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Reframing : A comment on the media controversy surrounding Rights and Democracy

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Al Haq, Al Mezan and B'Tselem have gained a reputation for their method of operation - develop a theory first, in their case "Israel is to blame" and then twist or invent the facts to fit the theory. The current round of polemicist attacks on the Tories seems inspired by this method of operation. If the facts cannot sustain their theory - a Conservative party hostile takeover of Rights and Democracy to pursue a right wing ideological agenda - then the facts must be changed to fit the theory.

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Remy Beauregard, the former president of Rights and Democracy, died of a heart attack the night of January 7, 2010. Some of the staff of Rights and Democracy in the name of all of them released a letter dated January 11, 2010 calling on the leadership of the Board of Directors to resign, accusing them of harassment of the former president. The accusation of harassment was directed against the chair and vice-chair of the Board, Aurel Braun and Jacques Gauthier, and the chair of the audit and finance committee, Elliot Tepper.

The letter did not indicate what was the activity of the Board members which caused concern. The fact that the charge was levied against the leadership of the Board indicated that in substance the issue was rather about the role of the Board. The letter itself hinted at this, accusing the three of having a "complete misunderstanding of your role as Directors".

What the understanding of the staff was of this role, the letter did not indicate. Presumably the staff thought that the Board should be less hands on in directing Rights and Democracy than the leadership of the Board thought it should be. That, despite the charge of harassment, seemed to be the substance of the dispute.

The statute of Rights and Democracy gives authority over the conduct and management of the affairs of the institution to the Board [section 21(g)]. The Rights and Democracy press officer Charles Vallerand sent a letter to the Globe and Mail, published January 16, attempting to elucidate the nature of the dispute between the Board leadership and the staff. In that letter, he referred to the independence of the institution.

It is most unusual for the staff of any organization to ask its leadership, those responsible for conduct and management of its affairs, to resign, and to justify that request by asserting independence. What to the staff seemed to be harassment by the Board leadership may have been no more than Board resistance to rejection by staff of accountability to the Board.

Whatever the subject matter of this dispute, one thing was clear. There was no dispute over policy. The editorial to which Charles Vallerand responded indicated that the dispute between the Board and staff was over policy. Vallerand wrote: "this is not the problem".

A dispute over the role of a board arrives in a context. Where there is agreement in substance, there is no foundation for a debate over process. Debates about process flare up in the context of disagreements over substance.

There was, at one time, between the Board and the staff, a policy debate, about whether the institution should have given grants immediately after the Gaza war to three non-governmental organizations - Al Haq, Al Mezan, and B'Tselem - to document human rights violations occurring in the Gaza strip. The dispute about the role of the Board evolved in the context of a dispute about those grants.

However, by the time Remy Beauregard died, that policy dispute had been resolved. The day before Beauregard died, the Board passed a motion repudiating the grants. The vote was nine in favour and one abstention. None opposed. Beauregard not only voted in favour of repudiation; he spoke for the motion saying "we could have done our homework better". All that remained in dispute was the manner in which both sides had acted in resolving this policy disagreement.

Yet, a sequence of politicians, editorialists and commentators have reframed the dispute about the role of the Board of Rights and Democracy as a political dispute. The staff charge levied against the Board leadership that it did not have an understanding of their role as directors instead became a polemical charge levied against the Conservative government that it had stacked the Board to pursue a right wing pro-Israel agenda.

For anti-Conservative polemicists, the dispute remained a disagreement over the three grants to Al Haq, Al Mezan and B'Tselem, despite the fact that this dispute had been resolved within Rights and Democracy. For these polemicists, those grants were rightly made. And, so their reasoning went, the Conservative government was wrong to insert its people onto the Board to reverse the decision on those grants.

Because, by the time the Board/staff dispute had become public, the Board and the staff agreed on policy, the facts could not sustain this characterization of the dispute. That, though, did not stop the polemicists. Their attitude seemed to be, if the facts are not on our side, so much the worse for the facts. A sequence of opinions concocted facts to sustain the line polemicists had developed.

For example, Haroon Siddiqui, in an opinion piece published in the Toronto Star, January 31, 2010 under the heading "How the Harperites ambushed the rights agency" wrote that the Board "voted 7-6 to repudiate the three grants". A vote of 7 to 6 for repudiation sustained a story line that recent Tory appointees to the Board were bringing to the Board the Tory's pro-Israel agenda. So that was the assertion, in spite of the fact that the vote was nine to none with one abstention.

Moreover, Siddiqui when he wrote about the 7-6 vote, knew it not to be true. I had written an analysis of the controversy in Rights and Democracy where I recounted the repudiation vote. In my analysis, I pointed out that the motion had passed handily and that Beauregard had voted in favour of the repudiation motion. I sent my analysis to Siddiqui by e-mail. He responded on January 27 by thanking me and indicating he had already read my analysis on a website.

