The Conservative Party’s convention kicks off tonight in Winnipeg. Tomorrow’s schedule includes policy debates. One of the proposed resolutions, P-203, proposed by two B.C. riding associations, calls for section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, the “hate speech” provision, to be repealed. The exact wording of the resolution is:
The Conservative Party supports legislation to remove authority from the Canadian Human Rights Commission and Tribunal to regulate, receive, investigate or adjudicate complaints related to Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
It’s similar to the private member’s motion proposed earlier this year by Liberal MP Keith Martin, which reads:
That, in the opinion of the House, subsection 13(1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act should be deleted from the Act.
By comparison, the resolution proposed by Conservative MP Rick Dykstra to Parliament’s Justice Committee was less resolved (it did not call for the abolition, but rather the “review” of s. 13) but it was broader, including the CHRC’s conduct (such as its employees memberships in neo-Nazi organizations). Dykstra’s wording was:
Whereas concerns have been raised regarding the investigative techniques of the Canadian Human Rights Commission (the “Commission”) and the interpretation and application of section 13 of the Canada Human Rights Act (the “Act”); and
Whereas the Commission operates independently and reports to Parliament;
Be it resolved that the Justice and Human Rights Committee examine and make recommendations with respect to the Canadian Human Rights Commission and in particular:
a) review the mandate and operations of the Commission;
b) review the Commission’s application and interpretation of section 13 of the Act;
c) Solicit and consider oral submissions from the Chief Commissioner and oral or written submissions from other interested persons or organizations;
d) Submit a report, including any proposed amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act arising out of the results of the Committee’s inquiry.
I’m not an expert in Parliamentary procedure, so I’ll have to check to see if Martin’s motion and Dykstra’s resolution died when last month’s election was called.
In any event, resolution P-203 is welcome. I hope it passes — and I think it will, as many Conservative “grass-tops” activists have been following this matter closely. Even if it doesn’t pass, however, the mere official discussion of it is a welcome sign that the issue “has arrived” on the national political agenda. (By the way, I’m not pessimistic; I just don’t have enough knowledge about who will be there voting, what efforts the two riding associations have taken to promote their resolution, etc., and I regret that unbreakable commitments in Calgary mean I can’t attend tomorrow’s session to see for myself!)
I was not involved with the Conservative Party’s policy process this year, but in the past, literally hundreds of resolutions were sent up the chain of command to the party where the best, or most interesting, or most timely resolutions were selected for debate (obviously, hundreds of resolutions cannot be debated in one day). That in itself is a good indication that the party is interested in having a real discussion about this issue, and in public.
Support for P-203 would be important, as it is a good barometer of what the party’s grass-tops are thinking. We have other evidence that the party is listening to the members on this issue; just before the election, the party sent out a letter to members that contained a one-line survey question about the subject. I’m told that the results were overwhelmingly supportive of reform, and that the response rate to the questionnaire was very high.
These things are important. They go to the “normalization” of reform and the “denormalization” of the CHRC. That’s why the firestorm of protest against the CHRC laying a wreath on Remembrance Day was so encouraging: it was a signal that the CHRC is being watched and tracked by an army of hundreds (thousands?) of informed critics, and that it cannot conduct itself with impunity, as it has in the past.
I’m proud of the grassroots party members who have seized this cause. But I’m also hopeful that some Liberal grassroots will do the same thing in their party’s convention in Vancouver next spring. That’s because it’s important to me that freedom of speech, and repeal of section 13, are not characterized as partisan issues. In other words, while I would hope that every Conservative would support the repeal of s. 13, I would hope that Liberals and NDPers don’t oppose it merely to be different. I don’t want it to become a partisan wedge issue. In fact, true progressives should reflect on the fact that people who are powerless often have no other tool except for free speech — offensive free speech, that deliberately upsets the status quo — to get reforms. The cases of women’s suffrage, black civil rights and the decriminalization of homosexuality come to mind.
Luckily, it was Martin the Liberal MP who really got the ball rolling with his private member’s motion, and other Liberal MPs have chimed in with support, as have many traditionally non-Conservative organizations, ranging from PEN Canada to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association to the Toronto Star.
I put all of the above in the category of “denormalizing” the HRCs — building a demand for political change.
Here’s the thing: I think that 90% of the people in that convention hall would be opposed to the CHRC for reasons of principle. The only question is: are they convinced that repealing section 13 would be a political winner? That is, are they worried that doing the right thing would hurt them politically?
That’s where the debate is at in the Conservative government, in my assessment. A majority of Conservative MPs know that repealing section 13 the CHRC is the right thing to do, and a good number believe in more dramatic reforms to the corrupt CHRC altogether. But are they convinced that this won’t be a losing battle?
That’s what tomorrow’s test is about. Do Conservative grass-tops activists feel that it’s politically safe yet?
I hope so. In fact, I hope it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the real political risk to the Conservative Party (and government) is leaving the CHRC to fester.
Every newspaper in the country has condemned section 13, including liberal newspapers like the Toronto Star, Eye Weekly, the Montreal Gazette, etc. Even the CBC has mocked it, from Rex Murphy to Rick Mercer to even Neil Macdonald. EGALE, the gay rights lobby, has condemned section 13, for crying out loud.
In fact, it could be said that standing up for freedom of expression is a bridge of common ground to the very artistic/intellectual community that reacted so negatively to the Conservatives’ arts policies. It’s something both libertarians and social conservatives can agree on.
Those are reasons why repealing section 13 won’t hurt. But not repealing it, and reining in the CHRC, could be much more painful.
How long do the Conservatives think they can remain unscathed by the CHRC’s corruption? So far, few in the mainstream media have covered the RCMP and Privacy Commissioner’s investigations into their conduct. No cabinet minister would be allowed to run such a dangerous shop — why should Joe Clark’s former chief of staff, CHRC chief commissioner Jennifer Lynch, get away with such sloppy and dangerous management?
And, for a party worried about being tainted as intolerant, how much longer will the Conservatives abide the CHRC’s practice, in section 13 cases, of joining neo-Nazi organizations, publishing hundreds of bigoted remarks on the taxpayers’ dime?
I submit that leaving the CHRC and section 13 unreformed is the real political risk. You’d think that anything involving neo-Nazis would be shut down immediately by this government, before it blows up in their face.
I’ll write more about this later. But for now, I’d simply encourage the party’s grass-tops activists gathered in Winnipeg, to support freedom of speech and freedom of religion, by voting for P-203.