Speech row rocks multi-ethnic Canada

Toronto, Canada - Canada is often thought of as a land of bland consensus and multicultural harmony - the last place where you would expect to see a religious minority up in arms, and journalists accusing the state of gagging freedom of speech.

Yet in recent months, these have become fixtures of the country's public debate.

The Canadian equivalent of Denmark's cartoonists, or the Netherlands' Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is the outspoken conservative columnist Mark Steyn.

In a 2006 article he used demographics to suggest that the West would succumb to Muslim domination.

The piece, entitled "The future belongs to Islam" and published by the Toronto magazine Maclean's, argued that Europe was "too enfeebled to resist its remorseless transformation into Eurabia".

Mr Steyn summarised the presumed global advantage of militant Islam with a stark equation: "Youth + Will = Disaster for whoever gets in your way."

To some, he had crossed the line between vigorous polemic and Islamophia.

The notion that Muslims should be feared by virtue of their numbers and purported militancy is "quite inflammatory", says Toronto law student Khurrum Awan.

Short shrift

Mr Awan and fellow students marched on Maclean's a year ago to demand a chance to issue a full-length rebuttal in Canada's only nationwide news magazine.

"What we said is that we want an opportunity to participate in the debate when you are talking about the issues that relate directly to us," Mr Awan told the BBC News website.

Maclean's editor gave the students short shrift. He said he had published 27 letters in response to the Steyn article, and would "rather go bankrupt" than let outsiders dictate the content of his magazine.

Late last year the students, supported by the Canadian Islamic Congress, took their demand to the federal Human Rights Commission and similar bodies in British Columbia and Ontario.

The move both publicised the dispute and highlighted a previously little-known aspect of the commissions' remit - the possibility of suppressing speech.


The human rights commissions were set up in the 1960s and early 1970s to investigate claims of discrimination in housing and employment.

But section 13 of the 1977 Human Rights Act authorised them to hear complaints about material "likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt" by reason of race, age, gender, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

To some groups, this provides a useful remedy. "When people feel insulted they should have recourse," says Khaled Mouammar, president of the Canadian Arab Federation, who argues that the Maclean's article promoted hate against Muslims.

But others are alarmed.

Leading the charge against the commissions is Ezra Levant, an Alberta-based publisher who was targeted by a complaint after reprinting the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in his (now-defunct) newspaper in early 2006.

His accuser, a Calgary Muslim leader who cited the Koran in his complaint, said the publisher had spread hatred.

In January Mr Levant appeared before an Alberta Human Rights official charged with deciding whether to refer the matter to a special tribunal.

In a videotaped statement later posted on his website, Mr Levant called the commission a "sick joke" and defiantly pleaded guilty.

"I'm not going to try to minimise what I've done and beg for mercy," he told the BBC News website. "I have the right to violate all those Koranic precepts because we follow Queen Elizabeth's law, not Muhammad's law."

Rights, old and new

But by focusing on the legal process, Mr Levant and others added an important new dimension to the dispute. It no longer centred on the familiar "Islam v West" question.

Canada's Human Rights Act is not an Islamic creation; Jewish and other groups have supported complaints under its speech provisions.

And the complainants against both Maclean's and Mr Levant, in BBC interviews, professed their attachment to free speech and abhorrence of radical Islam.

The core of the dispute is best understood not as a clash of civilisations, but as a conflict within the West itself.

It pits old liberal values that sanctify individuals against a new emphasis on the rights of groups.

Mr Levant regards commission officers as "new-fangled, political crusaders" bent on overturning centuries-old Common Law.

Canada's Human Rights Tribunals, he points out, are quasi-judicial bodies, not regular courts bound by strict standards of procedure to protect defendants.

Every single "section 13" complaint referred to the federal Human Rights Tribunal has been upheld.

And those targeted often incur heavy costs even if a complaint is dropped - as was the case for Mr Levant, who says his legal bills amount to C$100,000 (£49,000).

'Flawed approach'

The commission officials who vet complaints deny acting like rogue inquisitors, and insist they strictly follow the law.

"We have a legal obligation to consider every complaint we receive if it fits one of the grounds for which discrimination cases can be heard," says Carmen Gregoire, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

But according to critics, the fact that commissions are acting within the law offers little comfort.

Alan Borovoy, a veteran lawyer who campaigned to set up the commissions, says their willingness to hear complaints about speech rests on flawed legislation.

He regards the provisions on "hatred or contempt" as departures from the original purpose of the Human Rights Act, and wants them scrapped.

"The human rights statutes were designed to deal with discriminatory acts, not discriminatory words," he says.

Mr Borovoy believes that minorities' push for equality, which he supports, has led to a neglect of traditional freedoms.

"Other interests have for the time being trumped the free-speech values and I'm hoping that with some of these cases we might be able to turn the tide," he says.