Of all the committees on the Hill, the CHRC wound up here? Liveblogging the Subcommittee on Int’l Human Rights

ITQ has to admit that she’s a little bit curious as to how, exactly, officials from the Canadian Human Rights Commission wound up on the witness list at the  Subcommittee on International Human Rights, which begins its study of “human rights commissions” this afternoon. It’s not that she doesn’t think it’s a worthy topic — goodness knows there’s enough confusion and controversy surrounding the issue — but doesn’t this particular committee usually stick to topics with an international focus? Human rights in China, persecution of religious minorities in Iran, the possible repatriation of Omar Khadr – you know, that kind of thing? Maybe the CHRC is just here to help MPs get their bearings on the various raisons d’etre of CHRC’s global counterparts. Nevertheless, she’ll be there for today’s meeting, which will also include an appearance by Alan Borovoy, general counsel to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

12:20:05 PM
Greetings, fans of chronically undercovered committee meetings chaired by the perpetually effervescent Scott “Not The Evil One. Wait, Which One Do You Consider The “Evil” One Again?” Reid! ITQ managed to make it to the Reading Room just before the macadamia cookies ran out, and can report there is a sizeable contingent of witnesses and onlookers on the scene already — from what she can overhear of the ongoing convesations, there are at least a half dozen or so representatives from the CHRC, including deputy chief commissioner David Langtry, Sebastien Sigouin and Monette Maillet; Alan Borovoy is also present and accounted for, but beyond that, I’m not entirely sure who’s who.

So far, I’m the only reporter here — although that could be due to my pathological punctuality — and a few MPs are starting to arrive, including Russ Hiebert, who was responsible for the motion that established this particular study, and the NDP’s Wayne Marston. For the Bloc, we have – or will have, according to the nameplates, Eve-Mary Thai Thi Lac, and Mario Silva and Irwin Cotler will be up for the Liberals. On the government side, we have David Sweet – who I remember quite fondly from the Khadr hearings – and – wait, is that Bob Rae? It is! I wonder whose spot he’s taking?

Anyway, w should be getting underway soon.

12:37:28 PM
And – here we go!

The chair gavels down – by the way, thank you, Derek Lee, for that delightful bit of parliamentary slang – and reminds members that time really is of the essence; since there are two panels of witnesses, he suggests sticking to a single round of questions, which seems to go over fine.

He then turns the floor over to David Langtry — the CHRC’s deputy commissioner, in case you’ve already forgotten – to deliver his opening statement, which – as is far too often the case – is mostly a cut-and-paste from the About US section of the CRHC website.

Anyway, Langtry notes that the vast majority of the cases they handle are related to discrimination — usually employment-related — and notes that the CHRC has a fairly good track record when it comes to alternate dispute resolution — 86% of cases are successfully dealt with at the commission level; the rest go to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. He points to various bits of equality trailblazing by the CHRC – pay equity, same-sex rights, access for disabled persons – and — you know, I hope he and his staff hasn’t spent all this time painstakingly assembling a feel-good opening statement only to have the committee focus on Section 13 to the exclusion of all else.

12:45:24 PM
Oh, there it is — Langtry notes that a report on how the commission handles those pesky S13 complaints has recently been tabled in the House, and will eventually be sent off to committee, although probably not this one.

Langtry goes onto discuss the CHRC’s international activities, both on its own terms and by working with partners, on everything from labour rights to indigenous peoples.

12:48:30 PM
That’s it for Langtry, as far as his opening statement; the first Liberal up is Mario Silva, who wonders about the United Nations UPR – the review of human rights in various countries – as well as the commission’s work with the Organization of American States.

Langtry begins with the UPR, and notes that the CHRC actually filed a submission with the United Nations during the preparation of this year’s report; so far, being under the international microscope has been a “good experience,” he tells the committee, and has encouraged more interaction with both civil society and government.

For the second question, Langtry cedes the floor to his co-witness, Sebastien Sigouin, who notes that representatives from the Inter-America Human Rights Commission will be visiting Canada next week to learn more about our human rights commissions.

Silva wonders if it is the tribunal that handles most of the “difficult” cases, since one can’t file a complaint directly with the CHRT, but only through the CRHC; Langtry agrees that this is often the case — when the commission refers a case to the tribunal, it doesn’t make any finding of discrimination.

12:54:53 PM
Over to the Bloc Quebecois, and Jean Dorion, who wants to know more about the “A” rating that the CHRC has received from the ICC. Langtry confirms that this is the highest status awarded; it gives the CHRC full status at the United Nations Human Rights Council. There are also B and C accreditation, which, unsurprisingly, give less access and credibility to the agencies so ranked.
Langtry gives a quick rundown on the “Paris Principles” – which have to be met for “A” status to be granted – it must be free from government interference, have a national mandate and be fully funded, and the commission itself has to be founded in legislation or the constitution; it can’t simply be established by motion.

Doiron is the first – but I suspect not the last – to bring up the debate ongoing over — oh, wait, he went in another direction from what I was expecting: adding social and economic conditions as prohibited grounds for discrimination. That, it seems, is under active consideration right now, but will ultimately be up to Parliament.

