Canada poised to repeal its blasphemy law

Since 1892, Canada has had an anti-blasphemy law on the books, to wit (from the Criminal C0de):

296. (1) Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years

  • (2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.
  • (3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.

R.S., c. C-34, s. 260.

Now the bit about being exculpated if you give a critical opinion on religion “in good faith and decent language” might seem to be the loophole. But as Peter Bowal and Kelsey Horvat note in a quote given by Canada’s Centre for Inquiry (a group that has long crusaded against that law), the law “remain[s] the most serious form of crimes (indictable), and contain broad, archaic wording which makes their criminal application and enforcement difficult as well as controversial today.”  Bowal and Horvat also indicate that “there is no guidance in the criminal code or in any judicial interpretations as to what “publishes”, “decent language” or  “a religious subject” mean, or generally what constitutes a blasphemous libel”.

The law hasn’t been used much, though in 1980 it was used to charge a theater with showing Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” though the charges were dropped.

Now, according to Global News and verified by the Government of Canada’s website, an bill to amend Canada’s criminal code has been introduced in the House of Commons by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who represents Vancouver/Granville (she’s a Liberal, of course).  That law not only clarifies provisions of the sexual assault laws, but repeals section 296, with the repeal buried in a list of archaic and unenforceable laws (my emphasis in the bullet points):

Obsolete and/or redundant provisions

The proposed legislation would repeal several Criminal Code offences that were enacted many years ago, but that are no longer relevant or required today, including:

  • Challenging someone to a duel (section 71);

  • Advertising a reward for the return of stolen property “no questions asked” (section 143);

  • Possessing, printing, distributing or publishing crime comics (paragraph 163(1)(b));

  • Publishing blasphemous libel (section 296);

  • Fraudulently pretending to practise witchcraft (section 365); and,

  • Issuing trading stamps (section 427).

It’s about time to strike from the books a law prohibiting religious blasphemy, which doesn’t belong in a progressive country. This hasn’t passed yet, but I’m betting it will.

That doesn’t solve all of Canada’s “first amendment” issues, though, as there are numerous “hate speech laws” that are still on the books, and have been used. See the Wikipedia article on “Hate speech laws in Canada“. Here are two examples of “hate speech” that shouldn’t have been prosecuted, though in both cases I find the opinions prosecuted to be detestable:

In 2005, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal fined Bill Whatcott, leader of a small group called the Christian Truth Activists, $17,500 because he distributed flyers that had controversial comments about homosexuals.[38] The matter ultimately went to the Supreme Court of Canada where the decision was upheld in part.

In Citron v. Zündel TD 1/02 (2002/01/18) the Tribunal found that the respondent had theories of secret conspiracies by Jews. The respondent posted his theories to the Internet. The Tribunal found that the tone and extreme denigration and vilification of Jews by the respondent was a violation of s. 13(1). The Tribunal ordered the respondent to cease and desist his discriminatory practices.

Neither of these cases would have been prosecuted in the U.S. Let Ernst Zündel promulgate his anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial without being jailed. After hearing him, we can educate ourselves about the evidence for the Holocaust, and he can always be met with counter-speech. For further arguments about why we should let “hateful” speech be aired, read Mill’s On Liberty. 

h/t: Gregory

38 Comments

  1. Simon Hayward
    Posted June 12, 2017 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Getting rid of fraudulent witchcraft seems like a good idea. But what’s the status of the real thing?

  2. GBJames
    Posted June 12, 2017 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    sub

  3. steve oberski
    Posted June 12, 2017 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    One of the most compelling defenses of free speech I have read was by Egale Canada, a LGBT human rights organization coming to the defense of a homophobic xtian minister being targeted by Canada’s “Human Rights” bureaucracy:

    Freedom for all means freedom for each

    It can be challenging to hear an opposite point of view. When that opinion is vehement and hurtful, it’s even more challenging to defend the right of that opinion to be expressed.

    There are limits, of course, but Pastor Stephen Boissoin has not crossed them – yet.

