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MPs of all stripes criticize free speech bill

Conservative MP wages war on political correctness

Canadian MPs from all parties are criticizing a private member’s bill that could see the government repeal sections of the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) dealing with hate speech.
Conservative MP Brian Storseth recently answered the call of free speech advocates when he introduced Bill C-304, which would strike down Section 13 of the CHRA, dealing with “the communication of hate messages by telephone or on the internet.”
The bill has been criticized by many, including members of his own party.
But Storseth, who declined an interview with Xtra, has argued in the House of Commons against political correctness, denouncing the “tyranny” of bureaucracies that censor speech.
“Freedom of speech is a fundamental principle in our democracy and one which Canadians have fought and died for, for over a century,” Storseth said in the Commons. “The best way to fight bigotry is to ensure that we protect and enhance our fundamental freedoms in this great country of ours.”
Storseth’s fight will be a tough one, with opposition to the bill from members of all parties.
NDP House leader Joe Comartin, who was recently the party’s justice critic, says that although parts of the CHRA are flawed, he is opposed to doing away with it altogether.
“It clearly needs to be brought into the 21st century – it was designed for a period of time when our technology was significantly different than it is now,” he says.
Comartin feels human rights commissions are important because they control offensive speech by awarding damages to claimants or through mediation, whereas the criminal code metes out jail time.
Liberal justice critic Irwin Cotler, who has a history of working with hate speech legislation, would also like to see a number of amendments to the CHRA.
“My views are that the legislation still is constitutional,” Cotler says. “With respect to the Canadian Human Rights Act, I would propose some amendments, but I believe that they’re still constitutional and still valid.”
Lesbian Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth is also taking aim at Storseth’s bill.
She says relying on the Criminal Code’s anti-hate provisions is insufficient in part because it is missing three grounds for discrimination provided by the CHRA: sex, disability and discrimination on the basis of age.
“There may be some value in taking a look at the whole Human Rights Act, but you can’t pull one piece out and leave a legislative gap,” she says.
Nancy Ruth is also concerned that the test for using the CHRA provisions and the Criminal Code are different.
“Any individual can walk in and use the Act if they accept your case, whereas in the Criminal Code, the police have to charge, the Crown attorney has to prosecute, and before he or she does so, he or she has to go to the attorney general of the provinces,” she explains.
Comartin agrees, noting that the bill is likely too contentious to pass.
“The prime minister, on more than one occasion, seemed to indicate to the media that he was not in favour of doing away with it,” he says. “There are a number of different communities – the Jewish community, the Islamic community in Canada – are very opposed to that being done away with.”