It appears that the Canadian government, through the form of an unelected bureaucracy, is once again trying to remove freedom of religious expression from Canadians. In so doing, the government appears to have violated two of the most basic principles of justice. The first is that every accused has the right to know the charges against him or her, and the second is that every accused has the right to face his or her accuser.
This tale begins with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, a quasi-judicial body with a mandate to investigate hate speech. The commission is pursuing a complaint against FreeDominion.ca co-founder Connie Wilkins. This website is a sister-site to FreeRepublic and a popular discussion board for Canadian pro-lifers. Free Dominion was instrumental for Catholics during the Canadian debate over same-sex marriage, becoming the central communications point for organizing pro-marriage rallies and various letter-writing campaigns.
The complaint against Wilkins stems from comments posted to the board by controversial Christian activist Bill Whatcott. "I can't figure out why the homosexuals I ran into are on the side of the Muslims," Whatcott wrote. "After all, Muslims who practice Sharia law tend to advocate beheading homosexuals." Whatcott also wrote on another occasion: "I defy Islamic censorship and speak about what I believe is the truth about violent Islamism and its threat to religious liberty in Canada."
Now Whatcott is an individual with whom I have clashed on several occasions. In fact, I believed his claim here to be factually incorrect. Comparative religions was the area of my undergraduate degree and never once have I come across an incident where a Muslim court sentenced a homosexual to have his or her head cut off. I know several Muslim countries prescribe stoning for homosexuality, but others have lesser penalties or no penalties at all. But these are points that are better corrected in the forum of ideas than before a government commission.
The commission first informed Wilkins of the complaint in a letter dated July 16, and mailed out the July 17. The letter, written by commission investigator Sandy Kozak, gave Wilkins until July 18 — the day Wilkins received the letter — to return her formal reply to the complaint. Absent from the letter was a statement concerning the nature of the complaint, details about the alleged incidents with Whatcott that gave rise to the complaint, or even the full identity of the complainant. Wilkins was only told that a "Ms. Gentes" had made an allegation against her, and that she had until that day to respond. Only when Wilkins' lawyer got involved was the full name of the complainant reportedly given as Marie-Line Gentes.
This is scary from the legal perspective of a private citizen trying to assert his or her rights in the face of government encroachment.
"How do you defend yourself against something this vague, especially on such short notice?" Wilkins said. "They told me I had to respond that day but didn't tell me who was accusing me or what I was being accused of." And while the short notice is being blamed on an administrative error by the bureaucrats, there are several other disturbing abnormalities in the handling of the case. For instance, the commission's own website says that the "the respondent is advised of the complaint as soon as it is filed with the Commission." Yet it took over a year — Gentes reportedly filed her complaint in June 2006 — before the commission informed Wilkins of the complaint.
"I cannot help but think that this is a politically motivated attack on our members' free speech," Wilkins told me. "Many of FreeDominion's members are Christians who feel strongly about life issues and traditional family values."
Wilkins attempted to contact Kozak the following day, but was reportedly told the investigator was away on vacation. Wilkins then managed to speak with John Chamberlain, Kozak's supervisor, who would not provide the missing information at first, but who made it clear to Wilkins the complaint was not a hoax. Wilkins also discovered that Kozak had given her the wrong case number.
The commission eventually agreed to fax the information to Wilkins' lawyer, Liam Connelly. It was at that time that she discovered the complaint concerned Whatcott and statements he had made about Islam and Canada's homosexuals. Why was this information not provided to Wilkins up front? She is the accused, and in Canada this means she must pay her own legal fees, while the commission (i.e. the Canadian taxpayer) picks up those of Gentes the accuser. Thus the system is already weighted against Wilkins.
Of course reaction among Canada's conservative blogging community ranged from panic to outrage. Numerous concerns were expressed over eroding freedom of religious expression in Canada. For example, Calgary Bishop Fred Henry, oftentimes referred to as "Canada's Bishop Bruskewitz", was recently brought before the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal after comparing homosexuality to prostitution in a letter he wrote to Calgary's Catholic community. This was deemed "hate speech" by many on the left.
Yet these same people saw nothing wrong with a cartoon, which appeared on a popular left-wing site, depicting Pope Benedict giving the Blessed Mother a Nazi salute. Strangely, neither did the commission. Despite a large outcry from Catholics who found the cartoon both blasphemous and deeply hurtful, the commission deemed that the cartoon was not hate speech and refused to proceed with the case.
Thus one can understand the palpable fear among Catholics and other Christians that the commission is being used unfairly to target them, and that as this case progresses it will put a chill on what Christians can post on their websites. Even if Ms. Wilkins is able to have the complaint dismissed by what bloggers are calling the "Kangaroo Koolaid Kourt", the whole Christian blogosphere in Canada will be on edge and guarding their content (even third party content) for fear of some anti-religious opportunist summoning the speech police.