Tories deny plan to use hate crime laws against Israel boycotters

The federal Conservatives are denying there's any basis to a CBC News story saying the government is signalling its intention to use hate crime laws against Canadian advocacy groups that encourage boycotts of Israel.

Boycott movement fears it could be targeted by amended hate crime laws

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney has stated that Canada has taken a 'zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination including rhetoric towards Israel, and attempts to delegitimize Israel such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.' (Adrina Wyld/Canadian Press)

The federal Conservatives are denying there's any basis to a CBC News story saying the government is signalling its intention to use hate crime laws against Canadian advocacy groups that encourage boycotts of Israel.

But the response from the Tories appears to contradict the email comments by a public safety ministry spokeswoman, who cited Canada's hate crime laws when asked specifically by CBC News about the government's "zero tolerance" for Israel boycotters.

Asked Tuesday whether the government planned to use hate crime laws against Israel boycotters, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said "No," adding there are provisions in the Criminal Code to deal with hate speech and propaganda "and we trust in our justice system to enforce those regulations."

Following the publication of the story on Monday, Jeremy Laurin, a spokesman for Blaney, said that "this story is inaccurate and ridiculous. These laws have been on the books for many years and have not changed."​

Jean-Christophe de Le Rue, director of communications for Public Safety, added that "politicians cannot lay charges — the independent police and public prosecution service do."

But de Le Rue amended Laurin's response, saying the "substance [of the law] has not changed in any relevant way." 

De Le Rue's clarification most likely was in reference to Bill C-13, the so-called cyberbullying bill that received royal assent on Dec. 9, 2014. In that bill, Canada's hate laws were amended to include "national origin," along with race and religion, as criteria for groups that could be targets of hate speech.

Boycott movement concerned it may be targeted

That amendment has sparked concerns among those who support the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which began in 2006 at the request of Palestinian non-governmental organizations. The movement claims that Israel is violating the rights of Palestinians and has called for sanctions against Israel while seeking to target Israeli products and companies.

A number of organizations, including labour and student unions, the United Church of Canada and the Canadian Quakers, have endorsed such action.

Those who support BDS fear that the change in the law could lump in people who speak against Israel with those who are anti-Semitic.

In January, Canada's then foreign affairs minister, John Baird, signed a "memorandum of understanding" with Israeli authorities in Jerusalem, pledging to combat BDS, describing the movement as "the new face of anti-Semitism."

'Zero-tolerance approach'

Also in January, Blaney delivered a speech at the UN General Assembly stating that Canada has taken a "zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination including in rhetoric towards Israel, and attempts to delegitimize Israel such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement."

The CBC story was sparked by an email exchange between Josée Sirois, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Canada, and the CBC's Neil Macdonald, who had asked for clarification about Blaney's speech.

Macdonald asked what Blaney meant when he said Canada is adopting "zero tolerance" toward BDS," whether the memorandum of understanding has any force in Canadian law and if the authorities who work for Blaney are doing anything about the BDS movement.

Sirois responded that Foreign Affairs would be addressing his questions "regarding the work being done with Israel regarding BDS."

She then cited Canada's hate crime laws under the Criminal Code, saying that Canada has "one of the most comprehensive sets of laws against hate crime anywhere in the world."

She also highlighted the "hate propaganda" provisions in the Criminal Code criminalizing the promotion of hatred against an identifiable group and referred to Criminal Code provisions requiring that a judge consider hate, bias or prejudice when sentencing an offender.