A thousand bloggers and a hundred columnists and talk show hosts have criticized the CHRC in recent months. Of course, there have been a few ad hominem criticisms, but that's not what has motivated the CHRC's serious critics, like Keith Martin, PEN Canada or the Canadian Association of Journalists, just to name a few. They have been motivated by a concern about the commission's unlimited war against freedom of speech and the corrupt and abusive tactics the commission uses to prosecute that war. The CHRC's critics have made serious moral, legal and political arguments.
But what is the first response of Ian Fine, the CHRC's "senior general counsel and director-general of dispute resolution"? It's the same as the CHRC's embarrassing (and failed) legal argument to keep the March 25th hearing secret from the public: no appeal to law or logic, but a solipsistic whine. "Ignore all of the arguments you've been hearing from mere mortals," the CHRC is saying. "Instead, let's talk about our feelings -- they've been hurt by rude e-mails!" It didn't work as a legal argument, and it's not working as a PR strategy.
"Savage commie Jews hate European beauty and nobility," he said, quoting a prominent violator of Canada's most controversial hate speech law, and disabled people are "parasites," "incognizant primates," "genetic throwbacks" and "lesser beasts that must be culled from the herd."
He quoted another to the effect that "a nigger will try to kill you just for a slice of pizza or a piece of chicken ... By Aryan standards, negroes are dangerous animals" and should be presumed guilty of crimes.
Oh, I agree that's pretty rude stuff. But I immediately thought -- as I'm sure Brean did, and as I'm sure you do, dear reader -- that when it comes to anonymous, typo-ridden bigotry sent over the Internet, there's a pretty fair chance it was written by the CHRC's own staff to suit their purposes. Again, three months ago even I wouldn't have believed that -- it just sounds too much like a black helicopter/tin foil hat conspiracy theory. But that was before I learned about the corruption of the CHRC, and how their operatives like Dean Steacy, Richard Warman and others go online and spew the filthiest venom under pseudonyms. That's what the privacy investigation is about. You'd think that the CHRC would try out a new angle, now that their old trick has been so exposed and discredited. But I don't think they have any other tricks, other than smearing any of their critics by associating them with bigotry. Don't they know that they're the ones who have to redeem their own credibility from the tarnish put on it by Stormfront members Steacy, Warman and others? The lack of self-awareness is epic. I love it.
It was the most bizarre moment in an unusual conference call with three senior CHRC staff, who had mustered for the beleaguered agency's first public relations offensive, a calculated effort to rebut the "misinformation" that is turning some public opinion against them, and inspiring high-level demands that their powers be severely curtailed.
I love that: "it was the most bizarre moment". It's sort of like Rick Mercer's rant. In politics, when the media start to laugh at you -- or call you bizarre -- it's the beginning of the end.
"The reality is we read the papers. We know about the current debate, we know the parameters, if you will," Mr. Fine said. "If you think that we're concerned, upset, from time to time discouraged with some of what we've been hearing and reading in the press, you're right, we are. Because to be quite clear about it, we do believe in what we do. We believe that in our society there should be limits on freedom of expression and freedom of speech, that there is a line, not one that we draw, but one that must be drawn nevertheless. We are comfortable with what we do."
More solipsistic psychobabble. Fine and his crack PR team was dispatched to rebut the CHRC's critics, but he just can't help himself -- he wants to talk about his feelings instead. He's concerned, upset, discouraged, etc. In truth, I'm glad to hear it -- one of the goals of denormalization is to make working at an HRC an embarrassing occupation, sort of like dog-catcher, but less useful. But I'm wondering: is there anyone who works at the CHRC who doesn't turn any conversation into a Dr. Phil episode about their feelings? How about a discussion -- from the commission's "senior counsel" -- about the constant violation of the rule of law at the CHRC? Or would that violate Fine's "serenity"?
This confident defensiveness was the general tone of the interview with Mr. Fine and his colleagues Monette Maillet, director of legal advisory services and a top Section 13 litigator, and Harvey Goldberg, senior policy advisor on hate speech, disability and First Nations issues.
"Confident defensiveness". I love that. I'd say "arrogant, emotionally-unmoored defensiveness", but I'm not a straight-laced reporter.
But to judge from the two times they muted their line for private discussions about what they should or should not say, and from the conspiratorial whispering that could be heard in the background during the call, their confidence masked deep concern for the CHRC's public reputation.
I admit that I'm no master spin doctor -- maybe a spin intern -- but I have a hunch that whispering amongst yourselves while a reporter is on the phone with you might not be projecting the image of an accountable government agency with nothing to hide. Muting the call twice, though, is just priceless. I wonder if Brean was in silence, or if some music played in the background? Or maybe an audio book by Deepak Chopra? Brean doesn't tell us how long he was on hold. Was it long enough for the three CHRC staff to have a fight? Or was it not to have a fight -- but to console each other and gather strength? We'll never know.
