Laurier’s apology isn’t enough — students deserve commitment to free speech

First published at Global News on November 21, 2017.

It’s the video clip seen ’round the world.

University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson’s tens of millions of YouTube views were no match for the social justice police at Wilfrid Laurier University, who censured graduate student Lindsay Shepherd for daring to share a few minutes of public television content with her students. In particular, a TVO debate in which Peterson argues against forced usage of gender neutral pronouns.

Shepherd’s conduct, according to two professors and the school’s acting manager of Gendered Violence Prevention and Support, created a “toxic climate” and even qualified as an act of gender violence against transgender students.

I always thought “the pen is mightier than the sword” was just an expression, but it turns out at Laurier, words are violence.

We should all be grateful that Shepherd had the forethought to record her kangaroo court tribunal. As a result, gone is the ‘he said/she said’ (or, in keeping with Laurier’s policies, perhaps ‘they said/they said’) phenomenon so common in these cases.

On Tuesday, the school apologized in open letters from Laurier president Deborah MacLatchy and professor Nathan Rambukkana for the content of the “informal” hearing. Rambukkana is Shepherd’s academic advisor, and was in the meeting that Shepherd recorded. He apologized for comparing Peterson to Adolf Hitler, and also committed to supporting a campus review of free speech and discourse.

“Maybe we ought to strive to reach across all of our multiple divisions to find points where we can discuss such issues, air multiple perspectives, and embrace the diversity of thought,” he said. “And maybe I have to get out of an ‘us versus them’ habit of thought to do this myself, and to think of the goal as more than simply advancing social justice, but social betterment and progress as a whole.”

In MacLatchy’s apology, she admitted the recorded conversation “does not reflect the values and practices to which Laurier aspires.” Though she also decided to take aim at “the way faculty, staff and students involved in this situation have been targeted with extreme vitriol.”

She promised a review of what went wrong, but absent from her letter was a specific commitment to ensuring free speech is protected moving forward; she just restated the school’s purported support of free speech — “while respecting fundamentally important human rights and our institutional values of diversity and inclusion.” She also didn’t apologize for the assertion that Shepherd had committed gender violence.

I would also have liked an explanation for the claim by Prof. Herbert Pimlott in the meeting that “free speech” is a Nazi idea.

“The Nazis actually used…issues around the free speech idea in the 1920s in Weimar Germany as an issue around which, which is what they’re using now,” he said in the recording. “We know that someone like Richard Spencer is using theories and ideas that don’t have any academic credibility. He’s a public figure. But in terms of, if we introduce someone, we give them greater credibility in a certain condition.”

Nazis like free speech, ergo people who like free speech are Nazis, or something like that. I recall learning about such logical fallacies in high school philosophy, though Pimlott might have missed that day.

Despite Laurier’s place as the subject of national mockery and condemnation, such campus censorship and resistance to free speech aren’t new challenges. In fact, just a few months ago I wrote about the 30th anniversary of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a book that singled out this trend back in the 1980s.

In many respects, I thought the battle for free speech and open debate on campuses had already been lost, but this case at Laurier has ignited a national dialogue that I hope can be a constructive one. Both liberals and conservatives seem to recognize the school’s conduct was indefensible.

So often, free speech advocates — a category in which I include myself — are forced to walk a tightrope by defending an objectionable person’s right to speech while condemning the views expressed. This nuance is lost on many people, who tend to view support of one’s right to speak as an endorsement of controversial and inflammatory words and ideas.

In a way, Shepherd is the perfect victim for this cause. She isn’t even a believer in the allegedly transphobic ideas she was blamed for sharing. Moreover, her supposed crime involved a clip from public television. No offense to Steve Paikin, but his show is hardly the stuff of revolutions.

Shepherd was accused during her hearing of being some secret agent of Peterson’s ideas, but her motivation was simply to lay out both sides of a contentious debate in Canada on free speech, gender fluidity, and the intersection of grammar and social causes.

We’re not talking about a few Marxists in a school’s sociology department or a student council’s bizarre proclamation on some social issue — these professors have power and the backing of an administration.

This is how echo chambers are created. The reason we have such a polarized culture today is because of how many individuals and institutions have placed themselves in ideological vacuums. The only way to break this is through discourse.

