There are few true rights in our free and democratic nation. One of those, which is central to our freedom, is the right to free speech. This issue inadvertently came to the forefront last year due to a number of actions taken by the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) and its application of the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) in a number of high-profile cases. The furor sparked by the CHRC’s actions compelled the commission to undertake an independent study of its own activities. Well respected human rights expert Professor Richard Moon was tapped to lead the investigation. His report, just released, is a lucid exploration into this sensitive issue; his recommendations, courageous.
Prof. Moon’s foremost recommendation is that section 13 of the act be repealed in its entirety. This section gives the commission the ability to investigate, censure and levy penalties on individuals who have written something that may cause offence to someone from an identifiable group at some point in the future. Whether or not something is deemed offensive is entirely up to the interpretation of the members of the commission. Remarkably, a part of this same section exempts broadcasters for writing the very same thing that may land an individual in trouble with the CHRC — a shocking double standard.
While Prof. Moon’s report is excellent, the actual power to implement his recommendations, or any others that relate to the CHRA, resides not with the commission but with Parliament. It is the nation’s elected representatives who are ultimately responsible for the act. Therefore the ball is, as they say, now in Parliament’s court.
Last year, I introduced two initiatives to protect our freedom of speech. The first was a motion to remove section 13.1, the most noxious part of the Human Rights Act. The second initiative involved a request put to members of the House of Commons’ justice committee to conduct a public study of the CHRA, and by extension, the activities of the commission.
Prof. Moon’s report, along with bipartisan support for changes to the act, should give Parliament the confidence to, at the very least, undertake a justice committee study of the CHRA in a public, televised and transparent way. This would afford those with viewpoints on both sides of the divide an opportunity to debate the issue. Recommendations would be produced and the government could introduce legislation to enact those solutions that would change the act. Provincial legislatures, which have their own human rights commissions, should take heed and follow suit so that there is one standard for free speech across the land.
In the end, as Prof. Moon says in his report, we have Criminal Code amendments that thankfully protect all of us from hate crimes and hate speech. Thus, it is within the Criminal Code, not the CHRC, that hate crimes and hate speech should be prosecuted.
In an open and liberal democracy, we have a right to be protected from hate speech, but we do not have a right to not be offended. Canadians laid down their lives in two world wars to give us the cherished right of free speech. It is now the duty of Parliamentarians to stand up and protect it.