Day Nine: Leonid Sirota

The Roads Not Taken

Sometimes, as other contributors to the symposium have discussed, dissenting opinions chart the law’s future course. But at other times, they are only signposts for alternative paths which the law passes by, perhaps for the better. And sometimes, they point to the lost straight road, from which the law tragically deviates, never to return. The three dissents below belong to this last category.

1. Justice Beetz in Slaight Communications v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038

Slaight was an unjust dismissal case, in which a labour arbitrator sided with the former employee. The issue at the Supreme Court was the arbitrator could, consistently with the Charter, require the former employer to provide the employee with a recommendation letter bearing the employer’s signature but actually entirely dictated by the arbitrator, and further to refrain from saying anything else about the former employee. The majority held that he could. After all, there was a power imbalance between employer and employee that needed to be rectified, and anyway the employer was only required to state true facts, as established by the arbitrator.

Justice Beetz saw things differently. To force a person to state “facts in which, rightly or wrongly, he may not believe” is tantamount making him “tell a lie”. The outcome of an official fact-finding process cannot be equated with an objective, all-purpose truth, let alone be elevated into a dogma everyone must believe in. The state has no more authority to make a person proclaim what it, but not he, believes to be true facts than to make him proclaim what it, but not he, believes to be true opinions. Such an order “is totalitarian in nature and can never be justified under s. 1 of the Charter. It does not differ, essentially, from the command given to Galileo by the Inquisition to abjure the cosmology of Copernicus.”

Justice Beetz also rejected the arbitrator’s order that the former employer not say anything other than what the arbitrator required about the former employee. He pointed out that “one should view with extreme suspicion an administrative order or even a judicial order which has the effect of preventing the litigants from commenting upon and even criticizing the rulings of the deciding board or court”. Finally, while condemning the former employer, Justice Beetz pointed out that “under the Charter, freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are guaranteed to ‘everyone’, employers and employees alike, irrespective of their labour practices and of their bargaining power.”

All these points are important, and Canadian law is the worse for not having taken them more seriously. Most disturbingly, of course, we have seen in recent years recurring attempts to impose official dogma on dissenting individuals, whether by the Law Society of Ontario or by the governments of Canada and Ontario. But we also now have an asymmetrical Charter jurisprudence, notably in the realm of freedom of association, against which Justice Beetz correctly warned. And, while fortunately we have not seen attempts to stifle criticism of the judiciary or the administrative state by law, too many Canadian lawyers are intolerant of critiques of their judicial heroes.

2. Justice McLachlin (as she then was) in R v Keegstra, [1990] 3 SCR 697

Before she became, allegedly, the “Conscience-in-Chief” of Canada, or at least of the Central Canadian establishment, and a Chief Justice somewhat notorious for strong-arming colleagues into consensus, Justice McLachlin, as she once was, authored a number of important dissents. Famously, the one in Rodriguez v British Columbia (Attorney-General), [1993] 3 SCR 519 eventually, in effect, became Supreme Court’s unanimous position. The one in Keegstra did not. Even Chief Justice McLachlin, as she became, eventually resiled from it. That’s too bad.

In Keegstra, the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the Criminal Code‘s proscription of hate speech. The four-judge majority upheld it as a reasonable limit on the freedom of expression. Justice McLachlin wrote for three (on the freedom of expression issue) dissenters. Her opinion is, perhaps, a little fastidious, and contains little in the way of memorable language, but it is thoughtful and deserves to be considered even by those who do not ultimately agree with her. Indeed, having argued the substantive case against the criminalization of hate speech elsewhere on this blog (and Emmett Macfarlane having discussed them in his contribution to this symposium), it is the more general or procedural points that I would like to highlight here.

For one thing, Justice McLachlin was fundamentally skeptical of content-based regulation of speech, and much sympathetic to the American approach, the views all such regulation with great suspicion. For another, Justice McLachlin firmly rejected the attempt to equate hate speech with violence. Violence, she stressed, involved the use of physical force, not words, even hurtful words. Furthermore, Justice McLachlin refused to read down the Charter‘s protection of freedom of expression in the name of equality: “it seems a misapplication of Charter values to … limit the scope of that individual guarantee [of freedom of expression] with an argument based on s. 15, which is also aimed at circumscribing the power of the state”. Compare this to the use of “Charter values” to impose egalitarianism on private actors and eviscerate religious freedom in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293!

Last but not least, consider Justice McLachlin’s insistence on the need for evidence to justify limitations on the freedom of expression. While acknowledging the appropriateness of some deference to the government on this issue, Justice McLachlin nevertheless wrote that, in order to avoid trivializing the justification of limitations on rights, “in cases … where it appears that the legislation not only may fail to achieve its goal but may have a contrary effect, the Court is justified in finding that the rational connection between the measure and the objective is absent”. Good intentions are not enough ― nor is the sort of ill-informed speculation, camouflaged as “common sense”, that has all too often sufficed in subsequent Supreme Court decisions.

Had just one vote gone the other way, and this opinion become the law, our constitution may well have been in much better shape than it is, far beyond the narrow issue of hate speech. As things stand, Keegstra has to count as one of the more significant missed opportunities in the Charter‘s history.

3. Justice Moldaver in Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 SCR 433, a.k.a. l’Affaire Nadon

In l’Affaire Nadon the Supreme Court was asked to opine on the eligibility of the judges of federal courts for appointment to the Supreme Court itself, and especially that of judges of the federal courts from Québec for appointment to one the Supreme Court’s Québec seats. It was, as readers will recall, a very high-profile and controversial case (more on which in a forthcoming book by Michael Plaxton and Carissima Mathen). The sort of case, in other words, in which the Supreme Court not infrequently issues unanimous opinions “by the court”. But Justice Moldaver’s dissent prevented the majority from giving itself this ultimate institutional imprimatur.