True debate isn’t about legitimizing dangerous ideas, but challenging all ideas to expose which ones are flawed and which ones hold up.

Debate shows the blind spots and high points of ideas, which compels people to reassess or reinforce their own beliefs.

By the time a student graduates, they will have only been exposed to the views deemed correct by those setting these rules. That isn’t education — it’s indoctrination.

Is open debate important for education, or is it not? If these institutions choose to embrace the latter, it’s time to hang up the mortarboards for good.

What happens to drug-sniffing dogs when marijuana is legalized in Canada?

First published at Global News on November 17, 2017.

Editor’s note: this report originally stated that the Ontario Provincial Police had no plans to retrain drug-sniffing dogs, based on information that the OPP provided to Global News. The OPP has since stated that this information was incorrect and that it is retraining the dogs. 

From how it’s sold to what the health implications are, the impending legalization of marijuana has proven complex, to say the least.

Among the questions this process has opened for governments and law enforcement is one that has yet to be answered — what will legalization mean for police canines trained to treat pot as illegal?

At this point, no one really knows.

Police drug dogs are generally trained to sniff out a host of contraband that includes marijuana. These four-legged officers can’t tell their handlers what drug they smelled — just that they found something, typically indicated by sitting down.

Often, this justifies searching a suspect or their vehicle.

Legalized marijuana will put searches based on the findings of drug-detecting dogs in precarious territory, according to two legal experts, who say court challenges are not only likely but inevitable.

“If you’re in a car or you’re walking along the street and a police sniffer dog indicates that marijuana is in your vehicle or on your person, there’s no reasonable or probable grounds to believe a criminal offence has been committed, so it gives (police) nothing,” said Toronto-based criminal lawyer Paul Lewin, who specializes in laws and regulations surrounding marijuana.

When the drug is legalized on July 1, 2018, it won’t be without restrictions. But the mere presence of marijuana is no longer cause to suspect wrongdoing unless there are other criteria leading a police officer to believe someone is in non-compliance with the Cannabis Act, which a drug-detecting dog wouldn’t know.

“It’s just like the presence of apples or the presence of a computer, or shoes or tobacco,” Lewin said. “These are all legal items. Maybe they were used illegally in some way that we could dream up in which their presence is significant in a very specialized circumstance, but, by and large, just detecting that there’s cannabis on board is as relevant as determining there’s apples on board.”

Lewin said courts may give police officers “wiggle room” in early cases after the laws go into effect, but he expects canine searches, where marijuana is present, to be ruled out in time.

“I think they perhaps just haven’t thought it through,” he said of police. “That’s all I can offer because it’s an absolute game changer. Smell means nothing now.”

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, the acting executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said police and government don’t need to wait for this issue to be fleshed out in constitutional challenges in the courts.

“It’s up to the government to establish restriction in law, if they choose. It will be up to police not to conduct searches in a particular way or to train their dogs in particular ways, so I think there are some ways of pre-empting it,” she said. “If somebody is in possession of marijuana and marijuana is not an illegal substance, then there’s no reason to search for it, so absolutely we would expect a change.”

With searches based on the scent of pot being in legal limbo, Mendelsohn Aviv said it’s even more important for police to establish policies that keep within the parameters of constitutional searches.

“It’s hard to answer in the abstract and it’s hard to answer without knowing what the practice of officers will be,” she said. “In order for police to show that they are doing their police work in an equal and effective and fair and necessary way, then it would be in their interest, as well as in the interest of the public, that there be proactive disclosure about who they’re policing and how.”

According to the OPP, in 2016 in anticipation of the legalized cannabis legislation, the service’s Canine Program decided to no longer train or “imprint” new dogs on cannabis products. The new drug detector dogs are instead trained to find cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, meth and ecstasy. The OPP currently deploys 16 dogs that are trained under the old system to sniff out cannabis products as well as other drugs.

Representatives of the RCMP say they will continue deploying the dogs as currently trained. The London and Toronto police services also have no plans to change their practices.

“There will still be offences related to cannabis, such as the unlawful sale or distribution of cannabis, including its sale or distribution to young persons, and the unlawful possession, production, importation and exportation of cannabis,” said Cpl. Annie Delisle, an RCMP media relations officer. “RCMP police dogs are trained to detect numerous narcotic odours. This will not change after the Cannabis Act comes into force.”

