Thursday, March 31, 2005

An Open Letter to Premier Ralph Klein of Alberta
and Marie Riddle, the Director of the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission:

Re: Complaint Filed Against Pastoral Letter of Bishop Henry of Calgary

Human Rights Tribunals depend for their ongoing credibility upon their occupying an appropriate role within a free and ordered democracy. Should human rights Tribunals and Commissions, and those who work within processes related to them, lose sight of what necessarily unites citizens in terms of essential freedoms then they will imperil their very role within society.

In Canada today, there are many examples of Human Rights Tribunals and Commissions failing to keep the principles of a free and ordered society in view. The increasingly expressed concerns of religious groups (and other concerned citizens) about Human Rights "over-reaching" their proper role to force particular conceptions on the population, signal an important and dangerous development in recent years.

The complaint against Bishop Henry of Calgary, which I understand is now before the Human Rights and Citizenship Commission in Alberta, raises concerns for all citizens regardless of their personal views respecting contested sexual practices - - in this case homosexual and lesbian conduct.

As one who has acted before and on behalf of Human Rights Tribunals in the past in my capacity as a lawyer, who has been on the National Executive of the Civil Liberties Section of the Canadian Bar Association and who now watches developments and consults internationally with respect to human rights, I urge you to recognize that the processes of human rights are being misused in this instance.

The public expression of dissent with respect to homosexual conduct is a perfectly valid, if controversial, view and no valid human rights concern can possibly be raised by such public expression of belief by a leading religious figure.

The very future of human rights depends upon a firm message to citizens that such rights are important and must not be trivialized. The human rights complaint processes carry with them an onerous responsibility to use them well: subjecting citizens to expensive and often protracted proceedings is a misue of power and statutory authority and can only bring the administration of such systems into disrepute.

You need to develop, advertize and use, as quickly as possible, a speedy procedure to summarily dispose of vexatious threats such as this one.

It is essential for the sake of human rights themselves, so long fought for and at such cost, to make it widely known that Canada in general and Alberta in the context of this case in particular, will not tolerate attempts to suppress or cast a chill upon the freedom of public debate on contested matters.

For it is only upon such a basis that a culture of respect can be built at all.

I write this in my capacity as a lawyer and a Canadian citizen and not on behalf of any particular organization.

Iain T. Benson
Barrister & Solicitor
Former National Executive Member of the Civil Liberties Section of the Canadian Bar Association
Executive Director
Centre for Cultural Renewal (Ottawa)