Shakedown: How Our Government is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights, by Ezra Levant, McClelland & Stewart, 216 pages, $28.99
Ezra Levant is the No. 1 advocate for, and defender of, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of thought in modern Canada. His story, and the reason he has written Shakedown , began with the now famous Danish "Mohammed" cartoons.
Levant, then publisher of the Western Standard newsmagazine, republished the 12 cartoons after their original publication had sparked riots in a number of countries in which an estimated 100 people died, spurred death threats against the cartoonists, led to the burning of Danish embassies in at least three countries and thus became a massive worldwide news story. (I wish to note that these cartoons, by any standards of Western news caricature, are bland and innocuous.)
Levant made the case that since the cartoons were news, and were alleged to be the occasion that brought about such mayhem, his readers should actually be able to look at the cartoons themselves - to see the items that were said to be stirring such a storm. He was a publisher making a news judgment.
In Calgary, an imam, who claims to be a descendant of Mohammed - having first tried to have Levant arrested - made a complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission.
Thus began Levant's long, costly, surreal descent into the whirlpool of human-rights investigation and adjudication. In every case brought before Canada's HRCs, the complainant merely launches the action and bears no cost. The "target," if he doesn't not bend and break immediately, has to deal with the extended legal process and its government lawyers and functionaries.
It's very costly: $100,000 so far for Levant. As he has said very often: "The process is the punishment."
Levant didn't bend or break. Therein lies this tale.
Now, some people do not like Levant's style. They say he is too aggressive, too noisy and assertive, that he courts controversy and publicity. They should read Shakedown , and they will quickly realize that anyone less "aggressive" or "noisy" would have long ago been suffocated by the remorseless, inequitable, taxpayer-funded, bureaucratic grinding of Canada's human rights tribunals and commissions.
On the matter of his alleged taste for controversy and publicity, again, after reading Shakedown , they will realize that without his ability to withstand controversy and generate publicity, an insidious and largely unaccountable process of diminishing the central concepts of our democracy - freedom of speech, press and thought - would largely have gone unnoticed, and what is far worse, unchallenged.
Next there is the matter of Levant's politics. He is a stalwart conservative, a Harper supporter. He worked for the Conservatives in the last federal election. He was himself an MP. In the lesser universe of political partisanship, this makes him a toxic commodity to partisans of the centre or the left. Which is fine as far as it goes. Partisans will disaccommodate other partisans.
But in judging the cause that he has for three years now championed, and the gruelling effort he has been forced to put in to defend that cause, of which Shakedown is both the diary and the rationale, partisanship should have zero leverage over judgment.
Ezra Levant, for my taste, could be the love child (ideologically speaking) of Noam Chomsky and Ontario human-rights impresario Barbara Hall, but his indictment of the procedures, practices and ideology of Canada's human rights commissions, their Orwellian character, shameless amateurism and overweening reach is simply right. He has their number. He has experienced their practice. He has documented their absurdities and pettiness.
And he has - with courage and no little cost - stood up to them in a manner so straightforward and clear that he is positively un-Canadian. On this issue - Liberal, New Democrat, Conservative, Green - it should matter not. Were he to elope tomorrow with Jane Fonda, he would still be right, and I would still support him in this matter.
It's very much worth noting here that while Levant's personal politics may have stayed the enthusiasm of Liberals and New Democrats for giving him the support in his fight he clearly deserves, they haven't carried an opposite dividend. Where has Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper been on this issue? It is a cause of deepest principle. It isn't just a Tory thing. But Harper has been craven on the subject.
There is some thought in Conservative circles that Harper "stayed away" from the human rights commission scandal because he fears "sending the wrong signal" of associating the Conservative party with an "attack" on human rights, and thus confirming in the minds of the bien-pensant that he and his party are the troglodytes some suspect them of being from the old days of Reform.
If true, this is sheer cowardice and evasion. If free speech, free thought and freedom of the press don't register as the absolute cardinal principles of any democratic polity, and if Harper calculates that not defending them is a worthwhile tactic, he doesn't deserve to be Prime Minister.
About some things, silence or temporizing is not - may I use Brian Mulroney's phrase here - "an option, Sir." The same thought applies with equal force to Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton. They have no excuse for standing - as they have - on the sidelines while this issue has been raging.
I read Shakedown and I am awed at Levant's persistence and powers of endurance.
Aside from the rigours of defending himself over three years, at costs that exceed $100,000 (for a complaint withdrawn almost on a whim toward the end of that marathon), he has also been sued on numerous occasions by his opponents, by members of the Canadian Human Rights Commission itself, and he has been put under a hail of complaints to the Alberta Law Society - in an effort to have him, for all his pains, disbarred.
In any other society, what Levant has endured would be seen and spoken of for what it is: a persecution. I wonder why the lawyers of Canada, particularly those of Alberta, have not seen this blizzard of lawsuits and complaints to the Law Society for what they are: attempts to shut Levant down by other means, payback for being "noisy" and "assertive" and "controversial" and refusing to accommodate the soft tyranny (not so "soft" now that I think of it) of provincial and federal tribunals and commissions.
I do not have the space adequately to summarize the arguments and examples that Levant has presented in Shakedown . But I will emphasize that it is a book of argument and examples. Levant is a clear thinker, a very patient researcher (reading the judgments of some of the more ludicrous cases ruled on by these tribunals calls for a mind of granite, a will of iron and a soul of steel) and an advocate of real courage.
Some of the particular cases he details - the case of the lesbian hecklers at the comedy club; the case of the Wiccan working at Boston Pizza who didn't like the rock music in the kitchen; the case of the Self-Medicating Pot Smoker who wanted to smoke in the doorway of Gator Ted's, a Burlington, Ont., pub, even though the patrons didn't like it and in Ontario there are those "smoke-free" regulations, leaving the owner of Gator Ted's on the prongs of two bureaucratic forks - are simultaneously absurd and frightening, Kafka dipped in Wodehouse. Welcome to the strange new world of political correctness roaming the landscape, seeking whom it may devour.
Levant has been mocked, pilloried, sued, harassed and abused - yet he soldiers on. It is but just to note that he had one great help along the way. That came, inadvertently, when his cause commingled with the complaints made to three human-rights commissions against Mark Steyn and Maclean's magazine by Mohamed Elmasry. That brought a second hero of real Canadian human rights into the lists against the abridgement of free speech, Steyn, who contributes a foreword to the book.
As with Levant, Steyn's personal politics should have no play in the reading of where he stands on this issue. Steyn's prominence gave a needed amplification and visibility to the issues at play. His own writings (he is as remorseless as Levant on this matter) and appearances saved the cause from disappearing into an oblivion of determined indifference, by which we Canadians sometimes choose to avoid what is seen as awkward, and finesse what should be straightforwardly contested.
Ezra Levant is not Zola. And Shakedown is not J'accuse . But the great libertarian would not be embarrassed were he to see Shakedown on the same shelf as his great pamphlet. It is fired with a strain of the same (properly) righteous indignation. The Canadian state, through its zealous and (till Ezra Levant) mostly unregarded commissions has been trespassing on the liberties of us all. And under the banner of "human rights" actually abridging the most central of them. Ezra Levant's Shakedown , and his three-year advocacy, have been the "blast of the trumpet" against this trespass. And we should be grateful for his effort. Support him, too. Buy the book.
Rex Murphy speaks freely as a commentator with CBC-TV's The National and host of CBC Radio's Cross-Country Checkup.