Present-day conservatives like to complain that they are the victims of so-called cancel culture, and that they are somehow hard done by in the media and online, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Some of them have decided to fight back against this supposed encroachment against them by declaring that their human rights are being violated—specifically the rights of political belief and activity. There are now two bills before Parliament in Canada, a private member’s bill from MP Garnett Genuis in the House of Commons and a Senate public bill from Senator Salma Ataullahjan in the Upper Chamber, both nearly identical, that seek to enshrine political beliefs and activities as protected grounds under federal human rights legislation. The problem is that this is predicated on a completely imaginary problem.
The idea that conservatives are being targeted is not hard to find among their circles. The conservative Conference Formerly Known as the Manning Conference held a webinar discussion on the need for such legislation, and the example they cite is of Jordan Peterson facing possible censure from the regulatory college of his clinical psychology profession. Peterson has publicly claimed that he is being forced into “re-education” (read: social media training) because he tweeted criticism of the prime minister and is being punished for it. The very documents he posted to prove his claims said nothing at all about political posts, but instead pointed to his propensity to quote his credentials in discussing things he has no professional knowledge of, such as climate change, and a complaint that one tweet could be interpreted as counselling suicide to someone who complained about the state of the world.
Nevertheless, conservatives everywhere took Peterson at his word that he was being politically targeted and rushed to his defence. The National Post practically devoted an entire weekend of editorial coverage to Peterson when he made the accusation, with most their columnists and op-ed contributors rushing to Peterson’s defence and lamenting the alleged government censorship that was being thrust upon him. Throughout this, certain Conservatives have pointed to this as why they need to pass their legislation on protecting political rights, no matter how specious that claim actually is. In the meantime, Peterson continues to make more money as an influencer than he did as a professor, and just filled a stadium for a talk in Ottawa, so he’s not exactly suffering from any perceived discrimination for his political beliefs.
The very notion that right-wing political rights are under threat in Canada is fairly risible, as we haven’t seen any documented cases of people losing their jobs, housing or access to care or essential services because of their political associations. They are not targeted by police; they do not have poorer health outcomes because of those beliefs or activities. It’s also contrary to the whole reason why we have human rights protections in this country, because it has to do with groups who have faced historical exclusion or discrimination from society, largely for immutable characteristics like race, sex, gender or sexual orientation.
There are also protections for religion, and while that is not necessarily as immutable as other characteristics, there is a long history of exclusion and discrimination based on one’s religion, particularly in pre- and post-Confederation Canada where Catholics and Protestants had very separate interests, and sectarian organizations like Orange Lodges also had great political sway. In fact, one of the reasons why Quebec has designated regions for its Senate seats in the federal Parliament has to do with protecting the interests of historical enclaves of anglophones and Protestant minorities in the province. Meanwhile, antisemitism is back on the rise in Canada, and we have a growing problem with Islamophobia, some of it being driven by conservative politicians’ rhetoric.
Political belief or activity is by no means a fixed constant, nor has it been historically disadvantageous, unless you want to include communists in that calculation, for whom organization in this country has been de facto illegal at times under Section 98 of the Criminal Code, but one suspects that this is not whom these conservatives are looking to protect. What this whole exercise is about, rather, is both the continued attempt by far-right populism to co-opt the language around identity, and is an attempt to try and use what they see as left-wing tactics against them, particularly the notion around “cry-bullies.” They want to be able to play the victim in an institutional sense, so that they can turn around and claim that they are being discriminated against legally when they are criticized or face consequences for their words and actions. We saw this with the so-called “Freedom Convoy,” where terms like “medical segregation” and “genocide” were used in decrying vaccine passports, and some of that terminology has found its way into the political mainstream in places like Alberta under premier Danielle Smith, who claimed that the unvaccinated were the most discriminated-against group she had seen in her lifetime.
Even more insidiously, I suspect that this attempt to enshrine their “political rights” aims to use human rights legislation as a shield from the very minorities whom far-right populists target for political reasons. When they attack trans rights, or denounce drag storytimes in libraries or call for a ban on face coverings by Muslim women, they can claim “these are my beliefs as a conservative and you can’t attack me for them!” It tries to set up a clash between rights, and to the point where it becomes exceedingly difficult to see how a court or a tribunal would balance those rights. What this ends up doing is weakening existing human rights protections for minorities, because their attackers can claim that they have become the real victims in this situation, betraying the whole reason why human rights laws exist.
While it is unlikely that either of these two bills could pass in the current Parliament, barring significant support from backbench Liberal, NDP or Bloc MPs, if the Conservatives are able to win a majority Parliament in the future, the agitation they’re doing now could pave the road for future passage. This is why we need to be aware of their tactics now and call out their plans for what they really are—the erosion of hard-fought minority rights in this country.