The majority held that, while judges of the federal courts were, as former lawyers, eligible for non-Québec seats on the Supreme Court, only current lawyers or current judges of the Québec’s superior courts could take one of the Québec seats. In doing so, the majority relied heavily on the idea that judges from Québec had to be not only experts in the civil law, but also representatives of Québec’s “social values”. This, they could not do without being current, not merely former, judges of Québec’s courts or members of the Québec bar.

For his part, Justice Moldaver dissected each of the majority’s arguments, and found them empty. In particular, as a matter of text, the two provisions governing eligibility for appointment ― the general one requiring judges to be or to “ha[ve] been” judges or lawyers of at least 10 years’ experience, and the specific one providing that Québec judges are to be chosen “from among the judges of the Court of Appeal or of the Superior Court of the Province of Quebec or from among the advocates of that Province” ― are “inextricably linked”. If the 10-year rule applies to Québec seats, as the majority accepted, so must the eligibility of former lawyers.

As for purpose, Justice Moldaver rejected the majority’s claim that the eligibility criteria had anything to do with the representation of Québec’s alleged “social values”. Indeed, “[i]mporting social values — 140 years later — is unsupported by the text and history of the [Supreme Court] Act”. The majority’s interpretation leads to the absurd result that judges not only of the federal courts, but also of Québec’s provincial court, are ineligible for appointment, while a lawyer who has done no more than pay his fees to the Québec bar while not engaging with the law at all could be appointed; so could a former judge who rejoined the Québec bar for a single day. While Parliament might have chosen such absurd criteria for eligibility and said so, “when interpreting a statute to determine what the relevant criteria are — i.e. what Parliament intended them to be — absurd results are to be avoided”.

As I have said here before, the majority opinion was not only wrong but pernicious; in particular, its linchpin, the concept of “social values”, was just self-important twaddle. Justice Moldaver deserves credit for exposing its vacuity. Rumour has it that he did it at some cost to himself. His fortitude, then, is to be commended as much as his legal acumen.

Honourable mentions: Justices Brown and Côté in Law Society of British Columbia v. Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 S.C.R. 293, which I described here as “probably the best opinion to come out of the Supreme Court in a long while”, and Justices Martland and Ritchie in Re: Resolution to amend the Constitution, [1981] 1 SCR 753, a.k.a the Patriation Reference, which I plan on discussing further in a post on unwritten constitutional principles in a not-too-distant future.

Day Three: Emmett Macfarlane

Among the panoply of difficult constitutional decisions rendered by the Supreme Court of Canada, there are many occasions when the majority of justices provide reasoning that can only be described as less than compelling (some might simply say ‘wrong’). The virtues of dissenting reasons – which, even on a highly consensual court like the Supreme Court, appear in roughly one-quarter of all cases – are multiple, and include presenting a counterpoint that might sharpen the overall decision, identifying weaknesses in the majority’s reasons, and, perhaps most importantly, providing a potential foundation for a future iteration of the Court to overturn itself (indeed, this has happened in cases involving assisted dying and labour rights.) 

An invitation to identify three favourite dissents poses a considerable challenge given the long list of candidates, but I’ve managed to settle on the following:

  • Dissenting opinion in R. v. Keegstra (1990), by Justice McLachlin (as she then was). 

The Keegstra case involved a Charter of Rights challenge to the criminal law against unlawfully promoting hatred. The majority upheld the law as a reasonable limit of freedom of expression. They did so in part on the basis that hate speech “is of limited importance when measured against free expression values … the state should not be the sole arbiter of truth, but neither should we overplay the view that rationality will overcome all falsehoods in the unregulated marketplace of ideas.” Moreover, hate speech subverts the democratic process by denying dignity to at least some segments of the community. The majority is dismissive of efforts to “prove a causative link between a specific statement and hatred of an identifiable group” and even states that requiring such proof of direct harm “would severely debilitate” Parliament’s objectives. Instead, it is enough that there is a risk of harm.

McLachlin’s dissent acknowledges the intuitive kinds of harm that hate speech can generate, particularly the pain and indignity it can inflict upon its targets. Yet she rightly questions the effectiveness of criminalizing hate speech. Indeed, the law is rarely enforced in Canada precisely because it does not capture that vast majority of hateful utterances. McLachlin also notes that hatred is notoriously broad, and that identifying it requires reliance on vague or subjective understandings. Importantly, this had already resulted in dramatic state overreach. She points to instances where copies of Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses were stopped by border authorities in a misguided effort to enforce the criminal provision. In another incident, arrests were made when pamphlets were distributed that happened to include the words “Yankee Go Home.”

The Keegstra dissent is a principled defence of free expression and the dangers of permitting state line-drawing on a vague basis like the promotion of hatred. McLachlin’s dissent correctly highlights the lack of evidence that hate speech laws mitigate hateful expression, the very real risk of state overreach, and the chilling effect such laws might induce. It is a shame that, when offered a chance to revisit the issue of hate speech in the statutory human rights context years later in Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission) v, Whatcott, McLachlin essentially disregarded her own important points of caution.

The Chaoulli case involved, at its core, a fundamental principle of the design of the health care system – equity, specifically access to health care regardless of ability to pay – and whether a provision designed to protect it, the prohibition on the purchase of private medical insurance, violated the right to life, liberty and security of the person under section 7 of the Charter. Had there been clear evidence that the provision at stake in the case contributed to waitlists and delays in access to health care, this might have been a straightforward decision. But regardless of whether one supports, as a matter of policy, a greater role for private options in health care, everyone should be concerned about the majority’s capacity to properly assess the evidence at stake in the case.

