Momentum for reform
Last week was my first visit back to the Ottawa since the election, and it was a great "sense check" on my hunch that there remains momentum for reform of Canada's human rights commissions. I had worried that the attempted putsch by the opposition coalition, and the important focus of the economy, had meant that reining in abusive and corrupt human rights commissions had fallen off the political radar of the government. I'm very pleased to report that all of the MPs and senior staff with whom I met were very alive to the issue, and were in fact working on keeping momentum going.
As I've written before, there is now a motion before the Justice Committee for reviewing the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and its censorship powers; there is also an internal Justice Department review; and there are plenty of MPs and senior staff not directly involved in that portfolio who continue to support reform. I was pleased to meet with a number of "freshmen" MPs -- ones who were just elected in October, and are still finding their feet -- and I was pleased with their command of the facts of this issue. We know that support for reform is wide -- 99% of delegates at the Conservative Party's convention in November supported repealing section 13, the censorship provision.
All of those I spoke with also saw the issue as a political winner -- not only with the Conservative party's base (both the libertarian and socially conservative wings) but also with other groups who have not traditionally be sympathetic to the party, but who love freedom of expression: artists and journalists, to name two groups. I have to agree -- other than hacks who collect a paycheque or a fat contract from HRCs, there really aren't a lot of people in Canada willing to stand up for censorship. It's so un-Canadian, people really have to be paid to support it.
That seems an appropriate segue to note two strong columns against HRCs' censorship powers. The first is from the Montreal Gazette, entitled "Another assault on press freedom". See -- how can you lose politically by being for press freedom? Here are some excerpts:
...[HRCs] certainly seem to have notions about free speech and a free press that are profoundly at odds with the traditions of Western democracy.
One of the worst of the lot is the Ontario Human Rights Commission, infamous for trying - and failing - to drag Maclean's magazine and writer Mark Steyn before its tribunal because some Muslims and a few law students claimed that an article Steyn wrote was offensive.
Last week this commission managed to outdo even that shabby misadventure, with a preposterous suggestion that every publication in the country, including "media services" websites, be required by law to belong to a national press council that could adjudicate breaches of professional standards and complaints of discrimination. Chillingly, the council would have the power to order offending media to publish its findings, along with counterarguments from complainants. And in a bit of verbal legerdemain that would make Big Brother wince, the commission claimed that this would not constitute censorship.
...If someone wants to start a rabidly partisan, scurrilous scandal sheet, that's fine with us, too. State-compelled norms of behaviour are censorship, not idealism.
The underlying problem here might be that liberty has once again run into one of its most formidable foes - the bureaucratic mind. Such minds recoil at the unruliness of the media - among other things - and won't rest until all participants in public discourse are fully regulated by government. They do all this "for the common good," of course.
But when they succeed, we can all kiss our precious freedoms goodbye.
And here's an Op-Ed in the Calgary Herald, written by Dan Shapiro of the liberal (in the best sense of that word) Sheldon Chumir Foundation, focusing on Alberta's provincial equivalent to section 13. Some excerpts:
It is time to amend Section 3 of the Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, which prohibits writing or saying anything that is "likely to expose" a person to "hatred or contempt."
Why? Because Section 3 casts far too wide a net and risks chilling legitimate expression on topics of importance to public discussion, such as gay marriage or Islamic terrorism.
...Freedom of expression should be given the widest legal scope possible because the effects of allowing human rights bureaucrats to determine what we are allowed to think and say are too ghastly to contemplate. Think Soviet Russia. Of course, Alberta today is nowhere near totalitarianism, but history has taught us that freedoms are fragile and vigilance has to be eternal.
The Chumir Foundation would amend the section, not abolish it. But the fact that they agree that it's a Soviet-style problem is all that matters to me right now -- we've got to dynamite the Alberta HRC out of its inertia, and crack it open to legislative reforms. I'm for pulling the weed out by its roots; others are for trimming it. That's a debate for later -- for now, we can all agree that changes are needed.
I love reading commentaries like these, especially in the newspapers of record in great cities like Montreal and Calgary. It happens so frequently these days, that I don't even always note it on my blog. What a difference from a year ago, when this national campaign for freedom of speech just began, and one had to scour the papers for any sign of progress. Now the progress comes daily -- not just in the media, but as my trip to Ottawa confirmed for me, in the halls of government, too.