Blog by John Miller

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On being responsible

The preamble of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1985 asserts that “the Canadian Human Rights Act provides that every individual should have an equal opportunity with other individuals to make the life that the individual is able and wishes to have, consistent with the duties and obligations of that individual as a member of society.”

In the current tumultuous debate about whether Canada ’s human rights commissions trample on free speech, I think it’s worth considering the last part of that preamble statement: “consistent with the duties and obligations of that individual as a member of society.”

First of all, I agree that human rights legislation in Canada is problematic for some of us. In fact, I attempted to intervene in the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal hearing into the Maclean’s-Mark Steyn case precisely for that reason -- I thought the tribunal did not have the tools to distinguish between hateful free speech and provocative journalism. My proposal of a “responsible journalism defence” would have addressed that.

Of course, I would have said that Mark Steyn’s stereotypical diatribe against Muslims did not meet the test of responsible journalism (as Maclean’s actually claimed it did at the time). That is why I am currently taking issue with Steyn and his chum on the right-wing blogosphere, Ezra Levant. Their opinions are theirs to express, but for the sake of society should be based on facts, not preconceived stereotypes or distortions.

My fact-check analysis of Steyn's book excerpt and columns in Maclean's told me that he does most of his research on blogsites. He was guilty of multiple distortions. I don't think that is “responsible.” It is not consistent with our duties and obligations as members of Canadian society.

What then is our collective responsibility as Canadian living in our society? It is clearly many things -- respect for free speech and all the other rights in Canadian law and society, including the right to be equal, the right to freedom of religion –  and the rights we enjoy living in the world's first officially multicultural state.

In my view, we have not been encouraged to explore just what that means: What does living in a constitutional and official "multicultural state" really mean? Pierre Trudeau sort of sprung that on us, as a way out of the bilingualism and biculturalism conundrum, and it was a brilliant and inspired move. But there was never any real public debate about the Multiculturalism Act. It was a theoretical concept, meaning that Canada will henceforth respect the rights of all cultures, in the belief that those cultures are treasures of our national identity and symbols of a respectful and tolerant society.

Abroad, that concept has made Canada a famously hospitable and attractive destination for a generation of immigrants. Inside Canada , we scarcely know what it means, even though the Multiculturalism Act has spawned a host of other distinctively Canadian pieces of legislation – for example, the Broadcast Act, the Employment Equity Act, and the Canadian Human Rights Act.

That lack of understanding, the lack of debate, is part of what is now triggering the backlash against human rights commissions and the flexing of muscles in defence of free speech (which, in actual truth, is hardly under actual threat). Do we, as Ezra Levant says, enjoy an unlimited right to say whatever we want, no matter how irresponsibly, no matter who doesn't like it?

I don't think so. And I say that after considerable reflection. I have campaigned all my life for freedom of the press, which is part of freedom of speech and protected in our constitution. But the institution we set up to arbitrate our rights -- the Supreme Court of Canada -- has said quite clearly that no right automatically trumps another right. Our rights and freedoms must be balanced and weighed, often in individual cases. Although they are imperfect, human rights commissions were set up to help do that job.

So is the answer to do away with human rights commissions, as Levant seems to want? Or do we try to make them work better? To give them both some credit, Levant and Steyn are doing a service to society by writing so passionately about abuses of that process. But so are the people who take cases before them, and win or lose based on the validity of their arguments. You break in an engine my running it, not turning it off.

I believe Canada 's self-designation as the world's first multicultural state is important, perhaps the most important thing that distinguishes us from Americans. And I believe that comes with responsibilities that we all must bear. In a nutshell, that is where I am coming from. It's why I am taking the effort to engage in a debate with the loudest voices on the other side at the moment.

A year or so ago, I participated in an academic symposium in New York, at which I was asked to explore the differences between broadcasting policy in Canada and the U.S. As my example, I used the controversy over "shock-jock" radio programs like Don Imus in the Morning.

In Canada , a broadcaster was censured by the CRTC for airing an Imus program where the host and guests advocated bombing Palestinians and portrayed them as dirty animals unworthy of our consideration. This commentary was aired during the funeral of Yasser Arafat. It was hateful and I think a majority of Canadians would agree with the decision.


In the U.S. , the FCC would not have acted at all. It would not have been allowed to. The only thing that broadcasters can be castigated for in the U.S. is obscenity. So the keynote of my talk was "What's worse -- the f-word or the n-word?"


The concensus of most Americans there was that saying "nigger" on the air is more offensive than saying the f-word. Canada's laws recognize that, and U.S. laws do not.


I believe we owe that to the “collective responsibility” of civility and respect that the Canadian Multiculturalism Act placed in our consciousness so long ago.