by Kim Hart Macneill
A lot of ink has been dedicated to Canadian human rights commissions’ attempts to establish a line between free speech and discrimination. Columnist Mark Steyn and Maclean’s magazine were dragged before two provincial commissions and the federal branch over one article. Publisher Ezra Levant of the Western Standard stood before the Alberta Human Rights Commission for republishing the infamous Danish cartoons.
There was one case few people were likely to notice. It garnered only a handful of short articles, a brief CBC radio interview and an editorial piece in the French language La Presse. Then it disappeared.
The story of this case might explain why journalists want the commissions to stay out of the publishing business, and why the public knows so little about them.
Bruce MacKinnon is the Chronicle Herald’s editorial cartoonist. His beaming smile and loud, cartoon-covered neck tie make him easy to pick out in a room full of reporters. MacKinnon digests the big ticket news items like soaring gas prices and bumbling politicians, and ties them up in a tidy package that’s part politics and part joke.
One cartoon stuck with MacKinnon in a way he didn’t expect.
In April 2008, the newspaper ran a front page story about Cheryfa MacAulay Jamal under the headline ‘I want millions, seriously’. The headline referred to Jamal’s threat to sue the federal government for the 17-month imprisonment of her husband. His charges were stayed that week.
Qayyum Abdul Jamal was arrested in the 2006 Ontario anti-terrorism round-up called the “Toronto 18”. Police arrested 18 people suspected of planning terrorist attacks on high profile landmarks like the Parliament Buildings and CN Tower.
A large picture of Cheryfa MacAulay Jamal accompanied the story. The photo features Jamal wearing a black burka and a full veil. Only her eyes and glasses are visible.
Jamal’s story made the front page because she was born in Nova Scotia as Sherry MacAulay and attended school in Halifax. She changed her name and converted to Islam when she married.
The picture and headline, I want millions, spoke to MacKinnon as the subject for his next cartoon, so he got to work.
“Any time there are courts involved, caution is required so I did my research before I did the cartoon. I thought seriously about it. I honestly thought it was important to say, and I still do,” he says from his office months later.
Before sitting down to draw, MacKinnon takes his idea to his co-workers and editors, his sounding board. If the idea for a cartoon doesn’t work, or calls into question taste or legal issues it might be reworked or scrapped.
“I don’t take these things lightly, when a cartoon needs to be looked at like that I’ll jump through the hoops. I want to make sure that, first of all, the cartoon is going to get published. Second of all, it isn’t going to get anybody in trouble.”
The cartoon, which MacKinnon says can’t be republished because of the stir, is stark in its simplicity. It features a cartoon version of Jamal, based on the Canadian Press photo. She holds a sign reading, “I want millions,” and a speech balloon saying, “For my husband’s next training camp.”
This didn’t sit well with some members of the Halifax Muslim community.
“You would not put a native American Indian with feathers and say I need money in order to cull white people’s heads. You wouldn’t do that. This would be libellous,” Zia Khan, director of the Centre for Islamic Development in Halifax, told CBC at the time.
The Centre is housed in a small building on Robie Street. Its mission statement is “the reality of a vision designed to promote harmony, education and understanding within our community.” Those who go there describe it as a place for people of Islamic faith to gather for prayer and family support.
Reports in the Herald and on CBC.ca indicate several members of the Centre contacted the Halifax Regional Police and Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to complain about what they felt was hate speech.
MacKinnon heard about the complaints at the office. But it didn’t really hit home until he read about it, like most people did, in the newspaper. The article said the police were investigating the cartoon under section 318 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which deals with hate propaganda.
MacKinnon and the Herald received a call from the police when the criminal investigation was dropped without charges. The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission was, as MacKinnon calls it, “a whole different animal.”
“It’s just like this question mark you’re carrying around over your head at this point,” he says describing the complaint. When we spoke MacKinnon wasn’t sure about the status of the complaint, or what could happen next.
Eighty per cent of complaints investigated by the NSHRC are employment related. Tenancy issues make up most of the other 20 per cent. Director and CEO Krista Daley says her office receives “at most one inquiry” about media discrimination per year. To date, none of these have become official complaints, which means they have been dropped or dismissed before going through the entire system. Daley says she feels Canadian media pay too much attention to these types of cases, and not enough to situations where people are kicked out of their job because of their gender or race.
Most Nova Scotians, MacKinnon included, have not read the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act, which lays out the complaints process, and what constitutes discrimination. It is made up of three parts, divided into 43 sections and is a tough read if you don’t happen to be a lawyer.
Once a case is investigated by Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission staff, and found to fall within the jurisdiction of the act, it is forwarded to the commissioners who decide on the next step.
The entire process remains confidential unless the commissioners pass it on to a board of inquiry for a public hearing. A hearing is not a court of law. There are no plaintiffs and defendants. The accuser is called the complainant, and the accused is called the respondent. Evidence is gathered, and witnesses give statements, but neither side is appointed an attorney if they cannot afford one.
Many complaints do not make it to that stage so the work of the NSHRC often remain a mystery to the public.
“The pro is that then people actually feel confident coming forward with a complaint,” says Daley. “But the con is that sometimes, and this is really what goes to issues of freedom of the press and open courts, there is an issue that the public really needs to understand.”
