Neo-Nazis, skinheads and Ku Klux Klan members all marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend, protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate general and slavery advocate Robert E. Lee.
The rally turned deadly after a car plowed into a group of people who were protesting the white nationalists. One woman was killed and dozens more were injured.
Although acts of violence are not protected under the First Amendment in the United States (freedom of speech), white nationalist groups are legally allowed to protest as long as there is no “imminent threat”, according to Richard Moon, a law professor at the University of Waterloo.
Even the most hateful and offensive speech is constitutionally protected. But what about in Canada? Could this type of white nationalist rally happen here?
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Canada’s hate laws
Canada’s Constitution protects freedom of expression but also honours multiculturalism and equality, Moon said.
Freedom of speech in Canada is not an absolute right and Section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows the government to reasonably limit it.
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“There are limits on our rights. Our courts have found that if there is a significant harm, freedom of speech has to be restricted,” Moon said.
Unlike the U.S., you can be jailed for promoting hate speech that targets a group, such as handing out a pamphlet with Neo-Nazi literature.
“You cannot distribute any hate that vilifies a particular group,” he said. “So a symbol like a swastika is considered hate speech.”
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But there are several conditions that must be met. For example, the hate speech must be the most severe of the genre; must be targeted to an identifiable group (such as a religion, race or sexual orientation); and has to be public.
Under Canada’s Criminal Code, Sections 318, 319, and 320 forbid hate propaganda.
Can this happen in Canada?
There are around 100 white nationalist groups in Canada and more are on the rise, according to Barbara Perry, a University of Ontario Institute of Technology professor who studies hate crimes.
“It seems like there are more chapters that emerged over the past year, like anti-Muslim groups,” she said.
Since the beginning of the year, there have been many cases of swastikas and an anti-Semitic message plastered on university walls, vehicle doors and monuments.
In February, a small group of protesters demonstrated outside a mosque in Toronto carrying signs and banners calling for a ban of Islam. Perry said although their message and signs were hate filled, the demonstrators were not charged under the criminal code.
This is because it’s very difficult to investigate and prosecute hate crimes in Canada. Perry said it happens very rarely.
However, if a large white nationalist rally did happen in Canada, Perry believes it would not look the same as in the U.S.
“It’s more temperate here,” she said. “We have a different history and would probably not see a presence of guns like you do in the States. We also don’t have the same history of racism But we do have racism.”