1:01:29 PM
Wayne Marsden begins *his* seven minute round by congratulating the commission on its good work, and wonders what the CHRC put forward as Canada’s most significant achievements in its submission to the UPR. Aboriginal rights, and social conditions, Langtry says – although it also noted with some dismay Canada’s failure to sign onto the Treaty for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

1:04:13 PM
Marsden muses that the living conditions in some Manitoba First Nations communities may eventually be found to have a role in the spread of swine flu, but then moves right onto the issue of free speech — the Maclean’s thing is mentioned as one of a litany of controversies that has arose — and asks for Langtry’s thoughts on the absolute right of freedom of speech. Langtry reminds him of the need to “balance” rights, when there is competition between two or more, and references the Moon Report, which he’d like Parliament to give “full consideration” when it studies the report. “Our own consideration of it,” he says, based on various court cases, and the 2001 amendments to the act to deal with anti-terrorist laws, is that they need to look at defining “hate” so that – he keeps saying Maclean’s, and it’s kind of throwing me off, you guys – only the “extreme cases” are heard by the CHRT. The rest, like the Maclean’s case, have been dismissed. He believes only the most narrow and extreme cases should be within the commission’s jurisdiction, and would also like the Act to be amended to allow complaints that don’t fall into that very small category to be dismissed quickly,

So – there?

1:08:52 PM
Finally, Hiebert gets his shot, and – oh, goodness. He begins by accusing the CHRC of conducting “secret hearings”, refusing to disclose evidence to defendents, and other questionable activities, and wonders who decides what procedures should be used – and what rules are in effect, or “do you make it up as you go along”?

Langtry – who seemed to be expecting this – notes that the commission does attempt to practice procedural fairness, but is a bit baffled by Hiebert’s questions on “legal tactics”. He reminds Hiebert that the commission doesn’t hold hearings – that falls to the tribunal – but notes that in very rare cases – only one instance of which he is aware – witnesses are allowed to testify in camera for security reasons.

1:12:00 PM
Hiebert now goes off into a rather disjointed and oddly familiar sounding tirade about “questionable practices” by the commission, including hiring disreputable former police officers, posting illegal material, and — yeah. You get the picture. Langtry calmly explains that not everything that is reported in the media – or on blogs, and yes, that was *me* adding that – is simply untrue, such as the “theft of internet”. As for the Code of Conduct, the commission is subject to all governmental codes of conduct and ethics. “We do not post hate messages,” he stresses – and would not condone its employees doing so.

1:16:01 PM
You guys, this is seriously turning into a tamer, non-unparliamentary version of one of the thousands of CHRC-related comment threads that clog up the internet, but just for the record: Hiebert accuses the CHRC of paying a Certain Former Employee Turned Witness cash to testify, and suggests he has collected thousands of dollars in awards. Langtry denies that this is the case, but agrees to look into it, and provide the committee with further information in writing. Hiebert – who, I suspect, thinks that he’s about to have a gotcha moment of his own – wonders from whence is derived the right to freedom from hate, and Langtry explains that it actually came from Parliament, as well as precedent.

Scott Reid tries to bring this portion of the meeting to an end — we still have Alan Borovoy to go, remember – but David Sweet first wants to express his regret that they *all* didn’t get to question the witnesses. Reid suggests that they bring them back at a later date, and everyone seems to be okay with that, and proceeds to sneak in one last question for himself: He wonders if the commission differentiates between tribunal decisions, and legal precedent. The answer: Of course.

That’s it for the CHRC – now, the CCLA!

1:23:06 PM
After a two minute witness-shuffling recess, Reid introduces Borovoy, who wants to begin by telling the committee the areas of *agreement* that he has with defenders of Section 13; first of all, the CCLA believes that freedom of speech is not, and cannot be absolute, and that there is no priority that one right has over another in the abstract; these are dealt with in the specific context. He believes the bulk of the human rights legislation should remain, and the agencies designed to enforce it should be encouraged to continue doing so.

1:25:00 PM
That said – ah, it’s always the “that said” that throws the monkey wrench into the honeypot, isn’t it? – is that free speech is an essential element in the lifeblood of democracy. The current anti-hate laws are too vague, and too wide, Borovoy avers — “with all the definitions in the world”, when it comes to wilfully inciting hatred, it’s still too vague. “Where does strong disagreement end, and hatred begin,” he wonders. Then there are the other weaknesses – no defence of truth, or reasonable belief of truth – and – oh, is he talking about us now? He is! Wow, lucky I’m here, huh?

Anyway, Borovoy notes that, at the time, it was said that it was “perfectly obvious” that Mark Steyn’s article “did not rise or sink to the level of hatred” — but that just isn’t true, as far as he’s concerned. He then reads a line from the article in question that suggests – or might support – that many Muslims support terrorism – the murder, beheading, you name it of innocent people. To be honest, I’m not totally sure what his point is — he thinks a second tribunal would come to the same conclusion as the first, as far as Maclean’s, so – wouldn’t that suggest that in this case, the definition wasn’t too vague?

He then moves onto another contentious article – this one from the New Republic, thankfully, and related to Kosovo, which – he puts forward, perhaps as a rhetorical device – could foment hatred against Serbian people.

