“As crazy as it sounds, I became the only person in the world to face legal sanction for printing those cartoons” writes Canadian journalist and lawyer Ezra Levant. In early 2008, Levant received a summons from the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission (AHRCC) to explain his action of reprinting, in the Western Standard magazine, the controversial Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Levant’s Shakedown: How Our Government Is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights (2009) tells his and the stories of others caught in the web of human right commissions that took a disturbing wrong turn.
Levant gives credit where it is due. The concept of human rights commissions assisting those who face discrimination is a noble one. As stated in the Canadian Human Rights Act, victims of discrimination receive the necessary assistance without the costs, pain, and process of regular courts. In theory, this looks good. Initially, there were few skeptics, and the momentum was strong among those confident that the state could engineer a better society.
But a voice in the wilderness was George Jonas who later wrote an “I-told-you-so” newspaper column in the National Post: “Human rights laws and tribunals are based on the notion that being hired, promoted, serviced and esteemed is a human right…. It isn’t. Being hired, promoted, serviced and esteemed is a human ambition. It’s a justifiable ambition, but still just an ambition…. There are attractive ambitions and ugly rights, but the ugliest right still trumps the prettiest ambition.”
Sadly, it was just a matter of time when problems with human rights commissions would emerge. Eventually “crackpot narcissists, angry loners, and professional grievance collectors” milked the system with the apparent approval of human rights bureaucrats seeking their own employment and social worth.
Many Canadians will find it surprising that those accused of “discriminatory speech” go before human rights commissioners (none are real judges) and fend for themselves in a system where violations of due process are common. As Levant points out, the police cannot enter someone’s workplace without a search warrant, but “many human rights commissions needn’t jump through that hoop.”
Staff of human rights commissions lack training in police procedures or legal knowledge. And there is little accountability because “not a single human rights commission in Canada has an internal affairs department monitoring its staff members’ conduct.” Ordinary Canadians discovered that their protected freedoms enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms did not hold up.
Targets include the Rev. Stephen Boissoin, an Alberta pastor who made the mistake of holding a biblical interpretation of homosexuality in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. When one anti-Christian activist filed a protest, the AHRCC went into action: “The province’s lawyer argued that ‘if people were allowed to simply hide behind the rubric of political and religious opinion, they would defeat the entire purpose of the human rights legislation.’” Levant correctly identifies this as a “frightening statement.”
Of course, Boissoin lost. He was guilty of “hate speech.” He had to pay the complainant $5000, and stop any “disparaging remarks about gays and homosexuals,” even in his church sermons. Thus, a government bureaucrat in essence forced a Bible-believing pastor “to publicly renounce his religious views” (since the publication of Shakedown there has been positive news concerning Rev. Boissoin).
The human rights agent who interrogated Levant “genuinely thought that the government had the right to dragoon journalists into offices to answer questions about their private thoughts and ‘intentions.’” In this and other cases, they were apparently unaware of the irony of their actions as they denied individuals the right and freedom to express and defend themselves in a manner consistent with liberal and democratic ideals. Levant’s battle led him to shine a light on the darkness of state power (something he does on a regular basis on his evening television talk show – The Source).
Political correctness is a powerful force. Reading Shakedown one learns of gut-wrenching episodes of authoritarianism that few people have the time and energy to confront. It is good to know that there are individuals like Levant who understand the importance of defending freedom.