Together, we are stronger than hate
Marie-Claude Landry, Ad. E., Chief Commissioner,
Canadian Human Rights Commission
“Together, we are stronger than hate”
Lunch Hour Keynote: Hate, Humour and Harms
Max Bell School of Public Policy
November 25, 2022
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Thank you so much, Pearl, and thank you for this opportunity.
I would like to add my own personal gratitude to the Kanienkehaka Nation as the custodians of these lands and waters upon which we gather today. And to the diverse population of Indigenous peoples who call what is now known as Montreal their home.
For me, the land acknowledgement is much more than a formality.
This is a key action we can take towards reconciliation and shared understanding.
Let me begin by repeating what I said during our panel: the Canadian Human Rights Commission acknowledges and respects the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in the Ward case.
With that said, I am still deeply concerned by the possible repercussions of this decision.
People might take away from that decision and the media coverage around it, a message that it is acceptable in our society to mock children, to ridicule them in public, or to make fun of people with disabilities.
It is not.
The behaviour considered in Ward may be lawful — but it is awful.
And we must say so.
Publicly ridiculing people with disabilities invites further harmful behaviour.
It creates barriers to meaningful participation in public life and society.
For children, this can harm their healthy development, sense of self, and dignity.
The damage is real and lasting—it causes suffering and can devastate young people's lives.
And treating children with respect and dignity is not just the right thing to do.
Canada has ratified both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
This means that Canada has made a promise to all children – including children with disabilities – to uphold their rights and to protect them from exploitation, violence, and abuse. And we all must fulfil this promise.
Children are among the most vulnerable people in Canada, and we must treat them with care, dignity, and respect.
They trust us. They trust that we have their best interests at heart.
It is on this point that I would like to elaborate for a moment.
On having our children's interests at heart…as a mother, a grandmother, and as the head of Canada's national human rights institution.
Because I believe we are in a pivotal time in our history.
A critical moment.
The convergence of the pervasive internet, smartphones and social media has been a disruptive force.
It has transformed how we communicate, how we share information and how we learn about the world around us.
It has brought the world's knowledge to our fingertips.
But it has also pushed limits of public discourse to the raw edge of what is acceptable.
Blurring the line of what is offensive, what is harmful, and what is hateful.
It has brought hate into our daily lives.
While this influx of 24/7 media is shocking and concerning to those of us who remember life before the internet.
This is normal for our children.
It is what they are growing up with.
It is how they are discovering the world around them and seeking out information.
What children are seeing online will become the social norms that will support their sense of right and wrong, and guide their behaviour as they reach adulthood.
It is alarming.
We are even hearing reports of children in Canada picking up extreme misinformation that denies the Holocaust from anonymous users on Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok.
This is now an urgent human rights matter.
And so that is why today, I will focus my remarks on hate and harmful speech.
More specifically, I will touch on three key points.
First, there is a legal gap in protections against hate speech in Canada.
Second, the gap in legal protection and advances in technology have allowed hate to fester and spread.
Third, effectively combatting hate will take a comprehensive regime that is coordinated, proactive and government-led.
Throughout my nearly eight years as Chief Commissioner of Canada's national human rights institution, we have been outspoken about the harms of hate and intolerance in our society.
Balancing the right to freedom of expression and the right to live free from hate has always been a highly charged and challenging issue.
And it remains as complex as ever.
In my view, this is why hate speech has been left to flourish for the past decade.
No one wants to touch this issue. Successive governments have tried to get it right, but the problem has only gotten worse.
I do not believe we can ignore the problem any longer.
Here is why:
Hate is a threat to public safety, a threat to democracy, and a threat to human rights.
Hate speech violates a person's most basic human rights and freedoms — the right to equality and to freedom from discrimination.
And Canada has a duty to implement laws to ensure that human rights are adequately protected, respected, and fulfilled.
Canada's Supreme Court has recognized the need to protect minority groups from the "intolerance" and "psychological pain" caused by communications such as hate propaganda.
