Through a recent tweet from Omar Ha-Redeye (@OmarHaRedeye), we learned that private member's Bill C-304, An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act (protecting freedom) passed third reading in the House of Commons without much media coverage, public attention or debate from the opposition parties. The Bill aims to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act by deleting section 13 to ensure the Act doesn’t infringe on the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, it still needs to go through the Senate before it receives royal assent. If enacted, the new Act will come into force one year after the day on which it receives royal assent.
Although it is a private member's Bill, the Conservative Party forming today's government has thrown their support behind the amendments to the CHRA. The Bill passed the House by a margin of 153 to 136.
I find it appalling that the government is using private member's Bills to pass their agenda. And yes, I say their agenda since, according to NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison, Conservative Party members voted a few years ago at their annual convention in favour of a resolution to eliminate the human rights commission's authority to "regulate, receive, investigate or adjudicate complaints" dealing with hate speech on the Internet.
I wrote about the meaning and purpose of section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act in a previous Slaw post. So I won't go into the details. To summarize though, the section prohibits the communication of messages that are likely to expose a person to hatred or contempt, by reason of the fact that the persons targeted are identifiable on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination such as race, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and so on.
According to Alberta Conservative MP Brian Storseth, who introduced the Bill:
The current human rights code allows too many frivolous cases to proceed against citizens, when the Criminal Code already covers hate speech that could generate harm against an individual or group.
Acts of hate speech are serious crimes that should be investigated by police officers, not civil servants, he said, and the cases should be handled by "real judges and real lawyers," instead of a quasi-judicial body such as the human rights commission.
Well, let me share with you why I believe section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act is still relevant, still has a purpose and should have been reviewed to fit its intended purpose instead of being removed from the law despite the existence of Criminal Code provisions on hate crimes:
1. Recent comments by Jonathan Kay in the National post:
Canada’s human-rights law is a product of the 1960s, when much of our society truly was shot through with bigotry and prejudice. Those days are gone, thankfully, and laws such as the Canadian Human Rights Act now comprise a greater threat to our liberty than the harms they were meant to address.
Really!? Those days are gone… and the rest of his comment simply shocks me. Tell me, if those days are gone, why are white supremacists cheering and are overjoyed with the repeal of section 13?
2. Section 319 of the Criminal Code of Canada bans the wilful promotion of hatred toward an identifiable group. Challenging hate crimes under the Criminal Code is most often a losing battle because it is such a difficult charge to prove.
The Canadian Bar Association supported "retaining section 13 as a useful tool," but had reservations about the punitive fines and stated in a paper that promotion of hatred is a "social evil" that has increased with the proliferation of the Internet, and that the standard for wilful promotion of hatred in the Criminal Code is very hard to prove.
3. Taking away the Human Rights Commission's authority over hate speech will make it much harder to prevent hate speech online, will continue to encourage racism and could lead to more racial violence and intolerance.
This past week the United Nations Committee Against Torture released a report into Canada’s human rights record. It wasn’t pretty. The Committee suggested that Canada was complicit in the torture of Canadian citizens post-9/11 and expressed concern at the “apparent reluctance on part of the State party [Canada] to protect rights of all Canadians detained in other countries.” Shocking, right? Not really—not if we look closely at Canada’s recent behaviour with regards to international justice and human rights…
Moreover, this isn’t a partisan issue—both Liberal and Conservative Governments share responsibility for Canada’s human rights failures. Nevertheless, there doesn’t appear to be much hope with the current Conservative Government and, for a government which rode to power under the banner of accountability, their record on human rights and international justice issues is particularly disturbing. Perhaps this should be unsurprising. In 1999, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper described Canada as “a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term.” And what does he think of human rights commissions? According to Harper,
“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.”
In this context, the response from the government should come as no shock. Rather than confronting the issues raised by the UN Committee, the Canadian Government’s response was to criticize the report and to brush of its allegations by claiming that worse abuses elsewhere absolve the Government’s record. A spokesperson responded by saying that,
“In times when there are serious concerns regarding human rights violations across the world, it is disappointing that the UN would spend its time decrying Canada.”
Moreover, in response to the report a Conservative MP has declared it is “high time” that the Canadian government consider withdrawing from the UN altogether.
Canada’s flailing record on human rights and international justice is catching up with it and its reputation is suffering. When I tell people I’m Canadian increasingly people ask “What happened to Canada?” It’s a question I often find myself asking.
So do I!
Many experts and the media say that Bill 304 is a fait accompli!. However, I hope not. But in the meantime, what do you think? Do you agree with free speech proponents on the repeal of section 13? Are the Criminal Code provisions sufficient to limit and prevent hate speech? Does section 13 of the Human Rights Act unnecessarily infringe on Canadians’ freedom of speech? Is section 13 necessary to protect certain identifiable groups against hate speech? Is section 13 of the Human Rights Act still relevant today to ensure people are not posting hate speech on the Internet?