Five years ago, during testimony in the case of Warman v. Lemire, Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) investigator Dean Steacy was asked “What value do you give freedom of speech when you investigate?” His response: “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.”
Those words produced outrage. But there was a grain of truth to what Mr. Steacy said: For decades, Canadians had meekly submitted to a system of administrative law that potentially made de facto criminals out of anyone with politically incorrect views about women, gays, or racial and religious minority groups. All that was required was a complainant (often someone with professional ties to the CHRC itself) willing to sign his name to a piece of paper, claim he was offended, and then collect his cash winnings at the end of the process. The system was bogus and corrupt. But very few Canadians wanted to be seen as posturing against policies that were branded under the aegis of “human rights.”
That was then. Now, Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, the enabling legislation that permits federal human-rights complaints regarding “the communication of hate messages by telephone or on the Internet,” is doomed. On Wednesday, the federal Conservatives voted to repeal it on a largely party-line vote — by a margin of 153 to 136 — through a private member’s bill introduced by Alberta Conservative MP Brian Storseth. Following royal assent, and a one-year phase-in period, Section 13 will be history.
While Mr. Storseth and the MPs who voted for the bill (including Liberal MP Scott Simms) are to be applauded, the fact is that government action on this file is a trailing indicator of popular opinion, which has shifted against human-rights-justified censorship over the last five years for two main reasons.
The first reason: the legacy of 9/11, and the associated realization that speech codes have been actively hampering our ability to respond to the threat from militant Islam.
In 2006, most notably, many Canadians were shocked when Maclean‘s magazine was dragged before Canada’s human-rights apparatus, and forced to justify its decision to publish an allegedly Islamophobic excerpt from a book by Mark Steyn. Till that point in time, it was casually assumed that anyone caught up in human-rights quasi-litigation was a fringe commentator scribbling out unfashionable, retrograde views on race-mixing, or the Jewish “bacillus,” or some such. But Mr. Steyn was an internationally acclaimed commentator writing on a real, modern threat that, in its most virulent form, had destroyed a large chunk of Manhattan, and which our troops were fighting against in Afghanistan.
The second factor that turned the tide against the human-rights industry was the blogosphere.
Till the middle part of the last decade, the Canadian punditariat was dominated by professional columnists who were socially, ideologically, and sometimes professionally, beholden to the academics, politicians, and old-school activists (from Jewish groups, in particular) who’d championed the human-rights industry since its inception in the 1960s. But in the latter years of Liberal governance, a vigorous network of right-wing bloggers, led by Ezra Levant, began publicizing the worst abuses of human-rights mandarins, including the aforementioned Dean Steacy. In absolute numbers, the readership of their blogs was small at first. But their existence had the critical function of building up a sense of civil society among anti-speech-code activists, who gradually pulled the mainstream media along with them. In this sense, Mr. Levant deserves to be recognized as one of the most influential activists in modern Canadian history.
The battle against human-rights speech codes is far from won: The worst cases of censorship, such as the muzzling of Christians who proselytize texts that contain anti-gay themes, occur at the provincial level. Yet the tide clearly has turned: The Canadian Human Rights Commission received only three hate speech complaints since 2009, two of which were dismissed. And at the provincial level, bureaucrats know that any censorious verdict they deliver instantly will be pounced upon by Mr. Levant and his blogging allies (including some at this newspaper), and thereby become a lightning rod for legislative reform.
The pattern extends to other areas of human-rights law, too: Just this year, an Ottawa woman became a (well-deserved) object of mockery when she went to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario to speed up her demand for a parking pad in front of her house, on the basis that navigating the driveway to the back of her house was too tricky.
Canada’s human-rights law is a product of the 1960s, when much of our society truly was shot through with bigotry and prejudice. Those days are gone, thankfully, and laws such as the Canadian Human Rights Act now comprise a greater threat to our liberty than the harms they were meant to address. The repeal of Section 13 of the CHRA represents a good, albeit belated, first step at reform. Let us hope it provides suitable inspiration for Mr. Storseth’s principled counterparts in provincial legislatures across the country.