What’s in a Name? Reconsidering Canada’s Hate Speech Laws and the Soldiers of Odin
Formed in October of 2015 in the small northern Finnish town of Kemi as a response to an influx of migrants, the international group named the ‘Soldiers of Odin’ has been described as everything from far-right vigilante group and neo-Nazi—two descriptions they actively dispute—to community citizens keeping the streets clean (Lamoureux, 2016a). Since then, the group has expanded to many more towns and countries across Europe. Now the group, founded by Mika Ranta, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, named the group after the Norse god of war and death (yet also wisdom and culture, ironically), with chapters growing in several Canadian provinces (c.f. Azpiri, 2016; Biber, 2016; Craigs, 2016; Lamoureux, 2016a, 2016b). This past month, the group has been posting videos of members walking the streets of Vancouver and Edmonton, an activity they describe as a “neighbourhood watch based activity, with a focus on the safety of women, children and the elderly” (Azpiri, 2016). While the group claims to be protecting the public and “if necessary come to the defence of anyone who needs us” while they “uphold and protect our Constitutional Rights [sic]” (Soldiers of Odin Canada Bylaws, n.d.), critics are expressing concerns about what they fear is a potentially racist and white supremacist organization masquerading as a benevolent group of people (Aspiri, 2016).
Furthermore, not only do the Canadian chapters share the same name with the anti-immigration European group, but Canadian chapter leaders have stated their independence from their European counterparts and their rejection of changing the name anytime soon. The reasoning behind this is partly from where the national chapter began (Gimli, an Icelandic town in Manitoba), as well as the name’s relation (arguably ill-perceived) to “[Gimli’s] theme and culture” (Biber, 2016).
Meanwhile, critics such as MacEwan university criminology teacher Irfan Chaundhry point out the ridiculousness of the anti-immigration group’s reasoning. “Why name yourself after that group, then, if you don’t want to be associated with that ideology?” Chaundhry asks. “If you truly are interested in community safety, community patrols, there’s more than enough volunteer organizations you could have joined” (Biber, 2016). While there has been no reported violence so far from the group’s activities, the general trends and expression within the group’s charter suggest not only anti-refugee, but anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiments to its members nationwide.
Now, it would be a truism to say that the expression of words and speech are powerful acts. Yet sometimes, we forget how powerful such words truly are, and the consequences yielded from such expression. From the loudest voices to the softest whispers, from the eloquence of vocabularies constructed and developed over centuries, to the words you are reading right now in this blogpost, anyone can tell you that, far from accurate, is the old adage ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This becomes especially true if they have been the target of racism, misogyny, homophobia, or other bigotry and forms of intimidation and degradation tactics.
Words hurt. Such words can hurt even when nothing comes from them except the vitriol with which the words are used and said. Words can be significantly potent in their ability to not only incite people to intimidate others, but to demoralize, degrade and vilify the human dignity that Canadians—all Canadians—hope would be protected and secured from by rights enshrined within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982).
Taking into account the words and actions of the Soldiers of Odin Canada, it becomes clear that Canadians should reconsider whether our present hate speech laws provide appropriate safeguards to protect the diversity and multiculturalism of populations within our country. Currently, section 319 of the Criminal Code governs hate speech in Canada, specifically on the public incitement of hatred (Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46, s. 319). Canadian hate speech laws make it a criminal offence to communicate “statements in any public place [which] incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace” (Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46, s. 319.1). Put differently, this section deals with publicly stirring up or inciting hatred against an identifiable group based on colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation. It also makes it illegal to communicate hatred in a public place by telephone, broadcast or through other audio or visual means (s. 319.7). While freedom of speech and expression is protected in Canada under Section 2b of the Charter, the right is not absolute, is subject to “reasonable limits prescribed by the law” and must be “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” (Charter, 1982, S.1 – see the Supreme Court decision in Keegstra for example). In sum, if your ‘free speech’ (1) incites hatred, (2) against an identifiable group, and that incitement is (3) likely to cause a breach of the peace, in certain contexts, you can be charged under Canada’s hate speech law (c.f. Butt, 2015; Shefman, 2015).
