Home Editor Picks Removing religion as hate speech defence worth exploring, envoy says

Removing religion as hate speech defence worth exploring, envoy says

Removing religion as hate speech defence worth exploring, envoy says


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OTTAWA — Canada’s special envoy for combating anti-Semitism is “very interested” in exploring the idea of removing religion as a possible defence against hate speech charges, she said Thursday, raising concern about creating a possible chill on religious expression.

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Deborah Lyons, whose title also includes preserving Holocaust remembrance, made the comment before a parliamentary committee that is studying anti-Semitism on university campuses.

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“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,” she 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.

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

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

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

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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 says she is discussing with the government.

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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 the promotion of hatred and anti-Semitism.

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The Criminal Code states that people shouldn’t be convicted of the willful promotion of hatred or anti-Semitism — defined as downplaying or denying the Holocaust — if, “in good faith,” they expressed an opinion “on a religious subject” or “based on a belief in a religious text.”

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

“Certainly I think that it’s something we’ve got to continue to examine,” Lyons said.

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


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He is already seeking to increase the punishments for existing hate-related offences — including increasing the maximum consequence for advocating genocide to life imprisonment — in the Liberals’ legislation against online harms, tabled in February.

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The stiffer criminal justice reforms have fallen under harsh scrutiny from critics, including civil liberty advocacy groups, who say it could stifle free speech. Justice officials say criminal charges would only be laid in the most extreme examples.

Removing religion as a possible defence to a hate speech charge would likely be welcomed by those who oppose religion, but would create “genuine fear” for those who have deeply held religious beliefs about what they could say in the public square, said Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, who works at the public policy think-tank Cardus.

“Often, religious people privatize their faith because they’re afraid that if I speak about what I believe, in good faith, in the public square, I’m going to be cancelled, or I’m going to be shut down,” said Bennett, Cardus’s faith communities program director.

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He says if a “chill” is placed on religious expression it risks marginalizing a sizable part of the population, including many new Canadians for whom “religion is not just some sort of cultural relic” but “informs all aspects of society.

“In many cases, they’ve come here because of the religious freedom we enjoy, and so to then say to those new Canadians in particular, ‘Oh, by the way, you can’t speak about your religion publicly for fear of being censured,’ I think that’s a very bad message to send.”

Bennett said the debate raises questions of how hate is defined and what makes a hateful view “different from a peacefully held opinion that someone might profoundly disagree with?”

In the case of Charkaoui’s comments, Marco Mendicino, a Liberal MP, said he found the call by Quebec’s Crown not to press charges against the imam “incomprehensible and deeply problematic.”

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

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

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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