Home Editor Picks Eliminating religion as a hate speech defence an idea worth exploring, says antisemitism envoy | CBC News

Eliminating religion as a hate speech defence an idea worth exploring, says antisemitism envoy | CBC News

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Eliminating religion as a hate speech defence an idea worth exploring, says antisemitism envoy | CBC News

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Canada’s special envoy for combating antisemitism says she’s “very interested” in exploring the idea of eliminating religion as a possible defence against hate speech charges.

Deborah Lyons, whose mandate also includes preserving Holocaust remembrance, appeared Thursday before a parliamentary committee that is studying antisemitism on university campuses.

Jewish leaders, students and faculty have been voicing concerns about an increase in hate speech and violence since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war last fall.

Lyons said she believes universities’ equity, diversity and inclusion strategies are “failing Jews in this country” because they don’t make much mention of antisemitism specifically.

She said her office is working to develop better training to counter anti-Jewish discrimination, which she hopes institutions, including governments, will use.

Members of Parliament also asked Lyons about the role police and prosecutors play in laying hate speech related charges, and whether Criminal Code changes are needed.

They pointed to a recent decision by Quebec prosecutors not to charge Montreal imam Adil Charkaoui over comments said during a prayer — a scenario Lyons said she is discussing with the government.

Man in a grey skullcap and a keffiyeh watches over large crowd carrying red, white and green flags.
Adil Charkaoui watches over a pro-Palestinian march in Montreal. (Adil Charkaoui/X)

The comments were delivered at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Montreal, and led to a complaint alleging threats and incitement of violence, which was investigated by the RCMP.

Leading a prayer in Arabic, Charkaoui had called on God to “take care of aggressor Zionists,” adding “O God, don’t leave any of them.”

Last week the province’s director of public prosecutions announced that a committee of three Crown attorneys found the evidence insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the words amounted to an incitement of hatred toward an identifiable group, as defined in the Criminal Code.

Using the case as an example, Bloc Quebecois MP Rheal Fortin asked Lyons whether she supports his party’s proposal to eliminate a section of the Criminal Code that allows the use of religious beliefs or a religious text as a defence against charges of promoting hatred and antisemitism.

Fortin said his party wants to ban “exceptions” to hate speech based on religion.

“I am very interested in exploring (it) as an option because I think, frankly, we are seeing it used in this country and in other places as a defence that frankly does not stand the ground in these very difficult times,” Lyons testified Thursday.

Still, Lyons said she is not ready to offer a final opinion on the matter and is still discussing it with Justice Department officials.

Justice Minister Arif Virani’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Marco Mendicino, a Liberal MP on the committee, said that as a former prosecutor he found the decision by Quebec’s Crown not to press charges against Charkaoui “incomprehensible and deeply problematic.”

The imam’s comments were “perhaps one of the most egregious offences that I have seen,” he told Thursday’s committee.

Mendicino, who previously served as public safety minister, also cited other examples of demonstrators chanting offensive language and glorifying Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks.

He said he believes “Zionists” fit the Criminal Code’s definition of an identifiable group, which refers to “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or mental or physical disability.”

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