The Harper government is signalling its intention to use hate crime laws against Canadian advocacy groups that encourage boycotts of Israel.
Such a move could target a range of civil society organizations, from the United Church of Canada and the Canadian Quakers to campus protest groups and labour unions.
If carried out, it would be a remarkably aggressive tactic, and another measure of the Conservative government’s lockstep support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
While the federal government certainly has the authority to assign priorities, such as pursuing certain types of hate speech, to the RCMP, any resulting prosecution would require an assent from a provincial attorney general.
And it would almost certainly be challenged under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, civil liberties groups say.
The government’s intention was made clear in a response to inquiries from CBC News about statements by federal ministers of a “zero tolerance” approach to groups participating in a loose coalition called Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS), which was begun in 2006 at the request of Palestinian non-governmental organizations.
Asked to explain what zero tolerance means, and what is being done to enforce it, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney replied, four days later, with a detailed list of Canada’s updated hate laws, noting that Canada has one of the most comprehensive sets of such laws “anywhere in the world.”
The BDS tactic has been far more successful for the Palestinians than armed struggle. And it has caught on internationally, angering Israel, which reckons boycotts could cost its economy hundreds of millions of dollars.
Just last month, 16 European foreign ministers denounced the “expansion of Israeli illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories,” demanding that any imported goods originating in the settlements be distinctly labeled.
But Canada, a country where the federal Liberal and NDP leaders also oppose BDS, appears to have lined up more strongly behind Israel than any other nation.
In January, Canada’s then foreign affairs minister, John Baird, signed a “memorandum of understanding” with Israeli authorities in Jerusalem, pledging to combat BDS.
It described the movement as “the new face of anti-Semitism.”
A few days later, at the UN, Canadian Public Security Minister Steven Blaney went much further.
He conflated boycotts of Israel with anti-Semitic hate speech and violence, including the deadly attacks that had just taken place in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket.
Blaney then said the government is taking a “zero tolerance” approach to BDS.
Coming as it did from the minister responsible for federal law enforcement, the speech alarmed groups that have, to varying degrees, supported boycotts, believing them an effective tool to bring about an end to Israel’s occupation and colonization of the West Bank, and its tight grip on Gaza.
Some of these groups had noted that the government changed the Criminal Code definition of hate speech last year, adding the criterion of “national origin” to race and religion.
This change could, they feared, effectively lump people who speak against Israel in with those who speak against Jews.
Micheal Vonn, a lawyer for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, says the expanded definition is clearly “a tool to go after critics of Israel.”
Canadian civil liberties groups maintain that boycotts are a long-recognized form of political expression, and therefore constitutionally protected.
In March, the Canadian Quakers wrote a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson, expressing concern about Blaney’s speech and protesting the label of anti-Semitism.
Nicholson’s response merely repeated the talking points first used by Blaney at the UN, and the government’s vow not to tolerate boycotts.
But in response to specific questions about what “zero tolerance” of BDS means, and how it will be enforced, Blaney aide Josee Sirois gave CBC News a much clearer picture of the government’s intent.
“I can tell you that Canada has one of the most comprehensive sets of laws against hate crime anywhere in the world,” wrote Sirois.
She highlighted what she termed “hate propaganda” provisions in the Criminal Code criminalizing the promotion of hatred against an identifiable group, and further noted that “identifiable group” now includes any section of the public distinguished by “among other characteristics, religion or national or ethnic origin.”
She also referred to Criminal Code provisions requiring that a judge consider hate, bias or prejudice when sentencing an offender.
“We will not allow hate crimes to undermine our way of life, which is based on diversity and inclusion,” she concluded.
So our ‘Conservative’ government wants to out-do progs in championing ‘diversity’, ‘inclusiveness’, and ‘hate crime’ legislation, which they are bent on using to attack freedom of speech, conflating opposition to Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with anti-Semitism, wanting to show the world that they’re the Tribe’s biggest ‘Shabbos goy’.
I’m pretty much neutral on the Israel/Palestine issue, but that’s not the point; this is a breathtakingly audacious, arrogant, totalitarian attack on freedom of speech, and a smear against anyone who has legitimate issues with Israel’s policies. I’m not a big fan of leftists like Quakers or the United Church of Canada, etc., and I question the ultimate effectiveness of boycotts, but that’s besides the point; it’s a legitimate act, that people should, in a liberal democracy, be free to support and encourage. Israel doesn’t have any inherent ‘right’ to the world’s business; if countries and individuals decide to boycott them, there’s nothing wrong with that; it certainly isn’t necessarily motivated by hatred and bigotry – but so what if for some, it is? Apparently neo-cons are ready to join progs in punishing ‘thought-crimes’…
And it’s pretty stupid, too – this will not stand up in court; it’s sure to be overturned – and it will give the Liberals and NDP a big hammer to use against the government, from now till the next election.
Stupid and evil.
I’m tempted to vote Liberal or NDP next time around, rather than simply not voting as per my usual practice, just on principle, against this government, to try to hasten its demise.
*Update: They’re denying it…