The Parliament Building in Quebec City Christophe Finot/Wikipedia Creative Commons

Quebec bill looks to expand powers of its human rights commission

By 
  • September 3, 2015

OTTAWA - A Quebec bill that would give the province’s human rights commission expanded powers will only “amplify” these powers at a time when many are calling for a curbing of these commissions, critics say.

Bill 59, tabled in June, would allow the human rights commission to launch its own investigations into web sites or individuals it deems guilty of inciting violence or hatred against identifiable groups. It would also follow up on complaints from individuals who are not part of the group in question and allow complainants to remain anonymous. It would give the commission the power to shut down web sites or even Facebook accounts and other forms of expression before an investigation is completed.

Catholic Civil Rights League executive director Christian Elia said he is deeply concerned by the bill, now in public hearings.

“There doesn’t seem to be a place for this in a Western democracy,” he said. “It’s rather disconcerting to say the least.”

The rights league has already been “highly critical” of human rights commissions, both federal and provincial, where individuals and groups have been used by people to shut down opinion they do not like, Elia said. The new Quebec bill is “much worse,” because it “gives the power to the state and other quasi-judicial bodies to initiate the process.”

“It’s one thing when one party uses human rights commissions the way they have been used. All of a sudden you have it amplified.”

A number of newspaper columnists and editorials both inside Quebec and outside have criticized Bill 59, among them the Toronto Sun’s Tarek Fatah who said the bill risks silencing Muslims like himself “who have struggled all of our lives to expose the perils of Islamism.”

However, Anne Leahy, an adjunct professor at Montreal’s McGill University, sees the bill as “a political necessity, given the context right now.” That context goes back to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission hearings on “reasonable accommodation” in Quebec and the “fears and misunderstandings” people expressed. Heated language continues on talk radio and in other venues, she said.

“Given that a bill is necessary, and I’m sorry it is, on the question of protection against heinous language, most important for me is that Quebec sticks to accepted international law,” she said. “The wording in the bill does this.”

Leahy, who served as a career Canadian diplomat, including as Canadian Ambassador to the Holy See, said there is pressure coming from some Muslims in Quebec to have Bill 59 include “protection for Islam” and to “enshrine the concept” against defamation of religion. She is satisfied the bill strikes the right balance in this area.

Marc Lebuis, founder of the French-language web site pointdebascule.ca, which reports on Canadian groups and leaders who are affiliated with radical Islamist organizations, said the new bill does not define “hate speech” or “inciting violence.” Just as Mark Steyn was cited in human rights complaints for quoting an imam based in Norway, Lebuis said the law would make him and his web site vulnerable for truthfully quoting what Islamists say.

“Can we continue to operate in Quebec if an anonymous complaint or even the human rights commission decides that what I have written when I have quoted somebody offends somebody else?” he said. The penalty could be tens of thousands of dollars, he said, and his site could be closed down even before a finding.

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