Sometimes when LGBTQ activist Colin McKenna passes a street preacher with a loudspeaker in Vancouver, it brings him back to the day, years ago on the corner of a major downtown intersection, that he kissed his partner in front of someone holding a large sign condemning homosexuality as sin.
He was frightened then, and he is now.
“I’m immediately scared, because I don’t know what I’m about to be subjected to. I don’t know if somebody around people like that will see someone like me and suddenly do something violent,” he said.
Though Mr. McKenna has not faced physical violence, last summer, another man, Justin Morissette, suffered a broken leg after he objected to the amplified messages of a street preacher. The preacher, Dorre Shepherd Love, is facing an aggravated assault charge and last month, Mr. Morissette launched a civil suit, naming Mr. Love as well as the city and police.
Mr. Love did not respond to an interview request, but in a video he posted to YouTube last August, he said the altercation happened after someone attempted to take his microphone out of his hand. He said he was assaulted and robbed.
Cities such as Vancouver and Edmonton have been grappling with how to limit messages broadcast via amplification without infringing on the rights of people to say things that others may find offensive. Both cities, as well as other jurisdictions, have failed in their efforts to walk that line.
Videos of Mr. Love’s preaching show him making declarations about sinful sexual behaviour that he then debates with protesters who confront him on the street. The B.C. Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner received complaints about Mr. Love’s behaviour and was asked to probe whether officers had appropriately responded to disturbances involving the preacher.
After several confrontations in the West End last summer, city council proposed an amendment to its noise bylaw to prohibit the unauthorized use of amplification devices in public areas. Other cities such as Toronto, Regina and Victoria all have such bylaws, either requiring permits for amplification or prohibiting amplification above a certain level. But Vancouver’s motion did not pass last month – and did not have the support of some members of the city’s gay community.
While members of Vancouver’s LGBTQ community want more protection from the city and police, the motion to ban all unauthorized amplification devices was deemed excessive, with the potential to effect any kind of demonstration or outdoor performance, or even events such as the Pride parade.
“The overbroad scope of the amendments will create a chilling effect where people ... will hesitate to plan gatherings out of fear of being fined or having their property seized by the city,” Harsha Walia, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, said in a letter to city council.
The city’s chief licence inspector, Kathryn Holm, said to protect freedom of expression and conform with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, any bylaw would need to be “content-neutral.” When issuing permits, the city cannot seek information regarding the content of the applicant’s message.
“Noise can be considered disturbing when it impacts the ‘peace’ or ‘comfort’ of the neighbourhood. In general, this term applies to the volume of the noise and not the content of specific speech,” she said.
An effort to clamp down on a street preacher in Edmonton last year failed at court when a noise violation ticket issued to Dale Malayko was overthrown. Court documents show the ticket was in response to a complaint for behaviour “that disturbs of the peace of another individual.”
But a legal organization that represented Mr. Malayko challenged the ticket as a violation of Charter-protected free expression.
John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represented Mr. Malayko, said his client was ticketed because some people disliked or disagreed with the contents of Mr. Malayko’s message.
Mr. Carpay said in an e-mail that the court ruled that limiting Mr. Malayko’s volume violates his free speech because “a) it interferes with the method of his expression (and section 2(b) of the Charter protects the means of expression, not just the content), b) it reduces the number of people he is able to effectively reach, and c) it violates the right to hear of his potential audience.”
In 2018, city council in London, Ont., created a bylaw to curb abusive or insulting language that prevents people from enjoying public spaces after receiving a raft of complaints about street preachers Steven Ravbar and Matthew Carapella, who were allegedly making incendiary comments aimed mostly at women. The pair indicated they would challenge the bylaw.
In Vancouver, city staff have been asked to look at the issue again. There is no timeline for a response.
Mr. McKenna and others say the behaviour of some street preachers such as Mr. Love constitutes hate speech and should be dealt with that way. But a January report from the Vancouver Police Department found that words or actions by Mr. Love and another controversial preacher do not meet the threshold required by law to lay charges for inciting hate.
“There are no laws in Canada that police can (or should) exercise to prevent a person from expressing their constitutionally protected opinions or views. This protection includes religious and any other opinions even where such views are widely unpopular, distasteful, or even offensive in nature, as long as they do not incite hate or violent behaviour,” the police report reads.
That’s where federal laws need to be revisited, Mr. McKenna said.
“Telling gay people – or any LGBTQ person – continually outside their window that they are some sort of abomination worthy of banishment etc. is to me inciting hatred. We pay the price when that type of rhetoric continually circulates in society,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Kristopher Wells, a professor at Edmonton’s MacEwan University and Canada Research Chair for the public understanding of sexual and gender minority youth, said the Vancouver situation demonstrates why the current provisions in the Criminal Code are ineffective in addressing hate crimes in Canada.
“The bar for any charge and/or prosecution is inordinately high and out of touch with how hate and extremism continue to operate and flourish in our modern society,” he said.
“When the police cannot or will not respond or intervene, hate wins and vigilantism often occurs out of sense of frustration and self-defence,” Dr. Wells said. “It is clear from these many examples that the federal government needs to modernize our laws and take a much stronger stance against hate in our communities and online.”
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