Freedom to Speak


by Dr. Keith Martin

Recently, a constituent brought to my attention an issue that strikes at the heart of one of the most fundamental rights that we have as citizens in Canada. It is one that was carved out for us with blood and sacrifice through two world wars, and one that continues to define our society as free and open – the right to freedom of speech.

In our country, we have human rights commissions, which exist at both federal and provincial levels. They were created in the 1970s with laudable objectives. At that time, we still had a society marred by bigotry and ignorance. As a dark-skinned immigrant, I know from painful, personal experience what it feels like to be on the receiving end of those beliefs. The commissions were originally created with the noble intent to investigate when people were allegedly being discriminated against as they sought employment or housing. However, a poorly crafted section, 13(1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act, has enabled the commissions to move into an entirely different area – investigating, prosecuting and fining people who communicate anything that someone else takes offence to. In other words, if an individual feels offended by what somebody has written, they can go to the commission, lodge a complaint and the commission’s lawyers will investigate the case at taxpayers’ expense. Although the plaintiff pays nothing, the defendant must defend themselves with their own money, and if they are found guilty, they must pay fines out of their own pocket and can be subjected to lifetime bans on their ability to talk about certain issues.

In the three decades of the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s (CHRC) existence, not a single defendant has been acquitted; not one. The Commission has a staggering 100% conviction rate. Interestingly, more than half of the complaints have been launched by just one person ­– a former employee of the CHRC. In our country, we already have laws that protect citizens against slander, libel, discrimination and hate crimes. Civil suits, which are adjudicated through the courts, are another recourse for people when these laws are violated. But the commissions are using section 13(1) to investigate and prosecute people who they deem to have offended somebody. The commissions incidentally are accountable neither to the Canadian public, nor Parliament. They have their own rules where the balance that exists in our courts between prosecutor, judge and jury do not exist. Thankfully, we have the right in our magnificent country to be free of slander, discrimination and hate crimes. However, we do not have the right to not be offended. Independent commissions that prosecute people for writings that do not meet the test of being a hate crime, slander or libel, is a very slippery slope indeed. 

To fix the problem, section 13(1) should be either amended, or deleted entirely. This matter strikes at an issue that should be of deep concern to all in our country who value freedom of speech as a pillar of a free and open democracy. (Source)

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