In a remarkably frank and punchy dissent, Justices Binnie and LeBel excoriate their colleagues for their overconfidence and questionable assumptions in deciding that the law ought to be invalidated. Noting that their colleagues contend the failure to provide “public health care of a reasonable standard within a reasonable time” violated rights, the dissenters ask:

What, then, are constitutionally required “reasonable health services”?  What is treatment “within a reasonable time”?  What are the benchmarks?  How short a waiting list is short enough?  How many MRIs does the Constitution require?  The majority does not tell us.  The majority lays down no manageable constitutional standard.  The public cannot know, nor can judges or governments know, how much health care is “reasonable” enough … It is to be hoped that we will know it when we see it.

The dissent rightly criticizes the majority for a lack of deference to finding of facts at the trial level, for disregarding the majority of experts, and for failing to pay heed to comparative evidence that waitlists exist in countries with private options. In a particularly noteworthy passage for a Supreme Court of Canada opinion of any kind, the dissent notes bluntly that the “resolution of such a complex fact-laden policy debate does not fit easily within the institutional competence or procedures of courts of law.” Moreover, they note that a “legislative policy is not ‘arbitrary’ just because we may disagree with it.” If only this message was one Canadian justices heeded more often.

The Remuneration reference is one of the most dramatic cases of judicial overreach in Canadian history. In it, the majority of the Court mandated “independent compensation commissions” for judges based on the “unwritten principle” of judicial independence (grounded in the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867 of “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom” and an analysis of section 11(d) of the Charter, a plain reading of which comes nowhere close to imagining the requirements invented by the majority).

Justice La Forest’s partial dissent stands as the lone voice of reason on a Court wildly stretching and misapplying the concept of judicial independence. He describes the majority’s approach as “a partial usurpation of the provinces’ power to set the salaries of inferior court judges” under the Constitution Act, 1867. That the reference involved “an issue on which judges can hardly be seen to be indifferent, especially as it concerns their own remuneration” was not lost on him either. La Forest criticizes the majority for its view that the constitutional preamble is a source for limiting the power of legislatures to interfere with judicial independence. Indeed, the idea that the British Constitution imposes such limits on Parliament is ahistorical nonsense.

La Forest also correctly notes that judicial review is “politically legitimate only insofar as it involves the interpretation of an authoritative constitutional instrument. … That legitimacy is imperiled, however, when courts attempt to limit the power of legislatures without recourse to express textual authority.” It is unreasonable, in La Forest’s view, to assume changes in judicial salaries or discussions between the two branches of government about salaries impair judicial independence.

Honourable mentions:

The dissent in Daviault (1994), against a defence of extreme intoxication for offense of general intent like sexual assault.

The dissent in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (2015), against constitutionalizing the right to strike.

The dissent in Reference re Supreme Court Act (2014), against a cherry-picked connection between the general eligibility requirements for Supreme Court justices and those for judges from Quebec.

The dissent in R. v. N.S. (2012), against the notion that requiring a sexual assault complainant to remove her niqab when testifying at trial protects the right to a fair trial.

The dissent in Sauvé (2002), in favour of deference to Parliament’s legitimate moral and philosophical objectives in denying the right to vote to those currently in prison for having committed serious crimes.


Expanding Hatred Again

Don’t expand the Criminal Code’s hate speech provisions. Repeal them!

This morning, the federal government has introduced a new bill in Parliament, C-16, that would, if enacted, add “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the definition of “identifiable grounds” used in the advocacy of genocide and hate speech provisions of the Criminal Code. (It would also make them prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian HumanRights Act, but I am not concerned with that here.) Fighting transphobia is a worthy cause, but even in the service of a worthy cause, not all the means are appropriate. As I argued when the previous government introduced its own expansion of the Criminal Code‘s hate speech provisions, this one is not. Here is what I wrote then:

I have argued, in a number of posts (collected here), that prohibitions on hate speech are useless, both because they only punish what I described as “the rear-guard of hatred” and because the truly noxious speech is that of sophisticated and influential politicians who can easily evade the narrow prohibitions of the criminal law, and that they are dangerous, because of their chilling effect and vulnerability to abuse. Needless to say, the greater the scope of the hate-speech provisions of the Criminal Code, the greater their chilling effect and potential abuses are.

I also said that while promoting hatred or advocating genocide on the newly-added grounds is every bit as immoral as on those that were already in the Criminal Code,

criminal law does not and should not perfectly track morality. Not everything that is morally wrong, even deeply wrong, should be criminalized. Hate speech is one of these things.

This remains the case today. The only thing I would add is that the ongoing expansion of the hate speech provisions suggests that there is no limiting principle that would prevent future governments from extending them further and further. Any group that succeeds in making its voice heard in the political arena will understandably demand the same “protections” that others already enjoy, however illusory these “protections” actually are, and the scope of the hate speech provisions will go on expanding. The only way to stop this process is, I believe, to acknowledge that the criminalization of hate speech is inappropriate in a free society, and must be renounced.

The Harm in a Hate Speech Bill

Last week, I criticized Québec’s Bill 59, which would notably introduce a very broad prohibition on “hate speech” in provincial law. This morning, the CBA National Magazine’s blog publishes an English version of some of my criticisms, focusing on one of the bill’s unique aspects, the inclusion of “political convictions” in the list of “prohibited grounds” of hate speech. If you don’t read French, you can now see for yourself what the fuss is about.

