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by Sara Shields
"If you can be made to believe absurdities, you can be led to commit atrocities." Voltaire
Hatred in Canada; Perspectives, Action, and Prevention, a conference held at the University of Victoria in September, provided a forum for free speech advocates who consider the regulation of hatred a moral issue, and frontline workers who see it as the urgent duty of lawmakers. What it did best was recognize hatred as a Canadian reality and a responsibility that can no longer be denied, hidden, or diminished.
"This type of forum is definitely long overdue in B.C. and Canada," said presenter Viola Thomas, President of United Native Nations. "The complicity and complacency of the Canadian people not to take hate seriously is ... pitiful."
The connection between hate and harm was a recurrent topic throughout the conference: How do we measure, and legislate accordingly, the psychic harm caused by words or ostracization? When do words become more than symbolic? Where does speech lead to action?
Because of the difficulty in answering these questions, Nitya Iyer, a member of the BC Human Rights Tribunal said, "the debate around these issues is often more polarized and polemical than it needs be."
Iyer opened the conference by saying that continued debate is necessary.
"If we ever cease to disagree about where to strike the balance between autonomy and equality, then we will have lost the spark of diversity that is essential to a democratic society."
Her optimism was inviting, but after listening to the discussion panel, "Impact of Hatred In Canada", her argument seemed idealistic and dangerously lacking in pragmatism.
The moderator opened the panel discussion by asking, "What is the nature of the harm that we are concerned about?"
Paul Winn, President of the Black Historical and Cultural Society, began by stating that "Canadians are closet bigots. The ultimate result of hatred is death. I think that's crucial to remember, or we won't get down to addressing the problem."
The harm caused by hatred should be recognized well before it becomes physical.
"You are free to have your opinion and think the way you do, but that stops when you step out your front door. I think that you do not have the right to espouse hatred in a public forum," added Winn.
But the law, he said, is not the only solution.
Viola Thomas also argued for a "greater educational aware- ness" that didn't "window dress" racism. She spoke of the inherent racism of a legal system that sentenced the killer of Saskatchewan aboriginal trapper Leo Lachance to 2-1/2 years in prison. LaChance was shot in the back with his own rifle while leaving the store where he had sold it. The killer, the owner of the store, Thomas said, was a leader of an Aryan Nation.
The media's hand in white supremacy, she said, is disturbing.
"If you examine a series of (media) articles, (you will see) when there are white supremacists from a higher income bracket, it is perceived as a surprise. If they come from a lower income, excuses are made: poverty, single parenthood . . .The lack of in-depth critical analysis by media is disgusting."
Thomas questioned how the law would treat the full spectrum of hatred.
"How can you decipher racism and hate separate from discrimination in legislation? Because I believe this (discrimination) is the springboard of hate."
Robert Goldschmid, in a discussion of "Freedom of Expression in a Public Space", saw the continuum beginning earlier.
"You have to stop the spread of slander before you get to discrimination," he said, defining hate propaganda as the slander of groups.
Goldschmid, a member of the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island, responded primarily to Dr. Ann Curry's defence of the Victoria Public Library, Juan de Fuca.
Audience response was emotional and strong: Curry's arguments were insultingly naive and abstract. Referring to the freedom of speech policies held by many library associations, she defended the library as a "last bastion of democracy."
"Public libraries are about tolerance," she said. "Tolerance is not easy."
She said library boards and staff can't impose their ideas on the library's collection. A library can't discriminate, but instead can offer the Bible be- side the Quaran beside a book on Scientology.
"The ideas fight it out on the shelf - much better than somewhere else," she said, not referring to the fact that library staff choose the books they order for their shelves. Meeting rooms, she said, are "an extension of the collection." While meeting room policies will not let anyone use the room in contravention to the criminal code, she saw the NAAWP as "no danger to library patrons." In fact, she implied, the disruption to Juan de Fuca library patrons was caused by the protesters.
While she said the library recognizes the responsibility of anti-racist groups to attack racism wherever it occurs, she also defended peoples' ability to make informed choices.
Goldschmid's response to her arguments was thorough and persuasive.
"We're not talking about something being of bad taste," he said. "The holocaust was based on ideology and on bigotry and on the spread of bigotry."
Goldschmid said "blind allegiance to the value of freedom of expression" is a moral and ethical failure on the part of society, and "abdication of the duty to the community".
He pointed out that meetings in the library are private, while library policy promotes free access to information. He said that while policy makers find it "too burdensome" to define what is a hate group, they created anti-sexism policies without saying "I'm sorry but we can't say what sexism really means."
Mary Woo Simms, Chief Commissioner of the BC Human Rights Commission, as a panellist on "Hate Crimes: A Look at Prevention Measures" also spoke to the youth members of hate groups.
"Sixty to seventy per cent of hate offenders are under 25," she said. "Why aren't we giving them that home (they find in hate groups) as a community? We must be ... united ... and identify our vulnerable. Money won't do it; we all have to take a role.
"After this conference, what are you going to go back to your communities and do? Go back to your families and do?
"Silence is not an option. Ignoring discrimination and hate will not make it go away".
Sara Shields is a freelance writer, community activist and volunteer with VIRCS. This article reflects the writer's own perspective on the conference.
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