The editor of an infamous Toronto newspaper is joining a very small group of Canadians put behind bars for hate speech.
Anti-hate advocates are hopeful the strong sentence will resonate. As Canada experiences an uptick in hate crimes — and the rise of online extremism — they say it makes a powerful statement.
“There’s no question that in my view this will send out a really strong message that there are hate laws in this country, and if you violate those hate laws you’ll pay the price,” said Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-hate Network, who was personally targeted by antisemitism in the publication.
B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn agreed, saying the sentence “will serve a very strong deterring message to others who potentially will engage in such criminal speech.”
Your Ward News, which claimed to reach a million people, glorified Nazism and denied the Holocaust, Ontario Justice Richard Blouin said in his sentencing decision.
WATCH: Editor of hate-filled newspaper facing jail time
“It consistently blamed, demonized and maligned Jews. Women were represented as inferior, immoral and less than human. Physical and sexual violations against them were counselled and celebrated,” he said.
During the trial, the defence argued the content was satirical. Sears later accused his lawyer of ineffective counsel and sought a mistrial.
There were 1,798 hate incidents reported to police last year in Canada — somewhat less than in 2017 — though reports of such crimes have increased in four of the last five years, according to Statistics Canada.
Though there are laws on the books, criminal prosecution for hate-propaganda crimes is rare. In order for charges to be laid, the consent of the attorney general is required as a safeguard for freedom of expression.
WATCH: Sentencing delayed for editor-in-chief of Your Ward News
Canada’s laws make it an offence to promote hatred or genocide against an identifiable group. The Criminal Code of Canada also specifies that courts should consider whether hate was a factor in other crimes.
But first, police have to investigate complaints and recommend a charge — and Farber said that police forces can be somewhat reluctant to do so.
Not to mention that victims of hate are often reticent about coming forward. A 2014 Statistics Canada survey found that two thirds of victims of hate-motivated incidents did not report them to police.
“I think we have a lot of work to do,” Farber said.
Once a case makes it to court, it can also be tough to secure a conviction. In January, prosecutor Jamie Klukach told reporters that the Crown had to prove an “extremely high” level of intent.
And if there’s a conviction, a custodial sentence is rarer still.
Farber said there have been roughly half a dozen cases where jail time was given in Canada.
Sears’ case “ranks amongst the higher end, especially for a summary conviction,” he said.
The Crown elected to pursue Sears’ case as a summary offence (less serious than indictable) which meant the two consecutive six-month sentences were the maximum Blouin could have dealt. (Sears’ co-accused, LeRoy St. Germaine, was also found guilty but has yet to be sentenced).
In his ruling, Blouin lamented the fact that he couldn’t give Sears 18 months, saying the circumstances were more severe than a 1990 case where a 22-year-old self-described racist received a year in jail for antisemitic graffiti including spray painting swastikas on a Toronto synagogue.
In contrasting the two cases, Blouin pointed to how times have changed since then, making hate propaganda even more dangerous.
“Mr. Sears, in his mid-fifties, promoted hate over a lengthy period of time to a vast audience in an era where online exposure to this material inexorably leads to extremism and the potential of mass casualties.”