3 min

Bittersweet victory

Svend Robinson's hate crimes legislation becomes law 14 years after being introduced

It took more than a decade to get there, but on Apr 29 the Senate approved MP Svend Robinson’s hate crimes bill by a vote of 59-11. Bill C-250 came into force the following day when it received royal assent.

We’re thrilled,” says Laurie Arron, Egale Canada’s director of advocacy. “This has been a long time coming. Svend has been trying to get sexual orientation added to the hate propaganda laws for many years. We’re glad that the Senate not only passed it, but passed it overwhelmingly.”

Robinson, who is currently on medical leave after a highly publicized shoplifting incident, first tabled the private member’s bill in 1990. Private member’s bills rarely make it into law.

Through the addition of sexual orientation to the list of identifiable groups, queers are now included in every piece of federal legislation outlining grounds for discrimination or potential targets of hate crimes. Previously the list included only colour, race, religion and ethnic origin. The list still does not include gender identity or gender expression.

In the weeks prior to the Senate vote, a group of mostly Conservative senators had been attempting to stall Bill C-250 in anticipation of a federal election call. When an election is called parliament is prorogued and anything left on the order paper dies and has to be reintroduced.

Bill C-250 received significant attention from the religious right who claimed that it would punish them for speaking out about the “immorality” of homosexuality and lead to the banning of the Bible.

Arron says he wasn’t surprised by the reaction of the religious right but adds, “I think that it’s really disheartening that they would go to such lengths to oppose our equality.

“The leaders of the religious right groups that have historically opposed equal rights for LGBT people have been stirring up fear and spreading untruths about what this legislation will actually do.”

Senator Terry Mercer says this issue generated thousands of letters and e-mails to his office – more than any other topic – both for and against.

“Look at the overwhelming support it received in the Senate,” says Mercer. “Senators from all parties, all regions, all ages. There was a tremendous turnout. As Canadians we should all be proud of what we’ve just done.

“Since I’ve been here in the Senate it’s one of the most moving things I’ve been able to do. While there is some symbolism in what we did, it’s a very important message to send to all Canadians that because of someone’s sexual orientation they should not be subjected to hate crimes.”

“This bill prevents hatred,” says Senator Serge Joyal, who sponsored Bill C-250 in the Senate. “I don’t think that a society as evolved and democratic as Canadian society should tolerate that anyone, on the basis of their beliefs, can incite violence.”

Joyal adds that after listening to numerous witness and speeches, he was still shocked when some witnesses said that they had no position on the promotion of hatred itself.

“How can we in Canada be indifferent to the promotion of hatred?” Joyal asks. “If you accept it for one minority group when will you not accept it for another group?

“Freedom of religion doesn’t mean that you can do anything. We’re in 2004, not in the Middle Ages. How can a religion be interpreted to accept violence against an individual?”

The bill is largely symbolic due to the infrequency with which hate crimes charges are laid.

Hate crime laws in Canada are divided into two categories. One includes those that fit into the hate propaganda sections of the Criminal Code (which includes section 318, “Advocating Genocide” and Section 319, “Willful Promotion Of Hatred”). The other category includes any criminal offence where the evidence supports hate as a motivation.

Most queer bashings fall into the latter category. The offender is charged with assault and, upon conviction, the judge can increase the sentence if it can be proven that the crime was hate/bias motivated.

Arron says that there are more steps on the road ahead, including ensuring that gender identity is added to the Canadian Human Rights Act and then to all other federal legislation. Egale’s election questionnaire to MPs will query their support for that issue.

He adds that he believes the passage of Bill C-250 “bodes well for passage of the equal marriage legislation in the Senate.”