In late January a horrific attack on a Mosque in Quebec City left 6 members of a Muslim community dead, and left our nation left shaken by an act of hate. Almost 2 months before the attack, Private Members Motion was placed in the order of precedence in the House of Commons. It condemned “Islamophobia” and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination, and called for a study of these issues, and options for their reduction.
A number of leading commentators have found the recent debate surrounding M-103 and its supposed limits to free speech particularly odd. The text of the motion mentions nothing close to curtailing free speech. And in fact, we already have laws on the books in Canada that limit free speech: our hate speech legislation.
Every free society is defined by the importance it places on the right to free speech and expression. However, every free society also places limits on that speech. Whether it be yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre, or making threats against another person, free societies have always made clear distinctions between what is free expression and what is dangerous. Hate speech legislation not only takes into account what is considered dangerous for an individual or group, but also how best to reflect the character of the country and society that enacts them. Our country, which rightly places a premium on diversity, inclusiveness and equality, reflects those shared and venerated values in its legal codes on hate speech. Some, such as the United States, protect virtually all forms of speech with the exception of inciting violence, in Canada, we walk a finer line.
The question of what is dangerous is also a definition that has been tested in the courts. As a result, Canada’s prohibition on hate speech is nuanced and aims to be reasonable and balanced. “Hate speech” is not simply speech that hurts ones feelings, or offends someone; it must have a measurable harm to an identifiable group. What is more, speech in certain specific contexts is exempted, including private conversation, careless remarks, historical references, discussion of issues of public interest, and through comedic or literary devices like irony or sarcasm.
In other words, for speech to be classified hate speech, it must be demonstrably intended to incite discriminatory treatment or actionable harm. Hate speech is not designed to stop hate, but to stop the effects of promoting that hatred.
Consider what happens when reasonable limitations are not in place. When one reads of the horrors of human history, and the atrocities that have befallen groups that have been victimized by the majority, one always wonders how normal people could commit such acts. The seeds of atrocity are always found in the dehumanization of the victims. And too often, those seeds are planted and nourished by hate speech.
Legislative Assistant to Ken Hardie