Repeal of Section 13 leaves only Criminal Code to deal with hate speech
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Wed Jun 13 2012. By Haroon Siddiqui, Editorial Page
We are so used to Stephen Harper breaking his promises that few Canadians noticed his most recent flip-flop.
The Conservatives in the House of Commons have axed the anti-hate provision of the Canadian Human Rights Act, even though in 2009 he intimated the exact opposite.
He had been asked if he was going to get rid of Section 13, which prohibits exposing a person or a people to hatred or contempt on grounds of race, religion or ethnic origin. His answer was emphatic: “The government has no plans to do so.”
Nor did he signal during last year’s election that he was revising his plans.
Yet he has sneaked in the change — not as a government measure but as a private member’s bill. Such individual legislative initiatives rarely pass. But this one passed easily with the prime minister and his troops lining up behind it.
This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given what Harper said in 1999 when he was head of the right-wing National Citizens Coalition:
“Human rights commissions, as they are evolving, are an attack on our fundamental freedoms and the basic existence of a democratic society. It is, in fact, totalitarianism. I find this is very scary stuff.”
So, Harper has gone from thinking of human rights commissions as totalitarian, to not being so, to being so.
This augments the argument that he is a right-wing ideologue who had been biding his time until he got his parliamentary majority to implement his real agenda.
The axing of Section 13 has been presented as a free-speech issue, which it is only in part. The real motivation for repealing it has been Islamophobia. You have to shut your eyes not to see it.
The human rights act and the commission it spawned came into being some 40 years ago as a result of yeoman efforts by the Jewish and black communities. There was to be freedom of speech but also freedom from hate. That was going to be the Canadian way.
This was challenged by the advocates of American-style free speech — an unholy alliance of media (that wanted as few restrictions on content as possible) and anti-Semites and others (who wanted to be free to spread their bigotry).
However, the Supreme Court ruled that restrictions on hate speech did not compromise free speech.
That consensus held until the post-Sept. 11 rise of Islamophobia.
In 2007, a handful of Muslims hauled Maclean’s magazine before the federal as well as three provincial human rights commissions for publishing what they thought was hate speech. Whether it was or not is a matter of opinion.
What really upset some Islamophobes was that Muslims had the gall to mount a challenge, rather than meekly accept being kicked around.
The bigots wanted to be free to spread their venom. Not unlike the anti-Semites and racists of an earlier era, they pretended that all they wanted was “open” and “spirited” debates. They demonized human rights commissions, telling half-truths and outright lies. They found friends in the Conservative caucus, which has now delivered for its core constituency.
Those hailing the death of Section 13 as a victory for free speech include many of the same people who routinely muzzle those whose views they do not like.
They delayed the entry of Al Jazeera English to Canada. They pressure universities to shut down the annual Apartheid Week that highlights the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
The Harperites cancelled federal grants to Kairos, the ecumenical Christian aid group, as well as to the Canadian Arab Federation and Palestine House because they would not toe Ottawa’s foreign policy line. Now Ottawa is on a witch-hunt against environmental NGOs that oppose the Alberta tarsands. No freedom of speech for any of them.
With Section 13 gone, we are left with only the Criminal Code, which provides for up to two years in jail for spreading hate against identifiable groups.
But police cannot lay charges without the approval of the provincial attorney-general, potentially holding the prosecution process hostage to politics. Even with such approval, the aggrieved party must find the time and resources to work its way through the courts.
All this makes it hard for ordinary citizens and maligned groups to find a remedy for a right they still have on paper: freedom from hate.
Section 13 provided a civil process to deal with bigotry. It enabled dialogue that also proved educational for society. By repealing it, the Harperites have further criminalized speech. Is this what free-speech advocates really wanted? If they were sincere, they would have killed the Criminal Code’s anti-hate provisions and kept Section 13.
Embodied in Section 13 was the Canadian concept of an inclusive society that respects the dignity and equal worth of all its citizens, not just those who wield political, economic and media power, as in the United States.
In the past, that provision was used by maligned Jews, blacks, gays, aboriginals and others. Today, the maligned are Muslims. Tomorrow they will be some other group. But they will not have the civil tool to confront their tormentors.
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