Delisle added that RCMP officers would be trained on the new “legal rights and responsibilities” for officers under the new laws.

This rationale was echoed by the London Police Service.

A Toronto Police Service spokesperson simply said that “there are no plans to make changes to the unit as a result of the upcoming legislative changes.”

Police agencies have been forced to come up with policies concerning drug-detecting dogs on their own, with no direction from the federal government.

“I don’t think you’ll see anything federally mandated in terms of whether or not people are going to continue to train on it or not train on it,” said Sgt. Jason Gunderson, a Regina police canine handler and president of the Canadian Police Canine Association. “I think what we have to keep in mind is that this is going to be an ever-evolving process with the government.”

Gunderson says the Regina Police Service is not “specifically training for marijuana” moving forward, but has no plans to retire or retrain any dogs which currently detect pot. He also added that, if needed, marijuana could be introduced as contraband to canines later on.

The lack of a national strategy on this may leave some police searches in a legal quagmire for years.

In Colorado, which legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2014, the role of drug-sniffing dogs was mired in court battles up until July of this year, when the Colorado appeals court ruled that a positive response from a drug-sniffing dog is not enough to justify a search.

The decision stemmed from a 2015 case, in which a dog alerted his handler to the presence of contraband in a truck. Because it wasn’t provable whether the dog had detected marijuana — then a legal substance — or something else, the search was tossed out.

“A dog sniff could result in an alert with respect to something for which, under Colorado law, a person has a legitimate expectation of privacy,” the panel of three judges wrote in its ruling. “Because a dog sniff of a vehicle could infringe upon a legitimate expectation of privacy solely under state law, that dog sniff should now be considered a ‘search.’”

In the months since, various police departments in Colorado have slowly adapted their training protocols to exclude marijuana from the substances their dogs are trained to respond to.

So far, Canada isn’t learning from Colorado’s example.

“Put the dogs out to pasture, do something humane, let them run in someone’s backyard,” said Lewin. “They can be someone’s pet going forward, but we certainly shouldn’t be paying for cannabis-sniffing dogs going forward.”

Guns didn’t cause the Sutherland Springs shooting

First published at Global News on November 10, 2017.

The bodies weren’t even cold when the predictable chorus of celebrities and media personalities started nattering about “gun control” as the answer to violence.

If only there was gun control, this chorus argues, then the 26 worshipers slaughtered at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church last weekend would be back in the pews on Sunday.

Within a couple of days, the narrative fell apart. The gun used by the murderer, whom I’m opting not to name in this column, was unlawfully owned.

Just five years ago, the killer, at the time in the United States Air Force, was convicted by court-martial of assaulting his wife and child. A number of reports have said his in-laws’ membership in the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church may have motivated his actions, rather than ideological reasons (though it’s worth noting that he was a “vocally anti-Christian” atheist, according to a New York Times profile.)

After being given a “bad-conduct discharge” by the military, he was barred from owning guns. The problem is that his status as a “prohibited person” required reporting of his conviction to the Federal Bureau of Investigation by the air force. This didn’t happen.

As a result, when he purchased four guns between 2014 and 2017 in Texas and Colorado, gun control had failed. This includes his acquisition of the semi-automatic AR-556 — referred to by know-nothing reporters as an “assault rifle” or “machine gun” in some coverage — that authorities have linked to the shooting.

He had, however, been denied a license to carry a handgun.

But wait, can’t anyone in the United States — certainly in Texas — walk into a store, buy a gun, and be on their merry way? No, yet this myth — one of many regarding gun ownership in the United States, and Canada, for that matter — persists in the media.

Most states use the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to immediately process requests for firearms at the point of sale. Texas requires that firearms dealers directly contact the FBI. In most cases, the FBI would already have a record of convictions, but because military proceedings are handled separately, the system requires reporting by, in this case, the United States Air Force.

Someone convicted of domestic violence has no business owning a gun. This isn’t a radical concept, even to Second Amendment-supporting Americans: it’s already the law.

Knowing how many of America’s gun fatalities occur as a result of suicide or domestic incidents underscores the importance of this process working. How can anyone expect further gun control to be effective when government can’t even adequately uphold the current laws?

