Process Nerd: The M-103 Islamophobia report hits the House soon. What’s next?

Editor's Note: As reported by Kady O’Malley, there’s very little information about what the Heritage Committee’s report on Motion M-103, anticipated to be released very soon, will say. Motion M-103, passed by the House of Commons in March, 2017, tasked the Heritage Committee with undertaking a study in order to “develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination, including Islamophobia, in Canada.”

People hold signs during a demonstration regarding motion M-103 in Montreal, Saturday, March 4, 2017.

For a brief yet frantic few weeks on Parliament Hill last March, rookie Toronto-area Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s bid to have the Canadian heritage committee investigate the phenomenon of ‘Islamophobia,’ as well as “all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination,” and report back to the House with recommendations on developing a “whole-of-government” approach to “reducing or eliminating” such treatment was the most controversial item on the Commons to-do list. The motion, co-sponsored by Montreal-area Liberal MP Frank Bayliss, was introduced in response to the support for an e-petition that called on the House to condemn Islamophobia. The petition racked up nearly 70,000 signatures before being tabled in the House in December 2016. Thanks to her luck in landing a high spot on the lottery-driven waiting list to present private members business to the House, by mid-January, Khalid was preparing to make her opening pitch to her colleagues when the House re-opened for the winter sitting when the deadly shooting attack on a Quebec City mosque put the issue of Islamophobia — and, as a result, M-103 — in the national spotlight. Suddenly, what had seemed like a relatively non-contentious proposal became the battleground for a debate on freedom of speech, fair comment and even the nature of Islam itself. Critics of the motion launched a cross-country campaign to defeat it, ostensibly over fears it could lead to the criminalization of all criticism of Islam, or even the establishment of ‘Sharia’ law in Canada. It even became an issue within the Conservative leadership race, with all but one contender, Ontario MP Michael Chong, vowing to oppose it in the House. Ultimately, though, the motion passed easily — 201 to 91, with the Liberals and New Democrats supporting it en masse, and the majority of the Conservative and Bloc Quebecois caucuses voting against, and in early June, the Canadian heritage committee had begun work on its Commons-assigned task. Over the next few months, the committee heard from nearly 80 witnesses representing all sides of the discussion, including academics, experts and activists, as well as a wide range of religious organizations, anti-racism advocates and other interested parties, and by early December, they were ready to go behind closed doors to start drafting the final report. Given the unusually high level of anticipated public interest, it’s not surprising they weren’t able to finish up before the House broke for the holidays, but they’re clearly keen to get back to work, as the committee is slated for an in camera drafting session on Tuesday afternoon. Here’s a quick rundown on what to expect as the countdown to the final release begins. When will the report be released? As yet, the committee hasn’t set a date, but the pre-break minutes list a January 31 deadline for submitting “dissenting and supplementary opinions,” which suggests the final report could be sent to the printer by the end of the week, and tabled at any point after that. What happens next? It’s really up to the committee to decide how to manage the release of a report. In some cases, the chair simply stands up during routine proceedings to present it to the House, which has first dibs on the contents. The full text is usually posted on the parliamentary internet within a few hours, although exceptionally long or detailed reports can sometimes be delayed by up to a day. In this case, it seems likely that committee members may decide to hold a post-tabling press conference to discuss their conclusions — or, if the report isn’t unanimous, the parties could opt for separate media events to discuss their respective thoughts — and, in some cases, concerns — with the conclusions. How can you tell if a report is unanimous? It’s actually pretty straight-forward — any recommendation or observation that is presented as coming from the committee as whole should be interpreted as having the support of all members. If it isn’t, it usually means — and, for that matter, the report usually specifies — that a particular recommendation is supported by the majority of members, although in a majority setting, that could mean just those members affiliated with the governing party, as they have the numbers to win a vote without any opposition backing. Opposition members can also submit add-on reports on behalf of their party, which can either dissent from the main report or offer additional commentary. In both cases, the text is appended to the main report, and included in the main tabling. Will the report be debated in the House? In theory, it could be — if, that is, an MP puts forward a concurrence motion, although there are certain procedural restrictions on the use of such tools. (If, for instance, the committee requests that the government respond to the report, concurrence can’t be moved until that response is received, or the 120 day timeline to provide one expires.) Practically speaking, though, it’s rare for any committee report to be debated in the House. What is the committee likely to recommend? To get a sense of what to expect, let’s go back to the terms of the motion itself, which summarized what Khalid — and, presumably, M-103 supporters — are hoping to emerge from the process: namely, recommendations on “developing a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia, in Canada, while ensuring a community-centered focus with a holistic response through evidence-based policy-making.” Beyond that, it’s really anyone’s guess, although it’s a good bet that a good chunk of the report will be devoted to outlining the various points of view that the committee heard during witness testimony.Meanwhile, a recent National Post story hinted that the final report won’t focus on ‘Islamophobia’ at all, but will instead address the wider issue of religious and racial discrimination. Basically, we’ll just have to wait and see. Oh, and it’s worth noting that even after the report comes out, committee members will be limited in what they can say about what went on during the drafting process, as those discussions are protected by parliamentary privilege. Are those recommendations binding on the government? Barring exceptional circumstances, no, although as noted, the committee can ask the government for a response. Given that the Liberal caucus and the government supported the original motion, however, it’s fair to say that there will be political pressure to at least consider its recommendations, and explain any decision on whether to follow through with one or more of the suggested courses of action.

This article was originally published on the iPolitics website on January 29, 2018, and can be viewed on their site by clicking here.

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