Politics

Justice committee votes to scrub Conservative MP's 'hurtful' remarks to Muslim witness from official record

The House of Commons justice committee in Ottawa has voted to strike controversial remarks from Conservative MP Michael Cooper from the record.

Michael Cooper had read sections from manifesto of Christchurch, New Zealand, mass killer

Conservative MP Michael Cooper has been kicked off the Commons justice committee. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The House of Commons justice committee in Ottawa has voted to strike controversial remarks from Conservative MP Michael Cooper from the record.

Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault put forward the motion on Tuesday morning, calling Cooper's comments "discriminatory, hurtful and disrespectful."

Over the weekend, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer removed Cooper from the justice committee after the Alberta MP confronted a Muslim witness in hearings studying online hate.

Cooper had told Faisal Khan Suri he should be "ashamed" after he drew a link between "conservative commentators" and the online history of mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette.

Cooper also quoted from the manifesto of the man accused of the mass killings in Christchurch, New Zealand, in an attempt to discredit Suri's testimony.

The committee voted 6-0 to remove the name of the attacker and a section of his manifesto that Cooper had read at committee. Conservative committee members abstained from voting.

NDP MP Randall Garrison said we are living in "incendiary times," and warned people must not confuse free speech and the exchange of ideas with "throwing gas on the fires."

Deny extremists a forum

"I think we have a responsibility as a committee of Parliament to make sure we do not contribute to that, and that we respect the wishes of the New Zealand government in trying to make sure that those who engage in violent acts based on extremist ideologies do not get a public forum to spread their ideas," he said.

Conservative MP John Brassard said Scheer had already dealt with the matter, and Cooper has apologized.

"This is nothing more than a stunt," Brassard said.

According to information provided by the Library of Parliament, evidence expunged from the record in committee is across all mediums: written, audio and video. This power has, historically, been used rarely and most commonly for the protection of witness privacy, according to the library.

The committee chair, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, said Wednesday that the text would be amended to say that Cooper quoted from the manifesto and the committee decided to delete the name and the quote.

"We're not denying that it happened. Simply the words will be removed and the name of the shooter will be removed, according to how I read that resolution," he said.

Tuesday's meeting, which heard from free speech activists Mark Steyn, John Robson and Lindsay Shepherd, was initially to be televised, but MPs voted to have it recorded for audio only.

Robson, a commentator and columnist for the National Post, warned that censorship only drives hate speech underground, giving it a "hiding place" where it is goes unchallenged.

'Rescue the haters'

"We want to rescue the haters as well as protect society from hate," he said. "If you keep it off the open internet it goes into the dark web, where it festers and it breeds in dank basements. It even lets haters wrap themselves in the mantle of martyrdom."

Steyn, a free speech commentator who acknowledged his past commentary has been obnoxious and hurtful, said politicians must resist calls to reinstate Section 13 pertaining to hate speech in the Canadian Human Rights Act, which was repealed in 2013.

"The idea of bureaucrats once again getting into this business is deeply disturbing," he said.

Garrison, who spoke about receiving explicit death threats because he is an openly gay MP, expressed concern with Tuesday's testimony.

"I must confess I find this panel extremely challenging because I happen to live in the real world and I happen to live in this century," he said.

Several historians, meanwhile, criticized the committee's decision to purge the official record. James Muir, a legal historian at the University of Alberta, said it undermines the goal of holding MPs guilty of "egregious conduct" to account.

"I think the action here is wrongheaded," he said. "What MP Cooper said has been widely reported outside of the official record, so the information won't be lost. It will simply be located elsewhere. Effectively removing it from the record lets Mr. Cooper hide his egregious conduct."

Michael Behiels, a political historian at the University of Ottawa, said the committee's action "undermines the integrity of Parliament."

"Researchers will get access to the material expunged from the record via other sources, starting with the media sources," he told CBC News.

"If there is 'incitement to violence' in the document or documents being read into the record of the committee, then the chair of the committee must add a full explanation as (to) how and why the 'incitement to violence' part of a document got read into or was placed in the record. Historians would then be able to fully understand the incident."

The Canadian Historical Association (CHA) also raised concerns about the removal of comments from the official record of the justice committee.

"This is out of step with usual practice and will impede future historians' ability to understand and analyze this incident and its context," said Adele Perry, CHA president and a history professor at the University of Manitoba.

With files from the CBC's Chris Hall

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