1:32:56 PM
Borovoy then goes on for a while about historians, and Nazis, and how some of the work produced by the former on the latter could incite hatred against Germans and other “indigenous populations” that may have cooperated with the Nazis. His point – oh, *that’s* what his point is: He believes that, in its current form, Section 13 could make it illegal to tell the truth.

He really is a courtly gentleman, by the way. Unfailingly elegant and polished in his presentation, which is – in his words “as always, respectfully submitted.”

1:35:24 PM
Bob Rae takes the lead for the Liberals, and – oh boy, this is more than I’d hoped for; an actual philosophical debate over whether laws against inciting hatred are inherently problematic. “You don’t want to penalize the speaker because of the violence of his audience,” Borovoy reminds them – although you can if he *encourages* violence. Rae points out that the criminal law is used “very rarely”, but if the CHRC didn’t have the mandate to deal with lesser instances, that would force the police to use “more drastic punishment”. He eventually admits that he’s “not as eloquent” as Borovoy – “but you know where I’m going with that”, which leads to Borovoy slyly pointing out that he’s not a clairovoyant.

He does seem to get it, however — although he takes what is, I suspect, for a veteran civil libertarian like himself the only consistent position, which is to question whether any legal penalties are needed in any but the most extreme cases. Rae is unconvinced — he fears that we would lose the benefit of a “more tightly focused Section 13”, which everyone supports. “If we lose that, we end up with the Criminal Code” – and that’s a “tough road” to follow.

1:45:01 PM
“I am not one who thinks a democratic country has the right to determine what its citizens believe,” Borovoy says in response to a long and slightly meandering question from Doiron on the nature of free speech; that doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t support *other* sanctions. In the Keegstra case, he notes, once it was revealed what he had been teaching students in his classroom, he lost his job, was voted out of office – that’s right, he was the *mayor*, I’d forgotten that – and eventually, was left to “wallow” in his infamy. Which, as far as Borovoy can see, seems a fitting finale.

1:47:24 PM
Marsden is back up, with a question about something that concerns him just a touch in Borovoy’s recommendations — focusing on the threat of imminent violence, for instance. He repeats his support for a “statutory definition of hatred” — good luck coming up with that, kids — and suggests that the CHRC report *does* address many of the complaints that are out there. He admits that really, this is more of a statement than question, but he is “frightened” that the very existence of the commission is being threatened by an isolated few decisions or instances. “The important part is that we don’t minimize their ability to perform a very important job.” If there had been a human rights commission in Nazi Germany, or in Kosovo – well, Hitler might not have ever come to power.

Borovoy points out that, actually, Germany *did* have hate laws, and persecuted dozens of individuals for anti-Semitic speech. “It didn’t matter at the time it was most needed,” he notes.

Borovoy then goes on to laud the CHRC – and human rights commissions in general – for all the other work it does, which he supports, and suggests it could play an even greater role in providing educational programs. “It’s not an either/or situation,” he reiterates — it’s not use the CHRC, or the criminal law. Marsden, however, is sceptical – he believes that racism is a learned behaviour, and when he saw open racism against Sikhs in Hamilton in the 1970s, it “shocked” him.

1:55:16 PM
That’s all for Marsden, which means it’s one last round for Team Government; Sweet – who always seems to be vaguely afraid that he’ll be caught redhanded being entirely reasonable – suggests that the challenges facing the CHRC may have as much to do with perception as reality, and notes that all politicians are well aware that the media occasionally gets something wrong.

Aside from that, however, he worries about the stigma faced by individuals who find themselves the object of complaints – no wonder they hire lawyers, he muses — they’re terrified they’ll be found guilty of a hate crime.

1:57:50 PM
Hiebert tries his “is there a right to freedom of hatred” question out on Borovoy – perhaps to see if he can get an answer more to his liking – but the witness gets all philosophical in response. As for the law – which is what Hiebert is going on about, and tries again – Is there a right from freedom of hate? Yes, of course, Borovoy tells him – it’s in the Criminal Code. He does, however, obligingly tell Hiebert that he doesn’t think there *should* be such a law.

Hiebert then moves on to re-ask his question about court costs, which would be a “good deterrant” against frivolous complaints, but this time, Borovoy vehemently disagrees — it would *also* be a good deterrant against bringing complaints at all. “When you talked about a real court, I became a bit uneasy,” he confesses – because “real justice” is dispensed in many tribunals in our society, and there is no “magic” in the black robes. Wow – smackdown. Hiebert sulkily explains that he was *talking* about legal procedures, but you can tell he was hoping Borovoy would be less – well, independent-minded.

Eventually, he gives Borovoy an opening to give some other examples of other sanctions that can be used against hate speech, and Borovoy points to the reaction that a blatantly racist remark would engender from the community, and then delivers what turns out to be a surprisingly all encompassing closing statement on the many ways to counter hate. Honestly, if this meeting had a winner, it would *definitely* be Borovoy.

That’s it, by the way — it’s nearly 2pm, which means it’s time to head to the House for QP. See you later this afternoon at the Chalk River hearings at Natural Resources!

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