Debating the CHRC's Ian Fine: "there can't be enough laws against hate"
I attended the Canadian Association of Journalists conference in Edmonton today, to speak on a panel about human rights commissions. Also on the panel was Keith Martin, the Liberal MP who has written a private member's motion to abolish the section 13 thought crimes provision, and Ian Fine, senior counsel at the CHRC.
The panel was moderated by Saleem Khan, who did an excellent job of keeping things orderly. (I admit that I was the only problem in that regard.)
The debate was taped by the public affairs cable channel, CPAC, but it obviously will be televised at a later date -- not live, as I had thought it might be. I'll let you know when it airs.
Martin went first, and he did a good job of outlining the problems with section 13. He spoke about how the issue came to his attention -- a student in his riding wrote to him and made a persuasive argument for reform. And he wrote about the encouraging support he's received from both Liberal and Conservative colleagues, though he did lament that Justice Minister Rob Nicholson has tried to bring a cone of silence over the Tory caucus on the matter.
I went next; I think I tried to jam too much into my opening ten minutes, and I think I was too focussed on micro-details, such as the details of Richard Warman's anonymous, bigoted posts, and the details of the Internet hacking case that has led to the RCMP investigation into the CHRC. It was the wrong approach because, for many of the people in the room, this was the first time they had a briefing on the subject of HRCs and censorship. I should have stuck more with a big picture introduction to the matter -- the forest, rather than trees, or even individual leaves, which are better done on a blog.
Fine went next. In the main, his remarks were a bland, prepared statement. But then he said two things that I just couldn't sit still for: he denied that the CHRC had hacked into a private citizen's Internet account, and he claimed that anyone in the country could file a human rights complaint over hate speech.
Both of those assertions are untrue, and I interrupted his speech to say so.
I brought up the case of Andrew Guille. Guille had filed a complaint with the CHRC against a leftist group that posted bigoted remarks on its website. But because Guille's brother and sister were disliked by CHRC staff, and because the leftist group was favoured by CHRC staff, the complaint was rejected. Here's the internal CHRC document showing this corruption; and here are my comments on it.
That was perhaps too minor a point to bring up at a public event where most people weren't briefed on the basics, but it was impossible for me to sit still when the CHRC's senior lawyer just plain old lied. On reflection, it's possible that Fine didn't lie; perhaps he simply didn't know what his staff were up to. That's possible on the Guille matter, but surely not so on other instances of CHRC misconduct. (I challenged him at least a half-dozen times about Warman's bigoted posts, even reading out one particularly vile one several times. Fine sat in silence -- what could he say?)
But when I challenged Fine's denial that the CHRC hacked into Nelly Hechme's Internet account, he pushed back, denying not only the fact of it, but the fact that Bell Canada had testified to that effect on March 25th.
This was pure insanity, and I said so. I pointed out that Fine might like those facts not to exist -- and the CHRC certainly tried to keep those facts under wraps, attempting to ban media from that hearing, and then refusing to release a transcript of it. But both things did indeed happen over the CHRC's objections.
Fine dug in, saying there wasn't a shard of evidence; I said I had the transcript of Bell's sworn testimony right in front of me, and that while he could lie to the unbriefed audience, he couldn't lie to me. He challenged me to read that portion of the transcript, right then and there.
So I did. The details of the hacked account, as described by the Bell Canada security officer, Alain Monfette, under oath, are on page 5645 and 5646:
...the user then was connected at that time was identified as B1CJSW59, which is related to a phone number [phone number], which the account is under the name of Nelly Hechme, H-e-c-h-m-e, and the address of the account working -- in fact, the address where the phone number is working is [address], Ottawa, Ontario. The postal code is K1R 1C8. And the account was connected from, in fact, from December 7th, 2006 at 18:36:22 Eastern Time to December 8th, 2006 at 21:35:56 Eastern Time.
I read that out. I don't think five people in the room knew what the hell I was talking about. But, dear reader, should I really have stayed silent when Fine denied a critical fact about the CHRC's corruption?
I just don't understand the CHRC's approach of total denial. How can they deny what Bell Canada testified to under oath? How can they deny what is written in black and white on the transcript? It's one thing to deny that those facts meet the high burden of proof to be a criminal offence -- fair enough; that's for police, and then the courts, to decide. But to deny that any evidence exists, at all? If that were the case, then why would the Privacy Commissioner and the RCMP be investigating the CHRC in the first place?
I pressed Fine; at least he didn't deny that they were under investigation. He ended by promising that all of the investigations would amount to nothing. But merely wishing upon a star that one's troubles will go away is not the same as having a legal defence, or even some sort of counterspin. It was a weird performance by the CHRC's senior lawyer. I suppose he's had a stressful few weeks having his staff grilled by police and privacy officers; he just wants those mean men to stop asking him mean questions.
