Ezra Levant has written several bestselling books including Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oilsands. Levant earned a law degree from the University of Alberta and, in 2004, co-founded the Western Standard. He currently hosts The Source on Sun News Network and is a columnist for the Sun Media newspaper chain. Here he discusses his 2009 book Shakedown: How Our Government is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights.
Describe the genesis of Shakedown. How did you come to write about Canada’s Human Rights Commissions?
I had learned about human rights commissions in law school, but it wasn't until I became the victim of an abusive, 900-day investigation and prosecution, that I learned how legally and morally bankrupt they are -- and how unCanadian and unconstitutional they are.
I was hunted by 15 government bureaucrats and lawyers on the charge of “hate speech”, merely because, as the publisher of a news magazine, I reprinted several of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed to illustrate a news story about the subject. This was shocking to me as a citizen who valued my rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and due process.
I began to blog about the ordeal, and it soon became clear that there was sufficient material for a book on the subject -- not just as a journal of my own experience, but also a sampling of other outrageous cases, and an analysis of the legal flaws of human rights commissions.
How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?
Writing the book took about nine months. The toughest part was to save fresh material for the book -- that is, to hold back from blogging about some of the more outrageous facts I came across, since I was blogging every day.
Were there any books that influenced you in your approach?
Not really. I didn't want the book to be too legalistic; but it had to be a serious treatment of the substantive and procedural problems of human rights commissions. I hope I found that balance: technically accurate but also interesting to non-experts.
Tell us a little about how you chose the title Shakedown: How Our Government is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights.
I believe that the central characteristic of Canada's human rights commissions -- and the most important difference between them and real courts -- is that they have become instruments of political extortion. That is, far from protecting innocent people from bullies, the human rights commissions themselves are now the bullies. Here's what I mean: the 900-day prosecution against me cost me approximately $100,000 in legal fees, and it cost my accusers nothing. Taxpayers picked up their tab. But when the government dropped the case against me, I did not receive any compensation, and the bad faith accusers did not have to pay any costs. In a real court, nuisance litigants like that are punished by having paying their opponents' costs. In criminal courts, the accused person gets legal aid. It's the opposite here. In other words, human rights commissions invite abuse, because there are no consequences to abusers.
I truly felt like I was being shaken down by the system about nine months into the prosecution, when the human rights commission contacted me. They knew I had racked up some substantial bills by then. They said that if I paid a few thousand dollars to the radical Muslim imam who complained about the cartoons, and gave him a page in the magazine to write whatever he wanted, the commission would let me go. It was a shakedown -- and the government was a party to it.
The shame is that 90% of victims of human rights commissions pay the shakedown money and take the deal, because that is ultimately cheaper than fighting on principle, since even a principled win will not be compensated.
In other words, had I paid my radical Muslim imam accuser $10,000 in go-away money, and given him a page of the magazine, I would have saved myself $100,000 in legal fees. That is not morally or legally sound. But these commissions exist in every province and territory, and federally, and they all work the same way procedurally.
What was the response to the book upon publication?
The book was a moral success in the court of public opinion. Even though I have a history as a political partisan, the book was well received by people of all political stripes, including, for example, the Toronto Star, many commentators on the CBC, the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, etc. I was even invited to testify about its contents before the House of Commons' multi-party Justice Committee.
Since the publication of the book, there have been a number of bills and motions put forward to amend the more egregious aspects of human rights commissions, including a motion put forward in Parliament by the former Liberal MP, Keith Martin, and an inquiry about the matter in the Senate. As well, the Saskatchewan government recently passed a law taking human rights matter out of the hands of their human rights commission, and giving it to real courts. And, right now, most of the candidates for the leadership of Alberta's provincial Progressive Conservatives have called for amendments to their human rights commission. So change is coming, if only slowly.
Did anyone get upset about what you had written? Did you hear from any of the main players in your book?
The only people who were opposed to the book were people within the human rights industry -- lawyers, bureaucrats and litigants themselves who have a financial interest either in being part of the system, or using the system to shake down their opponents. From the human rights industry, I was the target of over 30 law society complaints and nuisance lawsuits, designed to shut me up. Obviously it didn't work!
Did Shakedown change the trajectory of your career? In what way?
Shakedown, and the two fights it describes -- publishing the Danish cartoons in the face of threats and a media black-out, and then fighting against government censors -- were important public moments for me. It was a political act of defiance -- both of radical Islam and their domestic, politically correct government allies. It was a legal act, where I could engage the problem as a lawyer, to analyze it and propose reforms. It was a journalistic act, where I demonstrated what I thought the appropriate response to censors ought to be, and what the appropriate belief in freedom of the press looked like in action. And it was my first book published with a serious publisher.
I am sure that a large part of my public reputation is due to my track record of fighting against censorship, and sparking a national discussion of the value of freedom.
What do you think of the state of Canadian political writing these days? Are there any trends you admire or disapprove of? What areas should be written about more?
I think that political writing in Canada is underdeveloped, at least in comparison to the United States. Simply put, they have much more of it. I also think that our official political class has a liberal consensus that is more liberal and more partisan than the average Canadian. So I think there is a demand for more conservative and dissident books in the country.
Of all the books on our shortlist, besides your own of course, what is your favorite book and why?
John Duffy's history of political campaigns (Fights of Our Lives) is written from the viewpoint of a Liberal partisan, but I appreciate his historical approach.
What are you working on now?
I've got a few more book projects in the pipeline, but I want to retain some element of surprise!
Throughout July we are interviewing the authors of the books on our shortlist for the Best Canadian Political Book of the Last 25 Years. Vote for your favourite here.