Thursday, October 1, 2009

NATIONAL POST: Terry O'Neill: Big Sister has been watching me

Terry O'Neill: Big Sister has been watching me

Posted: October 01, 2009, 2:00 PM by Chris Selley

Terry O'Neill

Last June, Jennifer Lynch, the prickly princess of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, revealed in an interview with this newspaper that she kept a file on the many critics of her renegade fiefdom. I have to admit that my first thought in response to the news was not that of a concerned citizen, outraged that a civil servant charged with protecting human rights was compiling some sort of Nixonian enemies list.

And I certainly wasn't vexed over the potential adverse consequences of being included on the enemies list for high-profile CHRC critics such as Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn; no, they're big boys and can certainly take care of themselves.

Rather, my first response was actually to hope that I, Red Badge of Courage-like, would be named in her file. After all, I've been writing critically about the censorious nature of Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act for more than a decade, and I reasoned that if I hadn't caught the evil eye of Ms. Lynch by now, one of my professional life's great passions would somehow be diminished.

I needn't have fretted. I am pleased to report that, after submitting a Freedom of Information request over the summer, I am now in possession of a 49-page printout listing the contents of Ms. Lynch's file, and that two articles bearing my byline are among the 1,001 news articles, columns, op-eds, editorials and blog entries which the Chief Commissioner has collected. Break out the champagne.

Actually, break out the champagne and a cheque for $62,840 because a certain Heather Throop, "Director General, Corporate Management Branch" (of the CHRC, I presume), informed me by way of registered mail that I would need to pay that amount to obtain information beyond a mere listing of the contents. Sadly, I don't happen to have that sort of money lying around.

My FOI request had sought copies, not only of all the clippings and printouts in Ms. Lynch's file, but also of any "notes, memos or correspondence" that Ms. Lynch or anyone else in the CHRC may have written that are "directly on any of the clippings or printouts, appended to any of the clippings or printouts, or placed in the aforementioned file."

I asked for this because I figured that if Ms. Lynch were paranoid enough to maintain such a file (as she was) and then sloppy enough to reveal its existence (as she did), she might also have been angry enough to at least scrawl a telling comment or two on offending articles. I dreamed of uncovering a handwritten note such as, "We'll watch this one -- he's in trouble!" Such information would surely embarrass the commissioner and, in doing so, would further advance the case against Section 13 and the CHRC.

Alas, Ms. Throop informed me in a three-page missive that any further digging by the CHRC to fulfill my request would entail email searches, electronic records management system searches, typing and reading involving up to 100 employees and 6,284 hours of government time at $10 per hour, hence the $62,840 figure, of which I was requested to immediately send half (or $31,420) to Ottawa to enable my request to proceed. Either that, or narrow my search and reduce the cost accordingly.

The fact that the CHRC wants to charge me for this FOI request puts me in somewhat the same precipitous situation as a defendant ensnared by the CHRC machinery: While a complainant's every expense is covered by the CHRC, a defendant is forced to foot the bill on his own, and isn't even allowed to collect costs if he successfully defends himself.

Bottom line: I won't be digging into any of my RRSPs to further my search for truth and justice, and I don't care to censor my application, so I guess my exploration ends here. But my FOI request has at least accomplished several things, including confirming that Ms. Lynch's list really does exist and that it contains, not just opinion pieces that are critical of the CHRC, but also news stories about the CHRC and human rights in general, a fact that suggests the commissioner is taking note of critics who are quoted in those news stories.

The entries, which are listed in reverse chronological order, begin with a June 29, 2009, editorial by the Montreal Gazette ( "Rights commission threatens our liberty") and end with a February 16, 2008, column by The Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente ( "Human Rights Commissions: A day at the theatre of the absurd...").

In between, the titles and headlines reveal that Ms. Lynch has been keeping a close eye on both the national media (articles from this paper, for example, account for 16% of the entire file) and the regional press (in fact, one of the two entries under my name is a column I wrote for a twice-weekly newspaper in suburban Vancouver).

One can only conclude that, 1984-like, Big Sister has been watching. And watching very closely, at that.

National Post

Terry O'Neill is a Vancouver editor and writer who also co-hosts

Read more: