September 22, 2017 7:30 am
Updated: September 22, 2017 8:45 am

COMMENTARY: Free speech can’t be a casualty of Canada’s ‘whole-of-government’ approach to Islamophobia

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid makes an announcement about an anti-Islamophobia motion on Parliament Hill while Minister of Canadian Heritage Melanie Joly looks on in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017.

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When the House of Commons passed the contentious anti-Islamophobia motion, M-103, earlier this year, critics feared the vote could be a death knell for free speech. I was one of them.

My opposition to the motion wasn’t rooted in a belief that it amounted to a Sharia-compliant overhaul of Canadian government, rather that it played to the worst form of identity politics.

Even though Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s M-103 has no censorship power, my concern was that it opens the door for policy that does.

READ MORE: House of Commons passes anti-Islamophobia motion M-103

To those who accused me of peddling conspiracy theories for such a claim, I can say as of this week, “I told you so.” Though I take no delight in this chest-thumping; I would much rather have been wrong.

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Canadians should have been leery that M-103’s supporters framed the motion as both symbolic and essential in the fight against Islamophobia. How something could be purportedly toothless, yet also imperative, escapes me. It was disingenuous for the Liberals to present this as merely a benign dalliance no more impactful than parliamentarians holding hands and belting out John Lennon’s Imagine.

In addition to condemning “Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination,” Khalid’s motion also ordered the government to “develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia, in Canada, while ensuring a community-centered focus with a holistic response through evidence-based policy-making.”

READ MORE: Anti-Islamophobia motion provokes protests, counter-protests across Canada

Khalid’s motion rationalizes its own existence by citing, though not quantifying, an “increasing public climate of hate and fear.”

On Monday, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage began hearings on “systemic racism and religious discrimination,” opening with testimony from Khalid herself.

There was nothing particularly controversial about her remarks, though it is worth noting her change of tone from M-103’s earlier days. Then, she rejected any and all proposed amendments — including a request from Conservative MP Erin O’Toole to de-politicize the text by making it about all forms of hatred and discrimination.

On Monday, she was far more placatory, telling committee members that the balance of Islamophobia with other forms of discrimination was entirely in their hands, and those of the experts slated to testify after her.

One such expert was Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former CSIS manager and RCMP officer. In his testimony, he mused about revoking broadcast licenses for “radio poubelle” (a Quebecois phrase meaning “trash radio”) that he says feeds Islamophobia in his home province.

Toronto Sun columnist Anthony Furey linked Juneau-Katsuya’s comment to a CBC story, published in the wake of the Quebec City mosque shooting, castigating radio stations that “often air segments voicing concerns about Muslim immigration and the threat of Islamic terrorism — programming that leaves many local Muslims feeling alienated and misunderstood.”

READ MORE: What you need to know about the anti-Islamophobia motion making waves in Ottawa

As a conservative Christian, I feel pretty alienated and misunderstood whenever I’m exposed to CBC programming, but I don’t think that’s grounds to yank the network’s broadcasting rights.

This recommendation from one of the heritage committee’s star witnesses substantiates the fears that the government’s efforts to target Islamophobia may well go after people and platforms raising legitimate criticisms of radical Islam or immigration policy.

As I predicted, the goalposts are being moved. Between Canada’s Criminal Code already outlawing violent hate speech and there being no constitutional right to freedom from criticism, I’ve yet to see where the government can intervene to tackle the Islamophobia boogie man without curbing legitimate and necessary liberties.

It’s important to note that this is the testimony of just one witness — but that this testimony was sought in the first place gives us a chilling look at what the government considers on the table in its pursuit of an all-encompassing antidote for Islamophobia.

Especially when one considers that Juneau-Katsuya also said the government should prosecute more speech crimes, rather than “letting it go under the blanket of free speech and letting things go too far.”

I refuse to give the benefit of the doubt to a government that has so fervently emboldened pandering and identity politics, especially when it comes at the expense of one’s right to criticize a religion.

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I don’t think we’re headed towards the construction of speech gulags, but we should all be cautious that the government doesn’t look to bolster the power of human rights commissions and tribunals across the country, several of which already have a mandate and framework to legislate and prosecute allegedly offensive speech.

Remember it was within the last decade that bestselling author Mark Steyn and Maclean‘s magazine were forced to defend themselves against charges of “hate speech” for publishing an analysis of Muslim migration and demography, excepted from Steyn’s book, America Alone (and laying out predictions that have proven true, I’d add.)

Though Steyn and Maclean‘s emerged victorious, as did Ezra Levant when he was prosecuted for publishing the infamous Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons in the Western Standard in 2006, the process itself is the punishment.

If the government is making Islamophobia its target, censorship cannot be its weapon.

Andrew Lawton is host of The Andrew Lawton Show on AM980 in London and a commentator for Global News.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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