A contentious Conservative private member’s bill to repeal hate speech provisions in the Canadian Human Rights Act passed second reading in the Commons Feb 15 on a vote of 158 to 131. The bill will now proceed to the Commons justice committee.
The bill, introduced by Conservative MP Brian Storseth, would strike down Section 13 of the CHRA, which protects Canadians against those who communicate hate messages via telephone or internet.
Free speech activists have long asked for this section to be struck down, but there has also been opposition to the bill from members of all parties.
“When my constituents hear about . . . these quasi-judicial courts, they are absolutely appalled,” says Storseth, of Human Rights Tribunals. “That is why I believe it is important that we, as Canadians, stand up and defend our civil liberties and say that it is time to repeal Section 13 . . . and ensure that these types of trials happen in an open, fair and transparent system called the Criminal Code of Canada where there are checks and balances.”
Critics of the bill argue that leaving hate speech up to the Criminal Code means there will be need for a greater burden of proof, which will involve a more onerous process, where the attorney general must agree to the prosecution.
Critics also note that fewer identifiable groups are covered under the Criminal Code’s definition of hate speech than under the CHRA. However, a clause in Bill C-30, the Lawful Access Bill, amends the Criminal Code to make the list of identifiable groups more comparable and will include “colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation or mental or physical disability.”
NDP MP Joe Comartin says it is important to keep a two-tiered approach.
“Society, as a whole, needs to tell the bigots and hate-mongers they cannot do it and we have a mechanism we are going to use to shut them down,” Comartin says. “This is not about a debate over free speech. This type of speech, like slander, defamation and libel, we have recognized historically people cannot do.”
Both Comartin and Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, who argued against the bill in debate, agree that, while the current legislation is flawed, it should be amended rather than struck down.
Bennett worries that the message being sent is that freedom of speech is the bedrock for all other freedoms.
“This argument ignores the fact that there is no hierarchy of rights,” Bennett says. “For its part, the [Canadian Bar Association] has explained that freedom of expression in Canada is not an absolute value and that the CBA endorses the view that a properly drawn civil prohibition against the propagation of hate speech is also a reasonable limitation on freedom of expression.”