Conservative MP Brian Storseth Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Section 13 repeal in for a fight

  • November 29, 2011

OTTAWA - A Conservative MP’s private member’s bill to repeal the controversial hate crimes section of the Canadian Human Rights Act is facing opposition in the House of Commons.

Though Justice Minister Rob Nicholson recently threw his support behind Brian Storseth’s private member’s Bill C-304, when it came up for second reading Nov. 22 Storseth was unable to find anyone from the NDP or the Liberal Party to speak in its favour. Members of both parties spoke against the bill, with NDP Associate Justice Critic Francoise Boivin accusing the government of scaring people and “leading them to believe that good citizens will be cheerfully brought before the courts to have their right to freedom of expression challenged and that it will cost them a fortune.”

Storseth said he hoped to make the repeal of section 13 a non-partisan issue. Freedom of speech is not a right-wing or a left-wing issue, he said.

“We need to make sure we stay focused and see this through and get it done once and get it done right,” Storseth said. “This is something that our party and our caucus... have supported for some time.”

In his speech Nov. 22, Storseth said section 13 “eats away” at freedom of speech.

“Most people are shocked when I explain to them that in Canada, right here in our own country, a person can be investigated under a section 13 complaint for having likely exposed a person or persons to hatred or contempt by reason of the fact that the person or persons are identifiable on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination,” the Alberta MP told the House, adding the use of the words “likely to expose” is a subjective and vague definition.

“This is where section 13 truly fails to make a distinction between real hate speech and what I often term as ‘hurt speech,’ or speech that is simply offensive.”

Under this section, intent and truth are not defenses, he said, nor does someone facing accusations have the right to due process, a speedy trial or the right to a lawyer.

Boivin argued for keeping section 13, noting it has already been deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada.

There is a need for a way to prosecute hate speech with a lower burden of proof than that of the Criminal Code, she said.

“I have a hard time imagining a crown prosecutor taking an interest in issues whose interpretation can vary depending on a number of things,” she said. “The Canadian Human Rights Commission was a specialized organization responsible for examining a case and determining, before the matter would end up in court, whether there were grounds for complaint under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Though in the previous Parliament, the main proponent of abolishing section 13 was Liberal MP Keith Martin, the only Liberal to speak opposed the bill. Liberal Justice Critic Irwin Cotler said provisions against hate speech “protect the rights of individuals and minorities against group vilifying speech, to protect against those discriminatory hate practices that reduce the standing and status of individuals and groups in society thereby constituting an inequality, and this may surprise the member who sponsored the bill, to protect the very values underlying free speech itself,” Cotler said.

The Catholic Civil Rights League has called on MPs to repeal section 13, which “has been used to penalize the peaceable expression of opinion based on religious belief.”

“Given that freedom of speech and freedom of religion are guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the League believes that provisions in the Criminal Code provide the most effective way to address harm that may arise from public expression,” says executive director Joanne McGarry.

“Among other things, courts provide a more level playing field for the complainant and the accused. Human rights tribunals were designed to address complaints of discrimination in the workplace and the provision of goods and services; decisions that could involve the limitation of a Charter right should be left to the courts.”

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