Had the process unfolded as intended, the killer wouldn’t have been able to legally purchase firearms. But I don’t think even those checks and balances should let anyone rest on their laurels. As we see time and time again, people who aren’t legally supposed to be armed still manage to get their hands on weapons — from illegally owned guns to homemade bombs to run-of-the-mill knives.

As the killer’s past demonstrates, the problem was him — not any of the guns he owned.

There has been less coverage, however, of the legally armed Texan who stopped the killer from claiming even more innocent lives than he did.

It was an instructor for the National Rifle Association — the entity labelled by liberal commentator Keith Olbermann a “terrorist organization” — that rushed the church killer, shooting him with precision between plates of body armour. This forced the killer to end his spree, run away, and ultimately shoot himself dead.

In Sutherland Springs, the NRA did what gun control failed to do: stop a mass shooter in his tracks.

The kicker, of course, is that when Stephen Willeford ran out of his home barefoot to stop the killer, he used an AR-15. The class of firearm routinely maligned by gun-grabbers was the one used to stop the Sutherland Springs massacre. No amount of gun control can stop a killer’s motivation to find tools to kill, but it does disarm those prepared to stop killers.

He was aided by another local, Johnny Langendorff, who drove Willeford in pursuit of the killer when he fled the scene.

These Good Samaritans prove what gun advocates have been saying for years — the person matters more than the gun.

As Prof. John Lott concludes in his 2016 book The War on Guns, background checks don’t reduce violent crime. And, for that matter, the idea that more guns increase crime and fatalities is also a myth, Lott says.

Those who believe more gun control must be the government’s answer to Sutherland Springs must be held to account for what might have happened without a legal gun owner across the street.

Under Ontario private member’s bill, you could be forced to hire Jian Ghomeshi

First published at Global News on November 3, 2017.

Despite Ontario’s human rights laws being among the broadest in the country, they don’t go far enough, a provincial politician says.

Liberal MPP Nathalie Des Rosiers, formerly a human rights lawyer, has introduced a private member’s bill, Bill 164, which, if passed, would amend Ontario’s human rights code to tackle discrimination based on a number of factors, including genetic information, “social condition,” and immigration status.

The bill, which passed second reading last week, would also bar discrimination based on police records, defined in the bill as including “charges and convictions.”

The human rights code sets out what practices are unacceptable for private businesses and public agencies — including human resources decisions.

It’s not uncommon for prospective employers to request a police check from applicants or new hires, which could reveal anything from interactions with law enforcement to criminal charges.

But the bill isn’t just about ensuring a traffic stop from 30 years ago doesn’t disqualify you from a job; Des Rosiers confirmed it’s also about guaranteeing those charged, but not convicted, of criminal offences, are not left unemployable.

The logic goes that once the Crown fails to justify a conviction, a person is, in the eyes of the law, innocent, and should be treated as such everywhere. Even if one is convicted, Des Rosiers says, it’s important he or she isn’t subjected to discrimination based on a criminal record, after completing a sentence.

This is dangerous thinking.

The law does allow for people to be kept out of certain fields connected to their crimes — such as a drunk driver applying to be a pizza delivery man or a jewelry thief working at Peoples Jewellers.

But what about someone found not guilty of actions serious enough to cause concern for employers?

One needn’t have a law degree to understand that a conviction must be based on guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  As a result, guilty people will sometimes walk free.

I asked Des Rosiers what she’d think of someone found not guilty, based on a technicality, of offences against children being denied employment at a daycare centre.

Her answer implied this would be unlawful discrimination.

“If you have a presumption of innocence, that’s what you believe,” she said. “You believe that— You say a technicality; you don’t know what technicality was. So, I think this is a pretty extreme example. Presumably, if that’s the case, the police usually— If there’s someone that has had other charges and so on— But I think it’s important to continue to protect the presumption of innocence. If we don’t, we could all be presumed guilty without having proper recourse.”

What of the Jian Ghomeshi case? There was very little doubt that he pushed the boundaries of consent. He was found not guilty after a very weak prosecution, but whether he is truly innocent wasn’t tested.

Under Des Rosiers’ proposed law, an employer would be discriminating against Ghomeshi by denying him a job based on information that is completely factual.

The burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in prosecutions is an important hallmark of Canadian justice. While I respect Des Rosiers’ commitment to it, we can’t forget the similarly important right of freedom of association, which surely should allow business owners to make hiring decisions on their own terms.

I support the state maintaining a high bar for assessing guilt, but Canadians don’t need to hold that same threshold for their own determinations.

My examples may be “extreme,” to quote Des Rosiers, but broad laws need to be measured against extreme situations to test whether they hold up.

These reforms don’t.

This isn’t to say the entire bill is without merit. When police lay charges, they’re able to, in most cases, release suspects’ names and ages, which are often reported in the media.

Oftentimes, the media will not follow every case through the courts so there might not be a subsequent story noting the withdrawal of charges. Similarly, many police records do not include details about what happened with a case after charges were laid — even when charges were found to be based on police error.

These issues need to be addressed through the rules governing police — not human rights laws.

To require a business owner to hire a particular person, which is what anti-discrimination provisions do, in effect, is egregious. Especially in an era where companies are regularly forced to either defend or denounce what employees say and do on their own time.

Human rights laws that cover employment may be well-intentioned, but they have a handicapping effect on businesses. To say that brushes with the law must be irrelevant in the hiring process opens a door that needs to remain closed.

More retailers need to join Target in the war on the ‘Christmas creep’

First published at Global News on October 26, 2017.

With less than two months until Christmas, the festive season is nary a blip on most people’s radars. The exceptions, of course, are retailers.

Last weekend, I caught a tragically jarring glimpse of boxed Christmas wares being delivered to a store. The manager assured me they won’t be unpacked for several weeks, thankfully.

Although my celebration is short-lived, as I’m sure that, somewhere, there’s a tinsel-packing, hall-decking radio station program director ready to flip the switch to all Christmas music any day now.

We’ll soon step out of our pumpkin spice bliss into peppermint frenzy – all the while lamenting what seems like an earlier arrival for Christmas each year.

This phenomenon has a name – the Christmas creep. No, the Christmas creep isn’t the mall Santa with a questionable past, but rather the bane of everyone caught off guard by the sudden (and often unwelcome) arrival of the year’s tensest holiday.

Not so for Target customers, however. The American retail giant has waged war on the Christmas creep, vowing to hold off on holiday promotions or decorations until after American Thanksgiving, observed this year on Nov. 23, which some people may view only as “The Day Before Black Friday.”

Christmas is seemingly on deck for everyone but those celebrating it. It’s understandable for retail, which measures time in the passage of commercialized events – from back to school, to Halloween, to Christmas, to Valentine’s Day, and so on – but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.

Before people accuse Target of kowtowing to political correctness, it must be said that the company isn’t cancelling Christmas, just delaying its inevitable commercial arrival. It’s not a war on Christmas, but on the Christmas creep.

According to the Associated Press, the goal is to “be more in tune with customers’ mindset.”

A move of this nature is such a blessing that, under different circumstances, I’d say Christmas came early.

Lest anyone accuse me of grinchery, know that I’m a Christmas fanatic. I listen to non-stop Christmas music throughout December and even put antlers and a Rudolph nose on my car, so my Christmas bona fides are well known.

One can only keep up that level of celebration for a limited time, though. And two months out of 12 is excessive. How the staff at Frankenmuth, Michigan’s year-round Christmas store, Bronner’s, manage, I’ll never understand.

We Canadians don’t have a November Thanksgiving to serve as a buffer between Halloween and Christmas, though many peg Nov. 12 – the day after Remembrance Day – as the earliest acceptable opportunity for Christmas displays and music.

Of course, this attitude leads to retailers chomping at the bit to tear off their poppies to replace them with Santa brooches seconds after the Remembrance Day moment of silence ends.

There’s good reason, of course. Holiday shopping is worth hundreds of billions of dollars in North America each year, but it seems absurd that the companies reaping these rewards feel the need to enter into what seems like a seasonal race to be first.

They seem to think consumers won’t know it’s Christmastime until store signage tells us so.

Target says it’s responding to where its customers are – which is not quite in the holiday spirit until the tail end of November. I think they’re right, so let’s hope other retailers follow suit.

I’ll wish you all a Merry Christmas – but not yet.