Daley did not respond to requests for the numbers of official complaints and inquiries the Commission receives each year, so it is difficult to know what percentage actually complete the process. Inquiries are complaints which are not fully investigated or taken to a hearing.
So far in 2008, three decisions have been made. In 2007 and 2006, seven decisions were made each year. In 2005, six decisions were passed. In 2004, eleven decisions, the most in any year for which reports were available on-line.
Will King is one of the people who contacted the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. He is articulate, and has a big appetite for media consumption. He speaks easily on a range of topics from media ownership to religions, war to Hollywood stars.
King’s frameless glasses and striped dress shirt wouldn’t look out of place on any Halifax man heading off to work. He keeps his Blackberry close as we talk, and a Bluetooth ear piece hangs from one of his shirt buttons. Muslims aren’t that different from everyone else, he says, they just abstain from things that don’t fit into the tenants of Islam, like drinking alcohol and watching violent films.
He doesn’t like the way Muslims are portrayed in the media, especially when the headlines he reads in the newspaper don’t match their stories.
King remembers one story Herald cover story well. The headline read, “The face of the enemy,” and featured a photo of a middle eastern teen wearing a kufi, a traditional Muslim hat that King wears too. He said the article wasn’t anti-Muslim, but could easily appear so.
“How many people just read the headlines, flipping through the newspaper, and think they have read the news?”
He read the article about Jamal the day before the cartoon was published, and says he worried people would think the cartoon represented all Muslim women. The media rehash the same stereotypes constantly, he says, and no one ever speaks out about it.
“If you tap me once, like this,” he taps two fingers on the table, “it doesn’t hurt. But then you do it two, three more times,” he says tapping his fingers harder. “Then you do it for a long time, everyday,” his fingers make a constant thumping sound on the table. “That will annoy you — that will start to hurt.”
“I still don’t know what happened,” he says of the complaints process.
The NSHRC didn’t return his messages, he says, but eventually sent a letter saying his complaint wasn’t going any further. It said the cartoon was a portrayal of Jamal, not discrimination against all Muslims. He says the letter was filled with “legalese” and references to other rulings.
“If you get that letter, and you don’t know what the other cases were about, then you can’t understand what the letter says unless you look up all of those cases and read them.”
A meeting of the minds
Bob Howse, the Herald’s editor and chief, MacKinnon and Dan Leger, director of news content, met with King and several others from the Centre after the NSHRC contacted them.
“There are many times people have complained about coverage and we invite them in and meet with them to talk about it. Not because of the Human Rights Commission, but because it’s something you should do,” says Howse.
The group talked about their lives as practising Muslims in Halifax, and said they want to see more stories about Islam in the religion section of the paper. It’s not one of the “hard news issues” newspapers usually think about, Howse says, but he agrees the paper should do more.
“Even if it’s just taking photographs and explaining to the rest of the people in the community what that festival is.”
King says he has seen positive changes since the meeting. The Herald ran a story about Omar Khadr on the front page, and an opinion piece King wrote.
“People sometimes are unaware of what they are doing until someone says something.”
Is there a better way?
Graeme MacKay is president of the Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists and the editorial cartoonist
at the Hamilton Spectator in Ontario. He says the political aspect of Jamal’s demand for millions was the subject of the cartoon, not her religion.
“You may wince at a cartoon, but the idea of cartoons is to express an opinion and hopefully engage readers. If you do have an issue with it, write a letter [to the editor] and raise your complaint. Maybe it will get published and that will stimulate other people to write.”
MacKay sees the merit of the commissions, but thinks that the public would be better served if media issues were brought to a press council instead.
Press councils formed around the country after the 1981 Royal Commission on Newspapers recommended the government set up a division for readers’ complaints.
In Nova Scotia, media outlets formed and funded their own press council. An independent chairman mediated disputes in front of a panel of journalists and members of the public. The results were published by various outlets.
“There were sometimes that we were found to have acted understandably, and other times there were criticisms,” says Howse of times he represented the Herald. “Sometimes it was decided we should give the other party space in the newspaper to hear their views, and we did that.”
The complaint against MacKinnon and the Herald was dismissed after a few months, unlike those against Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn. Levant’s case languished in the Alberta system almost three years before it was dismissed. A judge in British Colombia dismissed the complaint against Steyn in October 2008, just two weeks shy of the article’s second anniversary. The Ontario complaint against him was dismissed the previous April.
MacKinnon says the current wave of complaints against journalists should be a wake up call for human rights commissions.
“I don’t see that journalists and cartoonists are doing anything wrong here. I don’t think we’re doing anything differently than we have for hundreds of years. I think what’s new here is the behaviour of the human rights commissions.”
Human Rights and Journos
Mark Steyn and MacLean’s
Ontario Human Rights Commission Statement Concerning Issues Raised by Complaints Against Maclean’s Magazine statement
Canadian Islamic Congress v. Rogers Media Inc. (Dismissed) pdf
Ezra Levant and The Western Standard
Ezra Levant’s opening statement to the Alberta Human Rights Commission
(posted on YouTube) watch
Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities v. Western Standard (Dismissed) pdf