That reputation has taken a beating in the past few weeks. Calls for the abolition or reform of the federal and provincial human rights commissions have grown as hate speech laws designed for racist propagandists have been used against mainstream journalists, notably the staff of Maclean's magazine, who are accused of Islamophobic hate messages by the Canadian Islamic Congress for, among other things, columns and a book review.
Mark Steyn, author of the most controversial Maclean's story, calls the commissions "kangaroo courts." Ezra Levant, who is defending himself against a hate speech charge for publishing the Danish Muhammad cartoons, has been leading a campaign of what he calls "denormalizing" the commissions, making them seem an affront to Canadian values, rather than a buttress.
And that's the point, isn't it? Forty years ago, these commissions were touted as a shield to protect our rights. Now they've become a sword to violate our rights. Canadians are figuring that out. The turbo-smugness from the CHRC doesn't soothe public anger, it inflames it.
The debate has even reached Parliament, where Liberal MP Keith Martin has proposed stripping the federal commission of the mandate to investigate hate speech, a goal that is supported by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
These critics have in turn inspired defenders, some of whom take the same shrill, sarcastic tone as the harshest blogging critics, and others, such as Michael Noonan, CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, who in an earnest op-ed this week took the side of the Maclean's complainants and compared the commissions' work to the liberation of South Africa.
Brean says that Noonan's Op-Ed was "earnest". I love that. It reminds me of a story my old boss John O'Sullivan told: he went to a theatrical production put on by his friend, and the play was awful. What could he say that was both honest but diplomatic? He chose: "you've done it again!" with a beaming smile and a strong handshake. Yes; "earnest" is both honest and diplomatic when describing Noonan.
At issue is Section 13.1 of the Human Rights Act, which makes it an offence to communicate by phone or Internet any message that is "likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt."
Question: do you think that the CHRC, and its violations of our constitution, our privacy rights, and norms of natural justice -- in the name of human rights -- causes a net increase or net decrease in "hatred" in this country?
As a workload issue, it is insignificant, making up just 2% of the CHRC's work, far less than employment or housing disputes. As a reflection of the commission's priorities, however, it is top of the agenda, and for critics, it is the thin edge of the wedge.
"Freedom of expression is the lifeblood of any free and open society and the commission embraces freedom of expression," Mr. Goldberg said.
Hang on. Is this the same Harvey Goldberg who wants to censor the Internet -- including foreign websites? Is this the same Harvey Goldberg who supervises, with approval, Dean "freedom of speech is an American concept so I don't give it any value" Steacy? Goldberg's lying, of course. Which, besides being revealing as to his character, is a PR strategy that only further erodes his credibility. But I guess it's better than the "mid-life crisis/public meltdown" approach to communications that Fine and Giacomo Vigna have tried.
"I think if you remove all the rhetoric, at the base of the debate that's been going on ... is a centuries-old debate about the appropriate role of the state in limiting freedom of expression in certain precise areas."
He said the view of the Supreme Court, which has held that Section 13.1 is a justifiable infringement of the right to free expression, is "actually the predominant view among most of the states of the world.
Here, at least, Goldberg is half-right. The Supreme Court of Canada did indeed inspect section 13, and in the narrowest split decision, let it pass. But they did so when the facts were such that there was "little danger that subjective opinion as to offensiveness will supplant the proper meaning [of hate speech]". Does the CHRC really think that their prosecution of Maclean's magazine fits into the very limited window of censorship permitted by the SCC? Luckily, in Maclean's, we have a victim of the HRCs with enough money and legal talent to take their case all the way to the SCC, on the facts that exist today -- an out of control, abusive CHRC that will run rampant until it's stopped by some grown-ups.
The view in the United States [that the right to free speech is near-absolute] is really a minority view."
He's right again, regrettably. For every one United States, there are a dozen Zimbabwes, North Koreas and Saudi Arabias. I'm not sure if being in synch with the "majority" of nations in the world is what we should aspire to in Canada, but it's not surprising that's Goldberg's test. The CHRC already has third-world-style corruption in its investigations and prosecutions, so why not third-world standards of freedom?
Vulgar racists of the sort quoted by Mr. Fine are one thing, but main-stream conservative polemicists such as Mr. Steyn or publishers such as Mr. Levant seem to be of a different order, and it is on this point that the commission staff were most evasive.
Calling the CHRC a "creature of statute," Mr. Fine said it can do no more and no less than what the law provides. He suggests any complaints be directed to Parliament.