The Court has also recently stated that other forms of expression — which may technically fall outside the definition of hate speech — can still put people in Canada in the position of having to argue for their basic humanity or social standing.
Realizing this, we have no choice but to re-think, re-examine, and reconsider:
Whose expression needs more protection in today's society?
Which values we are protecting?
When hate makes young people shy away from their social lives, when it deters meaningful public participation, when it scares people from political involvement, it is the victim's freedom of expression that is being harmed.
It is democratic freedoms being harmed.
We need our young people's voices now more than ever. To participate in our society and in our politics in important ways.
After all, they are our future and the next generation of human rights defenders.
But if they are intimidated by hateful expression, we may lose their critical voices.
Canada's Supreme Court takes a nuanced approach on this.
They have already said that: "Not all expression is created equal."
Freedom of expression is not a one-way street where hate has the right-of-way.
The drafters of Canada's Constitution and the drafters of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights were not seeking to protect the rights of those who mean to harm others. They put this into writing. People who seek to harm others cannot use human rights to defend this behaviour.
This is why when it comes to balancing the need to combat hate and harmful speech with the need to protect freedom of expression, our lawmakers must do more.
The Commission's perspective in this area dates back to the hate speech provisions under the former Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Section 13 originally allowed someone to file a complaint regarding hate messages on 1‑800 telephone numbers.
Following the attacks on September 11, Parliament amended Section 13 to include hate messages communicated over the internet.
Even then, Section 13 was not sufficient.
One of our legal counsels once compared it to trying to empty the ocean with a spoon.
From the first days of the internet, communities targeted by hate called for stronger laws.
Instead, in 2013, this section of Canada's federal human rights law was repealed.
As a result, one of the only legal options to fight hate, was taken away.
Since then, those who promote hate speech continue with fewer or no consequences.
The impacts of this change have not only been legal but also social.
It emboldened those who argue that freedom of expression is absolute, and that there should be no legal accountability for spreading hate.
Their views gained traction; their groups gained followers; and their movements gained momentum.
The world has changed.
I think most of us would agree that the remaining legal criminal code option is of little help.
This brings me to my second point: The gap in legal protection and advances in technology have allowed hate to fester and spread.
Today, online hate is easier to find, harder to ignore, and impossible to avoid.
The internet has given everyone the power to be a broadcaster.
Hate spreads quickly and organically with the help of bots, algorithms and clickbait.
Now, companies can host and promote online hate in Canada and around the world with almost no legal accountability.
Hate is being used to isolate, mob, and overwhelm individuals online.
Behaviour that was unacceptable in real life has gained acceptance online. And this leads to real world harms.
In recent years, we have seen numerous devastating examples.
Online hate has led to violence: to threats and harassment, to murders and massacres.
And this creates fear. It leaves painful marks – psychological trauma – in the hearts and minds of victims and onlookers.
So, even when hate does not end in physical violence, it is still deeply harmful to victims and society.
It bolsters stereotypes, reinforces prejudice, and it dehumanizes people.
In this way, it makes discrimination easier and more acceptable.
Today, hate has been monetized and politicized — it is now big business and big politics.
Many are willing to ignore the harms caused by hate because there is money to be made, and power to be gained by exploiting it.
Those who promote hate have found new allies, new networks, and new money, in Canada and around the world.
Hate is part of coordinated misinformation campaigns that divide and distract us.
Hate contributes to an erosion of trust in public institutions and science.
The people spreading hate are also distorting human rights principles to justify their actions.
This is wrong.
In order to protect human rights, we must be sure that people understand them.
We need to do more to make it clear that rights come with responsibilities. And that nobody can stand behind rights protections to justify harming others.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a complex and challenging issue.
In some cases, hate has found its way into mainstream political debates with an alarming mask of credibility.
In this way, hate turns us against each other, and destabilizes our democracy.
It shuts down debate.
It silences people, including our children.
And it discourages people from participating in the political process.
And we know we are not insulated from what is happening around the world.
Online hate has no borders. It is often created and promoted by communities that are connected world‑wide.
