Canada has been in the news a lot lately for things it is not normally associated with. Things like mass shootings, online hate and an overall atmosphere of intolerance. We here used to pride ourselves on openness, the embrace of difference and acceptance and like to highlight how we have built a social model that is the envy of much of the world. At times usual Canadian diffidence gives way to – horror of horrors – a form of smugness and arrogance.
This view of Canada is certainly consistent with the country I know and love and is the one we like to pass on to our children, let alone the face we try to show the rest of the world.
But what if it is wrong? What if we are just deluding ourselves that the “Canadian way” is a better way of building a nation? What if we are not that distinct from the many countries we like to paint as examples of the “wrong way” of doing things?
You could certainly draw that conclusion in the wake of recent events such as the massacre of Muslim worshippers at an Islamic centre in Quebec City, the scurrilous debate on “Canadian values” promoted by wannabe leaders of the federal Conservative party, the Islamophobic and anti-immigrant rants of radio “shock-jocks” in Quebec, a new poll claiming that 1 in 4 Canadians want a Trump-like immigration ban and, perhaps the most disgustingly of all, the violent comments made to a Liberal MP (Iqra Khalid) who has put forward a private member’s motion to have Parliament look at reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination, including Islamophobia and collecting data to contextualise hate crime reports and to conduct needs assessments for affected communities.
Private members’ initiatives have had little chance historically of going anywhere and this is a motion, not a proposed piece of legislation. In response, Ms. Khalid has received thousands of death threats, sexist comments and Islamophobic comments. And this is in Canada!
There is much to blog about on this topic, much more than can reasonably be presented in one piece, so I will focus on one aspect: the link between hate speech and terrorism. The two are not treated the same under the law and, in fact, may be only weakly related, as I hope to show.
First, the legal stuff. In the Canadian Criminal Code, hate crime is defined as “Every one who, by communicating statements in any public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace while terrorism is defined as “an act committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” with the intention of intimidating the public“. The acts meant in this section of the Code include “death and bodily harm with the use of violence; endangering a person’s life; risks posed to the health and safety of the public; significant property damage; and interference or disruption of essential services, facilities or systems.”
See the difference? It is subtle, and could be subject to multiple interpretations I suppose, but a hate crime is one where a “statement” is made and a breach of the peace MAY occur while terrorism is a “serious act of violence” perpetrated out of an ideological commitment. As the Romans proverb said “acta non verba” (deeds not words).
There is a very good reason why hate crime charges are rarely laid -and even more rarely end in successful prosecutions – in Canada: the burden of proof is very high and we have a long tradition of free speech, including speech that ranges from not helpful to disgusting. And that is as it should be. We do not want the State to tell us what to say or write save for the most dangerous of circumstances (such as calling for the death of an identifiable group of people). Terrorism is also a difficult charge to prove (which I think explains a lot about why Alexandre Bissonnette, the Quebec City gunman, has not yet had terrorism added to the list of charges) but it is also a lot more tangible for it actually involves an act of (planned) violence.
Secondly, there is not, contrary to accepted wisdom, a linear relationship between hate speech and terrorism. The fact remains that the vast majority of trolls who post objectionable material online are cowardly, miserable people. Yes, the odd one – Dylann Roof in South Carolina comes to mind (the loser who killed African Americans at prayer a few years back) – does go all the way and we need to figure out a way to detect those (luckily, terrorists usually betray their intentions in what American psychologist Scott Meloy calls “leakage”). But to somehow claim that all incidences of hate speech are tied to potential acts of serious violence is inaccurate.
I am not suggesting that we do nothing about hate speech, just that we take action that both respects our freedoms and challenges the combination of prejudice, “alternative facts” and specious arguments made by the haters. After all, light dispels darkness and we should do the Canadian thing and chase the negative away with the positive. That’ the Canada I live in.