The Manitoba Human Rights Commission has, for four years now, been weighing a complaint against the B’nai Brith of Canada for comments made in a workshop on terrorism and radical Islam that it sponsored in Winnipeg. The commission has not told the national Jewish advocacy group precisely what were the offending statements, who said them or who, indeed, was offended. The complainant argued, based on what she was told of the seminar, that Muslims were stereotyped as likely terrorists.
Shahina Siddiqui complained that the bias displayed at the 2004 workshop for security officials and emergency responders would encourage “racial profiling” by police and others. The complaint noted the speakers’ topics included “Islam 101 and the five pillars”; “Definitions: Fundamentalism/Islamist”; Islamist political and terrorist networks in North America.” B’nai Brith does not know what exactly offended someone, or whether in fact the conclusions were those solely of Ms. Siddiqui.
The time taken by the commission to mull over the complaint’s merit — it has now asked an outside expert to decide if it should go ahead — could draw reasonable people to believe the original complaint was frivolous. The commission has made a lot of work out of this.
Commissions across the country, each operating on their own codes but upon similar premise, have fallen into disrepute of late because of cases they’ve taken on, dealing with freedom of speech. Maclean’s magazine has had to defend itself in three different jurisdictions for printing commentary by a right-wing writer that complainants said exposed Muslims to hatred or contempt. The Alberta commission has heard a case against a publisher who reprinted cartoons of Muhammed, originally published in Denmark. Again, the accusation was that it exposed Muslims to hatred.
There are growing demands to clip the extraordinary powers of commissions to stray into adjudication of constitutionally protected rights and laws within the Criminal Code. The commissions can order those publishing or expressing sentiments they find to be “discriminatory” to cease, but they do not have to meet the higher threshold of proof required in a criminal court. Section 18 of the Manitoba Human Rights Code, which makes it an offence to publish, broadcast or circulate signs, symbols or statements that discriminate against individuals, similarly can truncate a constitutional right.
The B’nai Brith has a legitimate complaint about the process employed by the Manitoba Human Rights Commission: It cannot sufficiently defend itself against a complaint it has not been fully informed of, and it has been barred from making its case to an unidentified expert now weighing the complaint’s merit. A greater harm, however, lies in giving a civil commission power to trample freedom of speech. That Ms. Siddiqui’s impression that Muslims were discriminated against could occupy four years of a commission’s time is ludicrous. It shows, however, the extent to which some go to find a semblance of offence in another’s opinion.