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April 14, 2019

"Hate Speech" bills endanger Canadian rights of speech and assembly

Karin Brothers

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Two legislative drafts making their way through Queen's Park and Toronto City Hall could spell the end of events in public spaces that criticize Israel. Although the wording of these drafts does not explicitly name the annual Muslim commemoration of the Palestinian situation, the intent has been made clear by comments around both of them:

- MPP Roman Baber's private member's Bill 84, "Prohibiting Hate-Promoting Demonstrations at Queen’s Park Act":  A Canadian Jewish News article about Baber's bill noted that, " the government is 'not targeting any particular group' but that past Al-Quds Day rallies in Toronto spurred him to introduce the measure."  The article added that ""Doug Ford promised to abolish the annual [Al Quds] rally, wherever it takes place”  [Jewish MPP aims to stop hate rallies at Queen’s Park By Ron Csillag, - March 27, 2019 ]

- Toronto Councillor James Pasternak has mentioned only Al Quds rallies as potential targets for his "Hate Speech Rallies" motion which could include libraries in the ban on permits for public assembly and could allow organizers to be billed for police costs. The Executive Committee will revisit the motion on May 1, 2019.

The annual Al Quds ("Jerusalem") event was started in 1979 by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini to focus world attention on the oppression faced by Palestinians.  Although the World Council of Churches (2005) and the United Church of Canada (2006) also called on their members to hold annual events with a similar focus, the Al Quds rallies are the only major such events that are carried out in Toronto.

Al Quds Day rallies (mostly recorded and accessible online) have been well-attended, educational, interfaith events with a strong Hasidic presence.  The speakers, from the faith and justice communities including Jewish activists, a rabbi, a Holocaust survivor, and United Church ministers, call for peaceful boycott, divestment and sanctions to attain a just Mideast peace.  Anti-Semitism is not tolerated: despite intense scrutiny, there have never been any hate speech charges from these events.

It is no secret that pro-Israel organizations have wanted for years to ban Al Quds Days because -- given the censorship of this issue on mainstream media -- these rallies are one of the few sources of public education on the Palestinian situation, and they express the moral legitimacy of the Palestinian cause.

In the two (of the three) Toronto  City Hall hearings that the author attended, only representatives of pro-Israel organizations -- the Jewish Defense League, B'nai Brith, and CIJA (Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs) -- spoke in favour of the motion, reflecting Israel's claims that criticism of the state amounted to anti-Semitic racism and that [lawful] Palestinian resistance could be labelled "terrorism".

All of the other speakers (about 10) spoke against Pasternak's motion on various grounds, including:

- Banning any group from public spaces on a subjective assessment of what constitutes "hate speech" endangers Canadian freedom of speech and assembly;

- The targeting of Al Quds rallies as "hate speech" is illegitimate because they have never been shown to exhibit racism and, given the general censorship on this issue, they are in the public interest;

- Forcing peaceful pro-Palestinian groups to pay for policing charges discourages legitimate events;

- Canadian rights should not be eroded for the benefit of any foreign country, including Israel;

Despite the impassioned opposition, the Executive Committee -- Mayor John Tory, Paul Ainslie, Ana Bailão, Gary Crawford, Denzil Minnan-Wong (Vice Chair), Frances Nunziata, James Pasternak and Michael Thompson -- passed the motion onward without opposition.

The targeting of Al Quds rallies through these legislative drafts would effectively ban descriptions of the Palestinian situation from public spaces at the expense of Canadian rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.  We must contact our municipal and provincial representatives quickly to protect these rights. 

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Karin Brothers is a freelance writer

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