This piece appeared in The Hill Times on April 8, 2019.
When a massacre on the scale of the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand hits the news we all engage in examinations of what may have led to events as horrific as this to occur. And this time was no different. There was a lot of analysis of white supremacist material online, links among the far right in multiple nations, the role of the Internet in spreading these vile beliefs and whether or not governments, and more specifically security intelligence and law enforcement agencies, have been doing enough to identify and clamp down on these kinds of terrorist and hate movements. That there remains a lot to do is beyond question.
In light of all the commentary I am reluctant to add yet one more piece, but here I am doing so nevertheless. The reason I feel the need to weigh in on this issue is that the mindset that drove the Australian terrorist to act – his twisted sense of history and current events – does exist here in Canada. To what extent it does, and what that means for public safety, is open to debate and I am glad to see that this issue is gaining more attention, both from academic and – probably – government protective agencies.
It is important to point out that there is no complete agreement on what constitutes hate and hate speech; nor are we sure what the relationship is between speech and action (many people who espouse hateful views do not act violently – we have known this for many years). There are freedom of expression aspects to this debate as well, none more so than in the US with its First Amendment.
Still, it is a legitimate question to ask whether public figures especially have an obligation not to engage in hateful rhetoric. Our elected officials are highly visible, command attention and followings and have their views repeated across news and social media platforms. Everyone should be held accountable for their opinions and actions, but is there an additional onus on those in the public eye? Do these ‘agenda setters’ bear a greater responsibility not to saying dumb things that denigrate certain groups in our society and give oxygen to those few who may plan acts of violence rooted in their hateful ideologies?
Alas there are too many examples of such talk among our elected cadre:
- Anjou councillor Lynne Shand posted on FaceBook following a visit to a doctor “a veiled woman…grrr… Had it not been an emergency, I would have refused to be treated by her”, adding that she thinks Canada is being ‘Islamicised’.
- Ontario independent Senator Lynn Beyak has supported the First Nations residential school system and her comments have led some to post material on her Web site , some of which describe Indigenous peoples as lazy, opportunistic, pampered and inept. Ms. Beyak defends these views as not racist but rather “edgy and opinionated.”
- In the wake of Christchurch an Australian senator, Fraser Anning, suggested that the attacks were caused by “the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.”
- A Pennsylvania state representative engaged in a long Christian prayer asking Jesus for forgiveness in what many saw as an offensive, divisive and Islamophobic display shortly before the legislature swore in its first Muslim woman.
To these we could add Quebec’s secularism law and just about anything that Maxime Bernier has to say.
No, none of this led directly to the massacre at two Christchurch mosques or the slaughter at a Quebec City mosque in January 2017. And yes, we all have the right to express our views and disagree about immigration and integration and how our Canadian society is changing. That is, after all, what democracies do.
But when our representatives take part in this kind of rhetoric it does give hate and intolerance weight and it does tell those who sincerely believe that Canada is heading to hell in a handbasket in large part due to our demographic shifts through immigration a sense that they have support in the highest places. In other words, it can embolden some to take their words to action.
We must hold our leaders to a higher standard. Speech like this is not just intolerant, it is intolerable. We cannot and must not tolerate it and we must call out those who engage in it, letting them know that we will not support those who spew it (in fact, Ms. Shand was booted from ‘Equipe Anjou’ after her outburst).
I’m in for doing this. Who else is with me?
Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and a former strategic analyst at CSIS