Ezra Levant. Shakedown: How our government is undermining democracy in the name of human rights. McLelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2009.
Foreword by Mark Steyn.
Reviewed by Doreen Kimura
Steyn in his foreword perfectly encapsulates the book, “This book is a portrait of an insane system by a man who has been on the receiving end of it.” The recent infamous trials of Levant as publisher of the Western Standard, and of Steyn as contributor to Macleans, proceeded from charges brought by the Canadian Islamic Congress under Section 13 (Hate messages) of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Thus, it is an offence to communicate anything that “is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt… on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.” The internet is explicitly included in the prohibition.
This very broad definition of hate speech could, for example, forbid criticism of either side in a history of most wars (national origin being a “protected” category). Under this section almost any negative commentary on protected groups could be construed as illegal. All that is required is that a complaint be filed.
The suit against Levant, and his sharp and widely publicized rebuttals, “I want to lead a fight to take back our real civil rights” made many more people aware of the blatant suppression of opinion exercised by the Human Rights Commissions (HRCs), both provincial and federal. The author provides several examples that are both entertaining and horrifying. I give briefly just one much publicized example: A minister of a church in Alberta wrote a letter to his local newspaper strongly condemning homosexuality on moral and religious grounds. A complaint against him (by an avowedly heterosexual man) was lodged with the Alberta HRC for hate speech.
Five painful years later, the Reverend was found by AHRC to have broken the law. He was ordered to pay his complainant thousands of dollars. Most worrying of all was the ruling that he “cease publishing… disparaging remarks about gays and homosexuals.” We infer that, for AHRC, gay rights trump religious rights, and that censoring speech is okay. To their credit, a large gay rights lobby group refused to benefit financially from the decision, arguing that it was unacceptable censorship.
HRCs have come to embody the Canadian trait of politically correct self-righteousness, gone berserk. Although perhaps originally intended to be mediation mechanisms, HRCs now frequently encourage claimants in their sense of grievance, no matter how irrational or nonsensical the claim, making human rights offices a self-perpetuating industry. Even Alan Borovoy, who helped draft the original legislation, has strongly opposed its use in muzzling speech.
The rise of similar so-called human rights tribunals in Canadian universities and the “culture of comfort”2 in academia in the early 90s, will be recalled by most members of our Society (SAFS), as providing a strong impetus for the formation of our organization. Along with others we have criticized the practices of HRCs. (see www.safs.ca, Issues). Levant’s book has pointed relevance to our mission.
The fact that HRC tribunals do not have to abide by the principles of law that guide the regular courts, and that there is no appeal within the HRC system, overwhelmingly favours either conviction, or submission to intimidation by anyone named in a suit under the HRCs.
Some may say that since both Levant and Macleans/ Steyn were exonerated, the system works. But Levant points out that both cases were exceptions in HRC history; and that even when you “win”, you lose. It costs nothing (except to taxpayers) for any loose cannon with an imagined grievance to bring a charge against a person or a group. But the defendant at the very least incurs punishing legal expenses (Levant reports his as over $100,000). A convicted defendant may also be required to pay a fine and/or a recompense and may have heavy constraints placed on future activities. All this, remember, due to an opinion spoken or written, not a threat or any other hostile act. Most individuals or small corporations cannot afford this, so the mere possibility of a suit is intimidating.
This book is easy reading. It is well organized and the message is clear and well argued. It will of course be seen as biased, and it is. Levant takes a strong unequivocal stand in favour of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as superceding any opposing claim to be free from offence, “...having a government agency so powerful… is a much more troubling danger than the odd vicious comment…”. SAFS members will surely share that “bias”, but I recommend the book to others as well. People who believe that there should be legal limitations on “offensive” speech need to think seriously about the repressive repercussions.
Levant suggests that the best solution might be scrapping the Canadian Human Rights Act and provincial counterparts altogether as doing more harm than good. A growing number of Canadians at the very least want to have Section 13 rescinded. Even if you don’t agree with him that there is little or no systematic discrimination in Canada today, one must ask whether whatever discrimination remains could possibly justify the oppressive, costly and punitive system we have allowed to develop under human rights legislation.
- Pink Floyd, 1979
- John Furedy, 1997