Un gâchis

La ministre de la justice du Québec, Stéphanie Vallée, a déposée à l’Assemblée nationale le Projet de loi 59 qui va ajouter une interdiction de « discours haineux » à la Charte des droits et libertés de la personne (alias la Charte québécoise) et aussi, entre autres, astreindre les écoles et les CÉGEPs à protéger la « sécurité morale » des élèves. Fait remarquable, le projet de loi ne définit tout simplement pas les termes cruciaux que sont « discours haineux » et « sécurité morale ». Le projet est vraisemblablement constitutionnel en bonne partie. Cependant, il n’en est pas moins une atteinte à la liberté d’expression et à la primauté du droit.

* * *

Le projet de loi 59 comporte deux parties. La première décréterait une loi visant les discours haineux, alors que la seconde apporte une série de modifications censées « protéger des personnes » à un certain nombre d’autres lois. Les articles 1 et 2 de la loi anti-discours haineux interdisent « de tenir ou de diffuser un discours » « haineux » (« hate speech » dans le texte anglais) ou « incitant à la violence » visant « un groupe de personnes qui présentent une caractéristique commune identifiée comme un motif de discrimination interdit à l’article 10 de la Charte des droits et libertés de la personne ». Les caractéristiques visées par cette dernière disposition sont

la race, la couleur, le sexe, la grossesse, l’orientation sexuelle, l’état civil, l’âge sauf dans la mesure prévue par la loi, la religion, les convictions politiques, la langue, l’origine ethnique ou nationale, la condition sociale, le handicap ou l’utilisation d’un moyen pour pallier ce handicap.

L’interdiction de publier de tels discours est aussi ajoutée à la Charte québécoise par l’article 22. Celui-ci prévoit aussi, cependant, qu’elle « n’a pas pour objet de limiter la diffusion d’un tel discours aux fins d’information légitime du public ».

L’article 3 autorise « toute personne qui a connaissance » d’un discours interdit à le dénoncer à la Commission des droits de la personne, qui peut aussi, en vertu de l’article 6, enquêter sur un tel discours « de sa propre initiative ». En vertu de l’article 11, si elle « considère qu’il existe des éléments de preuve suffisants pour déterminer si une personne a tenu ou diffusé un discours haineux ou un discours incitant à la violence », la Commission « doit saisir le Tribunal des droits de la personne », lequel peut, en vertu de l’article 20, condamner l’auteur d’un discours interdit à une « sanction » allant de 1000$ à 10 000$ pour une première infraction, et de 2000$ à 20 000$ pour une infraction subséquente. De plus, en vertu de l’alinéa 3e de l’article 17, la Commission doit publier le nom des personnes ainsi condamnées dans un registre en ligne.

Parmi les autres modifications à la législation québécoise, j’aborde brièvement une qui est liée, en partie, à l’interdiction des « discours haineux ». Il s’agit de l’interdiction, faite aux CÉGEPs ainsi qu’aux écoles, tant privées que publiques, de « tolére[r] un comportement pouvant raisonnablement faire craindre pour la sécurité physique ou morale des étudiants ». (Le texte anglais parle d’ « emotional safety ».) Le projet prévoit qu’ « [e]st réputée avoir un comportement pouvant raisonnablement faire craindre pour la sécurité physique ou morale des élèves, la personne dont le nom est inscrit sur la liste » de ceux reconnus couples d’avoir enfreint l’interdiction de « discours haineux ». (Le projet contient plusieurs articles employant le même libellé, s’appliquant aux différentes catégories d’institutions qu’il vise.)

Ce qu’il y a de tout à fait remarquable avec ce projet de loi, c’est qu’il ne définit pas les termes les plus importants qu’il emploie ― « discours haineux » ou encore « sécurité morale ». Peut-être que, pour ce qui est de définir le « discours haineux », la ministre s’en remet implicitement à la définition de propagande haineuse développée par les tribunaux, notamment par la Cour suprême dans l’arrêt Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission) c.Whatcott, 2013 CSC 11, [2013] 1 R.C.S. 467, encore qu’on donne souvent à ce terme un sens différent, et parfois bien plus large, dans le discours sur le sujet. Quant à la notion de « sécurité physique ou morale » ― ou plus précisément, à celle de « sécurité morale », celle physique étant un concept plus clair ― elle se retrouve dans deux dispositions législatives québécoises (soit l’al. 2e de l’art. 26 de la Loi sur les services de garde éducatifs à l’enfance, RLRQ c S-4.1.1 et l’art. 481 de la Loi sur les services de santé et les services sociaux, RLRQ c S-4.2), et n’y est pas définie. Les tribunaux judiciaires ne se sont pas prononcés sur sa signification. Par ailleurs, il est clair que, si la publication de discours reconnus haineux sera considérée comme faisant craindre pour la sécurité, morale logiquement, des élèves, cette notion ne s’y limite pas. De plus, le texte anglais, loin de clarifier les choses, les complique encore davantage, car il n’est pas certain que l’ « emotional safety » soit exactement la même chose que la « sécurité morale ».

* * *

Comme toute mesure législative, on peut évaluer le projet de loi 59 sur les plans, différents, du droit constitutionnel positif et des principes. En ce qui concerne le droit positif, il faut noter que la Cour suprême a accepté, notamment dans les arrêts R. c. Keegstra, [1990] 3 R.C.S. 697 et Whatcott, que si l’interdiction de « propos haineux » ou de « propagande haineuse », que ce soit par le biais du droit pénal ou dans le cadre de la législation relative aux droits de la personne, constitue une atteinte à la liberté d’expression, cette atteinte est justifiée au sens de l’article premier de la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés, pour autant que l’interdiction soit interprétée assez étroitement.