It is galvanizing in the absence of any accountability.
Canada should be looking to events in other democracies as a cautionary tale.
This brings me to my third and final point today.
Combatting hate will take a comprehensive regime that is coordinated and proactive.
It must be bold.
It must foster dignity, equality and freedom of expression – not just for some, but for everyone.
Canada should be seen by the world as a leader.
Tackling the issue of hate must never fall to one organization alone; nor should the onus fall on those targeted by hate.
It will take all of us.
A new regime needs to understand and address the root causes of hate.
And it must understand the complexity of the communications tools used to spread it, not to mention that it happens in real‑life spaces.
It must hold accountable those who create, spread, and profit from hate.
This requires strong oversight, audits, and meaningful monetary penalties.
But if there is no shift in culture and what we consider as the norm, these measures, laws, etc. will just be words on paper.
And so, a new regime must include information campaigns and prevention. It must identify and counter disinformation and misinformation.
We know this task is difficult and complex.
It will not be perfect. But it must be done.
Solutions must take hate seriously.
They must address hate for the very real threat that it poses.
A threat to public safety,
A threat to democracy, and
A threat to human rights.
Without a comprehensive new regime, hate will continue to violate human rights.
If people in Canada targeted by hate have to live their lives afraid and in a toxic social atmosphere, we are failing them.
Without stronger legal protections, and collective action, hate will continue to infest and influence our public and political discourse.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, our children are watching and learning as hate, disinformation and violence are normalized more and more every day.
So, we must continue to push for change and continue to sound the alarm.
We all have a duty as citizens to speak out on hate. Now more than ever.
We must never accept in silence gross violations of human rights. In fact, silence makes us complicit.
Silence and indifference are an incubator for injustice.
So, we have a duty to speak out.
We have a duty to raise awareness of how hate is being used today in the same way it has always been used in history's darkest corners: as a tool of propaganda and division.
And we especially have a duty to keep calling for action from our governments on this issue, for the sake of a safer Canada for all.
For the sake of our young people.
People like young Mr. Gabriel.
Regardless of the Supreme Court's decision, or whether the comedian had the legal right to bully and ridicule a child with a disability, society failed Mr. Gabriel. We failed Mr. Gabriel.
We may never fully comprehend the harm caused to him and to his family.
But we do know that the terrible jokes about him reached an audience of well over 100,000 people, followed him to school, followed him online, and caused him to contemplate suicide.
In the end, the human rights system left him and his family alone to argue for his basic humanity and social standing.
We can and must do better.
But we cannot do it alone.
Since the start of my mandate, I have said over and over that I believe in the power of coalitions.
How amazing things can happen when a group of people come together, to do good.
At the Commission, we call it "advocacy through coalition."
It is about working towards a common purpose, using our combined voices to increase awareness.
And so in all of this work, to combat hate in Canada and to promote greater awareness about this urgent issue, partnerships will be the key.
We need to pull together and share our networks and share our expertise.
In events like this.
In close conversations.
In open dialogue, with diverse voices around the table.
We need to support each other.
Because we all have a role to play.
In closing, I was recently asked by an audience how I feel about the direction our country is heading on all of these issues.
I answered honestly that I have huge concerns. But I also have huge hope.
I said I have huge concern when I see the insidious spread of hateful rhetoric into so many areas of our lives.
But I have hope when I see young people taking to the streets to stand up for justice.
And I wonder: maybe we need both in the fight against hate — our fear to spur us into action, and our hope to sustain us on the journey.
I know that whatever the journey may bring, that the Canadian Human Rights Commission will still be there, sounding the alarm, raising the issues, shining a light into the dark corners.
And though I now depart my role as Chief Commissioner, I will still be their greatest champion, always. As I know that many of you will be too.
Because alone we can do little. But together we can do so much.
As I close, I would like to take a moment to share a poem that I think captures everything we have spoken about today.
It is a poem by Saadi, and it goes:
Human beings are members of a whole.
In creation of one essence and one soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain, other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain, the name of human you cannot retain.
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