National Council of Canadian Muslims

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What Happened

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) is suing Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his chief spokesman, Communications Director Jason MacDonald, after the spokesman alleged that NCCM was connected to a terrorist group. The NCCM filed a notice of libel in January 2014, which quotes the spokesman as saying: "We will not take seriously criticism from an organization with documented ties to a terrorist organization such as Hamas." During a Bill C-51 hearing in March 2015, Diane Ablonczy, MP of the Conservative Party, refers to this statement when questioning NCCM’s executive director about "a continuing series of allegations" that the NCCM is tied to groups that support "Islamic terrorist groups" like Hamas. The NCCM maintained these allegations are false and slanderous, as the NCCM has consistently condemned terrorism of any kind. The Prime Minister’s Office and Diane Ablonczy have made no apologies or retractions for their statements. 


Background

The National Council of Canadian Muslims and Its Open Letter to Prime Minister Harper
The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) is an independent, non-partisan and non-profit civil liberties and advocacy organization that has worked for 14 years to promote civic engagement and human rights on behalf of Canadian Muslims and other minority groups in Canada. NCCM was previously known as the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Canada (CAIR-CAN). On January 14, 2014, the NCCM published an open letter to the Prime Minister urging him to rescind his invitation to controversial Rabbi Daniel Korobkin to join the Prime Minister’s official delegation to the Middle East in Israel. Rabbi Korobkin has praised two anti-Muslim campaigners, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, who founded Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), which civil liberties monitoring groups have designated as a hate group. The organization SIOA, also known as the American Freedom Defense Initiative, spearheaded by Geller, previously launched a series of bus ads in New York attacking Islam.

The Prime Minister’s Statement
The NCCM claims that Jason MacDonald, then Prime Minister’s spokesman, made an allegedly defamatory statement to the media about the NCCM on January 16, 2014, as a response to the NCCM’s letter to the Prime Minister. The NCCM states that the defamatory statement included the words: “We will not take seriously criticism from an organization with documented ties to a terrorist organization such as Hamas.” Canada announced that Hamas was a banned terrorist entity in 2002.

NCCM’s Response to the Statement
NCCM’s executive director, Ihsaan Gardee, has stated that the statement was an attack and an attempt to smear NCCM’s name by linking it to a terrorist organization. He asserts that the statement is the most serious kind of false accusation, and was made to discredit the NCCM instead of responding to the organization’s legitimate concern. In addition, the NCCM states that the Prime Minister is responsible for what his spokesman utters.

Ihsaan Gardee has described the statement as “categorically false, offensive and defamatory,” and has stated that the organization will not let the “false statement stand”. After conversations with lawyers from both sides and no apology from either Stephen Harper or Jason McDonald, the parties could not reach a satisfactory agreement. To protect its interests and to uphold its good name, the NCCM filed a Statement of Claim for defamation against the Prime Minister and his spokesman.

The Notice of Libel
A notice of libel provides notice of a formal lawsuit that may be filed based on alleged defamation. The NCCM libel notice maintains that the Prime Minister’s statement was unwarranted and malicious, and was uttered to discredit the NCCM for exercising its freedom of expression to criticize the Prime Minister’s comments. The NCCM writes that MacDonald did not have any facts to establish that it was connected to Hamas nor did he confirm any facts with NCCM before he made the statement. In the notice, the organization demands the immediate publication of an apology and retraction of the words.

Nader Hassan, then-lawyer for the NCCM, stated that whether the organization continued the lawsuit depended on various factors, including “the quality, timing and content of the public apology and retraction.” The NCCM is also seeking damages of up to $100,000. The Prime Minister is claiming parliamentary privilege to protect him completely from civil responsibility.

Support for the NCCM
Several other rights groups, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW), Amnesty International, the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims (CAJM), and others have provided support statements to back the NCCM.

Sukanya Pillay, Executive Director and General Counsel of the CCLA, writes that her association is “deeply concerned by reports which suggest the government’s attempt to silence critical or dissenting voices, and in particular, to do so by suggesting links to terrorist groups.” She affirms the CCLA’s commitment to freedom of expression and association, which are fundamental freedoms found under section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

James Turk, Executive Director of CAUT, also echoes the “deep concern” about the statement, claiming that the Prime Minister’s Office attempted to smear the NCCM for legitimately questioning the Prime Minister’s invitation to Rabbi Korobkin. James Turk also stresses how important it is to be able to criticize authority in a democracy: “Freedom of expression is the bedrock of any democracy, but that freedom is undermined whenever governments attempt to silence critics rather than engage the substance of their criticism.”

Josh Paterson, Executive Director of the BCCLA, also states that his association is troubled to learn what appears to be the government’s attempt to chill the expression of critics of its decisions by accusing them of connections with terrorist groups. Like the CCLA, the BCCLA also states its commitment to section 2 Charter freedoms (freedom of expression and conscience).

Farhat Rehman of the CCMW said the NCCM was not the only organization affected by the statement. She states that the “defamation endangers the very valuable work of NCCM and goes against every Canadian democratic principle” and that it “exposes the members of NCCM and the whole Muslim community to suspicion, hatred and bigotry.” The CCMW have worked to dispel myths about Muslims, and in particular, Muslim women.

Amnesty International has also offered its support, writing that there is no evidence to support the statement and in fact, that the NCCM has spoken out against terrorism. Amnesty International is also “deeply concerned” about the accusation, stating that “it is difficult to reach any other conclusion than that the intention was to punish the group for its views and an attempt to silence the group from expressing such views in the future.”

The CAJM also lent its support, echoing that the government presented no evidence to support the inflammatory statement, which undermines the NCCM’s work of ensuring that Canada respects diverse religious and cultural groups’ civil liberties. The CAJM stresses that since 9/11, Muslim organizations have been targeted, and that intolerant extremists have made unsubstantiated statements which the government accepts. Finally, the CAJM points out the irony that such allegations silence and marginalize progressive, peace-oriented groups and give extremists “power and superior access to our government.”

Reference to the Statement during Bill C-51 Hearing in the House of Commons
During the Bill C-51 Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security hearing on March 13, 2015, Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy referred to the spokesman’s statement, questioning Ihsaan Gardee about "a continuing series of allegations" that the NCCM is tied to groups that support "Islamic terrorist groups" like Hamas. Included in her line of questioning were statements which alleged that the NCCM had an “operating relationship” with Hamas, and which demanded “satisfaction that this can't be a half-hearted battle against terrorism” in order to work collectively. The MP used up most of her time listing the allegations against NCCM.

NCCM’s Response to Diane Albonczy’s Questioning
In response, the NCCM maintained that these allegations are false and based on misinformation, as the NCCM has condemned terrorism of all kinds. Ihsaan Gardee directed the MP to NCCM’s long history, nearing 15 years, of anti-extremism work which defends fundamental rights. He also reminded her that these slanderous statements made outside of the protection of Parliamentary privilege have resulted in an ongoing defamation law suit, and expressed confidence that the court would find in favour of the NCCM. Gardee also directly countered the MP’s line of questioning, stating that “the NCCM is not going to submit to a litmus test of loyalty used against Canadian Muslims” and that “McCarthyesque-type questions protected by parliamentary privilege are unbecoming of this committee,” referring to US Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1950 witch-hunt practice which bombarded political opponents with unfounded accusations of communist links.

Other’s Reactions to Diane Albonczy’s Allegations
Craig Scott, MP for the New Democratic Party, was next in line for questioning and started by thanking Ihsaan Gardee for keeping his composure and dignity, and stating that he was “correct to point out that parliamentary privilege was behind those questions being put the way they were put, knowing that if they were said outside this room, there might be other consequences.”

The next day on March 13, 2015, Megan Leslie, deputy leader of the New Democratic Party, stood in the House of Commons to ask Diane Ablonczy to apologize for her “disgusting behaviour.” Diane Ablonczy has not apologized for her statements.

Relevant Dates

  • January 14, 2014: NCCM publishes open letter to Prime Minister Harper, criticizing his invitation to Rabbi Daniel Korobkin.
  • January 16, 2014: Jason MacDonald, then spokesperson for the Prime Minister, makes his media statement, allegedly tying NCCM to Hamas, an organization Canada has deemed as a terrorist group.
  • January 28, 2014: NCCM Executive Director Ihsaan Gardee announces that the NCCM initiated a libel notice against the Prime Minister and his spokesman for defamation. The announcement was made during a news conference with community leaders and NGO representatives on Parliament Hill. Ihsaan Gardee confirms that the statement is still on the public record and no retraction was made.
  • March 12, 2015: During a Bill C-51 hearing, Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy refers to the spokesman’s statement, questioning Ihsaan Gardee about "a continuing series of allegations" and lists allegations of the NCCM’s connections to groups that support "Islamic terrorist groups" like Hamas.
  • March 13, 2015: During question period, Megan Leslie, deputy leader of the New Democratic Party, tells Diane Ablonczy to apologize for her "disgraceful behaviour." Diane Ablonczy does not apologize. 

Role or Position

The NCCM is a civil liberties and advocacy organization that promotes civic engagement and human rights on behalf of Canadian Muslims. NCCM has a mandate and track record of peaceful advocacy and condemns the use of violence. Although media organizations have attempted to make a case for NCCM being linked to terrorist organizations and the advocacy of violence, such allegations have never been proven and are contradicted by the organization’s mandate and public statements.

NCCM’s position is that the Prime Minister and his spokesman have attempted to stifle its ability to legitimately criticize the government by discrediting the organization’s good name and linking it to a well-known terrorist group. It also believes that the defamatory statements based on misinformation should not be repeated in the House of Commons, where they would be subject to parliamentary privilege and kept on record.

Implications and Consequences

  • Democracy: The accusation issued by Jason MacDonald undermines democracy, as criticism is silenced rather than properly acknowledged with an explanatory response. The ability to equally participate in Canadian society is a fundamental right under both Canadian and international law. Thus, the government should not refuse to respond to particular organizations based on their political opinions. Otherwise, the ability to have democratic input into Canadian governance is severely diminished. 
  • Democracy: Diane Ablonczy’s repetition of allegations against the NCCM also undermines democracy, as individuals and organizations, particularly from Muslim groups, will be deterred from speaking out against the government knowing they could be made to respond to false allegations, allegations which will be kept on the public record and protected by parliamentary privilege.
  • Freedom of Expression: The accusations by the Prime Minister’s Office and by Diane Ablonczy were made to discredit the NCCM. As the CCLA and BCCLA—two organizations committed to freedom of expression—have stated, suggestions of links to terrorist groups create a chilling effect on the organization and other groups who seek to question the government’s decisions. As seen in the Abdelrazik and Charkaoui cases, falsely linking individuals to terrorists groups can have grave effects on individuals.
  • Equality and religious freedom: The statements from the Prime Minister’s spokesman and Diane Ablonczy which allege that the NCCM is tied to a terrorist group send the message that Muslims are not free to practice their religion without the fear of being connected to or grouped with terrorists. False allegations of connections to terrorist groups particularly affect Muslim groups, because of the increase in discrimination against Muslims after 9/11. This is especially troublesome when the NCCM has worked hard for many years to advocate for the rights of Muslims, an already vulnerable population.

Published: 20 July 2015

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