Conservative MP Brian Storseth's Bill C-304, which would repeal the so-called hate speech provision act, passed second reading by a 158-131 vote Feb. 15. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Section 13 of human rights act one step closer to being repealed

By 
  • February 16, 2012

Correction: This story has been updated as incorrect details were included in its first printing. The Register apologizes for its error.

OTTAWA - A private member's bill that would axe the controversial Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act has passed second reading and will now go to committee for further study.

Conservative MP Brian Storseth's Bill C-304, which would repeal the so-called hate speech provision act, passed second reading by a 158-131 vote Feb. 15.

A lone Liberal, Scott Simms, voted with the Conservatives, who overwhelmingly supported the bill. Otherwise, the NDP and Liberals opposed the bill.

"I was excited that there was one courageous enough to stand up for his constituents and his own personal views," said Storseth, who said he hopes for more support from Opposition MPs.

Bill C-304 now moves to the justice committee where Storseth hopes it can be fast-tracked for study. If he is successful in getting a priority placed on the bill, it could come up for a final vote in the House this spring, and then go on to the Senate.

Under Section 13, which deems any communication "likely to expose" an identified group to hatred or contempt liable for prosecution under the rights act, the truth is no defense. Neither is intent, as the act considers only the possible discriminatory effect of the communication on the groups listed in the legislation. Thus those who might write factual or honest opinion can run afoul of Section 13 as Maclean's magazine did for running articles by best-selling author Mark Steyn on radical Islam. Christians who criticize homosexuality on the basis of religious belief can also find themselves facing complaints, as did Catholic Insight and Calgary Bishop Fred Henry over the same-sex marriage issue.

The Catholic Civil Rights League applauded the second reading vote. In a Feb. 16 news release, the League said Section 13 "has been used to penalize the peaceable expression of opinion based on religious belief." It cited the complaints brought against Catholic Insight that were later dropped, but not until the magazine had spent more than $30,000 defending itself.

"The hate speech provisions in the Criminal Code provide limits on expression that are sufficient in a democracy," said League executive director Joanne McGarry. "A situation where accusers are free to file complaints that may even lack a serious basis, and then leave the accused to pay his or her own potentially high costs in response, is unacceptable.

"Freedom of expression and freedom of religion are both Charter rights, and any limitation on them belongs in Parliament and the courts, not administrative tribunals," she said.

Storseth said he was grateful to have such widespread support from religious and other groups from all ends of the political spectrum for his bill.

"The key is to stay focused," he said. "This is one step. We now have to get this through the justice committee as quickly as possible and get this bill forward in the interest of all Canadians.

"This is an archaic piece of legislation. It's really hurt freedom of expression in our country."

Even opponents of Storseth's bill agreed that Section 13 needs to be reviewed.

"I am not suggesting that Section 13 is perfect," said Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett. "Indeed, that section is problematic. The main point I would like to make here today is that the principle behind maintaining Section 13 deserves the support of all members."

NDP MP Joe Comartin also argued for keeping a way of targeting hate speech without the high threshold necessary for criminal charges.

"We need two tiers in order to have a free society for individuals who are regularly targeted by anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic people," he said. "We can include homophobia as well."

Storseth rejected a two-tier approach to dealing with freedom of expression, calling open debates an "imperative to having a healthy and free Western democratic society."

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