Just deserts

Harper spokesperson forced to retract smear against Muslim organization

National Council of Canadian Muslims sued Harper and his spokesperson for alleging the group had terrorist ties
Photo: Number 10

History, of sorts, was made last week. But if you blinked, you probably missed it.

No, it wasn’t the standard neoliberal budget crafted by the former chair of the C.D. Howe Institute turned finance minister that was panned by the same band of tired, centrist scribes who write essentially the same column after every federal budget.

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No, it wasn’t the mainstream media propelled tizzy about a stunningly myopic, comfortably privileged white, middle-aged academic who issued a groveling mea culpa and then quit his think tank gig at McGill University after he wrote a think-free column claiming that Quebec is populated by sociopaths.

While dreary column after column was devoted to another forgettable, crappy budget and trying to rescue the fast evaporating career of the author of that forgettable, crappy column, Stephen Harper’s once rabidly loyal guard dog, Jason MacDonald, got a sweet, long overdue legal comeuppance.

The wonderful news that Harper’s faithful mouthpiece got spanked in a libel proceeding barely registered in Ottawa and beyond.

I suspect this is because smearing Canadian Muslims is considered de rigueur in the Toronto-Ottawa political and media axis and many of the usual suspects are too preoccupied with rehabilitating Harper’s tattered legacy and reputation from Borg-like bureaucrat to, ugh, “statesman” to notice.

Still, the glorious blow that knocked MacDonald, and by extension, Darth Harper, flat on their sagging butts was delivered by the fine, determined and oh so satisfyingly patient Canadians who make up the National Council of Canadian Muslims and, more particularly, its indefatigable lawyer, Jeff Saikaley.

Here’s the quick backstory. In Jan. 2014, the NCCM wrote to Harper, rebuking him for inviting on an official delegation travelling to Israel a rabbi who had “introduced, defended and praised… two of the most recognized and vitriolic anti-Muslim activists of our time,” Pam Geller and Robert Spencer, at an event in Toronto in late 2013.

Smearing Muslims as terrorist sympathisers

The Harper government’s predictable reaction to the NCCM’s reasonable request was to unleash their pit bull MacDonald, the prime minister’s director of communications at the time, who sprinted to the now defunct right-wing propaganda outlet, Sun News, to denounce the NCCM as, in effect, a nest of Hamas-supporting terrorists.

“We will not take seriously criticism from an organization with documented ties to a terrorist organization such as Hamas,” MacDonald said. (Note the use of “we”; I doubt Harper’s good soldier suddenly went rogue.)

Harper’s noxious modus operandi is stamped all over these discreditable events.

The NCCM made it plain instantly that it wasn’t going to be silenced, intimidated or its employees and board members tarred as terrorist sympathizers by the then prime minister and his chief shill. Hence, the demand for an apology and retraction or we’ll see you in court.

Harper and company miscalculated, badly. Instead of apologizing, he remained silent, effectively daring the NCCM to follow through with its threat to launch a libel action.

So, to its everlasting credit, the NCCM did just that. In May 2014, it filed a defamation suit — naming both Harper and MacDonald —seeking a public retraction, a permanent injunction preventing the words from being republished, and damages of up to $100,000.

The money, I gather, was largely irrelevant. The lawsuit’s principal aim was to send an unambiguous message to any and all smear merchants — up to and including in the PMO — that Canadian Muslims will not tolerate being maligned.

Not surprisingly, Harper and MacDonald promptly lawyered up, retaining high-profile Toronto libel attorney, Peter Downard, to get them out of a politically sticky and potentially costly legal jam.

A legal slam dunk

Almost three years and goodness knows how much money later, MacDonald capitulated. The language in a joint statement MacDonald and the NCCM issued announcing the defamation suit had been “resolved” was agreeable and diplomatic.

Its unmistakable meaning, however, was not only a Michael Jordan-like legal slam dunk in the NCCM’s favour, but also a grudging admission by MacDonald that his ugly remarks about loyal, hardworking Canadians were unequivocally false.

"Mr. MacDonald accepts that his statement in January of 2014 does not accurately reflect the activities of the NCCM, its Board of Directors or its employees,” the joint statement read. "Jason MacDonald accepts that the NCCM is a Canadian Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization committed to civic engagement and the promotion of human rights; that the NCCM is an important contributor to public discourse on issues that impact diverse Canadian communities.”

I may be wrong, but I can’t recall any other spokesman for any other modern-day prime minister having to retract publicly defamatory comments made targeting his fellow Canadians.

Harper isn’t included in the communique despite being named in the NCCM’s original statement of claim. Since both sides aren’t talking, it’s difficult to determine precisely why Harper wasn’t ultimately party to the retraction.

Curiously, the Trudeau government also issued a statement as part of the settlement, repudiating MacDonald's claim that the NCCM had terrorist ties. "The government of Canada affirms that the statement made about the NCCM does not reflect the official view of the government."

Make no mistake, Harper’s noxious modus operandi is stamped all over these discreditable events. His defining instinct as prime minister was to sully the office he held by using that office to sully, if not destroy, Canadians who dared to challenge his edicts and authority.

This sad, tawdry tendency still courses its malevolent way through the heart and empty soul of the Conservative Party and the candidates vying to replace Harper like an antibiotic-resistant virus.

Harper’s disciples

It’s habitually on display in the cheap, ugly and divisive bombast his philosophical disciples — Kellie Leitch, Chris Alexander, Maxime Bernier, Steven Blaney, Kevin O’Leary and the rest — employ to pit one part of Canada against another and Canadians against Canadians.

Like their mentor, they’re competing to become bully-in-chief.

And Stephen Harper was a cocky, unrepentant bully who enjoyed enormous power. He and his now humbled surrogate tried to impugn and discredit the NCCM. They failed.

The NCCM confronted and defeated the bullies on behalf of every Muslim Canadian who loves Canada and has an abiding stake in its future.

All Canadians owe the council a debt of gratitude.

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