Columnists > Voices

Human wrongs

Canadian commission takes on Mark Steyn-and free speech

Issue: "Left behind," June 28, 2008

To paraphrase Mark Twain, there's PC, outrageous PC, and the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Begun as a quasi-legal entity to root out discrimination in the workplace, the CHRC has more recently turned to punishing "offensive" speech. In taking on Mark Steyn, however, it may have invited more publicity than it wants.

Two years ago an excerpt from Steyn's book, America Alone, was published in Maclean's, one of Canada's leading news journals. The article, titled "The Future Belongs to Islam," expressed Steyn's view that at their current comparative birth rates, Islamic citizens of Europe will soon outnumber native Europeans-with, shall we say, troubling implications for Western tradition.

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Actually, less than half of the article addressed Islamic ascendancy in Europe. An equal part dealt with declining birthrates in developed nations generally-such as Japan, where toy makers are producing talkative baby dolls for elderly citizens who miss the company of little children.

If Japanese-Canadians took offense, they kept it to themselves. But a trio of Muslim law students in Ontario demanded equal space in Maclean's to rebut Steyn's claims about Islam. When the editors refused to have their content dictated, the Canadian Islamic Congress filed a complaint with the CHRC-not only in Ontario but also a provincial tribunal in British Columbia, where commissioners were known to be especially sensitive to such grievances. (This, by the way, is called "forum shopping," a way to better one's odds.)

A three-member panel convened in Vancouver early this month to hear the case. Maclean's editor Andrew Coyne, liveblogging the proceedings, reported that according to Section 7.1 of the Human Rights Code, "innocent intent is not a defense, nor is truth, nor is fair comment or the public interest, nor is good faith or responsible journalism. In other words, there is no defense." Also no standard for conviction except the complainant's feelings-no wonder the national CHRC has never declared a defendant innocent.

Evidence by the complainants consisted mostly of blog comments, which may or may not have been inspired by Steyn's article. Witnesses included a Quran specialist, a media professor whose area of expertise is Bollywood films, and Dr. Naiyer Habib, co-complainant, who testified of his distress when he read some of the nasty blog posts. Other magazine articles and surveys were introduced, none of which had any connection with Mark Steyn or Maclean's, but because there were no rules about evidence, some were admitted and some not.

In final arguments on June 6, council for the complainants asserted that they had met a two-part test of hate speech, proving that Steyn had both encouraged hate in the readership, and expressed hate in his writing. Plus, he used sarcasm.

The defense introduced no evidence but appealed to Canada's tradition of freedom of the press-even though that tradition has lost its teeth. Only the week before, a CHRC panel in Alberta handed down a decision against Stephen Boissoin of the Concerned Christian Coalition, who published a letter critical of homosexuals in a local newspaper. For this offense, Boissoin and the coalition were directed to pay $5,000 to the complainant for "pain and suffering," to refrain in the future from publishing discriminatory letters, and to make no "disparaging remarks" about the case. These measures, according to the panel, are "remedial not punitive." Nice to know.

The Steyn decision is not expected for several weeks, and tribunal officials are probably aware that this case is loaded. It's a prominent national journal they're dealing with, not some puny pack of concerned Christians. Some speculate that the CHRC will give Maclean's a stern lecture and dismiss the case so it can continue wreaking havoc on Canadian civil rights in relative obscurity. A conviction might drag the commission's habit of overreach into the public glare, and possibly force reform.

Whatever the decision, Steyn and Maclean's promise to hang tough. We can hope so, because rights generally erode before they collapse. As the old caveat goes, "First they came for the sarcastic. . . ."

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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