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Minister of Education Speaks on Human Rights Act

Victoria Times-Colonist
Page A4
July 7, 1993

Bill wards off hate mongers, upholds free speech

Anita Hagen, Minister of Education

Can freedom of speech co-exist with laws that protect British Columbians from hate propaganda and activities?

That has been the fundamental question debated by the media, lawyers, political scientists and others since our government introduced Bill 33, the Human Rights Amendment Act, earlier this month.

While some are saying this legislation will infringe on people's right to free speech, I would argue that, far from removing that right, it upholds it while giving new protection to those who are hurt by hate activities.

And as we've seen over the past few years, those activities are on the rise in British Columbia. Recently, we've witnessed cross burnings, organized hate festivals, the proliferation of hate hotlines, and the targeting of high school students as recruits by white supremacist organizations.

British Columbians value their freedom, but with that freedom comes a responsibility to society. Is it reasonable to protect absolutely the right to free speech where it's being used solely for the purpose of inciting hatred and discrimination against someone else?

The answer to that question can be found in a 1990 landmark case in the Supreme Court of Canada. It found that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and our common law, provide clear direction to provincial Human Rights Councils that they must strike the appropriate balance between freedom of expression and the rights of individuals and communities to live free from manifestations of hatred and discrimination.

In other words, the issue of free speech is not cut and dried. Human Rights Councils must, on a case-by-case basis, balance the individual's right to free speech with the rights of society as a whole. It's a tough challenge, no question. But it's one that B.C.'s nationally recognized Human Rights Council can meet. In addition to its own procedural safeguards against frivolous complaints or arbitrary actions, the council's decisions are subject to judicial review by the courts.

I think it's safe to say most British Columbians would accept the need to balance those two rights, and support the protection of people from hatred and racial violence. But why, political commentators have argued, has B.C. actually removed the free speech clause from its existing human rights laws?

Again, it's important to go back to the 1990 Supreme Court decision. The court found that such clauses are simply unnecessary given the Constitution's clear direction on the appropriate balance of rights.

In fact, not only are they unnecessary, but they're "incongruous" or contrary to the intent of hate propaganda laws in other Canadian provinces. The court said that telling a human rights council twice that it cannot unnecessarily restrict free speech - once, in the Charter, which rules all laws, and again in a human rights law - is not only redundant, but skews the effects of our laws.

So the changes we've introduced do not, as some have said, shut down the marketplace of free opinion. Rather, they reaffirm the rights guaranteed under the Charter, while putting hate mongers on notice that, although B.C. is a free and democractic province, we will not allow our citizens to be attacked by organized hate activities because of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or other charateristics.

Of course, legislation cannot, by itelf, guarantee tolerance. It's improtant that we educate ourselves and our children to value and enjoy Canada's and British Columbia's rich ethnic and cultural diversity, and that we respect the inherent dignity of all people.

My minstry is enhancing the school curriculum to ensure it contains effective, topical material on racism, and that students are given the opportunity to discuss racism and related issues. In cooperation with schools and communities throughout the province, we are creating an educational program that discourages student involvement with groups that promote hatred or racism.

Our message to our children is clear: we want you to grow up in a province where people of all beliefs, cultures and lifestyles are welcome, and their rights and well-being are protected.


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