Conservatives are staking out opposing positions on a Liberal motion to condemn Islamophobia, with one leadership candidate supporting the bid to denounce systemic racism and others opposing it on the grounds it could impede free speech or single out one religion for special protections.

MPs will begin debate on motion M-103, which calls on the government to "recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear," at 5:30 p.m. ET Wednesday.

Leadership contender Michael Chong said Tuesday he will support M-103, the motion tabled by Mississauga, Ont., Liberal MP Iqra Khalid that was tabled last fall but will be debated tomorrow in the aftermath of last month's mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque.

He rejected claims that M-103 singles out Muslims for special treatment, noting the House of Commons has denounced hatred against other groups, including Jews, Yazidis and Egyptian Coptic Christians.

Chong also rejected claims — widely circulated through social media and online petitions — that M-103 will infringe on free speech and set Canada on course toward Shariah law.

Chong Environment 20161102

Conservative Party MP and leadership candidate Michael Chong supports the motion and says it is important to debate Islamophobia in the wake of last month's mosque shooting. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"In light of the mass shooting at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City last month, where six Muslims were killed and 19 injured while they prayed in their mosque, it is appropriate and important that Canadian parliamentarians study the issue of anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic prejudice and discrimination," he said in a statement.

Countering hate speech with free speech

Chong said a bigger threat to free speech is the existing Section 319 of the Criminal Code, which makes it an offence to wilfully promote or publicly incite hatred against any identifiable group. 

He wants to repeal that section, arguing the bar must be set very high on free speech in a democratic society, with even odious ideas debated publicly to be countered by the "disinfectant" of free speech.

"The right way to counteract hate speech is free speech, not the Criminal Code," he said in a statement to CBC News. "Section 319 of the Criminal Code is too expansive an interpretation of the harm principle. In addition, Section 319 risks putting a chill on debate, forcing these debates underground where they can fester and create real resentment."

Calling himself a "strong defender of free speech and religious freedom," another Conservative leadership contender, Erin O'Toole, has pitched amendments to the motion to its sponsor. He believes his proposed changes would "address valid concerns about limiting free speech" while ensuring proper debate in the House of Commons. 

"These would remove any ambiguity with respect to free speech being limited, including criticism of radical Islam or even criticizing the faith or its practices like any other faith," he said in a statement to CBC News. "As a courtesy, I raised my concerns and specific changes to the MP. We had a good discussion and she said she would consider my proposed amendments." 

Mississauga-Erin Mills MP Iqra Khalid

MPs begin debate Wednesday on the motion from MP Iqra Khalid that calls on the government to condemn Islamophobia. (CBC)

Khalid has declined interview requests from CBC News.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke in defence of the motion. NDP MPs also support it. 

Conservatives will discuss M-103 during a caucus meeting Wednesday. A spokesman for interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose said she will not support the motion unless there is an amendment, but would not specify what amendment might change her position.

'Special protections'

At least one MP in the party's leadership race, Pierre Lemieux, has been issuing fundraising letters warning that M-103 is "an attack on free speech" and that it "advocates special protections for one religion."

In a Facebook post Sunday, Conservative leadership contender Maxime Bernier said he will vote against M-103 unless it is amended to remove the word "Islamophobia." 

"Is this motion a first step towards restricting our right to criticize Islam? Given the international situation, and the fact that jihadi terrorism is today the most important threat to our security, I think this is a serious concern we have to take into account," he wrote. "Free speech is a fundamental Canadian value. We should reaffirm everyone's right to believe in and criticize whatever belief they want, whether it is Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, atheism, or any other."

Last month, fellow Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch tweeted her opposition to the motion.

Lisa Raitt, another leadership contender, won't support it either.

"M-103 is focused on a controversial term — Islamophobia — which I don't believe is appropriate and as such I do not support this motion," she said in a statement.

Last week 74 Canadian Muslim organizations, individuals and community groups signed a joint letter calling for support for M-103. But other faith organizations are also weighing in.

Defining Islamophobia

Shimon Fogel, CEO Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, has been in touch with Khalid to discuss amendments, including defining Islamophobia to ensure the motion delivers its intended purpose of condemning anti-Muslim hate in Canada.

"It is vital that such statements serve this intended purpose and are not hijacked by those with an alternate agenda to stifle honest and legitimate civil discourse," Fogel said in a statement to CBC.

"Can criticism of Islam be hateful and anti-Muslim? Absolutely. Is all criticism Islamophobic? Certainly not. The Jewish community wants to demonstrate its support and solidarity with a Muslim community that feels under siege, but this cannot come at the cost of a constructive conversation about those elements or manifestations of Islam that are not only antithetical to Canadian values, but have been the basis of hatred toward and attacks on Jewish communities around the world."

The text of the motion also asks the government to:

  • Request the heritage committee study how the government could develop a government-wide approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination, including Islamophobia.
  • Collect data to contextualize hate crime reports and to conduct needs assessments for affected communities and present findings within 240 calendar days.