Mr. Speaker, it certainly is a privilege to stand in the House and to have the opportunity to speak in support of Bill C-305, an act to amend the Criminal Code (mischief).
I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the discussion that is already taking place in the House today because I believe this is a very timely issue and it is one that impacts Canadians as a whole.
The bill addresses a current injustice when it comes to sentencing for crimes that are motivated by hate in Canada. Currently, if an individual is convicted of mischief, which is a fancy word for vandalism, against a place of worship, the maximum penalty for that is 10 years. However, if the same individual were to vandalize a religious school, or a religious recreational centre or a religious day care, the punishment for that same crime would only be two years in prison.
This is the exact same crime and it is motivated by hatred for an identifiable group, but the penalty is dramatically different.
Canada is a religiously plural and multicultural society. It allows its citizens to live out their lives according to their conscience, their beliefs, their values, yet throughout its history, Canada has experienced a regrettable number of anti-Semitic and racist acts of vandalism.
The recent and tragic events that took place in Quebec City not too long ago with the Muslim community and then in Toronto with the Jewish community remind us of the severe impact the manifestation of hate can have on the lives of Canadians.
Fundamental human rights and freedoms are infringed upon when hateful acts interfere with the ability of those of diverse faiths, origins and political affiliations to live out their convictions according to need. While race, ethnicity, and religion remain the most common motivators for hate-based crimes, Statistics Canada indicates that such acts of mischief are not limited to these groups. Hate crimes have also been directed toward those of different sexual orientation, those of a different political belief, or those perhaps with a mental or physical disability.
In a country that values both tolerance and respect, the fact that only those crimes which are carried out on religious property are indictable under section 430 of our Criminal Code is unacceptable.
Hate crimes affect a broad range of Canadian citizens, not just those within these religious organizations. A church community may meet in an old movie theatre, or it might even choose a recreational centre or a school. Therefore, it is possible then that hate crimes or vandalism, mischief, could then be committed against these properties.
Parents may also choose to send their children to a day care that is religious in nature because of their beliefs and values. At present, these properties do not benefit from the same protections under the Criminal Code. This is why I support the amendment brought forward today.
To fight to protect religious freedoms is a fight that we in our capacity as parliamentarians have the duty to address and to promote. While the damage of vandalism is generally minimal, the impact hate motivated crimes have on the targeted population is often absolutely devastating.
In 2014, over half of the hate crimes committed in Canada fell into what was known as the mischief category. This was 523 of the 1,170 crimes that were committed. That is a huge number. It is clear this legislation applies to the majority of hate crimes that take place within our country. Who are the targets of these attacks?
In Toronto, incidents of hate motivated crimes increased by 8% in 2016 alone. That is a significant change. Within that, Jews are the single most targeted group for the 12th year in a row. The Toronto Police Service 2016 Annual Hate Bias Crime Statistical Report also revealed that Muslims were the target of hate crimes at about half the rate that Jews were, so making up a significant portion of that population being discriminated against.
I find this very concerning. It is again the reason why I am standing in support of this legislation going forward.
Jews make up only 3.8% and Muslims only 8.2% of Toronto's entire population, but these two communities were the victims of more than half of all the hate crimes committed within the city. Across the country, the statistics generally fall into a similar pattern. We see the same thing when we look from one city to the next.
In addition, with members of the Jewish community being the target of most attacks, we also see significant attacks that are brought against Muslims, those who are black, the LGBTQ community, and those with disabilities. These numbers are horrifying. I would argue as well that they are not just horrifying but, together, they are an attack on our identity as Canadians.
Our Canadian identity is based on the idea of many peoples joining together toward a common purpose. Hate crimes against an identifiable group, often minority groups, attack this central principle of unity on which so much of Canada is built.
These crimes are intended to make a community of people feel excluded from being Canadian. Therefore, in order to protect the many diverse communities spread across our vast and beautiful country, we must take action. We must increase the protection that is available to those who find themselves victim to these hate crimes. To do any less would betray Canada's history, the history that we have fought for with respect to having a common and shared identity.
Given the recent history in the House and the political games the government has played with the Islamophobia motion as of late, I would like to speak to the difference between protecting freedom of speech and supporting the bill before us today.
One of the fundamental freedoms we enjoy in Canada is freedom of speech. Our constitution, the Bill of Rights, and our Criminal Code give the maximum latitude when it comes to freedom of speech. The only limits that can be placed on free speech, according to the Criminal Code, is if the speech wilfully promotes hatred against an identifiable group, or where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the public peace. In other words, unless people are focusing their hate on one group, to the point of encouraging violence against it, they have not actually broken the law.
However, even within this provision there is an exemption for criticism of religion. The Criminal Code states that a person is not guilty of hate speech if “in good faith, the person expressed or attempted to establish by an argument an opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a belief in a religious text...”
Our law is very clear. Debating the merits of one's religion is not in fact hate speech. However, focusing hate on an ethnic group and encouraging people to attack it clearly is. This is the distinction: words versus actions.
I fully support the bill going forward, because whether someone has a difference of opinion on religious grounds, there is no justification whatsoever for physically attacking a person or a property that belongs to a person who holds differing beliefs. Canada was founded on the idea that we are rational human beings and that our differences of opinion actually strengthen democracy rather than hinder it. We believe the testing of our beliefs and our values by the diverse traditions of the people who make up Canada ensures the preservation of our democracy. This is why it is so alarming to see the limits being placed on free speech on university campuses across our country right now.
Furthermore, it is why the Liberals' poorly-defined Islamophobia motion was so incredibly misguided. Their motion could take away the freedom of Canadians to debate the merits of religious ideas, about which I am very concerned.
As an alternative to Motion No. 103, the Conservatives put forward a well-balanced and inclusive motion that focused on condemning acts of systemic racism against all religious communities and not just one. Given the Liberals' love for the charter, one would expect them to understand the difference between religious ideas and religious communities.
The bill before the House right now, Bill C-305, closes a gap that currently exists within our Criminal Code. I believe it is absolutely necessary for the Canadian public going forward. Hate crimes are absolutely disgusting. They go against our shared identity as Canadians. Increasing the possible sentences for those who commit such crimes is entirely worthy of the House. These provisions will continue to protect the freedom of speech that Canadians currently enjoy, and they will enhance religious freedoms by providing a stronger disincentive to commit hate crimes.