Bill C-304, introduced by Conservative backbencher Brian Storseth, repeals Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which bans hate speech transmitted over the Internet or by telephone. It passed third reading in the House of Commons on Thursday and is now headed to the Senate.
“This is a huge victory for freedom in Canada,” a poster calling him or herself “CanadaFirst” posted on the website of StormFront, a notorious white supremacist group. “However, we still have other unjust Zionist ‘hate’ laws that need to go.”
“Way to go, Harper. I know we can’t get everything we want, but I stand a little taller today as a Canuck,” wrote “OneMan.”
The new law doesn’t make hate speech legal on the web or by phone -- hate speech remains illegal under the Criminal Code. But by removing it from the Canadian Human Rights Act, it takes away the authority of the country’s human rights commissions to investigate online hate speech and request that violating websites be taken down.
That has alarmed the Canadian Bar Association, which said in a recent report it’s concerned that the law may be the start of a campaign by the Conservatives to weaken Canada’s human rights laws.
“The debate surrounding the expediency of section 13 has become the proxy for an open assault on the very existence of an administrative framework to protect human rights in this country,” the CBA stated.
"Over the years, human rights commissions have remained at the vanguard of eliminating discrimination based on race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and other grounds, and advancing equality," the CBA added.
Other supporters of the commissions say taking away their authority over hate speech will embolden racists and lead to more racial violence.
But human rights commissions have become bogeymen to many Canadian conservatives, and some others, who have campaigned for years to eliminate them altogether, painting them as bureaucratic tools of censorship.
In one famous case, conservative media icon Ezra Levant was hauled in front of an Alberta tribunal to explain his decision to run controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed in the magazine he ran at the time, the Western Standard.
Levant became a cause celebre for opponents of the commissions, and his decision to republish the cartoons online on the day of his human rights hearing was hailed as heroic by many conservatives.
But all the opposition parties voted against the private members’ bill in Parliament Thursday, with NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison arguing that it would now be much harder to prevent hate speech online.
“We do have a serious problem,” Garrison told the National Post. “If you take away the power to take (websites) down, it’s not clear they have any mandate to even to talk to people about it and educate them about it.”
Garrison argued that the Tories are being dishonest by having these laws be introduced as private members’ bills, rather than government bills, noting that the Conservative Party of Canada made repealing human rights commissions’ ability to regulate hate speech a part of their platform.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews defended the bill, tweeting on Thursday that the new law will “end arbitrary censorship powers of human rights commissions.”
Public opinion on human rights commissions is split. An unscientific poll on the CBC website shows a bare majority of people supporting the Tories’ move.