Again, I agree that our complaints should be directed to Parliament -- and to the Privacy Commissioner and other grown-ups, where appropriate. But Fine is misleading readers when he claims that the CHRC has no discretion. It plainly does have the power to decide what cases it can or can't prosecute. If a hateful bigot happens to be a CHRC staffer or friend, no charges are laid. And if a complainant is an enemy of a CHRC staffer or friend, they'll ignore the complaint, too. And is it really the will of Parliament that every complaint in the past four years should come from one person -- a former employee of the commission itself? That's not just discretion, that's running the commission like a personal score-settling machine -- and a tax-free ATM for Richard Warman.
"Just as Parliament has bestowed on the commission the mandate, in fact the obligation, to deal with Section 13 cases, Parliament can take that power away at any time," he said.
Likewise, the common complaint that respondents are on the hook for their own defence bills, while complainants have their cases argued by the commission, is dismissed as beyond the commission's sphere of influence.
"We don't set the rules. It's for Parliament to decide whether or not respondents should have the ability to recover costs," Mr. Fine said.
Again, that's true -- Parliament is ultimately to blame for this abomination. But it is the commission's choice to grind defendants into powder in cases that take three, four, five -- or twenty-five -- years to resolve.
Hanging over the entire debate is the spectre of Richard Warman, a former CHRC employee turned activist who was the complainant in all but two of the 13 hate speech cases decided by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which decides cases that cannot be mediated or settled by the commission.
"Anyone can file a complaint, so from our perspective, that's the end of the matter," Mr. Fine said.
But that's not quite true. The CHRC's own published policy states that the commission cannot initiate complaints. But Warman's complaints -- such as in the Lemire case -- were filed by him when he worked at the commission. And, as above, it's not true that anyone can file a complaint. If Warman or Steacy don't like you, they won't take your complaint. Or -- as in Lemire's own rejected complaint -- it will be rejected if it's filed using a newfangled double-sided fax machine.
The best part of Fine's last comment, though, isn't his fibs. It's that he declares, with a straight face, that his answer about Warman's abuses of the system are "the end of the matter". Right -- just like Warren Kinsella pronounced the this whole debate was done a month ago. Uh, no it ain't.
"The tribunal decisions speak for themselves."
Ms. Maillet added that the 100% conviction rate for hate speech cases that have reached the tribunal is not a sign of a flawed system, but a testimony to the commission's efficiency.
"To me, it is a sign that we have done a good job in screening complaints, and referring those cases to tribunal that have merit," Ms. Maillet said.
She's doing a great job, if she does say so herself! Even dictatorships like Cuba and Saudi Arabia occasionally have an acquittal -- or at least a pardon -- just to provide an occasional piece of "evidence" that their courts are not rigged. Perhaps they never thought they could get away with Maillet's chutzpah. Hell, Saddam Hussein should have simply argued that his 99% support in his "elections" were because he had "done a good job". As spin doctors go, Maillet ranks right up there with Comical Ali.
The only question the trio completely rebuffed, because it is the subject of a tribunal hearing, was about the commission's online investigatory techniques. They are the subject of controversy -- even a complaint to police -- after it was revealed last week that CHRC investigators apparently hijacked a private citizen's Internet account to access a Web site they were investigating.
"We believe that the processes we've employed in these cases are appropriate, and that's about all I think I can say on that issue," Mr. Fine said.
Oh come on now. By this point in the conference call, Fine was clearly not even trying anymore. There's a Privacy Commission investigation, and a complaint to the police, and Fine's best parry, like Maillet's, is to just deny that Allied tanks have entered Baghdad?
Despite the reticence on major questions, it was clear that the free speech criticism is familiar to the CHRC's top operatives, and they are confident their efforts are in line with the modern conception of human rights as interdependent, interrelated, and never absolute. As Mr. Goldberg described it, their work is a "balancing act."
"Hatred is as old as the world," he said. "Hate on the Internet is just one aspect of hate activity that goes on in the world, and it's not something we expect is going to end tomorrow, but that's not a reason why we stop trying to deal with it."
Hate is as old as the world -- or at least as old as humanity. Because it's a human emotion. But I thought that the CHRC was simply trying to eradicate "hate messages" or "hate speech" -- peaceful expressions of that emotion. Are Goldberg and company actually trying to rewire human personality, and eradicate the emotion of hate altogether?
These guys are indeed on a planet of their own. I hope they do a lot more of these "damage control" conference calls, and maybe even an appearance before a Parliamentary Committee or two. Hell, give these clowns an hour of prime time TV -- I'll chip in a few bucks for the airtime, though they could clearly find it in their bloated budget.
There's only so much denormalization that bloggers can do, or even mainstream news reports can do. The truly damaging stuff can only come from the commission themselves. I hope -- and think -- we're going to hear a lot more of it in the months ahead.