As many of you know, representatives of the the World Coalition Against Islam Canada and the Cultural Action Party of Canada recently hosted an anti-Islam rally at Vancouver City Hall. It attracted about 20 people; the city came together to respond with a 4,000-person strong counter-protest. This, along with similar rallies in the United States, have sparked debate on hate speech laws versus free speech laws. What is and is not an acceptable way to deal with public bigotry? What can our community’s leaders do when faced with it?
Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson spoke up on the issue: he condemned the rally, declaring that Vancouver has “zero tolerance” for hate. Yet he also claimed that, due to the participants’ right to public demonstration, there was little he could do to shut it down.
I disagree. Robertson could have protected Vancouver from this rally in the first place (it was at City Hall, for Christ’s sake!) Section 319 of the Criminal Code of Canada states, on the topic of public incitement of hatred, that anyone who publicly “incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace” or “willfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group” can be charged with “an indictable offence” or ”an offence punishable on summary conviction.”
Some might say that our laws on public demonstration are too loose, that they let too much hate speech slide, but I would argue the opposite: that, at the federal level, we already have laws in place that are designed to quell hate. Harder laws than what we already have in terms of free speech and hate speech will complicate things even more than they already are and they aren’t necessary.
Perhaps laws cannot change people’s deeply entrenched opinions and thoughts, but the currently established laws in the criminal code must be enforced. Our community’s leaders, our municipal government, cannot shy away from that. It is reckless and irresponsible for the police and mayor to not have done more to arrest those guilty of crime.
“Only a handful of the members [of the anti-Islam groups] came out to the rally because the massive public response was so dramatic. [. . .] The counter-protests . . . sprung up naturally, without government direction,” said Peter Rautenbach, SFU honours political science graduate, who attended the counter-protest.
I don’t disagree with Rautenbach here, as I think the public response plays an extremely important role in society — especially in these hate-crime rallies. The government support and police presence kept the public event safe: it was this collaboration and unity of these two powerful groups that made this rally such a success, and that at least deserves recognition.
Some of the attendees that showed up and were expressing anti-immigrant views engaged in discussion with those at the rally, but police kept close tabs on them and escorted problematic or violent ones out of the event — such as notorious Holocaust denier Brian Ruhe, who was openly conveying Nazi support by raising his arm in a Nazi salute. If the police had not been there, the event could have taken a whole different direction, perhaps as violent as the ones in the United States.
“I would argue that the counter-protestors were extremely successful. This natural response and sheer physical turnout demonstrates solidarity without the complex topic of censorship and illegalizing demonstrations coming into play,” said Rautenbach.
Free speech laws shouldn’t protect hate crime, nor free or go easy on criminals under Criminal Code section 319 (1) and (2). It’s not that Canada needs more laws, but that the government needs to re-examine the Criminal Code and remind themselves what they committed to protecting its citizens from.