Do We Still Need Human Rights Commissions?

Commentary, Role of Government, Rebecca Walberg

At the behest of a Calgary imam, Syed Soharwardy, the Alberta Human Rights Commission has opened a file to investigate the Western Standard. Soharwardy complained that he “suffered stress” because the newsmagazine reprinted the Danish cartoons of Mohammed that sparked widespread rioting in Europe and Asia last winter. If the Commission pursues the matter as a hate crime, it will confirm that such Commissions are obsolete and should be abolished.

Provincial Human Rights Commissions were created in the 1970s with the best of intentions. In a society still marred by real bigotry, their mission of advocating on behalf of victims without the means to seek justice made sense. In true Canadian fashion, these Commissions sought to redress discrimination without the acrimony that marked the civil rights movement in the United States.

But today’s Canada is very different. Women and minorities are not kept out of universities by quota; on the contrary, many spots in professional programs are reserved for such groups. Minority religions have attained full recognition, as have the rights of those who practice no religion. In a country with Sunday shopping, abortion rights and same-sex marriage, it would be hard to argue that our nominal religious majority imposes restrictions on anybody. Canadians of all ethnicities, creeds and sexual orientations are guaranteed equal treatment under the law. Human Rights Commissions are vestigial organs, an historical correction that no longer serves any useful function.

Unfortunately, governments have difficulty admitting the obsolescence of existing programs. On the contrary, with so very few instances of actual discrimination, and the option of civil suits for those that may occur, these Commissions have taken on a new role. No longer do they seek just to defend legal rights, but to protect people’s feelings. This is not an appropriate extension of state power.

Soharwardy objects to the Standard’s publication of the infamous cartoons, but that courageous action is the very definition of the journalistic purpose. As the pretext for deadly riots, they were a major news story. But citing fear of retribution from the Muslim community, very few media showed us the cartoons themselves. To its great credit, the Western Standard recognized the fatuity of discussing our response to the cartoons while hiding their nature.

Imam Soharwardy filed his complaint in nearly illegible, hand-scrawled writing. He claims direct ancestral descendance from Mohammed, and that insulting his ancestor causes him stress. He blames Ezra Levant, the Standard’s publisher, for propagating “hate mail,” examples of which are appended to the complaint, all of which predate the publication of the February issue containing the cartoons. The Alberta Human Rights Commission must now decide whether it will use taxpayers’ dollars to finance Imam Soharwardy’s nuisance suit. Needless to say, the cost of Levant’s defence will not be assumed by the public purse.

Had Levant or the Standard advocated violence against Muslims or their property, they would quite rightly be facing criminal charges. They did nothing of the sort. Had they slandered the imam personally, or his community more broadly, they would be ripe targets for a civil suit. They did not. Because they committed no crimes and published no libelous material, they are rightly beyond the reach of the Canadian judicial system.

The Human Rights Commission, though, has the power to embroil Mr. Levant in paperwork, to force him to pay for legal representation in this process, and even the power to fine Mr. Levant and force him to agree to terms satisfactory to the imam.

Soharwardy’s real goal seems to be the imposition of Islamic speech codes upon non-Muslims. He has as much right as anyone else to promote absurd goals using democratic means, just as the Marijuana Party has the right to promote their questionable agenda through accepted channels. Where the imam parts company with other Canadians with peculiar ideas is his attempt to force his views into de facto law by using a Human Rights Commission to do his dirty work. Legislatures accountable to Canadians would never sanction such flagrant suppression of free speech. The judiciary, constrained by law and precedents, will not help the imam achieve his goal. Human Rights Commissions, extra-judiciary groups unaccountable to voters, just might.

The law does not protect Canadians of any group from having their feelings hurt, or from reading things they find disagreeable. Our criminal codes protect all Canadians from actual hatemongering; the civil courts provide ample remedy for Canadians who find their reputations harmed by published or broadcast untruths. Those who can demonstrate actual harm suffered as a result of bigotry or discrimination are well protected by our judicial system.

Human Rights Commissions are obsolete bodies whose moment has passed. That they can be exploited by an imam seeking to impose his doctrine upon other Canadians is one problem. That he can do so at the expense of Canadian taxpayers, while his targets must spend their own money to defend themselves, is a travesty of justice.