A photo of Collin May, named by the provincial government as the next person to act as chief of the Alberta Human Rights Commission.
Collin May, named by the provincial government as the next person to act as chief of the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

Next Thursday, Collin May is scheduled to become Chief of the Alberta Human Rights Commission for a five-year term.

It is incumbent upon May, however, to do the right thing and resign from the commission before he takes office as its chief.

Nothing good is likely to come from his taking the job – least of all for the United Conservative Party (UCP) government that is ultimately responsible for his promotion. 

When the appointment of the Calgary lawyer who has been an AHRC tribunal member for the past three years was announced by Tyler Shandro on May 25, the justice minister said he was “thrilled that someone with Collin’s skills and experience will serve our province as the chief of the Alberta Human Rights Commission.”

But last Thursday, the Progress Report revealed that in 2009, May authored an article that can fairly be described as Islamophobic and offensive in a Calgary online publication called C2C Journal, which is affiliated with the former Manning Centre in Calgary. 

May opined in C2C Journal that “Islam is not a peaceful religion misused by radicals” but is “one of the most militaristic religions known to man,” in an enthusiastic review of a then-new book by controversial Israeli academic and polemicist Efraim Karsh.

Professor Karsh may be “one of the best writers on the Middle East,” as May described him in his 2,700-word review of “Islamic Imperialism: A History.” Or he may be a historian “who follows the fashionable trend of wholesale denigration of Islam and the Arabs, and whose political interests clearly dominate his terminology and historical analysis,” as one scholar put it in a less favourable review.

Be that as it may, May’s tub-thumping on behalf of the book’s thesis clearly disqualifies him from any role with the Alberta Human Rights Commission now, let alone as the commission’s chief. 

And despite the Stampede cone of silence that seems to have descended over the story since it was published by the media project run by Progress Alberta, it needs to be addressed by either May himself or the Alberta Government this week. 

In a statement to the Progress Report, May said he has changed his views about Islam and Muslims. 

“I wish to state clearly that I do not believe or accept the characterization of Islam as a militant religion or movement, especially in light of important recent and diverse scholarship that is working to overcome misconceptions regarding Muslim history and philosophy,” he wrote. “I commit to continuing my personal education about Islam, and all faiths, in my role as Chief.”

Unfortunately, this is not good enough. May’s ability to lead the commission has been clearly compromised by the 2009 publication in C2C Journal, which should have been discovered during the vetting process before his appointment was announced. 

As Faisal Bhabha, professor of law at Osgoode Hall in Toronto who served on the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario between 2008 and 2011, told the Progress Report: “It’s impossible to think that this person could be effective at combating Islamophobia or even interested in understanding Islamophobia.” However, he later told AlbertaPolitics.ca, “if May’s recent statement is sincere and acted upon, it could represent evidence of a person learning to become effective at combating Islamophobia.”

In a report the next day by Calgary City News, the only mainstream media outlet to cover the story, National Council of Canadian Muslims Alberta Advocacy Officer Said Omar called May’s views “very stereotypical, they are views that Muslims do not hold to, and unfortunately these types of views further contribute to the stigmatization of an entire community.”

A statement from Shandro’s office to City News indicated the government doesn’t share the views expressed in the book review and that the ministry is aware of the concerns of the Muslim community, but gave no hint of what, if anything, they propose to do about it. 

NDP Justice Critic Irfan Sabir was much blunter. “The statements published by Collin May in 2009 are overtly racist and Islamophobic,” he said. “This explicit prejudice is – obviously – completely unacceptable for the chair of the Alberta Human Rights Commission, whose mandate is to combat exactly these kinds of hateful views.”

“May has not apologized for his published statements or demonstrated that he has any insight into how they contribute to rising hate-motivated violence towards Muslims in Alberta and across Canada,” Sabir said in a statement sent to media. “He must apologize and step down or be removed from the commission.”

In his statement to Progress Alberta, May said accurately that in his review he “agreed with elements of the author’s position and rejected others.” 

However, it is fair to conclude upon reading the review that it is in substantial agreement with Karsh’s controversial argument throughout, only taking issue with a minor point briefly made in the book’s epilogue. 

It is also important to note that C2C Journal is not a scholarly publication. Its website describes it as platforming “longer form journalism that provides more substance than most mainstream news products and is more engaging than most academic journals,” and says it has an “unabashed bias is in favour of free markets, democratic governance and individual liberty.” 

May’s review would fit most of this description of C2C Journal’s self-described mission. It does not, however, seem like an academic book review to this reader.

C2C Journal also published the controversial 2013 story by former Jason Kenney and Stephen Harper speechwriter Paul Bunner that dismissed the widespread understanding of what happened in Canada’s residential schools as “a bogus genocide.”

Whether or not May has recanted his past views and repented for them, the damage has been done and cannot be undone.

May needs to step aside for the good of the commission and the rights of Albertans.

Editor’s Note July 13, 2022: This story has been updated to include a response to Professor Faisal Bhabha from May.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...