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The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - John Capobianco, Marit Stiles and Bernie Farber - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.

The Conservative government appears to be backpedaling after reports it is planning to use hate crime laws against groups that advocate boycotting Israel. Capobianco, Stiles and Farber debate.

Marit Stiles: 

We've seen a number of federal ministers mention taking 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. So far, we don't have confirmation of any change taking place, but instead a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney pointed CBC reporters in the direction of Canada's hate laws. What does this mean and why should we be worried?

Blaney has previously conflated boycotts of Israel with anti-Semitic hate speech and violence, like the attacks in Paris. And I think that's why we need to worry here: when you have Blaney (the federal minister who oversees federal law enforcement) drawing comparisons between boycotts and violent attacks...what does that say about our rights and ability to protest in a peaceful way?

Boycotts are a long established form of political expression, and therefore protected in our constitution. 

Opposition to Israeli occupation of the West Bank is not "anti- Semitism". 

Canadian organizations that oppose this occupation include the United Church of Canada, the Canadian Quakers, and countless other organizations of civil society. 

Is the Conservative government really going to condemn them and find itself again losing in the Courts?

I suspect this is just fear mongering and an attempt by the government to create a "chill" among activists, and to bolster its own support and fundraising heading into the federal election. Shameful.

John Capobianco: 

In January, when John Baird was still the Minister of Foreign Affairs, he signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Israel to work together in opposing a boycott campaign against that country and suggesting that this kind of campaign could be considered anti-Semitic. 

This government's support of Israel is not new. In fact, it has been unwavering despite criticisms from within Canada and abroad — and by many Opposition members.

However, according to the CBC stories, Public Safety Minister Blaney (and other Ministers) suggested a "zero tolerance" approach to groups participating in what Marit mentions above as a loose coalition called BDS. 

The government has claimed that "this story is inaccurate and ridiculous" and gone on to say that "these particular laws have been in the books for many years and have not changed".

So I don't know what to make of this, but I can assure you it is not what Marit says — the government creating a "chill" or fear mongering to raise money.

Bernie Farber: 

It will be of no surprise to anyone that I am a strong supporter of Israel. I am also an unwavering supporter of peace and the absolute need for a two-state solution. I also hold dear the right we all have to express ourselves clearly and honestly within the wide confines of Canadian law.

I regard the BDS movement as a negative, even harmful, approach to peace (after all, where does one draw the line? There are too many academic, entertainment and other types of people boycotts that I believe are discriminatory.) But I also accept that there will be those who have a different view. That is not illegal, it’s a disagreement on policy and tactics.

Like John I do not know what to make of this story. I believe this one got caught in the reeds between the political and civil service bureaucracy, both of which may have had certain interpretations of Minister Blaney's words.

After all Minister Blaney did publicly state that there would be "zero-tolerance for BDS."  When a CBC journalist tried to get an understanding of his words, the roof caved in. It needs the Minister to clarify, not a spokesperson. 

Our anti-hate laws were not written to stifle political thought. The bar is very high and whoever percolated this concept needs a lesson in democracy.

Marit Stiles: 

Well, it does look like the Minister is now backpedalling away from this story. I guess we could just call it another Conservative minister’s gaffe, something we are seeing a lot of these days. 

But as Bernie notes, it does raise some troubling questions about what the Conservatives actually mean when they talk about “zero tolerance” for these groups and individuals. And when asked to explain, Blaney had to be corrected by his staff. Oops.

I think it's also worth noting the irony that Blaney, or any Conservative minister, would have the gall to talk about the strength of Canada’s hate speech laws when the Conservatives are the ones who actually took hate speech provisions out of Canada’s Human Rights Act. Oops again.

However any of us feel about BDS or Israeli occupation, when it comes to topics with such strong feelings attached, it is especially important for politicians to speak responsibly. Sadly, this government's ministers have shown no such finesse. They throw around rhetoric like this and in so doing cause greater divisions.

Their rhetoric — in this case — risks blurring the line between legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy and anti-Semitic hate speech. That's outrageous and dangerous, and whether or not it signals any real action to be taken by the government, it is irresponsible and unnecessary.

John Capobianco:

Marit, not everything is a conspiracy or an intentional move to raise money - I know that is what the NDP will always want to believe or have Canadians believe. Fortunately Canadians know better and aren't fooled by the constant finger pointing that takes place with the NDP.  And that only takes place with a party void of ideas themselves or desperate - not sure which is the case here.

This is a sensitive issue as is anything concerning another country, be it an ally of ours or not. The Minister has clearly stated that the story is inaccurate, and I would give this Minister the benefit of the doubt since he has been a tremendous Public Safety Minister through some very challenging times for our country.

Bernie Farber: 

Thanks Marit for pointing out the irony of the Harper government falling in line behind Ezra Levant and nullifying Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.  Section 13 acted as a non-criminal human rights approach to educating on hateful Internet content.

By erasing that legislation we are left only with the criminal sanction against hate and that can be like going after a fly with a stun gun.

Whatever the cause of this story/mistake/testing of the waters, it still began in Minister Blaney’s office and hopefully now will end there.

In the end I prefer my Prime Minister to look for ways to bring Canadians from diverse groups together as opposed to finding ways of keeping them apart. That’s the test of a true statesman.  


About The Salon

John Capobianco is a former CPC candidate and long-time party activist in both the federal and Ontario Conservative parties; Marit Stiles is a federal and Ontario NDP strategist; Bernie Farber is a former Ontario Liberal candidate and one of Canada's leading human rights experts.
Posted date : May 07, 2015

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