Zero-tolerance for BDS in Canada

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On May 11 of this year, CBC News published an article in which its senior Washington correspondent, Neil Macdonald, wrote that Canada’s Harper government “is signalling its intention to use hate crime laws against Canadian advocacy groups that encourage boycotts of Israel.” Macdonald drew this conclusion after an e-mail exchange with Josée Sirois, an aide to federal Public Security Minister Steven Blaney. Macdonald asked Sirois to clarify a comment that Minister Blaney made in a speech delivered at the United Nations General Assembly Session on Anti-Semitism on January 22 of this year. In this speech, Blaney stated 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.”
Macdonald asked Sirois to clarify what “zero tolerance” meant in this context. He also referred to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Canada and Israel that was signed by Canada’s former Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, in January of this year prior to Blaney’s UN address. The MOU commits Canada to the fight against anti-Semitism and describes the BDS movement as “the new face of anti-Semitism.” Macdonald wanted to know if this agreement has any force in Canadian law and if the authorities who answer to Blaney are doing anything about the BDS movement here. Sirois responded that Foreign Affairs Canada would address Macdonald’s questions. She then cited the hate crime laws built into Canada’s Criminal Code and claimed that Canada has “one of the most comprehensive sets of laws against hate crime anywhere in the world.” To back this up, Sirois sent McDonald a very comprehensive list. In her e-mail, she also underlined certain hate speech provisions in the Criminal Code that deal with the promotion of hatred against an “identifiable group.”
Macdonald’s report was followed by successive denials on the part of the government. First, Jeremy Laurin, a Blaney spokesman, stated that “this story is inaccurate and ridiculous. These laws have been on the books for many years and have not changed.” In Laurin’s wake came Jean-Christophe de La Rue, Director of Communications for Public Safety, who made two statements, one that could be construed as reassuring, the other as anything but. First: “Politicians cannot lay charges — the independent police and public prosecution service do.” Second: “The substance [of the law] has not changed in any relevant way.” As the Huffington Post, among others, has pointed out, this emphasis on the substance of the law can be understood in light of the fact that, in December of last year, 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.” This change to Canada’s hate laws was folded into Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, commonly known as the anti-cyberbullying bill. The amendment has generated concern among Canadian groups who support the BDS movement. Such groups include the United Church of Canada, the Canadian Quakers and various student and labor groups. They fear that the change in the law could lump those who speak out against the government of Israel in with anti-Semites.”
CBC News has since changed the Macdonald story headline from “Ottawa considering hate crime charges against those who boycott Israel” to “Ottawa cites hate crime laws when asked about its ‘zero-tolerance’ for Israel boycotts.” It is difficult to know if the Harper government will eventually retract its retractions.
It is worth noting that, prior to the emergence of this story, a broad segment of the Canadian public was already greatly concerned by the recent passage of Bill C-51, Harper’s new Anti-terrorism Act. This gives unprecedented powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service without allowing for proper oversight and expands the government’s ability to collect meta-data to an extent that many civil rights associations view as a real threat to the privacy of all Canadians.

Donald McGrath is a writer and translator based in Montreal, Canada.