Battle over HRCs takes a unique twist
Liberal introduces motion to modify Human Rights Act,
while Tories told to stay quiet
Liberal MP Keith Martin has introduced a motion (M-446) in the House of Commons to strip the Canadian Human Rights Commission of its Section 13(1) powers to investigate and punish the lawful expression of opinions and facts.
That section of the Canadian Human Rights Act refers to ideas distributed by phone or internet that are “likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt by reason of the fact that that person or those persons are identified on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination,” such as religion, race, gender or sexual orientation.
Martin, a former Reform and Canadian Alliance MP who supports abortion and gay rights and who joined the Liberals when his party united with the Progressive Conservatives in 2003, says it is a matter of protecting genuine human rights. “Freedom of speech is a human right,” the MP for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, B.C. has repeatedly said. “People fought through two world wars to give us freedom of speech,” he told SooToday.com. He said a quasi-judicial government agency should not be in the business of censoring the media, religious leaders or the Canadian public.
Martin’s motion is the result of publicity over two high-profile human rights cases launched by Muslim activists: one against Ezra Levant, former publisher of The Western Standard, because his magazine republished the so-called Danish cartoons that offended some Muslims, and another against Maclean’s magazine and its editor/publisher Ken Whyte over an excerpt from Mark Steyn’s book, America Alone, which argued that Muslims are taking over the West. (The Levant case was abruptly dropped in mid-February.)
Other recent human rights cases include complaints by gay rights activists against Fr. Alphonse de Valk and Catholic Insight magazine, as well as leader Ron Gray and the Christian Heritage Party. For more than a decade, Christians who have expressed opinions contrary to the gay agenda have found themselves in front of provincial human rights commissions on complaints that their criticisms are tantamount to hate speech and could trigger hate crimes against homosexuals.
Martin said truly hateful speech that causes harm is subject to hate crime laws, with the legal system’s higher standards of evidence and presumption of innocence. “We have laws against hate crimes, but nobody has the right not to be offended,” he said. Section 13(1), he added, “is being used in a way that the authors of the act never intended.”
There are conflicting reports regarding Martin’s caucus colleague’s reactions. Martin says he was never approached by party leader Stephane Dion to drop his motion. He told journalist and blogger Deborah Gyapong, “There is enormous support within caucus and party lines.” However, the Victoria Times Colonist reported that Dion’s staff “confirmed” the leader wanted Martin to withdraw the motion.
Martin said he “introduced it and its going to stay there. It’s an important debate.”
In the House of Commons, NDP MP Wayne Marston (Hamilton East-Stoney Creek) asked Jason Kenney, secretary of state (multi-culturalism and Canadian identity), whether he and the government would condemn Martin’s “illogical” motion.
Kenney has spoken out numerous times against the infringements of freedom of the press, religion and expression that human rights commissions commit, but offered standard boilerplate on the House floor: “This government and this party believe in our constitutionally entrenched and protected rights to freedom of expression, freedom of speech and freedom of the press and we will always defend those freedoms.”
So does this mean the government will support Martin’s motion? Not quite.
A “talking points” memo issued from the office of Justice Minister Rob Nicholson directed MPs to remain non-committal on Martin’s motion. He told Conservative MPs to note that M-446 has yet to be debated and to state: “I can assure you that when this bill comes before the House for debate, I will follow it closely and will arrive at a position at that time.”
Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes said that “apparently, MPs are not allowed to have a pre-existing opinion” and wondered how, if at all, they will contribute to the debate if they cannot have an opinion about the issue until hearing the debate.
More seriously, Hughes condemned the Conservative government’s attempt to make MPs toe the line on the issue. He said their effort to not offend any voters will not win them any friends. “We want to hear where MPs stand on this fundamental issue of free speech and we note the irony of the Harper government silencing the free speech rights of its own caucus.”
The memo also instructed MPs to remain silent on the Levant and Steyn cases even if asked, and state: “It is inappropriate for me to comment on particular matters that might be before the Canadian Human Rights Commission or the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.” The Levant case, however, was not a federal complaint, but rather was filed with the Alberta Human Rights Commission.
Editorially, both of Canada’s national papers, the Globe and Mail and National Post, endorsed Martin’s bid to curb the powers of the federal human rights commission. Even the liberal Winnipeg Free Press backed the idea, stating, “Martin’s bill deserves the attention and support of Parliament.”
The Globe put it even more strongly. It is necessary for MPs to “stand up for a key tenet of democracy,” it said as it congratulated at least one of them, Keith Martin, for doing so.