Politics

RCMP official calls for debate on hate speech law after probe of controversial imam ends without charges

The RCMP is warning of a growing number of cases of public speech that could incite hatred and is asking whether it has the legal tools to counter the trend.

RCMP Chief Superintendent Karine Gagné told Radio-Canada that while she wouldn’t comment directly on the case of controversial imam Adil Charkaoui — who gave a speech in Arabic in Montreal late last year in which he called on Allah to “kill the enemies of the people of Gaza” — she believes it may be time to revisit Canada’s laws on hate speech, which date from the early 2000s.

Following an RCMP investigation, prosecutors in Quebec chose not to charge Charkaoui.

Gagné, the head of criminal investigations for the RCMP in Quebec, said international events like the war in Gaza now have swifter and more immediate impacts on local communities.

“There is an evolution when it comes to international events, the speed at which we receive information. It’s instantaneous. In 2002, it wasn’t like that,” she said.

Federal Justice Minister Arif Virani says he’s willing to hear experts’ suggestions for changes to the hate speech law. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Federal Justice Minister Arif Virani told Radio-Canada he’s also concerned about the spread of hatred in Canada and is open to changing the Criminal Code based on the opinion of experts.

On October 28, 2023, during a speech at a pro-Palestine rally in Montreal, Charkaoui denounced “Zionist aggressors” and called on Allah to “kill the enemies of the people of Gaza and to spare none of them.”

The speech was denounced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier François Legault, among others.

A complaint was filed with the Montreal Police Department but the RCMP quickly took over the matter.

Several sources said the RCMP took on the investigation after police authorities determined the imam’s words could have raised issues related to national security and anti-terrorism law.

When the RCMP investigation concluded, prosecutors determined that Charkaoui’s speech did not violate Canadian laws.

In a news release, the Quebec Crown prosecutors’ office said “the evidence does not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the words spoken constitute incitement to hatred against an identifiable group within the meaning of the applicable Criminal Code provision.”

Charkaoui applauded the decision on social media, saying his speech was intended to “denounce the genocide” in Gaza.

“This excellent decision was predictable,” he said in an online video. “We are not going to give up, we are going to continue to defend these oppressed people.”

Gagné said the country’s police chiefs have seen a “resurgence of hate speech across the country” and suggested it’s time to discuss changes to the law.

Could this possibly lead to a debate on the issue? I think it’s very relevant to talk about it now, in 2024,” she said.

She added the RCMP “intervenes when there is a potential for an investigation that falls within our national security mandate.”

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Federation CJA president Yair Szlak says the messages spread by pro-Palestinian protesters, especially on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, amounts to hate and governments should take action.

Police sources have told Radio-Canada that other police services worry that the Crown’s decision in the Charkaoui matter could encourage hate speech elsewhere in Canada, which has been ramping up online and in person since the Israel-Hamas war began.

In March, Quebec’s college of physicians imposed a $25,000 fine against a cardiologist who called for a “big cleansing” in the Gaza Strip on his Facebook account.

At a protest in Ottawa in April, in a speech that is now under police investigation, a protester praised the brutal Hamas-led attack on Israel of Oct. 7, 2023.

“October 7 is proof that we are almost free,” said one protester, according to a video posted online. “Long live October 7.”

The war was sparked by Hamas’s surprise Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel that killed about 1,200 people, mainly Israeli civilians, and saw about 250 others taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies. About 120 hostages remain, with 43 pronounced dead.

Israel’s military offensive has killed more than 36,700 Palestinians and wounded in excess of 83,000 others, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. It has also destroyed about 80 per cent of Gaza’s buildings, according to the UN.

In the case of Charkaoui’s speech, the legal questions revolved around sections 318 and 319 of the Criminal Code, which prohibit public incitement to hatred against “identifiable groups.”

According to the legal definition, identifiable groups must be distinguished on grounds such as “colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin.”

As several experts have noted, Charkaoui’s speech did not mention a religious or ethnic group but took aim at “Zionists,” meaning adherents to the movement that led to the establishment of a Jewish state.

Rachad Antonius, a retired sociology professor at Université du Québec à Montréal and author of many books on the Middle East and human rights, denounced Charkaoui’s speech and said he does not represent the vast majority of Canadians in the pro-Palestinian movement.

Antonius said there’s still room for criticism of the Zionist movement in the public space.

A ‘cry of despair’

“Anti-Zionism is a policy of opposition to the political project that is Zionism. It has nothing to do with antisemitism,” he said. “This is not a form of racism. It is a way to take a stand for social justice.

“The Criminal Code is important, but we must also be able to distinguish between what constitutes hatred and what constitutes legitimate criticism. We must also distinguish between what is hatred and what is a cry of despair in the face of a horror that is happening before our eyes.”

Others argue Charkaoui’s speech crossed a clear line.

“We wonder where the limits are,” said Eta Yudin of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. “Is the law being applied to its maximum? Is there something to be done to look at Sections 318 and 319 [of the Criminal Code] to see if they go far enough, so that we deal with the hatred, vitriol and toxicity that we see on the streets?”

Men walk among debris in the aftermath of Israeli airstrikes.
Men walk among debris in the aftermath of Israeli strikes in Nuseirat, where Israeli hostages were rescued on June 9, 2024. (Abed Khaled/Reuters)

She said that while she has no objection to political speech criticizing Israel, its government or its actions, she fears using the word “Zionist” could become a way to circumvent the definition of “identifiable group” in the law.

“When there is a big demonstration in the street [where] there is talk about ‘Zionists’, it’s quite clear. It’s frequently used as a code to say ‘Zionists’ instead of saying ‘Jews’ but really it’s a way to target Jews. The majority of the global Jewish community is Zionist,” she said.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has come out in support of a proposal by the Bloc Québécois calling for the abolition of the “religious exemption” in section 319 of the Criminal Code.

According to this portion of the criminal law on incitement to hatred, it’s not illegal to express “an opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a belief in a religious text.”

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, June 13, 2023.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet has called Canada’s hate speech law ‘inadequate.’ (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Shortly after the Crown announced its decision not to pursue charges against Charkaoui, Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet said the “tools made available to the justice system” are “inadequate.”

Virani himself represents a riding in the Toronto area where tensions over the war in Gaza are running high.

“It is certain that we have had a problem with hatred for the last five years or so, but especially now, during the last eight months,” Virani told Radio-Canada. “We see that hatred circulates extremely quickly … within seconds, minutes or hours, in the digital age.”

Asked to comment on requests for changes to sections of the Criminal Code related to incitement to hatred, Virani referred to Bill C-63, the federal government’s proposed law on online harms, now before the House of Commons. This bill includes measures to combat hate crimes and hate speech, including longer maximum prison sentences.

Asked whether he is ready to change the definition of “identifiable group” in the Criminal Code, Virani said he’s open to expert opinions.

“If they suggest amendments to target things in a different way, or to refine or clarify aspects, I’m completely comfortable listening to suggestions like that,” he said.

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