‘Human rights’ vs. basic freedoms

A timely intervention has prevented the cancer from metastasizing, but aggressive treatment is still needed.


The diagnosis is by now well known: From their privileged place within the body politic, Canada’s various human rights commissions have gone from legitimately fighting discrimination to attacking Canadian liberties.

There was a real danger of metastasis, as the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) attempted to spread its corruption to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO). The timely intervention came from the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) and other public voices.  The patient, though — the Canadian public–is still infected with human rights commissions that are compromising our most fundamental liberties, including freedom of conscience, of religion, of speech and of the press.

The issue was physicians’ natural right to refuse to perform services they consider professionally unwise, morally unsound or religiously illicit.   Over the summer, the CPSO proposed new policies that would have circumscribed those rights at the urging of the OHRC.

Doctors and other health care professionals, being free citizens and responsible professionals, have never been forced to violate their conscience. But we learned long ago that the OHRC doesn’t much care for fundamental freedoms.  Having pronounced its desire earlier this year to convict Maclean’s magazine for publishing a 2006 excerpt from a Mark Steyn book that is critical of radical Islam, the OHRC cast its empire-building gaze toward the medical profession.

The OHRC, possessing investigative, judicial and penal powers, already is more than capable of grinding up a doctor who, say, thinks it unwise to prescribe birth control pills to a young teenage girl (a trifecta–gender, age and marital status discrimination!).  Given the examples it used in its submission to the CPSO, the OHRC is looking forward to prosecuting doctors who might recommend psychiatric consultation for a “transgendered” patient who, in the learned medical opinion of the commission, does not require it. And it takes little imagination to figure out what OHRC bureaucrats are lusting after more than anything else: penalizing a doctor for not facilitating an abortion.

In the OHRC’s world, the doctor disappears entirely as a moral actor and accredited professional, reduced simply to an unthinking agent of the patient’s wishes. One might as well throw out the Hippocratic Oath and simply command doctors to do whatever they are told — not by a medical body, but by a human rights commission.

The OHRC invited the CPSO to pile on, recommending that the accrediting body for Ontario physicians threaten doctors with professional-misconduct penalties for running afoul of the OHRC.  And shockingly enough, the CPSO was ready to go along with it.

Facing fierce opposition, the CPSO yesterday backed down substantially, deleting the proposals that most clearly violated doctors’ conscience rights. Some of the replacement language is worryingly ambiguous, but for the most part the cancer of the OHRC has not spread into the professional college.

Yet the whole episode shows how diseased the human-rights situation is in Canada.  A self-respecting, confident CPSO would have slapped down the OHRC for seeking to meddle in professional standards, and told it in no uncertain terms that doctors’ human rights were not going to be abrogated by anyone, even the OHRC.

It was left to the OMA to slap down the CPSO — the doctors’ professional association taking the accrediting college to the public woodshed.  The OMA was blunt: “It should never be professional misconduct for an Ontario physician to act in accordance with his or her religious beliefs.”  And in case the CPSO didn’t get it, the OMA advised that the policy proposal be dropped outright — not amended, not redrafted, not referred for further discussion, but simply rejected.

Good for the OMA for not advocating some middle way between a healthy recognition of human rights and the diseased approach of the OHRC.  But more aggressive confrontation of the OHRC’s overreaching is necessary. It is not enough just to prevent the cancer from spreading, which is what was achieved yesterday. It needs to be eliminated.

Professional groups such as the OMA — those representing writers and clergy, for example — have been sounding the alarm on the human rights commissions for some time now.  There needs to be a corresponding sense of urgency from Canadian governments, whose statutes sustain human rights commissions.  Provincial ministers of justice have been largely silent.  The federal minister of justice, Robert Nicholson, a good man who surely knows better, has been disconcertingly reserved in regard to the abuses taking place on his watch.  The federal government’s irresponsibly lackadaisical approach sends signals to otherwise respectable bodies, like the CPSO, that the OHRC and similar bodies are not to be challenged.

That needs to change–otherwise we shall eventually be whistling past the graveyard of Canadian liberty.