The mayors of Vancouver and Toronto characterized pro-Palestinian rallies in their cities this week as celebrations of Hamas’s recent terrorism in Israel and publicly called on local police to investigate any incidents of hate speech. Federal Conservatives went one step further and demanded police charge anyone in Canada who is cheerleading the recent killing of more than 1,300 in Israel.
Canada blacklists groups it designates as terrorists, including Hamas, allowing the federal government to seize any Canadian assets of the group and to pursue terrorism charges against its members. But it is not a crime in Canada to glorify acts of terrorism
The events of the past week are restarting the debate in Canada as to if – and how – police should be able to deter the public celebration, both online and in real life, of a terrorist group or its actions. Experts say any crafting of a new criminal offence will be a fraught exercise given the context needed to prove to a judge that someone was purposely lionizing such acts.
Barbara Perry, an antisemitism and policing researcher who leads the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at the Ontario Tech University, said a new criminal offence to glorify acts of terrorism is needed to protect Canadians from speech that stokes more violence in this country and to defend against the potential escalation of terrorism here and abroad.
“This is one of those areas that is justifiable,” in terms of limiting one’s Charter rights, said Dr. Perry, who has been studying hate crimes in Canada and white nationalism for nearly two decades.
Still, proving such offences would be very difficult for the federal RCMP, the police force that would be in charge of these investigations, she added.
Even if, as critics allege, the common refrain heard at rallies this week of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is a call for more violence against Israelis, proving that chant glorifies acts of terrorism or even qualifies as hate speech would require an overt symbol – such as people waving Hamas flags – for police to secure charges, Dr. Perry said.
Melissa Lantsman, a deputy leader of the Conservative Party, said in an interview this week that anyone in Canada who is exalting the killings of Israelis should be charged.
“The glorification of terror in our streets should not be allowed,” she said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
Ms. Lantsman’s party contemplated creating such a law near the end of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s leadership. In 2015, his government passed a bill that did not mention glorification, but added “promotion” of terrorism to the existing framework of Canadian anti-terrorism laws.
Peter MacKay, the justice minister at the time, said his government decided against including glorification as a new crime so the issue would not hold the legislation up in Parliament as a federal election loomed.
He told The Globe that it is easier for police to target someone shouting “death to Israel” at a rally on Canadian soil for the crime of hate speech, noting Thursday that he hasn’t seen any such vitriol at rallies this week. But proving someone’s words or actions were meant to glorify terrorism is much more nuanced, he said.
Mr. MacKay said he supports creating a new crime of glorification as a strong deterrent to rising antisemitism in Canada – even if its constitutionality will inevitably be tested in court.
“It’s chicken and egg though, isn’t it? If you don’t have the section [of the Canadian Criminal Code], how can you ever prove it?” he said Thursday.
In Europe, several countries have enshrined penalizing this type of speech into criminal law. Fearing a surge in antisemitism, politicians there have recently banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations in some areas, including the whole of France and within Berlin proper.
In Britain, Home Secretary Suella Braverman wrote top police officials in England and Wales this week, exhorting them to crack down on demonstrators using pro-Hamas symbols or rhetoric. She noted that simply waving a Palestinian flag may constitute glorifying acts of terrorism in some contexts and could merit a criminal charge.
After the federal Conservatives passed the law against promoting terrorism, civil liberties groups pushed back and, in 2019, the Liberal government altered that offence with its own antiterrorism legislation. It dialled back the language in the Criminal Code to target those who counsel “another person to commit a terrorism offence” with imprisonment of up to five years.
“It’s not as broad as the promotion of terrorism that was there before,” said Carleton University professor Leah West, an expert in national-security law.
“In my opinion, except for where speech is inviting or inciting hate and violence – which the Charter does not protect and is already an offence – the criminal law is not a particularly useful tool for combatting people’s abhorrent ideas.”
This summer, Sikhs in B.C. and Ontario calling for a separate state to be carved out of India’s Punjab province held rallies and symbolic votes with flyers and billboards that included images of Talwinder Singh Parmar surrounded by a stylized Canadian flag. What the campaign materials did not say is that Mr. Parmar, a Canadian resident in the 1980s who was killed in India in 1992, was pursued by CSIS and the RCMP for years for being the reputed mastermind of the Air-India attack that killed 329 people, most of whom were Canadians.
Some South Asian Canadians say the signage featuring Mr. Parmar was deeply offensive and they called on officials in all levels of government to condemn the signs and force their removal.
“It’s like putting up Osama bin Laden’s posters all over the city in Brampton and Mississauga and celebrating his life,” said Arvind Mishra, a 35-year-old who was among a group of counterprotesters rallying around the Indian consulate in Toronto during a July demonstration against Sikh separatists.
Dalia AlUsta, a sociologist and psychologist of Palestinian descent, said she proudly marched at Toronto’s Thanksgiving Day rally and did not see anyone openly supporting Hamas. Ms. AlUsta, who immigrated from Dubai in 2018, said any new glorification offence would harm Canada’s reputation of upholding human rights.
“I really came here to build a new future for me and my kids in a country that respects human rights, that respects human lives, that respects freedom of speech,” said Ms. AlUsta.
With a report from Laura Stone