Herein lies the issue, however: a charge under section 319 can only be brought against the person who made the speech if the current Attorney General consents. The difficulty of receiving the Attorney General’s consent, by way of having a substantial and persuasive case to make, provides a significant barrier in even bringing a charge to court (Shefman, 2015). Furthermore, to successfully charge a person under section 319 means that one has met the high and visible standards set by the provision itself. In other words, if the ‘free speech’ actually incited hatred, directly against an identified group, of which such incitement has a higher propensity to breach the peace, then the charge under Canada’s hate speech law will be successful. This brings about worrisome consequences when such hatred does not meet the provision’s requirements: “Hateful expression might not always rise to the level required for criminal prosecution” writes Corey Shefman, Winnipeg lawyer and activist, “yet that fact does not necessarily mean that it is any less hurtful or harmful” (Shefman, 2015).
Ultimately, the main concern is this: hate speech is still hate speech, and while some hateful expression may not rise to the level required by criminal prosecution under current criminal hate speech legislation, or perhaps even the panoply of human rights codes across Canada, this does not mean such vitriolic words and actions cannot infect and darken public discourse. Such sentiments have been echoed by Bernie Farber, former Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, in which he states that while the freedom of expression is important in Canadian society, “[h]ateful words do indeed have hateful consequences” (Pinto, 2015). Our current hate speech laws only focus on the vilest forms of hatred, and not merely offensive speech or expression.
In effect, Canadians might want to think twice before swearing that they will ‘defend to the death’ a person’s right to say something you disagree with. While it is a popular rallying cry in defence of freedom of expression, this cry has been considered misguided at best, and sets expression, regardless of the content being expressed, on a pedestal which may not be warranted or deserved (Shefman, 2015). Even if criminal prosecutors decided to charge a person under different Criminal Code provisions, and never use the current criminal hate speech laws, there is still symbolic value in having a hate speech law; a law that reasonably curtails free expression ensures that all Canadians have rights enshrined to them within a holistic constitution, and does not place the freedom of expression above other Charter rights, such as multiculturalism and equality (Butt, 2015). Similarly, while the Soldiers of Odin Canada has a right to give their group a name they have decided upon, the symbolic value within that name alone should be seen as an unsightly mark in a country that fights to be more socially conscious, progressive and multicultural. Such symbolism, like the words and activities of this group, should be met with great concern and resistance.
If words can hurt, then so do names.
Azpiri, J. (2016). “Critics raise concerns about B.C. chapter of Soldiers of Odin.” Global News: September 20.
Biber, F. (2016). “Soldiers of Odin Canada: Not the same as what’s going on overseas.” CBC News: September 14.
Butt, D. (2015). “Canada’s law on hate speech is the embodiment of compromise.” The Globe and Mail: January 19.
CBC News. (2011). “When is it hate speech?: 7 significant Canadian cases.” CBC News Canada: October 12.
Craiggs, S. (2016). “Controversial Soldiers of Odin group organizing in Hamilton.” CBC News: August 4.
Lamoureux, M. (2016a). “Soldiers of Odin, Europe’s Notorious Anti-Immigration Group, Beginning to Form in Canada.” Vice Media: April 15.
Lamoureux, M. (2016b). “Soldiers of Odin, dubbed ‘extreme anti-refugee group,’ Patrol Edmonton Streets. CBC News: September 3.
Pinto, S. (2015). “Hate Speech Laws in Canada: Top Quotes from the #HateDebate.” Canadian Journalists For Free Expression: June 12.
Soldiers of Odin Canada Bylaws. (n.d.). “Soldiers of Odin Canada Bylaws.” Available at: https://www.scribd.com/doc/308890496/Soldiers-Of-Odin-Canada-Bylaws-docx
Shefman, C. (2015). “Want to protect freedom of expression? Strengthen hate speech laws.” CBC News Manitoba: January 27.
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s 2, Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 1.
Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46, s. 319.