Rights and Democracy rips itself apart

All 47 employees at Rights and Democracy are calling on Braun, Tepper and Gauthier to resign

Last May 29, five board members of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, a Montreal-based organization usually known as Rights and Democracy, wrote to the Privy Council Office in Ottawa. Formed by an act of Parliament in 1988, Rights and Democracy receives $11 million a year from the federal government, which appoints its 10 Canadian board members (who then elect three international members). Rights and Democracy led the world, and far outpaced Canada’s government, last year in criticizing Afghanistan’s odious Shia family law, which would permit husbands to force their wives to have sex.

The May letter came from five of the seven board members who attended the March 26 board meeting. Its purpose was to complain about the other two: Aurel Braun, a University of Toronto political scientist who had been named board chairman only two weeks before the meeting, and Jacques Gauthier, the vice-chair.

At the meeting the board went in camera to discuss the performance of its president, Rémy Beauregard. That discussion ended with an endorsement of Beauregard. But Braun instructed the secretary not to record that result. Soon after, Braun, Gauthier and a third board member, Elliot Tepper, sent a confidential evaluation of Beauregard to the Privy Council Office. Beauregard was not permitted to see it.

Faced with this “manifest lack of transparency and violation of procedure,” the five board members asked the government to force Braun to show Beauregard the report. That didn’t happen.

In October, the five board members wrote a second letter, to Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon. The board had been scheduled to meet days earlier, they wrote. But Braun, “in consultation with only four of 11 members of the board (there were then two vacancies), decided to cancel the meeting.” The five board members said the board was now “dysfunctional.” Given this “crisis,” they asked Cannon to replace Braun with a new chairman.

By January, the Harper government had filled the two board vacancies. One new appointee was David Matas, the legal counsel for B’nai Brith Canada. The other was Michael Van Pelt, who heads a Christian think tank called Cardus. At the Cardus founding conference last autumn, Van Pelt said, “Canada’s new debate and that of the world will be one of faith and belief. It will be one of a religious character.”

Thus reinforced, Braun and his faction squared off against the rest of the board at an unbelievably tense board meeting in the first week of January. Two still newer board members joined: Brad Farquhar, who used to work for the Saskatchewan Party and who ran against Ralph Goodale for the federal Conservatives in 2006; and Marco Navarro-Génie, a political scientist from St. Mary’s University College in Calgary. His thesis adviser at the University of Calgary was former Harper strategist Tom Flanagan.

Navarro-Génie was able to take his place on the board after a one-vote majority decided against extending the term of Guido Riveros Franck, a former Bolivian member of Parliament. Riveros Franck was one of the five who wrote to Ottawa protesting against Braun’s management. Two more quit immediately in disgust. Payam Akhavan is a tireless advocate for Iranian democracy who teaches at McGill University. Sima Samar is an Afghan human-rights advocate. In 2003 she left the Karzai government after receiving death threats for her criticism of sharia law.

Later that night Rémy Beauregard died in his bed of a heart attack. When Aurel Braun signed his name to a notice of condolence on the organization’s website, Beauregard’s widow, Suzanne Trépanier, wrote him a furious letter. “You don’t treat a person like you did with Rémy and then praise his qualities after he is dead. This is, to me, hypocrisy.”

Now all of Rights and Democracy’s 47 employees have written to Braun, decrying his “systemic personal attacks” against Beauregard and calling on Braun, Tepper and Gauthier to resign. Braun told a newspaper reporter he isn’t sure of the note’s authenticity. He did not return a phone call from Maclean’s.

When I visited Montreal last week, the people at Rights and Democracy were flummoxed by this ferocious factional dispute. Every single member of the board—the Braun faction and its opponents—was appointed by the Harper government, they said. So was Beauregard. What could this be about?

But in Conservative Ottawa, not all conservatives are viewed equally. Beauregard was a Franco-Ontarian who was a university pal of Paul Terrien, Cannon’s chief of staff. Terrien used to write speeches for Brian Mulroney. Braun and his six board allies are made of sterner stuff.

If anyone is a keen student of shades of conservatism, and of the use of institutions to make change without accountability, it is Stephen Harper. In 2003 he was furious that Ontario judge Roy McMurtry had permitted same-sex marriage. This was a Liberal plot. “They wanted to introduce this same-sex marriage through back channels,” Harper said then. “They had the courts do it for them, put the judges in they wanted, then they failed to appeal, failed to fight the case in court.”

But Roy McMurtry was a lifelong Progressive Conservative, appointed by Mulroney. “Well, he’s a former Tory,” Harper said. “But whether he’s conservative or not is a matter of terminology.”

By one definition, then, the fight at Rights and Democracy is a dispute over terminology. At the beginning of 2009, Rémy Beauregard was asked how he envisaged the year ahead. “With serenity,” he said. His funeral will be held in Ottawa on Jan. 23.