Sans me lancer dans une analyse détaillée, je crois donc que c’est surtout la portée particulièrement large de l’interdiction prévue par le projet de loi 59, plutôt que son principe même, qui pourrait être source de difficultés constitutionnelles. Cette interdiction se distingue entre autres de ses équivalents ailleurs au Canada par le nombre « caractéristiques » que peut viser un « discours haineux » tombant sous son coup, et notamment par le fait que l’on retrouve, au nombre de ses caractéristiques, « les convictions politiques ». On pourrait donc accuser et condamner une personne, en vertu de ces dispositions, non seulement pour avoir affirmé, comme l’intimé dans Whatcott, que l’homosexualité était une abomination, mais aussi pour avoir dit la même chose du nazisme ― les nazis étant un groupe de personnes ayant certaines convictions politiques comme caractéristique commune. Je veux bien croire que Mme Vallée n’a pas l’intention de faire condamner des anti-Nazis pour discours haineux, son projet de loi le permettrait, et il est fort douteux que la Cour suprême considère que cette conséquence soit rationnellement liée à des objectifs visant le respect de l’égalité et de la dignité humaine.

Au-delà, cependant, d’un tel scénario catastrophe, on pourrait soutenir qu’étendre l’interdiction de « discours haineux » au domaine des convictions politiques aurait un effet paralysant sur l’expression, par les citoyens, de leurs opinions politiques, un effet négatif que ne compenserait pas la protection de la société contre des propos haineux à l’encontre de groupes qui, contrairement à la plupart de ceux que les interdictions similaires cherchent à protéger, ne sont pas nécessairement particulièrement vulnérables. Cela dit, il est loin d’être certain que les tribunaux retiendraient un tel argument. Dans Whatcott, la Cour suprême a rejeté des arguments fondés sur la spécificité du discours politique. Par contre, il y était question de discours visant non pas un groupe politique, mais bien les droits d’un groupe minoritaire vulnérable.

* * *

Quoi qu’il en soit, c’est sur le plan des principes que le projet de loi 59 est un véritable désastre. Les lecteurs réguliers savent déjà que je m’oppose à toute prohibition contre les « discours haineux », entre autres parce que de telles dispositions sont toujours trop vagues et ont, par conséquent, un effet paralysant sur le débat politique légitime qui est lui-même une atteinte à la dignité humaine, mais aussi parce que les attaques les plus dangereuses contre la dignité des citoyens, l’inclusion et le vivre-ensemble et ne sont pas le fait d’un arrière-garde de la haine, mais plutôt de politiciens suffisamment sophistiqués pour attiser la méfiance de leurs concitoyens à l’égard des groupes minoritaires sans jamais enfreindre de telles lois. Cependant, même ceux que ces arguments ne persuadent pas en général devraient s’opposer à ce projet de loi.

D’abord, parce que, comme je l’explique plus haut, ce projet a une portée excessive, qui va bien au-delà de celle de ses équivalents dans le reste du Canada. Si tant est que l’on a besoin de protéger des minorités vulnérables des discours haineux qui les visent, je vois mal ce qui nécessite l’extension d’une telle protection aux membres des partis ou de mouvances politiques. Certes, comme je l’ai déjà dit ici, « lorsque nous débattons nos opinions contradictoires, il ne faut pas tomber dans le piège de diaboliser nos adversaires ». N’empêche, c’est une règle qui devrait relever de la moralité et non du droit pénal, d’autant plus que nous savons que nous ne pouvons pas faire confiance aux autorités québécoises pour faire preuve de discernement lorsqu’il s’agit de poursuivre des personnes s’emportant dans l’expression de leurs opinions impopulaires.

D’autres traits uniques du projet de loi 59 ne le rendent pas plus acceptable. Le système de pilori virtuel qu’il met en place n’est pas de nature à favoriser la réhabilitation de personnes coupables d’avoir tenu des propos haineux. Bien au contraire, il invite la population à exercer des représailles contre eux, ce qui risquerait de les endurcir dans leurs opinions. Au lieu d’assainir la société, la culture du pilori virtuel envenime les conflits, comme le soutient Eric Posner dans un brillant essai sur le sujet dans Slate. Par ailleurs, cette sous-traitance de la répression est aussi, à mon sens, une entorse à la primauté du droit.

Mais la primauté du droit est surtout brimée par l’imprécision délibérée du projet de loi 59. L’absence de définition des termes cruciaux fait en sorte que les citoyens et les institutions ne savent pas ce qui leur est interdit. Or, il ne s’agit pas seulement d’un problème philosophique abstrait. L’incertitude juridique que la ministre Vallée veut créer aura un prix bien réel.

En ce qui concerne les « discours haineux », la ministre doit savoir que seule une définition assez étroite de ce terme sera jugée constitutionnelle. Elle aurait très bien pu insérer cette définition ou, du moins, certains éléments-clés de celle-ci, dans le projet de loi, de sorte que les citoyens puissent savoir de quoi il s’agit sans avoir à consulter un avocat ou la jurisprudence de la Cour suprême. En omettant de le faire, elle cautionne des lectures inconstitutionnellement larges de l’interdiction, qui mèneront à des plaintes et, possiblement, des accusations à l’encontre de personnes qui exercent leur liberté d’expression.

Les dispositions concernant la « sécurité morale » des écoliers et des cégépiens soulèvent ce problème à un degré encore plus fort, puisqu’il n’existe aucune définition, même jurisprudentielle, de ce concept. Ces dispositions vont donc entraîner des plaintes et, sans doute, mener les écoles et les CÉGEPs à prendre toutes sortes de mesures, y compris des congédiements de professeurs, afin d’éviter de se faire accuser de « tolérer » des comportements menaçant la « sécurité morale » des élèves. Un professeur exprime-t-il une opinion controversée ou critique-t-il seulement un élève? On s’en débarrasse pour éviter une plainte des parents et risquer de perdre une subvention. Certes, ce n’est probablement pas l’intention de la ministre, mais en rédigeant un projet de loi flou au possible, elle rend de telles conséquences non seulement possibles, mais probables.

