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Opinion: Canadians Must Do More To Tackle Racism

PHOTO BY AINE MORRIS
WRITTEN BY SUNIL GURMUKH
Earlier this year, we watched in horror as neo-Nazis, skinheads, and members of the KKK descended on Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s easy to look to our neighbours down south and assume that the same couldn’t happen here. But hate is a disease that knows no borders, especially in the digital era, and Canada has no immunity. Despite the growing legion of white nationalists, we can still rally together and do more to fight cyber hate. Prime Minister Trudeau and Canadians can no longer sit idly by and continue to let this vitriol pass – legally, online, and offline.

The Aryan Guard, Blood and Honour, and Alternative for Canada are just some of the groups here in Canada that identify, or have been classified by the RCMP, as white supremacists, white nationalists, or the alt-right. In 2016, researchers who conducted a study on right-wing extremists in Canada determined that there were at least 100 active right-wing extremist groups across the country. Since then, the number has increased by another 25 (at a minimum, according to Dr. Barbara Perry, the lead author of the study). 2015 also saw a five percent increase in hate crimes, and there is anecdotal evidence that they have increased even further over the past eight to 10 months, which conveniently coincides with Donald Trump’s campaign, victory, and presidency.

When hatemongers spread propaganda, it cuts hard and deep. Their targets experience anxiety, depression, fear, anger, and social withdrawal. It also encourages discrimination in employment, housing, and services. Most alarming is the greater risk of violence, like what we witnessed in Charlottesville and Quebec City earlier this year.

In many instances, women are powerless when confronted by hate speech. This is especially the case when multiple aspects of their identity intersect and increase their vulnerability. For example, hate speech has portrayed Indigenous women as dispensable “squaws” who are lustful, unfeeling, and immoral; black women as oversexed, animal-like and diseased; Muslim women wearing niqabs as terrorists who seek to destroy our society; and lesbians as predators, bent on luring and abusing children.

These sickening messages about women weren’t delivered using leaflets on a street corner. They were posted publicly online by Canadians or on websites controlled and administered by Canadians – the ever-expanding forum of choice for recruitment and networking of like-minded white supremacists and neo-Nazis. However, Canada lost an important weapon in the fight against homegrown cyber hate. In 2013, the Harper government repealed section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which prohibited public communication of hate propaganda online. That weapon needs to be reactivated and reloaded.

Legally, the repeal only leaves the Criminal Code, which does not provide access to justice. Although it is capable of targeting hate speech online, the Criminal Code is typically used for offline offences. Under section 13, anyone was able to make a complaint, but criminal charges for hate speech require the consent of the provincial Attorney General – a rare occurrence.

It’s understandable that the Criminal Code would be reserved for the worst cases. A criminal conviction for hate speech carries with it a criminal record and can include jail time. However, the repeal of section 13 means that there is no legal recourse for homegrown cyber hate that falls just short of criminal behaviour but still seriously harms vulnerable groups.

Without section 13, education and prevention also suffer. Both are hallmarks of human rights legislation and commissions, but not the Criminal Code. Without section 13, the Canadian Human Rights Commission is limited in its ability to speak out against cyber hate speech and deliver public education about its effects. Moreover, the human rights process can no longer be used to challenge cyber hate speech. That process, which includes mediation, can provide guidance to individuals so that they can express their views in ways that don’t expose others to hatred.

Critics of section 13 say it amounted to censorship, but it isn’t about censoring ideas or requiring people to think “correctly.” Nor is it about offensive rhetoric, satire, private communications, or subjective feelings. It’s about the extremely vilifying messages that target vulnerable groups online. These messages don’t encourage the exchange of opposing views, they do the opposite. They shut down dialogue.

The law, while important, is not enough to disrupt cyber hate. Canadians need to report it to internet service providers, web hosting companies, social media platforms, and developers. Change will follow. Both GoDaddy and Google recently evicted an infamous neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer; Airbnb deactivated the accounts of several users who planned to attend the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville; and Twilio mandated a prohibition on hate speech to its acceptable use policy.

We must also mobilize counter-narratives and prevent recruitment by challenging the belief structure of white nationalists in the online and offline world. Online, we need to use our voices and directly engage white supremacists using social media, their discussion forums, and comments sections. Offline, we need to create change at the grassroots level. Good work is already being done. For example, Fighting Antisemitism Together, a Canadian human rights activist group, developed Voices into Action, an anti-racism education program that empowers secondary students with information so they can choose empathy over hate and positive action over apathy.

The day after Charlottesville, Prime Minister Trudeau tweeted that Canada condemns racist hate “in all its forms.” If he’s serious, he’ll remember how the courts gave section 13 their constitutional seal of approval, and how the Liberals opposed its repeal. He’ll put section 13 back on the books. And if Canadians are serious about a future without hate, we’ll continue to build online and offline communities where it isn’t tolerated. I refuse to let my daughter grow up in a society where swastikas and shields run rampant.

Sunil Gurmukh is a lawyer at the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) in Toronto. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the views of the OHRC.