Review: Fireworks

When political fixer Jean Pelletier was fired as chair of VIA Rail in 2004, the National Post reported with a straight face that he was denied “due process”. Pelletier was cast not as a target of Liberal score-settling, but a victim denied his fundamental right to a porkbarrel appointment.

Sociologist Dominique Clément would call this a case of “rights inflation”. Like real inflation, it cheapens the currency. Pat references to human rights now run the gamut from Tibetan genocide to accessible washrooms. Forgotten are the nuances of the English language that draw proportional distinction between atrocities and grievances.

“There is a danger in framing any and all grievances as rights violations,” writes Prof. Clément, of the University of Alberta’s Department of Sociology: “This raises questions about the widespread use of rights talk. These days, almost every grievance is framed as a human right.”

Debating Rights Inflation In Canada is a box of fireworks that would liven any book club. Clément notes that compared to 1867, when Canadians’ understanding of common rights was limited to ownership of land and Catholic schooling, postwar years have seen an explosion of rights dialogue. Canadians claim a right to privacy, housing and immigration, a right to work or die or obtain a safe supply of heroin, or make free photocopies under the Copyright Act.

In 2013 the Supreme Court, in what Clément calls a “stunning decision”, ruled prostitution laws breached the Charter of Rights. “It is hard to imagine a more striking example of rights inflation than a court overturning criminal laws that have existed since before Confederation,” writes Clément.

Debating Rights Inflation In Canada is scholarly, never snide, and always provocative. “Rights inflation challenges the boundaries of our rights culture through rights claims that offer a new understanding of rights,” says Clément. “Is text messaging, for instance, free speech?”

Clément also questions the application of enforcement. If rights dialogue draws no distinction between grievance and atrocity, then it draws no distinction between Mao and, say, Ted’s Tap & Grill of Burlington, Ont., fined $10,000 for kicking out a cannabis-smoking customer. “The Ontario Human Rights Commission determined he was guilty of discrimination on the basis of disability because the marijuana was medicinal,” writes Clément.

The book is fair-minded with opposing views. Rights lawyer Pearl Eliadis of Montréal complains Prof. Clément’s analysis is “troubling”: “Is it true that human rights no longer deal with real rights at all, but rather with watered-down or trivial versions of ‘real’ rights? The most striking examples of these critiques have been directed at human rights commissions, whose officials are sometimes cast as officious bureaucrats trolling for fringe claims from ‘surgery-seeking transsexuals’, say, or ‘unhygienic foreigners’ who won’t wash their hands, thus creating what critics see as a self-perpetuating cottage industry of dubious claims,” writes Eliadis.

“But this argument depends on a fallacy,” Eliadis continues. “Confusing where the right is being claimed with the right itself can indeed make cases bizarre. For example, the sit-ins and protests at lunch counters by African Canadians in southern Ontario in the 1960s could be reframed as fighting for the ‘right to have lunch’. The famous case of Viola Desmond, a black woman who was thrown out of a Nova Scotia theatre in the 1940s, could be recast as a struggle for ‘the right to go to the movies’.”

Maybe. But Jean Pelletier was no Viola Desmond. And whatever is preventing Canada from achieving the workers’ paradise of equality, fraternity and liberty, it’s not Ted’s Tap & Grill.

By Holly Doan

Debating Rights Inflation in Canada: A Sociology of Human Rights, by Dominque Clément; Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 200 pages; ISBN 9781-77112-2443; $24.99

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