* * *

Le projet de loi 59 est une véritable attaque contre la liberté d’expression et la primauté du droit. Son idée maîtresse, l’interdiction des « discours haineux » est problématique en soi, mais la façon dont il la mettrait en oeuvre l’est encore davantage. Il aura un effet paralysant sur la liberté d’expression politique qui ira bien au-delà de la portée, déjà trop large, de ses interdictions, et créera une incertitude juridique qui ne manquera pas de créer des problèmes, notamment dans le réseau de l’éducation. Ce gâchis doit être largement amendé ou, mieux encore, abandonné purement et simplement.

Hate Speech in Context

Exactly one year ago yesterday, a mosque in the Québec town of Saguenay was vandalized with what the vandals claimed was pig blood. The attack was clearly intended to show Muslims that they were not welcome in Saguenay (and perhaps in Québec generally), which is, according to Jeremy Waldron, precisely “the harm in hate speech” which criminal law can and ought to combat. Despite this, I argued at the time that “the harm is not in hate speech,” because an isolated incident of this sort does not send much of a message. What does, by contrast, is xenophobic discourse by politicians ― such as that which was used by members of Pauline Marois’ PQ government to justify Québec’s infamous “values Charter.” As I wrote then,

[b]ecause it comes from on high, [such discourse] does much more than a lone attack to tell minorities that they are not welcome in Québec, and to tell those who would exclude minorities from public life that they are not alone. But, because these messages are being sent by sophisticated, intelligent people, they look and sound nothing like the crude mosque attack. They would not, of course, qualify as hate speech by any standard …

A year on, the PQ has been thoroughly defeated at the polls, and Québec is a very different place as a result, as Jonathan Kay observes in an insightful column in the National Post. He notes that

[d]uring the 18-month Marois reign, even the most petty ethnic or linguistic dispute became grist for widespread anxiety and bitterness — because the PQ was desperate to seize on any pretext to fire up the nativists and separatists who comprised its core supporters.

As a result, many members of minority communities were considering leaving the province. As the zealots of “secularism” pontificated about the incompatibility of “ostentatious” religious symbols and “Québec values,”

the shrill nastiness of Ms. Marois and her administration seeped into the everyday life of ordinary Quebecers. On the subway, in restaurants, at gas stations, interactions between English and French, Jew and gentile, Muslim and non-Muslim, became more fraught.

Religious minorities in Québec were suffering precisely the harms prof. Waldron associates with hate speech ― a feeling of being unwelcome, of being second-class citizens, of having to hide their identities and beliefs. (Indeed, Mr. Kay points out that even members of the majority group who did not support the “values Charter” were made to feel these things to some extent, by being labelled as traitors of sorts.) But of course nothing that Ms. Marois or her henchmen said ever reached the threshold of “hate speech.” There was no need for that. We all understood what was going on.

Conversely, as Mr. Kay points out, now that there is a different government, which is not much interested in identity politics, attempts to re-ignite the toxic flames of linguistic wars, or even occasional outbursts of outright xenophobia (such as a notorious journalist’s anti-Semitic comments), are not having the same effect. Because they have no support among the authorities, they do not provoke anything like the same anxiety. Yet Mr. Kay is to point out that “the only reason that such kooks can be written off as ‘irrelevant’ is that Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois got the boot in April’s provincial election.”

The story of Québec in the last year shows, I think, where prof. Waldron’s work on hate speech is right, and where it is mistaken. Prof. Waldron identifies an important preoccupation that members of a liberal, welcoming society should share: we should all seek

to provide assurance to all citizens, and particularly to members of vulnerable minorities, that they are and will be treated as members of society, endowed with rights and deserving concern and consideration.

But he goes wrong by identifying hate speech as the pressing threat to this objective, and criminal law as the means to address it. The harm, once again, is not in hate speech. What really undermines the assurance which prof. Waldron rightly says is important are not the extreme vituperations of a few kooks, but an embrace of a xenophobic discourse by the powerful, regardless of whether it raises to the level of hate speech. And because the category of speech that is problematic in this way if coming from the mouth of authority is much broader than that of hate speech, criminal law cannot be the solution. The problem is one of political morality, and the solution must be found in the same realm.

Expanding Hatred

Yesterday, the federal government unveiled yet another omnibus criminal law bill, Bill C-13, which would become, if enacted, become the Protecting Canadians against Online Crime Act. Although it presented as a law to fight cyber-bullying, it would do a great many other things besides. In particular, it would give law enforcement much greater powers of electronic surveillance than they currently have. Michael Geist and David Fraser explain these changes in detail, and I urge you to read what they have to say. But there is one other clause of the bill, which has nothing at all to do with cyber-bullying, or computer crime, or surveillance, or anything really, which I thought I would briefly discuss here: clause 12, which expands the definition of genocide propaganda and hate speech , which are criminalized, respectively, by s. 318 and s. 319, of the Criminal Code.

More precisely, s. 318 criminalizes “advocat[ing] or promot[ing] genocide,” defined as the killing of the members or the deliberate infliction of “conditions of life calculated to bring about [the] physical destruction” of an “identifiable group.” “Identifiable group,” in turn, is defined in subs. 318(4) as “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” S. 319, for its part, criminalizes the incitement, “by communicating statements in any public place,” of “hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace,” and the wilful promotion of “hatred against any identifiable group” “by communicating statements, other than in private conversation.” Its definition of “identifiable group” refers to subs. 318(4).

It is this definition that Bill C-13 would expand. An “identifiable group” would now mean “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disability.” In other words, the enactment of Bill C-13 would make it criminal to advocate genocide or promote hatred on the basis of “national origin,” “age,” “sex,” or “disability.”

