even been told whether this complaint will actually make it to the hearing stage. Meanwhile, complainants can rest comfortably in the knowledge that the tribunals pick up the legal tab on their behalf.

Those who believe strongly in religious freedom should be equally concerned about freedom of speech. Both are under serious attack in Canada in 2008.

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