On the evening of March 14, 2019, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission held a public “Courageous Conversation” event about hate speech. Our panel discussed the potential dangers of hate speech and how, when left unregulated, unchecked or unchallenged, it can incite hate crime.

During the event – half a world away in New Zealand – those potential dangers became a grim reality as 50 people were killed and almost as many others were injured when a gunman opened fire at two mosques in central Christchurch.

It was an act of terror borne in hatred, amplified in dark corners of the Internet, and carried out against Muslims in their places of worship.

It is crucial to understand that violent, hateful acts do not occur in a vacuum.

Words matter. Words have the power to shame, maim, and inflame. Hate speech is the impetus that leads to hate crime. This has been said before. It was said last year in the wake of the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting. It was said in 2017 after the attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec. And it is important to say it again now – words matter.

At times like this, however, it is important to realize that words are not enough. Well-intentioned platitudes are ineffectual. Hate crimes are happening with alarming regularity, around the globe and here at home.

New Zealand seems an unlikely priority for a terrorist attack. However, the similarities between Christchurch and many Canadian cities are clear and concerning. Like Christchurch, Canadian cities are thriving and democratic. Like Christchurch, our communities are multi-cultural, multi-theist, and pluralistic.

We need leadership in our communities. We need action.

We need to stand together in unison against hate, challenge words that are harmful, denounce violent acts, and demand that our leaders find new ways to stem this rising tide of fear, ignorance, misinformation, and malice.

The old ways are not working. We have to find new solutions.

Hate speech provisions with real consequences have to be enacted in Canadian legislation.

The Supreme Court of Canada asserts that the best way to curb and regulate hate speech is not within the Canadian Criminal Code, but through human rights commissions. Commissions in every province and territory have a mandate to promote dignity and equality and to eradicate hate and ignorance. These agencies have to be properly funded to accomplish that task.

Free speech cannot be used as a shield to protect hate speech. The Supreme Court of Canada has been clear on this point. Just as Canada does not allow slander, libel, perjury, defamation, insider trading, and fraud, it does not allow people to express points of view in such a fashion as to demean people to the status of animals, or stir hatred and violence against certain groups.

We have to invest in education so that the youth of tomorrow no longer espouse the hate we see today. An explicit K-to-12 education on the rights of citizenship, the responsibility of citizenship, and the respect that every citizen deserves, without exception, should be mandatory.

We have to develop a made-in-Canada-for-Canada plan to ebb the wave of hate that appears online daily.

Tools are needed to better monitor online hate sites to help protect minority groups in Canada.

Security agencies require a clear mandate to investigate hate speech, right-wing extremism, and radicalized influences.

Enacting meaningful legislation that will hold individuals accountable for disseminating hate online is key.

Canada needs to take its cue from England and Germany who are creating legislation that holds social media companies accountable for allowing hate to be published, shared, and spread on their platforms.

It is critical that we do the right thing. We need to choose unity over division, understanding over ignorance, and respect over hate.

 

David M. Arnot, Chief Commissioner
Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission