Understanding Hate Speech in Canada
By Evan Braun
Word Alive Press is in the business of publishing words—many, many words—and these words are used to communicate a huge variety of stories, thoughts, and opinions. It’s a simple fact that no two people think and feel exactly the same way about everything. And although one might think a Christian publisher could expect to find its authors in agreement with each other about most things, that’s not always the case. The reality is that there’s quite a bit of difference in thought, even among Christians.
Fortunately for us, we live in a country and a culture that respects—indeed, values—freedom of thought and expression, so there’s room for just about everyone around this wonderfully all-encompassing publishing table. There’s room for people to converse, debate, and respectfully disagree with each other. Our free society is built on these basic concepts.
These values are enshrined in Canada’s constitution—specifically, in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a document that sets out many of our most important principles. When Canadians talk about the freedom of speech we all enjoy, they’re referring to this passage from Section 2 of the Charter:
“Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: a) freedom of conscience and religion; b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and d) freedom of association.”
Note specifically the references to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, beliefs, opinions, and expression.
At face value, this seems to give all people free rein to say anything they want about anybody else, any time they want. But is this true?
The same Charter that grants these important rights and freedoms also points out that those rights and freedoms aren’t absolute. Indeed, many people forget about the words that appear just before Section 2. Section 1 says this:
“The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
In other words, yes, in principle you have the freedom to speak your conscience in all matters, but that freedom may be limited (within reason) by other laws in this country. Sections 318–320 of Canada’s Criminal Code present some reasonable limits that are often brought to bear. These are the laws governing hate propaganda.
So what exactly are we talking about when we refer to “hate propaganda”? The Criminal Code defines it like this: “[A]ny writing, sign or visible representation that advocates or promotes genocide…”
Genocide is a loaded word. Now, because Word Alive Press is in the business publishing writing, signs, and visible representations of a person’s belief, this is a subject we must pay very close attention to. And of course, we have to advise our authors to pay very close attention as well.
When you see the word “genocide,” your mind may very well think of the extreme cases we’ve seen in the world over the last century—the Holocaust during the Second World War, the Rwandan genocide in 1990, or the ethnic cleansings in Bosnia (1995) and Darfur (2003). It would be very hard indeed to find someone who didn’t agree wholeheartedly that these human catastrophes were offensive on every level, and certainly deeply opposed to the Christian values we hold sacred.
But the systemic murder of large groups of people isn’t the only thing genocide refers to. The Criminal Code defines genocide as the destruction of any identifiable grou Does the gradual decimation of First Nations people apply? As an ongoing cultural decimation that’s been going on since the arrival in Canada of the French and English colonists as early as the late 1400s, in legal terms, yes. This has been acknowledged by the Government of Canada.
What else could it apply to?
To answer this, let’s take another look at the Criminal Code. Section 319 declares it a crime to communicate statements in any public place (such as in a book) that incite hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace. This section also targets those who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promote hatred against any identifiable grou
In common parlance, we call this hate speech—and despite our broad freedoms in this country, hate speech is considered a major exception. Those convicted of spreading hate speech can be subject to a prison sentence up to two years. That’s a serious consequence.
When the law refers to “identifiable groups,” what does it mean? Nationalities and ethnicities are a good example. When a person speaks against a nationality or ethnicity, we call it racism, and that can very easily constitute hate speech. Groups vulnerable to hate speech are also protected on the basis of their gender, religious faith, and sexual orientation.
In Christian literature, we must remain vigilant against any speech (or writing) that could incite its listeners (or readers) to lash out against these groups. A particular area of concern is Islamophobia. Although there are key differences in belief between Christians and Muslims, and those differences can be written about and acknowledged respectfully, at the point where a piece of writing begins making general statements about the behaviour or practices of all Muslims, for example, we need to raise our guard.
There is also a deep divide in Christian communities when it comes to people who identify as members of the LGBTQ community—those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer in other respects. We must be careful not to make statements about these groups that could be seen to incite our readers to express hate.
Is it not true that Jesus spoke often about the need to express ourselves in love? Hate speech is certainly the opposite of that, and it is a source of great pain that any person who calls themselves a Christian might choose to engage in it.
At Word Alive Press, we encourage all our writers to understand the boundaries of speech in Canadian law and ensure that they fall on the right side of them.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.