Ahmed Assal’s human rights case was destined to be a media circus. That it happened in the middle of the slow news days of summer only added fuel to the hype. Even Fox News’s website picked up the Halifax story, summarizing Assal’s position in a particularly lampoonable way: “A man in Canada is claiming that his condominium board’s refusal to bend the rules and allow him to erect a satellite dish is a violation of his human rights.” To put it another way…well, that first way pretty much sums it up.
For three days last week, a nondescript room in the Dal Student Union Building was transformed into a kind of courtroom, complete with lawyers and witnesses, court reporter and a bible for swearing on. At times media people outnumbered civilians in the audience, and TV camerapeople lounged outside the room. Here the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission convened its board of inquiry. Serving in the role of judge was the board’s chair, Royden Trainor, a bright local lawyer.
The basic facts of the case are clear. Assal, his wife and their three kids
—all Canadian citizens who emigrated from Egypt in 2000—moved into a Clayton Park condo complex in January, 2002. Like most condos, the board at Sutton Gardens puts rules on what modifications the owner-residents can make to their units. Although exceptions are often made to the rules, any request is supposed to be sent in writing through proper condo channels. Among the many restrictions, Sutton Gardens forbids satellite dishes. Assal knew about the dish ban even before he bought his unit, and was reminded of it whenever he casually mentioned the subject to the condo’s property managers.
Yet Assal wanted a dish. Not just any dish, but a particular Arabic satellite dish that picks up 18 channels (essentially the public broadcaster from each of 18 Middle East countries). October 25, 2003, without written permission from the condo board, Assal gets the ArabSat version of the cable guy to come to his house. After a six-hour installation job that involves a lot of wandering the grounds to find a strong signal, the dish is fixed to a tree in the common backyard, and the Assals can watch TV in their native Arabic.
Almost immediately, the condo board sends a letter demanding the dish’s removal. Assal contacts the Human Rights Commission, and soon the condo board receives a letter from the HRC articulating how the dish supports Assal’s Muslim religion (much of the programming is explicitly religious), and is a tie to his Middle Eastern culture. Once the matter becomes an official human rights complaint, the condo board freezes as if in shock: It leaves the dish alone but doesn’t try to negotiate a settlement. From then to now—and at least until Trainor’s decision, expected some time after September 30—the Assal family enjoys the dish without incident.
If this case was happening in the States, Assal would be in trouble. American law says if everyone is treated the same, there’s no discrimination: Nobody gets a satellite dish, nobody gets to complain. Canadian law revels in less obvious examples of inequality, ways the majority is unfair to minorities without even trying. In whitebread Sutton Gardens, which is well served by cable TV, most of Assal’s neighbours enjoy effortless access to dozens of channels in their native language. To get anything similar, Assal is asking the condo to make what human rights law calls “reasonable accommodation” and allow his dish. To receive equal treatment, he needs to be treated differently—a perfectly legal Canadian paradox.
But while Assal has a plausible argument, Trainor has to decide if it’s plausible enough for human rights legislation. Is a Muslim’s right to a telecommunications convenience the same as, say, a Sikh’s right to wear a turban? If the people at Sutton Gardens were better neighbours, the rules would have been bent long ago, leaving the Human Rights Commission free to answer other questions.
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