How Our Government
is Undermining Democracy in
the Name of Human Rights
by Ezra Levant
McClelland & Stewart,
232 pp., $25.95
Ezra Levant is not a household name to most Americans. He's spent most of his career in Calgary, working in the fields of Canadian conservative politics, journalism, think-tanks and law. But if you read this book and hear his story, it's unlikely you will soon forget his invaluable contribution to the contemporary literature of freedom of thought and individual liberty. (Full disclosure: Ezra Levant is a friend of long standing.)
In February 2006, Levant was the publisher of a conservative magazine, the Western Standard. After some consideration, he decided to reprint the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed "to show our readers what all the fuss was about." It was a gutsy move. Whereas most Canadian publications decided against publishing them, Levant thought people should be free to look at these cartoons in print and judge for themselves.
This decision changed the course of his life, especially after a heated radio interview about the cartoons with Syed Soharwardy, a Calgary imam. Described in Shakedown as a "Pakistani-born, madrassah-trained preacher popular on the Saudi lecture circuit who is the president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada," Soharwardy launched a complaint with a human rights commission (HRC) in Alberta following a failed attempt to get Levant arrested by the Calgary police.
What's an HRC? It was originally supposed to deal with a relatively mundane issue: helping poor Canadians deal with landlords and employers who, they felt, were infringing on their civil rights. Plaintiffs acquired the pro bono service of a government lawyer, and the ultimate goal was to settle through mediation or (in worst-case scenarios) set up a tribunal. As Levant writes, HRCs "were a beautiful idea--that failed."
Today, HRCs are the equivalent of kangaroo courts used predominantly by the Canadian left to sue political rivals and soothe the hurt feelings of residents of glass houses. Shakedown details some of the more ridiculous human rights cases that have succeeded in Canada--and sadly, the vast majority of cases have succeeded:
The Rev. Stephen Boissoin, who wrote a letter opposing homosexuality in an Alberta newspaper, was ordered to "cease publishing in newspapers, by email, on the radio, in public speeches, or on the Internet, in future, disparaging remarks about gays and homosexuals."
A Muslim police cadet was awarded $500,000 (Canadian) for, among other things, being shouted at by a drill sergeant whose job it was to--well, shout at him.
A British Columbia transsexual who was turned down as a rape crisis counselor (since women are only supposed to aid female rape victims) won his/her case and had his/her hurt feelings soothed.
For his part, Levant was furious. Soharwardy's complaint was an attack not only on Levant's freedom of speech, but also on his basic journalistic right to report the news as he saw fit. Yet if he refused the Alberta HRC's "invitation" to appear before it, officials would be legally allowed to enter his office without a search warrant to seize any "records and documents, including electronic records and documents, that are or may be relevant to the subject matter of the investigation."
Levant decided to fight back. He videotaped his hearing with the human rights officer, Shirley McGovern, and posted some revealing clips on YouTube. McGovern's initial hesitation about the taping (which had been approved beforehand), and then allowing it to proceed, was, as Levant writes, "a decision she would come to regret." Hundreds of thousands of people watched the YouTube videos and were shocked by what they saw.
McGovern's blasé attitude toward the proceedings--"I always ask people . . . what was your intent and purpose of your article?" and "You're entitled to your opinions, that's for sure"--made her look foolish, while Levant looked like a crusader for free speech and human rights, noting that "the government has no legal or moral authority to interrogate me or anyone else for publishing these words and pictures."
It soon became clear these human rights commissions had nothing to do with human rights but were the first-line defense of the left-wing agenda against the rights and freedoms of opposing doctrines. Levant's case became a cause célèbre: Conservatives, liberals, and more than a few socialists strongly supported his right to free speech, whether they agreed with him or not, and Alan Borovoy, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, noted that "during the years when my colleagues and I were laboring to create such commissions, we never imagined that they might ultimately be used against
freedom of speech."
The silent Canadian media, print and electronic, suddenly seized the opportunity to blast away at the concept of "human rights commissions," McGovern resigned from the case, and Soharwardy dropped his complaint.
Levant's particular ordeal with the Alberta HRC also helped change the direction of another high profile case against Mark Steyn. The Ontario HRC was going to hear a complaint by the Canadian Islamic Congress against Maclean's for reprinting portions of Steyn's book, America Alone. The matter was ultimately dropped--but not before the commission issued a pugnacious statement that groups should always be able "to challenge any institution that contributes to the dissemination of destructive, xenophobic opinions."
Shakedown might well shock your senses; it certainly will make you shudder about Canada's lackadaisical support for free speech. Mark Steyn, who has written Shakedown's introduction, calls Levant "a true Canadian hero." I'll take it one step further: He's a true hero for all people, and societies, who love freedom.
Michael Taube is a columnist for the