The Committee vs. the Commission

On Monday (October 5), the House of Commons Justice Committee will begin a review of a very thorny burr under the saddle of free speech proponents.

Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act has been a cause celebre in anti-censorship circles for years. Section 13 gives the Canadian Human Rights Commission a mandate to investigate allegations of hate speech. In some human rights cases, full-blown hearings can ensue, and if the complaints are found to be warranted, corrective actions and compensation can be ordered as a remedy for the dissemination of this allegedly hurtful speech.

Some recent high-profile investigations have led to controversy over the way this Section of the Act is interpreted -- and allegations that the Commission overreaches and underachieves. The Canadian Islamic Congress' complaint over a Mark Steyn column in Maclean's magazine , among others, have lead to calls to repeal this section of the Act.

Last November, delegates on the floor of the Conservative Party convention in Winnipeg agreed -- voting overwhelmingly in favour of this resolution:

The Conservative Party supports legislation to remove authority from the Canadian Human Rights Commission and Tribunal to regulate, receive, investigate or adjudicate complaints related to Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson himself was among those casting a vote in support, and a recent blog report suggests his Department is already considering a change.

Previous private members business (most recently by Liberal MP Keith Martin) or motions at committee haven't gotten very far in terms of moving Parliament in a similar direction. But after a false start last February, the House of Commons Justice Committee is now ready to begin a study of Section 13. On Monday, the committee will hear from both Steyn and Ezra Levant, who know what it's like to fight a human rights complaint over their journalism. Jennifer Lynch, the Chief Commissioner for the Canadian Human Rights Commission, is also expected to be called before the committee.

While some support for the idea exists across party lines, Jewish and other minority groups are not in favour of giving up a provision that was originally intended to fight the discrimination and intolerance. Watch for some heated exchanges and a passionate debate from both sides, and a set of recommendations that could take some courage to write.