Bill 59: Our continuing problem with freedom

By Beryl Wajsman on August 17, 2015

I have written, sadly and far too often, of the institutions in Quebec that have sought to impose conformity and constraint on freedom of expression. It is a systemic illness. But today, in the midst of what should be a restful summer pause from political excesses, we are facing what may be the most serious threat yet. The Couillard government has proposed a law that would allow the Quebec Human Rights Commission (QHRC) to censor speech that promotes "fear of the other." The proposed law is Bill 59. Hearings are about to start. And it underscores once again Quebec's continuing problem with freedom.

We don't have to go back to "La grande noirceur" of Duplessis and the Padlock Law. We have enough examples from the past few years. In 2007, our Orwellian Quebec Press Council criticized nationally respected columnist Barbara Kay for condemning elected officials speaking at a rally that turned into a pro-Hezbollah demonstration. The council stated that her opinions were an "undue provocation." It said not a word about the screeds of the politicians and other speakers at the rally. In 2011, the provincial government held hearings on its proposed Payette Plan. That plan called for state accreditation and language testing of journalists. I am proud to remember that we led the successful fight to kill the plan. And just this year, the OQLF called for the Pontiac Journal to segregate, yes segregate, English and French content in its pages. M.Couillard has not said a word.

But Bill 59 doesn't just continue this troubling trend, it takes a quantum slide down the slippery slope of thought control. And reasonable people can be forgiven for thinking this was done for nothing less than political pandering.

Bill 59 was introduced in mid-June right after Bill 62. The latter's main provision was the disallowance of face coverings in the public sector. As expected, the government faced criticism from certain Muslim groups as well as non-religious critics who felt it unnecessary. In the face of that criticism, the Couillard administration introduced Bill 59. 

Nothing is more dangerous in any law than general, subjective language. What exactly does promoting "fear of the other" mean? It means whatever the loudest voice in the room wants it to mean. But 59 goes even further. It would allow the QHRC to pursue websites - yes websites - that in its estimation alone violate this restriction.  And this is not our interpretation.

Jacques Frémount, the QHRC's President, has stated that he had asked for expanded powers so that the QHRC could sue those, "..people who would write against...the Islamic religion..on a website or on a Facebook page." Are we going to have a Quebec version of the Mohammed cartoon debate by anyone who takes offense at something? And are these expanded powers to be used only for offended Muslims? 

But Frémont somehow isn't getting it or doesn't want to get it. In support of his censorship proposal he cites resolutions adopted by "UN bodies." Now, the UN is not exactly the pillar of  the free with a Human Rights Council counting countries like Iran, Syria, Libya, and Cuba as recent members. But the fact is that the only UN body pressing for a measure against any criticism of Islam is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation which equates criticism of Islam or Islamism with hate speech. Premier Couillard has attempted to justify 59 by using words like "inclusion," "openness" and "living together." Somebody in Quebec City is not on the same page. Because Frémont's OIC inspired initiative is coming from countries that have nothing to teach any liberal democracy about inclusion.

The imposition of moral conformity through legal sanction is the stuff of tyrannies not democracies. And the devilish details of Bill 59 give no comfort against that statement. Article 6 would “give the QHRC the power to initiate legal proceedings before the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal without having to wait for complaints from the public.” Article 3 allows members of an identifiable group as well as people outside the group to make complaints triggering suits for hate speech before the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal. The bill also continues the Qubec tradition of anonymous denunciations and commands a blacklist to be posted on the QHRC website of "offenders."

What begs credulity even more is that Frémont is a constitutional expert. He knows the Internet is not a provincial domain. The Supreme Court ruled clearly in  overturning a previous QRHC victory at the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal in Latif v. Bombardier that the Internet falls under federal jurisdiction. 

What this kind of legislation does is put  free thought and free speech into deep freeze. It incites self-censorship. And worse. It makes Human Rights Commissions tools against the most precious of rights. The right of free expression. And Canada has learned that lesson through bitter experience. 

The Harper government finally put an end to the infamous Sec.13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act in the face of broad public disgust at the CHRC's bureaucratic dictates. That section was used time and again against journalists like Mark Steyn merely for expressing criticism of Islamism not Islam. The wording used as a truncheon was the phrase " likely to expose a person to hatred or contempt." It was ludicrous to assume that it was even possible to judge what was "likely." But one could argue the damage had been done.

This type of legislation not only stifles normative expressions of opinion, but it permeates through all bodies in our society to the point that we go beyond mere political correctness and into the worst type of persecution. At the moment of this writing, Alberta journalist Ezra Levant who was once victimized under Sec.13, is now being prosecuted by the Alberta Law Society - Levant is a non-practicing lawyer - because he wrote that the Alberta Human Rights Commission was "crazy." An Alberta cabinet Minister Lindsay Blackett, has called the AHRC  a "kangaroo court."

What free people have been fighting and dying for is one eternal truth...freedom is indivisible. And except for overt and direct incitement to violence, all opinions should be debated on the open battleground of ideas without state interference. A short time ago I wrote a column calling on Premier Couillard to end the suppression of expression. It was gratifying to see a column in a National Post opinion page last week end with our words. We leave you with them, "..leaving decisions on issues of freedom to bureaucrats suggests two levels of citizenship on fundamental rights. One level for all of us, another for state agents who can limit our rights." Bill 59 is a danger to democracy and should be thrown into the dustbin of history.

 

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