Shimon Koffler Fogel is CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
Statistics Canada released data last week that contains a stunning revelation: in 2017, there were almost as many reported anti-Semitic hate crimes in Canada as there were days in the year.
The annual report on police-reported hate crime showed that incidents against the Jewish community – Canada’s most frequently targeted group, in the latest set of data – surged by more than 60 per cent between 2017 and the year before. There was also a disturbing rise in hate crimes against other communities, including Black, Muslim, West Asian or Arab, and LGBTQ+ Canadians.
These numbers come on the heels of the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in North American history. October’s Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, which followed similar attacks on European Jewish sites in recent years, has provoked a broader conversation about the growth of anti-Semitism.
Canadians would be right to redouble our vigilance. At stake is something much broader than hatred of Jews, the rise of which can serve as a warning sign of deeper societal challenges. What happened in Pittsburgh, where the assailant had a history of promoting and consuming hate online, is a microcosm of a dangerous, global phenomenon.
The explosive growth of digital communications has coincided with rising alienation from traditional media and institutions. Extremists have taken advantage, preying on vulnerable, disaffected individuals via the same digital tools and collaborative online culture that now shape so much of our world.
The impact is felt beyond the internet, with offline violence following online propaganda. The Islamic State is one prominent example, as the group has radicalized a number of Canadians using videos and online forums. Violence inspired by Islamism (a political ideology distinct from the religion of Islam) is a complex challenge that must be addressed in partnership with Muslim communities, which are directly threatened by it – but we must reject the suggestion that online hate and radicalization is the domain of any single religious or political movement. As seen in Pittsburgh, online hate is a tool that can be used to provoke violence to advance any agenda, which makes it so insidious.
Knowing that this issue transcends borders, there are two immediate, practical steps that Parliament could take to protect Canadians.
First, Parliament should amend Bill C-59 to ensure Canadian authorities have the legal tools needed to intervene against those promoting violence. The Senate is currently debating this legislation, which proposes significant changes to our national security system. In many areas, Bill C-59 strikes the right balance between protecting Canadians and preserving individual liberties. However, the bill misses the mark in redefining the crime of “advocacy and promotion” of terrorism to “counselling”.
While some object to the change in terminology, the main concern is the narrowing of the law, which will now apply to “every person who counsels another person to commit a terrorism offence.” According to the Justice Department’s website, the change is “directed at prohibiting the active encouragement of the commission of terrorism offences and not mere expressions of opinion about the acceptability of terrorism.” This has limited the definition of a perpetrator to only those who encourage specific individuals to commit terrorism. This means that a radical activist who promotes terrorism among his or her online followers, through broad means such as Facebook Live or Youtube, does not seem to fit the new law’s parameters.
In contrast, another Criminal Code provision – instructing a terrorism offence (ie: a terrorist leader ordering followers to carry out an attack) – applies whether or not the instructor knows the identity of those being instructed. This is logical, as sophisticated terror cells can be structured so that operatives do not know the identity of one another. The Senate should amend C-59 to ensure the crime of counselling terrorism is similarly worded.
Second, Canada needs a broader, national strategy to combat online hate. This should begin with a parliamentary study that assesses the current landscape in Canada – where there is little data available on this issue – and outlines a concrete plan of action.
This process should also engage social-media platforms and internet service providers to redouble their own efforts to prevent their sites from being abused, as user policies are often inadequately enforced. For example, Hamas, like the Islamic State, is a banned terrorist entity in Canada and various countries. And yet, Twitter has ignored calls to remove Hamas’ multiple official accounts, despite having taken down swaths of accounts associated with the Islamic State. Even a staunch libertarian can agree that private social media companies have a right to maintain policies banning hateful content and the glorification of violence. Those policies should be enforced with consistency.
These two initiatives are not a cure-all for the problem of online hate. But they will help protect Canadians from a global challenge that knows no borders, and from which we are not immune.