OTTAWA — Senator Doug Finley led a call Tuesday to scrap a section of Canada's Human Rights Act that he and other Conservative senators say is being used to stifle free speech in Canada.
Finley was one of a quartet of Tory senators to lead a Senate inquiry into free speech rights in Canada, rights they felt had come under attack when the speech by a controversial American pundit at an Ottawa university was cancelled and again when a woman in Vancouver sued a comedian because she didn't like jokes aimed at her.
"Despite our 400-year tradition of free speech, the tyrannical instinct to censor still exists," Finley said. "We saw it on a university campus last week. And we see it every week in Canada's misleadingly named human rights commissions."
Saskatchewan Senator David Tkachuk picked up on Finley's theme to excoriate the University of Ottawa's administration for what he saw as failures of leadership that led to the cancellation of a speech there last week by controversial American pundit Ann Coulter. The event's organizers cancelled the event believing that the safety of neither Coulter nor the event's participants could be guaranteed in the face of an angry group of several hundred protesters who argued that Coulter had a history of hate speech.
"But the mob took its cue from the provost," Tkachuk told the Senate. The provost, university vice-president Francois Houle, sent a letter to Coulter before the event cautioning her about Canada's speech laws, specifically the prohibitions in the human rights act.
"The letter closed with a line that could have come straight out of the re-education camps of Pol Pot's Cambodia," Tkachuk said.
He then accused university president Allan Rock of "a tepid response" following the cancellation.
"The University of Ottawa has failed us," Tkachuk said. "They have failed the country."
The speeches were part of the two-hour long Senate inquiry, a kind of procedure unique to the upper chamber to allow Senators to raise important issues. Usually, aside from drawing attention to a given subject, Senate inquiries have little effect.
But Tuesday's Senate inquiry was not led by just any senator. Finley is a close confidante of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the architect of both of Harper's election victories. He is also the spouse of Human Resources Minister Diane Finley. And that section of the Human Rights Act has been particularly irksome to many conservatives in Canada who view it as a symptom of the worst excesses of the politically correct left.
Senator Finley said he has encouraged his colleagues in cabinet, particularly Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, to review the speech he gave in the Senate Tuesday with an eye toward reconsidering a re-write of one part of Canada's Human Rights Act. That section, which prohibits speech that is likely to expose a person or a group to hatred or contempt, has been used as the basis of complaints against journalists and others.
"Too many Canadians, especially those in positions of authority, have replaced the real human right of freedom of speech with a counterfeit human right not be offended," Finley told the Senate.
Conservative commentators Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant, among others, have had to defend work they've published before the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which was acting on complaints that they disparaged Muslim Canadians in their writings.
"In a pluralistic society like Canada, we must protect our right to peacefully disagree with each other. We must allow a diversity of opinion — even if we find some opinions offensive," Finley said. "Unless someone actually counsels violence or other crimes, we must never use the law to silence them."
Conservative Senators Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy, both former journalists, also spoke in favour of Finley's inquiry.
"Prosecuting the actions of journalists was clearly not the intention of Parliament when it passed hate speech laws," Duffy said.
In addition to the Coulter example, Finley also cited a lawsuit in British Columbia in which a comic is defending comments he made about gays and lesbians after a lesbian woman heckled him on stage. The man could be fined up to $20,000 for those remarks.
"They may have been offensive. But what's more offensive is that a government agency would be the arbiter of good taste or humour," Finley said.
Finley conceded that while the federal government can do little about the B.C. case because of jurisdictional issues, he wanted his inquiry to look into the details surrounding the Coulter case; "to show moral support for those who are battling censors:" and to investigate what, if any changes, might be required to Canada's Human Rights Act.
"Too many Canadians, especially those in positions of authority, have replaced the real human right of freedom of speech with a counterfeit human right not to be offended," Finley said.
"If we can rededicate our parliament to protecting this most important right, we will have done our country a great service," Finley said. "But if we fail to stop and indeed reverse this erosion of freedom, we will have failed our most basic duty — the duty to uphold our Constitution and the rights it guarantees for all Canadians."
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