I have argued, in a number of posts (collected here), that prohibitions on hate speech are useless, both because they only punish what I described as “the rear-guard of hatred” and because the truly noxious speech is that of sophisticated and influential politicians who can easily evade the narrow prohibitions of the criminal law, and that they are dangerous, because of their chilling effect and vulnerability to abuse. Needless to say, the greater the scope of the hate-speech provisions of the Criminal Code, the greater their chilling effect and potential abuses are.

Of course, I don’t think that ― from a moral perspective ― it is any less wrong to advocate, say, the hatred of women, or the massacre of babies, than any of the things which ss. 318 and 319 already criminalized. And, if we are going to have hate speech provisions in the Criminal Code at all, it is not particularly rational not to apply them to gender, age, or disability-related hatred (to the extent that, these things exist; I do not doubt, alas, the existence of misogyny, but is age-based hatred ― as opposed to “mere” discrimination ― a real problem?). But criminal law does not and should not perfectly track morality. Not everything that is morally wrong, even deeply wrong, should be criminalized. Hate speech is one of these things.

On this front too, Bill C-13 is a move in the wrong direction. The fact that this move is buried in an omnibus bill dealing with important and completely unrelated topics, so that the likelihood that it will be seriously debated seems close to nil, makes it even worse.

The Harm Is Not in Hate Speech

I wanted to come back to the sad events of last weekend, when a mosque in Saguenay, in Québec, was smeared with, purportedly, pig blood, and angry letters were sent both to the mosque and to the local Radio-Canada station, demanding that Muslims “assimilate or go home.” As Radio-Canda reported, police are considering charges, both for vandalism and for hate speech ― though they’d have to find those who did it first. (I don’t think I’ve seen any good news on that front.) The community leaders, however, stress that this is an outlying incident, and that the town, or the province, should not be judged by it. Fair enough. But, as others point out, the current climate in Québec, with the government’s proposal, to be finally unveiled on Monday, of a “Charter of Québec Values” stressing secularism ― or, more accurately, suppressing much visible expression of non-Christian religious beliefs while preserving, under the label of “cultural heritage,” Christian symbols such as the crucifix which Maurice Duplessis had hung in the National Assembly ― is a context which we cannot ignore when thinking about the significance of the attack on the mosque.

There is always a danger in trying to link a single crime to some wrong, real or perceived, in the society at large, as people are too often tempted to do in response, say, to mass shootings. However, when a crime seems to have a political purpose, such a link probably ought to exist, if only in the mind of the criminal. This is not to say that society in general or some individual politicians to whose decisions the criminal is reacting have caused or are directly responsible for the crime. Without more, it also does not mean that they have done anything wrong. No one committed any wrong that could have justified FLQ terrorism for instance, though it obviously was a response to the political situation of the late 1960s Québec. But, quite clearly, sometimes politicians do contribute to creating a social climate in which certain sorts of crimes become more likely, even without calling for or even directly encouraging their commission. An obvious current example is Russia, where the enactment homophobic legislation is coinciding with a rise in brutal anti-gay violence.

The situation in Québec right now is, I am afraid, not dissimilar. Much of recent talk of “Québec values” and “secularism” and even, alas, “male-female equality” is code for expressing, in terms that are intended to be acceptable in and indeed appealing to polite society, a barely disguised hostility to those who look and think differently from the majority ― above all, religious Muslims. Instead of trying to convince the people insecure at the prospect of social change that Québec will not be different for looking different, the government is fanning the flames by embracing this language. And so, although I fully believe that Québec’s Premier is sincere in her denunciation of the mosque attack, the policies of her government give heart to those who think like the attack’s perpetrators, and tell those against whom the attack was directed that they are not welcome here. Even assuming that this is not these policies’ intent, it is their foreseeable effect.

And this brings me to the legal point pf this post. I wrote at great length last fall about Jeremy Waldron’s book on The Harm in Hate Speech. As I explained here, the core of Prof. Waldron’s argument “that hate speech must be prohibited in order to provide assurance to all citizens, and particularly to members of vulnerable minorities, that they are and will be treated as members of society, endowed with rights and deserving concern and consideration.” Although the society’s laws might, objectively considered, be egalitarian and welcoming, visible expressions of hatred and contempt undermine the promise of these laws, and must be banned. I also wrote that I was not persuaded by prof. Waldron’s claims. Now the attack on the mosque in Saguenay, and the letters that accompanied it, seem to be a perfect illustration of the sort of thing that worries prof. Waldron ― a visible manifestation of hatred obviously intended to tell its victims that they are they are at best, second-class citizens, and indeed not welcome at all in the society, whatever our other laws might say. Was I wrong to disagree with prof. Waldron? I still do not think so. As the reaction of the local community leaders shows, they are not particularly worried about what they know is an isolated act. It is not that which seriously undermines the assurance of their equal citizenship.

The talk surrounding the forthcoming Charter of Québec Values is a different matter. Because it comes from on high, it does much more than a lone attack to tell minorities that they are not welcome in Québec, and to tell those who would exclude minorities from public life that they are not alone. But, because these messages are being sent by sophisticated, intelligent people, they look and sound nothing like the crude mosque attack. They would not, of course, qualify as hate speech by any standard, including that proposed by prof. Waldron.

My point, of course, is not that we ought to change the law so as to allow us to drag the members of the Québec government before the criminal courts. It would not be possible to word the law in a way that would not prevent all sorts of legitimate debates and create massive chilling effects. Nor should we even try. Bad ideas ― including bad ideas that would relegate some of our fellow-citizens to the margins of society ― ought, if at all possible, be defeated politically. But that is not to say that such ideas, even if they eventually are defeated, are harmless. Yet the harm about which prof. Waldron worries is not so much in hate speech. It is, to a much greater extent, in the polite-sounding pronouncements of the the cynics who try to use an undercurrent of bigotry and hatred to their electoral advantage.

