2 min

MPs want to stop Phelps at the border

But others say let him in

FIGHTING WORDS WITH WORDS. When the Westboro Baptist Church threatened to picket a Toronto production of the Laramie Project, roughly 150 queer activists staged a counter-protest against hate. Credit: Xtra files

Two queer Vancouver-area MPs have written to federal Minister of Public Safety Peter Van Loan asking him to alert Canada Border Services to the impending visit of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church.

Phelps’ group runs and pickets funerals like that of Matthew Shepard, who was brutally gaybashed to death 10 years ago.

Now, Phelps and his followers want to picket a Nov 28 performance of The Laramie Project, a play depicting the reactions of the people of Laramie, Wyoming to the 21-year-old Shepard’s murder.

“Hatred, bigotry and harassment are not welcome in our communities,” Vancouver East MP Libby Davies and Burnaby-Douglas MP Bill Siksay say.

They describe the Westboro Baptist Church as a “viciously homophobic hate group known for disseminating hate speech, inciting violence, and for contemptible acts such as disrupting funerals and harassing mourners.”

The MPs say the church’s sole purpose for visiting Canada is “inciting hatred and harassing people on the basis of their sexual orientation.”

And that, they say, is “a premeditated violation of section 319 of the Canadian Criminal Code.”

Section 319 says it is an offence to willfully promote hatred against any identifiable group.

Siksay and Davies say many constituents have contacted them, angered that Westboro Baptist members might be allowed into Canada allegedly with the purpose of breaking the law.

“The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities and the people of Vancouver will not be intimidated by these bigots,” the pair write in a press release.

But play director Ryan Mooney says let Phelps and his followers come.

Free speech is free speech no matter where the border is drawn, he says.

“We can’t say we want to live in a country with free speech and not expect these things to happen,” he says. “Just because you don’t agree with what someone says doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to say it.”

What’s more, Mooney says, he doubts if the Westboro Baptists are going “to convert anyone.”

“People are not dumb,” he says. “I worry about [the church members’] safety more than anything. We hope nobody confronts them.”

The BC Civil Liberties Association also opposes using the borders to stop freedom of speech.

President Rob Holmes points to Canada Customs’ repeated seizures of books destined for Little Sister’s as an example of what happens when border guards try to stop free speech.

No matter how odious some speech can be, Holmes says referring to the Westboro Baptist Church, Canadians are resilient enough to judge the quality and character of ideas in the public forum and draw their own conclusions.

Little Sister’s co-owner Jim Deva agrees that Phelps and his followers should be allowed into Canada.

“Bring him on,” he says. “We can deal with him.

“I believe his rights are protected,” Deva adds. “It’s coming from a religious basis.”

Deva says he will be at the counter-protest and believes many others will be as well.

“I think it’s democracy in action,” Deva says.

Davies and Siksay maintain that the government has alerted border officials about impending Westboro visits in the past.

They want it done again.