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Conservatives vow to remove Liberals' pick for Canadian Human Rights Commission

Conservative deputy leader Melissa Lantsman arrives to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Original Publication Date July 05, 2024 - 10:41 AM

OTTAWA - The Opposition Conservatives vowed Friday that a future Pierre Poilievre-led government would remove the man the Liberals just appointed to lead the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Birju Dattani, the first Muslim and racialized person to hold the role, is to take over as the chief commissioner next month for a five-year term.

Melissa Lantsman, one of the party's deputy leaders, said in a statement that Conservatives would rescind that appointment.

She said Dattani has a "long track record of anti-Israel statements," including a "justification of terrorism," and that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should demand Dattani stand down or "fire him."

"Yes, common sense Conservatives would remove Justin Trudeau’s appointee," Lantsman told The Canadian Press. For almost a year the Conservatives have led the governing Liberals in public opinion polls.

The next election must happen no later than October 2025.

At issue are some now-deleted posts Dattani made online under the name Mujahid Dattani while he was a graduate student in London almost a decade ago. Also raised as a concern is an appearance he made around the same time on a panel alongside a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic fundamentalist group.

Dattani has previously called the allegations unfounded, saying he stood behind his record.

Justice Minister Arif Virani launched an independent investigation into allegations surrounding Dattani's past activities after concerns were raised by some Jewish organizations in Canada.

“We recognize and share the public’s concern regarding the potentially troubling statements attributed to Mr. Dattani," spokeswoman Chantalle Aubertin said in a statement Friday.

“Mr. Dattani did not disclose information about these statements and events to our office during the appointment process."

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a recent statement that they believe Dattani should not be allowed to stay in the role, and they have found his responses to the allegations against him "inadequate."

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said there is added concern because if the Liberals' online harms bill passes, it will reinstate a controversial section of the Canadian Human Rights Act that gives the commission the power to hear complaints about hate speech.

In a statement Friday, Dattani's lawyer said her client can't comment given the federal probe that is underway, but added that Dattani would challenge an attempt to have him removed.

"Any bad faith or improper removal of Mr. Dattani from his role as chief commissioner would be challenged in accordance with the law — which both Mr. Dattani and I have full faith in," Muneeza Sheikh said.

Dattani has said that in 2014 he shared an article titled Palestinians are Warsaw Ghetto Prisoners of Today, but previously told both CBC News and The Globe and Mail he did not agree with its argument.

He also rejected suggestions he posted articles comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, as one 2015 article stated he did. That post has been deleted.

Virani's office said an independent investigation will detail the facts of the situation, adding "the public discourse is not helped by the Conservatives," which Aubertin said were circulating "incorrect and misleading information."

"We will have more to say when the independent review has been completed.”

Jewish advocacy groups also say Dattani repeatedly lectured about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS, which uses financial means to pressure the Israeli government to follow international law and end what the movement alleges are human-rights abuses against Palestinians.

B’nai Brith Canada has pointed out his appointment comes at a time when police are reporting a spike in antisemitic acts of violence, stating the next human rights commission chief must "be a leader who represents Canadian values."

Virani's office said the name Dattani used during his graduate studies was never shared with the minister or his direct staff, but was provided to public servants as part of his security assessment process.

"To be clear, neither the minister, nor his office, were made aware of this name during the appointment process," Aubertin wrote.

She did not specify whether officials looked into statements he had made under that name.

Michael Levitt, president and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a post on X that the fact such information was disclosed to officials but the appointment still went ahead was an "alarming failure" in the government's vetting process.

Others have come to Dattani's defence, such as the Yukon Human Rights Commission, where he used to work as the executive director.

Its current chair, Michael Dougherty, said in a statement that Dattani met the highest standards in upholding the human rights of those in the territory.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims also voiced concerns that the investigation into Dattani's appointment was nothing more than a "witch hunt" and said the allegations against his past activities were "flimsy."

A coalition of human-rights groups including the Black Canadians Civil Society Coalition released a statement this week saying that while the allegations against Dattani are "concerning," so are the efforts to have him removed.

"This campaign against him highlights the heightened level of scrutiny he, like many Canadians, faces because of his faith and ethnic background," it read.

"The attempts to have Mr. Dattani — the first Muslim and racialized person appointed to this position — vacate his position without due process is deeply concerning."

Federal NDP MP Randall Garrison said in a statement while he believes Dattani has a strong record of advocating for human rights, he would wait until the results of the independent review are released.

Virani's office has so far not said who will lead the review and at what cost. It has committed to the findings being released in a public report.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2024.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2024
The Canadian Press

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