Listen Up, Canada: You Can't Advocate Free Speech and Criminalize Dissent at the Same Time

Canadian Conservatives are now conflating BDS campaign with hate speech. What the country really needs is to recognize the dangers of stifling speech.

Hadani Ditmars
Hadani Ditmars
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Netanyahu and Harper in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 19, 2014.
Netanyahu and Harper in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 19, 2014.Credit: AP
Hadani Ditmars
Hadani Ditmars

While Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears to be auditioning for a lead role in a political bromance with Benjamin Netanyahu in some epic right-wing production, he may well have overplayed his part with his latest move.

As the Canadian Senate debates Bill C-51, the Conservative government’s “anti-terror” bill that would give Canada’s spy agency sweeping new powers and has alarmed civil libertarians, environmentalists, First Nations activists and Muslim Canadians, another frightening aspect of the Harper government’s agenda has been revealed.

Following the lead of Israel, where a law criminalizing participation or encouragement of BDS was recently upheld by the High Court of Justice, in a majority ruling equating boycotts with “political terror,” the Canadian Conservatives are now conflating the advocacy of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign with hate speech.

The Canadian government changed the definition of hate speech in the criminal code last year, adding the criterion of "national origin" to race and religion, and the country's foreign affairs minister at the time, John Baird, signed a “memorandum of understanding” with Israel in January of this year vowing to fight BDS.

But it was Canadian Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney who made the link explicit. In a speech at the United Nations a few days after the memorandum was signed, Canada's CBC News reported, Blaney linked BDS with anti-Semitic hate speech and even the attack on Charlie Hebdo – which the Conservatives claimed was an attack against free speech. The Canadian government, added Blaney, now has “zero tolerance” for BDS.

But Canadian leaders may well have been tripped up by their own rhetoric – you can’t advocate free speech and criminalize dissent at the same time.

Ironically, it was a report by the beleaguered CBC – the national broadcaster whose budget has been rather savagely slashed since the Conservatives came to power in 2006 and that has often been accused of toeing the Harper/Netanyahu line – that triggered an outpouring of national outrage from a wide range of Canadian society.

Veteran CBC reporter and former Middle East correspondent Neil Macdonald revealed in a report earlier this month that after asking for clarification from the government on the definition of “zero tolerance,” he learned that “the Harper government is signaling its intention to use hate crime laws against Canadian advocacy groups that encourage boycotts of Israel," and that “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.”

Micheal Vonn, a lawyer for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, told the CBC that the expanded definition of hate crime is clearly "a tool to go after critics of Israel."

The Canadian Quakers, the United Church of Canada and Independent Jewish Voices, all of which support the BDS movement, have expressed concern about the new Conservative tactic. And Amnesty International wrote in a statement of concern that provisions in the MOU between Canada and Israel “may lead to infringements of the right to freedom of expression, which is enshrined in both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international human rights treaties binding on Canada.”

But even some who are not advocates of BDS, like Canadian political commentator Marni Soupcoff, have also been critical of the Conservative policy. As Soupcoff recently wrote in the right-wing Canadian newspaper the National Post, where she is deputy comment editor: “One man’s hate crime is another man’s conscientious expression of dissent. Letting a government that has already chosen sides sort out which is which is a dangerous idea.”

If this latest Conservative affront to democracy has upset activists and libertarians, it certainly didn’t bother the fans who feted Harper at the King David Award Gala last week, an event organized by the Jewish Community Council of Montreal to honor “a true, devoted and sincere friend of Israel.” With a fall election looming, and the traditionally Liberal district of Mont-Royal up for grabs as human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler retires, Harper did not mince words, saying the struggle against ISIS is reminiscent of the dangers faced by Israel, which he said has a “right to defend itself against the violent jihadists who have threatened her for every single day of her 67-year-existence.”

Like Netanyahu, he knows how to play to his base, and manages to stay in power despite widespread dislike.

Whether his latest move has gone too far for Canadian voters remains to be seen, although he's not alone in this; even the rival Liberals and NDP have officially expressed opposition to BDS.

While a Conservative predecessor of Harper’s, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, once threatened South Africa with sanctions in an apartheid-era speech to the United Nations, Canada was one of the Commonwealth’s softer opponents of the South African regime. (At the time, Harper was a leading member of the Reform Party, which included white supremacist groups and had several prominent pro-apartheid members.) But even then, there was never such an overt criminalization of boycott advocacy.

In the United States, where hate speech is often considered one form of free speech, it was Americans advocating against sanctions who were prosecuted for bringing medical supplies to beleaguered Baghdad during the 12-year embargo.

One would hope that Canada, simultaneously the birthplace of the Israeli Apartheid Week movement and Israel's greatest friend, according to Harper, will not ultimately see a law implemented that criminalizes elderly Quakers for bearing BDS placards at peaceful rallies. The best possible outcome of Harper’s latest maneuver would be a heightened national dialogue about the Middle East and a heightened awareness of the dangers of criminalizing dissent.

Canadian journalist Hadani Ditmars is the author of "Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq" and a past editor at New Internationalist. She has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades.

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