Yet, four days later he wrote an opinion piece suggesting that the Board/staff dispute over the three grants remained alive and that the change in policy was the result of a Harper "hostile takeover" of the Board. Those imaginary facts fit better into the opinion he wanted to express than the real facts. So the imaginary facts prevailed.

In a similar vein, Ish Theilheimer, at the website, wrote that the letter from the staff asking three Board members to resign was directed not to the leadership of the Board, but rather to a trio he characterized as recent political appointees - myself, Michael Van Pelt, and Jacques Gauthier. Yet, Jacques Gauthier was appointed to the Board two years ago.

Michael Van Pelt and I are the new appointees. The January Board meeting was our first. The staff did not ask us to resign. The Theilheimer commentary which criticized the Harper government for using the appointments process to pursue an ultra conservative agenda both quoted and had a link to an article by Maclean's reporter Paul Wells. That Wells article stated correctly who the three targeted Board members were.

So again here we have an imaginary fact, which the writer knew to be false, being using to buttress an opinion which the real facts could not sustain. The suggestion of a hostile political takeover is more compelling if the staff resignation demand is directed to the new members. The narrative Theilheimer wanted to build is that the staff today still support funding for the three organizations but the Government does not; so the Government appointed people to reverse the funding policy.

Michael Van Pelt was described in this Theilheimer article as an evangelist, which he decidedly is not. This false description added colour to the political narrative the author was trying to build. So the fact that Van Pelt is not an evangelist just went by the wayside.

The sole fact mentioned about Jacques Gauthier is that he had written a thesis that Jerusalem belonged to Israel at international law. Pushing Gauthier's appointment to the Board forward two years gave support to the thesis that the Tories were stacking the Board with members who had a narrow Middle East agenda.

Évelyne Jean-Bouchard, in an article in Le Devoir, 6 February 2010, ["Linquiétante pratique du lawfare au Canada"] refers to the withdrawal of modest financing awarded to the three organizations. ["le retrait d'un financement modeste"]. Yet there is a difference between withdrawal and repudiation.

In fact, no funds were withdrawn. By the time of the January Board meeting, the three grants had been long since disbursed and the money long since spent. There was no suggestion of asking for the money back.

The notion of withdrawal of the grants fits into the narrative of political manipulation better than survival of the grants would. So the writer adopts the withdrawal narrative.

Ed Broadbent, in a letter to the National Post dated January 26, 2010, wrote that recent appointments to the Board "were clearly intended to pursue the government's political agenda". Yet, it is not so clear.

For one, the repudiation motion was mine alone, though once I presented it, it was seconded and then adopted. No one suggested the motion to me, directly or indirectly, either in the Government or on the Board. I have never had any conversations with anyone in the government about anything to do with Rights and Democracy, either in the Department of Foreign Affairs, or in the Privy Council or in the Office of the Prime Minister, other than a one sentence query from Foreign Affairs, before I was appointed, asking whether I would accept an appointment to the Board.

Second, much has been made of the fact that I am a volunteer lawyer for B'nai Brith Canada. Almost completely ignored is the fact that I am a member of the Liberal Party, a past candidate for the Party in three federal elections, in 1979, 1980 and 1984, a member of the Party's national policy committee for five years, between 1973 and 1978 and a member of its election platform committee for the 1980 election. Ed Broadbent may not have known all these details. But he is familiar enough with the Canadian political landscape to know that I have no interest in furthering the Conservative Party's political agenda.

My own guess, for what it is worth, is that my appointment to the Board had nothing to do with either my affiliation with B'nai Brith or the Liberal Party and everything to do with the fact that I had served on the Board for two prior terms, between 1997 and 2003. The Board, by the time I was appointed, had degenerated into controversy on the role of the Board and the Government, I believe, wanted a person on the Board with prior experience.

The motivation for the appointment of Michael Van Pelt was, as far as I can tell, similar. Van Pelt is a person with a good deal of organizational experience, wise in the ways of board/management relations.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Al Haq, Al Mezan and B'Tselem have gained a reputation for their method of operation - develop a theory first, in their case "Israel is to blame" and then twist or invent the facts to fit the theory. The current round of polemicist attacks on the Tories seems inspired by this method of operation. If the facts cannot sustain their theory - a Conservative party hostile takeover of Rights and Democracy to pursue a right wing ideological agenda - then the facts must be changed to fit the theory.

As a Liberal, I am not averse to attacks on the Tories. All I would say to Broadbent, Siddiqui, Theilheimer, Jean-Bouchard and others is, stick to the facts.
David Matas is a Winnipeg lawyer.

February 7, 2010

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