Should it be a crime to believe an alternative version of history? What about publishing photos or writing articles that certain groups may deem offensive or downright hateful?
At least in the United States, thanks in large part to the universal acceptance of the First Amendment, these are freedoms which are protected and upheld.
But it is a luxury without equivalence in North America, and more specifically in Canada, where laws banning “hate speech” are the norm.
Though freedom of expression is a right recognized by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted in the 1982 Canadian Constitution, it is tolerated by the government “only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” As one could guess, this leaves a lot of room for restrictions on people freely speaking their minds.
And there are plenty of examples to choose from.
In 2002, Stephen Boissoin wrote a letter to the editor of a small Alberta newspaper expressing his views on the “homosexual agenda.” From that moment on, he was dragged through a decade’s worth of commission hearings and trials, ordered to pay CAN$5,000 in fines, and banned from speaking about gay issues in any form of media again. It took until 2012 for his case to be reversed by the Alberta Court of Appeal.
Another notable case is that of Ezra Levant, a conservative journalist who in 2006 published the cartoons of the Islamic prophet Mohammed in the Western Standard, an Alberta-based, libertarian magazine. Almost immediately, complaints from Islamic groups poured in and Levant was brought in to testify before the Alberta Human Rights Commission, an encounter which has garnered hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.
The charges were ultimately dropped by the groups, but similar complaints have dogged Canadian commentator Mark Steyn, who penned hundreds of columns in Maclean’s magazine criticizing radical Islam. The Ontario Human Rights Commission officially rebuked him, as did the head of its federal counterpart, without so much as a trial or an examination of evidence.
“History has shown us that hateful words sometimes lead to hurtful actions that undermine freedom and have led to unspeakable crimes,” wrote Canadian Human Rights Commission head Jennifer Lynch in a letter to Maclean’s magazine. “That is why Canada and most other democracies have enacted legislation to place reasonable limits on the expression of hatred.”
While the Conservative government of Stephen Harper removed some portions of the “hate speech” provisions from the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Criminal Code in June, specifically relating to use of the Internet, the basic laws restricting speech remain intact.
If Canadians want to see the principle of free expression protected and upheld throughout their lifetimes, they cannot allow these laws to stay on the books. It is a principle that has allowed Western civilization to prosper and grow for centuries and must be reinforced in order to be have any meaning at all.
Though some views and ideas may be seen as especially heinous, crude, unpopular, or disrespectful, they still merit the same treatment under the law as any other deeply-held belief in society. They cannot be held up with commissions, tribunals, trials, or any other instrument of the state that silences those the majority deems to be outcasts in the intellectual or social realm.
Along with protecting the right to certain words and views, alternative or revisionist histories must also be tolerated in a free society. Notwithstanding, Canada joins 16 other countries in the world where it is a crime to publicly express doubts about the Holocaust.
Ernst Zündel, a German immigrant to Canada who published a book questioning the official narrative of the Holocaust, was found guilty of “spreading false news” in two different criminal court cases throughout the 1980s, until they were eventually overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada. He was put in jail for intermittent periods throughout the 1990s on charges related to immigration and declared persona non grata by the Canadian government.
A similar fate befell British historian David Irving, who was forcibly deported by the Canadian government in 1992 after many threats of arrests for holding his views. Irving was often defended throughout this ordeal by none other than British essayist Christopher Hitchens, who called “hate speech” laws in places like Canada a true “tyranny of censorship” which put the Western idea of free speech to shame.
To that end, it is a global battle that is being fought to restrict speech and regiment certain beliefs and ideas if they prove unpopular.
In the European Council, one of the governing bodies of the European Union, there has been a relentless campaign for enforcing “tolerance” across all 28 member states. If adopted by all EU states, it would designate criminal penalties and jail time for those found guilty of “hate speech” and “public denial of the Holocaust,” according to the 2009 European Framework National Statute for the Promotion of Tolerance.
As disgusting as these views or ideas may be, the role of the state should never be to punish those who have ideas outside the mainstream. It is the duty and obligation of civil society, of publishers, newspaper editors, journalists, and historians to counter claims made by those who have alternative views, whether it’s questioning elements of the Holocaust, denying the Armenian genocide, or expressing an unfavorable opinion of homosexuals or Muslims.
Canada cannot continue as a nation if it is willing to carve out separate sections of its most fundamental principles based on the complaints from certain interest groups. Canadians deserve to be free to say what they want without repercussions from the state. That’s the most fundamental principle we can observe.
Hear Yaël Ossowski defend his perspective on CJLO 1690AM in Montreal.