Chilling Effect

I wrote a while ago about the case of Matthieu Bonin, a Québec blogger who was accused of incitement to hatred, after making some admittedly tasteless and idiotic statements which, nevertheless, didn’t amount to anything like hate propaganda. Fortunately, as La Presse reports, the charges against him have now been dropped. Yet they should never have been brought in the first place, and the story does illustrate the insidious effect of the existence of relatively vague hate speech provisions in the law, and especially of the prosecutorial abuse of such provisions.

I can’t even imagine what it is like to live for months with criminal charges―even, or perhaps especially, unfounded criminal charges―against you. Mr. Bonin was also prevented from uploading videos to the internet―a curtailment of his freedom of expression for which, as has now been officially confirmed, there was no good reason at all. In the grand scheme of things, two months without ranting on YouTube aren’t very much, yet even if relatively small, it is still a loss of freedom for which nothing can compensate.

Mr. Bonin speaks of having learned a lesson about use of language on the internet. But there is also a lesson for us all in his story, about the dangers of laws that restrict speech and of prosecutors who apply these laws according to their fancy rather than to what they actually say.

Vive le Québec Libre!

Prosecutors in Québec seem to have forgotten that this is a free province in a free country. First, they came for a makeup artist whose gory videos, though involving no actual gore or violence whatsoever, were too realistic for their liking. And then, after a mere busybody concerned citizen complained, they came for a ranting blogger for, apparently, saying that someone ought to organize a mass shooting at the Québec National Assembly. (The story is a couple of weeks old, but I only came across it now, and think it’s worth highlighting, especially since it hasn’t attracted the attention of anglophone media.)

Now what Matthieu Bonin, the blogger, said is thoroughly disgusting. But that is not enough to accuse him of―wait for it―hate propaganda. Jeremy Waldron, about whose views on hate speech prohibitions I have written at length ( hereherehere, here, and here), thinks that Western democracies, including Canada, can be trusted not to abuse their hate speech laws to prosecute expression that is merely offensive, and does not fall within a fairly narrow understanding what what hate speech really is. This case is evidence that he is, regrettably, mistaken.

As the lawyer and blogger Véronique Robert, from whose post I learned about this case, explains, there is a very simple reason why Mr. Bonin is not guilty of the charge against him. S. 319 of the Criminal Code criminalizes public incitement (subs. 1) and wilful promotion (subs. 2) of “hatred against an identifiable group” (my emphasis). And “identifiable group,” pursuant to subs. 319(7) and 318(4), “means any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” As Mtre Robert points out,

This is … an exhaustive list of what constitutes an identifiable group. … As this definition of an identifiable group does not include the group of politicians, there is no actus reus at all, and nothing, in my view, can ground a charge against Matthieu Bonin. In order to have him found guilty, the prosecution would have to amend the Criminal Code. (Translation mine)

As in the make up artist’s case, it seems to me that the prosecution is grotesquely mistaken about the legal claim it is asserting. But of course, even though the accused is going to be acquitted, he will have suffered stress and incurred considerable expenses. This is not how the power of a free state should be used. Whoever authorized the prosecution should be ashamed of him- or herself.

There is a further point to be made, though it is of secondary importance in light of Mtre Robert’s conclusion. The provision of the Criminal Code under which Mr. Bonin is charged might be unconstitutional. But what about R. v. Keegstra, [1990] 3 S.C.R. 697, which is generally taken to have, in Mtre Robert’s words, “have settled the question” of the constitutionality of the Criminal Code‘s prohibition on hate speech? Let me explain.

S. 319 of the Criminal Code has two subsections that create similar, but distinct offences. Subs. 1, criminalizes incitement of hatred “by communicating statements in any public place … where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace.” This is the provision Mtre Robert quotes in her post, but she does not clearly say that that is the one under which Mr. Bonin is charged. Subs. 2 criminalizes “wilful[] promot[ion]” of hatred “other than in private conversation. So it is applicable to a broader range of situations than subs. 1―anything other than a private conversation, as opposed to “a public place”, and there is no need for likelihood of a breach of peace; but subs. 2 is also narrower, in that it includes a requirement of wilfulness which is absent from subs. 1. Only subs. 2 (as well as par. 3(a)) was at issue, and was upheld, by a vote of 5-4, in Keegstra. And, importantly, the requirement of wilfulness in subs. 2 was among the factors the majority invoked as showing the limited scope of subs. 2, and therefore constitutional permissibility. Because that requirement is absent from subs. 1, I think that Keegstra does not settle the question of its constitutionality. To the contrary, it is some reason to believe that subs. 1 might be unconstitutional. So if that’s the provision under which Mr. Bonin is charged, he has, in my opinion, a fairly strong constitutional argument to make.

There is, by the way, another difference between subs. 319(1) and 319(2). Pursuant to subs. 319(6), “[n]o proceeding for an offence under subsection (2) shall be instituted without the consent of the Attorney General.” There is no such restriction applicable to subs. 1. This may not have any constitutional significance―the Supreme Court did not comment on this requirement in Keegstra. But if the charge against Mr. Bonin is under subs. 1, without the Attorney General’s consent, their absurdity might suggest that it would be a good idea to apply the subs. 6 requirement to subs. 1 as well as subs. 2.

The best thing, of course, would be to get rid of s. 319 altogether, for the reasons I discuss in the posts linked to above, and because we now have an example of blatant prosecutorial abuse. But so long as the provision is on the books, the prosecutors’ sense of decency―or at least their knowledge of the law―are what we are forced to count on for our freedom. Right now, in Québec, both are in short supply.