When Fine got back to his script, one of his most execrable arguments was that "the world" had limits on free speech, and the United Nations had limits on free speech, and that Canada should be in synch with the world -- and not the anomaly of the United States. This is similar to what Dean Steacy, the CHRC investigator, has argued: that "freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don't give it any value."
Steacy made that fascist statement at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, the one place outside of North Korea where it is an unremarkable thing to say; Fine tried to sound slightly less totalitarian, suggesting that we take our cues on freedom of speech from the UN's human rights leaders like Russia, China and Iran. I suppose that's a step up from Steacy's approach to not give it "any" value.
At another point in the debate, I tried to show the absurdity of banning any hateful words through a law that doesn't permit legal defences like truth, fair comment or even common sense. I pointed out that Fine himself had given an interview with the National Post in which he read out a bigoted remark, namely: "a n*gger will try to kill you just for a slice of pizza or a piece of chicken ... By Aryan standards, negroes are dangerous animals".
Fine read that to show the kind of hate the CHRC wants to fight. But that explanation, which is reasonable, is not a legal defence. I jokingly said to Fine that, since he uttered a comment that is "likely" to expose someone to "hatred or contempt", I should file a section 13 complaint against him. I said it unseriously -- I was pointing out the ridiculously arbitrary and overreaching nature of the law. But -- and I'll want to check this again on CPAC -- he actually looked ashen when I said it, as if he agreed with me that he had broken the law, and was ashamed of it.
I think in that moment, I glimpsed what made Ian Fine tick: he has drunk the anti-hate industry's Kool Aid without a drop of skepticism. I think he genuinely thought, just for a moment, that I was serious when I said he was a bad man for having said the word n*gger, even in the context of anti-racism. I think he's been immersed in a groupthink environment, with zealots, where diversity of opinion, let alone criticism, is non-existent. I think he genuinely believes that his little anti-hate squad is saving Canada from turning into an Arctic version of Rwanda.
I think that's why he froze up when I pressed him on Richard Warman's online bigotry -- it just didn't compute for him; it doesn't make sense in his unified theory of the world. I think it's why he's in denial about the hacking charges. I think it's why he was silent when I pointed out that, without Warman's serial complaints, section 13 would fall into disuse -- surely a sign that Canada is not beset with the problems for which he offers himself as the solution.
I think it's a bit of a cult over there, and for thirty years no-one has dared to question them -- and the past four months has been terrible.
I'm not the only one to call the CHRC's self-image and world view "bizarre" -- Joseph Brean of the National Post used that exact same word in his story about Fine's first attempt to explain the CHRC's behaviour. In that interview, as in today's debate, Fine simply asserts that his critics are armed with "misinformation". Mere assertions don't pass for arguments, though -- except, of course, in the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which has given Fine a 100% conviction rate. I think Fine's wiring overheats when he is presented with dissonant information.
There was a stunning moment at the end of the debate. It caused groans in the audience, and both Martin and I quickly jotted it down to make sure we got it right: one journalist in the audience asked Fine not just to give the "official" line, but to tell the crowd what he personally thought about section 13 and other censorship. His answer: "there can't be enough laws against hate."
If Ian Fine had his way, section 13 wouldn't be abolished. It wouldn't even be maintained. It would be expanded. He said he wouldn't rest until there was "no hate" left.
Wow -- legislating an end to hate. Why not legislate an end to war, hunger and broken hearts, while you're at it?
That's nutty utopianism. Which is fine for old Marxists in universities. But it doesn't work so well when it's married to the power of the state -- the power to exact large fines, to issue lifetime publication bans and gag orders, and to grind respondents through years of abusive hearings.
I pointed out that there were plenty of Ian Fines in Weimar Germany in the 1930s, and that in fact, as Mark Steyn has reminded us, there were 200 hate speech trials in the pre-Nazi era. They didn't stop hate -- they gave hate a forum. And when Adolf Hitler took over, they gave Hitler a turn-key law to point at his enemies, too.
I'm not sure if I'm being too hard on myself; after every debate, I think of things I should have said but didn't, or did say but shouldn't have. It was an honour to be asked to speak on such a panel, and a surprise to be able to face such a senior officer of the CHRC.
I'm not sure exactly how much the audience learned; I think they heard fragments, not a coherent story. But they're journalists; if anyone can figure it out, they can. But what I learned is that the CHRC simply doesn't know how to handle its new, hostile political environment. A month after Brean's story of their "bizarre" media strategy, they're still using that same playbook: deny any corruption, despite an RCMP investigation; claim that freedom of speech is un-Canadian; and lust for more power, more social engineering, and limitless "laws against hate".
Fine's speech must have received high-fives around the CHRC office when he rehearsed it. What it lacked in intellectual rigour, it more than made up for in unquestioning certainty, and a lust for power. That would have appealled to the CHRC. But I think the journalists in that room left with a sense of unease.