Mohamad Fakih is the founder and CEO of Paramount Fine Foods.
I am an immigrant – a proud Canadian and a proud Muslim. I have built a restaurant business and raised a family in this country. If there is such a thing as a “Canadian Dream,” I have lived it.
But I have also been exposed to the hate that is growing in the dark corners of our society. And so, when an Ontario judge sentenced a man named Kevin Johnston to 18 months in prison for contempt of court this week, the decision was, to me, critical in ensuring that Canada remains a diverse, inclusive and welcoming country.
In 2017, Mr. Johnston made a series of vile and false accusations against me. He used hateful language at rallies and online. He followed and harassed me and my children in public. He refused to back down. To protect my family, my reputation and my livelihood, I took him to court for defamation. Ultimately, in 2019, I won a financial judgment against him.
In that case, Ontario Superior Court Justice Jane Ferguson described Mr. Johnston’s behaviour as “a loathsome example of hate speech at its worst, targeting people solely because of their religion. Left unchallenged, it poisons the integrity of our democracy.”
Unsurprisingly, however, Mr. Johnston refused to pay a penny of what she said he owed. But even worse, he continued to use the same hateful language against me.
I felt powerless and unsafe. I was afraid for my family and my employees. I was also frustrated about why this was allowed to happen.
I had won my court case; the law was on my side. So why had nothing changed? In an online video, Mr. Johnston was heard to boast: “Eleven times I’ve been arrested just for talking, and I’m still smiling. And all they’ve done is make me more popular than ever before.”
Was this really justice?
Part of me wished that I could ignore the man and be done with him, but I thought about Mr. Johnston and what he represented every day. I couldn’t stop asking myself: Is this the kind of Canada we want to live in? A Canada where hatemongers show no fear of being held responsible for their dangerous words?
I decided to once more put my faith in our justice system. And this week, Ontario Superior Court Justice Frederick Myers sentenced Mr. Johnston to prison on six counts of contempt. As he wrote in his decision: “There is a need in this case for a sentence that makes the public sit up and take notice.”
Justice Myers’s wider point was what’s truly important. “The thin veneer of civility represented by the rule of law requires protection,” he wrote. “Our society only continues if people voluntarily respect the law. Canada is not a society with soldiers on street corners policing the population with machine guns at every turn. It is our shared values, including our commitment to the rule of law, that differentiates our democracy from so many other cultures.”
Free speech is the foundation of strong democratic society. Hate speech is a perversion and violation of that right. It is, for good reason, against the law. It is a threat to the safety of many in our country, and a threat to the values and ideals that our country strives to represent.
To combat hate in Canada, we need action and accountability. Law enforcement must act against those who promote hate; the courts must hold these people accountable and make them pay a price. That’s the path to Canadians having the confidence that the law can protect them, and to meaningful deterrence. The thin veneer must be protected. Those who willfully violate the law – and ignore its sanctions – must be punished.
“Perhaps jail is a blunt tool and risks making Mr. Johnston a martyr to his cause,” Justice Myers acknowledged. “But at some point, society simply needs to protect its members and itself from those who would use our democratic freedoms to deliberately hurt others and strike at the democratic and Charter values and the democratic institutions that are Canada.”
The sentence against Mr. Johnston isn’t a solution to the broader problem. There are too many others who echo and amplify his hateful words. But it’s a start. After four long years, I can tell you that this Canadian was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief that a measure of justice had at last been served. It should not have required this years-long ordeal, but I am grateful to be able to live in a country where, finally, its institutions have said: Enough.
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