    Boissoin is the former Executive Director of Concerned Christians Canada Inc. Back in June 2002, a Red Deer, Alberta newspaper published his fiery letter. In it, he described his “war” against making schools safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-identified (LGBT) people.

    Boissoin called LGBT people “perverse, self-centered and morally deprived,” and said that “where homosexuality flourishes, all manner of wickedness abounds.”

    The Pastor condemned the “horrendous atrocities such as the aggressive propagation of homo- and bisexuality” as well as the “psychologically and physiologically damaging pro-homosexual literature and guidance in the public school system; all under the fraudulent guise of equal rights.”

    He went on to say that “war has been declared,” calling on readers to “take whatever steps are necessary to reverse the wickedness.” (Click on this short-cut to see the full letter: http://tinyurl.com/dzsg6.)

    The letter is now the subject of a human rights complaint by University of Calgary professor of education Darren Lund. Winner of an Alberta Human Rights Award, Professor Lund is a champion of human rights. His years of work towards making schools safe for everyone are worthy of respect and praise.

    Lund is arguing that under Alberta’s human rights legislation, Boissoin should not be able to make such discriminatory public statements. If the tribunal agrees with Lund, Boissoin could be required to apologize and/or pay compensation.

    Meanwhile, the religious right is rallying around Boissoin, eager to paint him as a martyr for the cause of religious freedom. Concerned Christians is shaking the money tree, including in the U.S. where it received support from the Alliance Defense Fund. Furthermore, a fundraising dinner was held October 29 in a Calgary hotel.

    They are gathering their troops to combat what Boissoin calls the “homosexual machine that has been mercilessly gaining ground in our society since the 1960s.”

    For reasonable people who believe in equality and safety for all, it is easy to condemn Boissoin’s hurtful and inflammatory language. Furthermore, the temptation is strong to want to silence such an angry diatribe which might find an audience of people willing to join his war against equality.

    While it is difficult to support Boissoin’s right to spew his misguided and vitriolic thoughts, support his right, we must.

    If Boissoin was no longer able to share his views, then who might be next in also having their freedom of expression limited. Traditionally, the LGBT community’s freedom has been repressed by society and its laws.

    Plus, it is far better that Boissoin expose his views than have them pushed underground. Under the glaring light of public scrutiny, his ideas will most likely wither and die.

    In fact, his words may serve to increase public education. By more clearly seeing the ugly face of bigotry and prejudice, the need for teaching tolerance in schools becomes obvious.

  4. DrBrydon
    Posted June 12, 2017 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    I am now waiting to see if there is a new surge in dueling in Canada.

    • Randy schenck
      Posted June 12, 2017 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      I believe there were laws against dueling when Hamilton was killed by Burr back in 1804 but was mostly ignored. Good new day in the legal business is that the Attorney Generals of Maryland and DC are suing Trump based on the emoluments clauses in the Constitution. It is about time…

    • John Taylor
      Posted June 12, 2017 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      I do not plan to take up duelling. I prefer to sit on my couch and eat chips.

      • BJ
        Posted June 12, 2017 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

        How dare you insult the brave and sporting nature of dueling! I challenge you to a duel! For insulting the honor of dueling!

        With chips. At dawn. On your couch.

        • kevin7alexander
          Posted June 13, 2017 at 7:32 am | Permalink

          I don’t know if this story is true but..Challenged to a duel and exercising his right to choose weapons Abraham Lincoln said ‘Axes’ His challenger withdrew.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 13, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

          If this law gets passed, I’ll have to put away my leather face-slapping gloves.

  5. Armando
    Posted June 12, 2017 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this. I was unaware that my member of parliament was doing such awesome work. I am a bit confused though since the post starts by saying that the law has been on the books since 1982 and then goes on to say that it was used against a theatre in 1980. Anyway, that is just a small detail. Hope this does in fact get amended.

    • Posted June 12, 2017 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      It says 1892.

      • Armando
        Posted June 12, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        Yes, it does! Sorry about that. Great post- Thanks!

  6. rickflick
    Posted June 12, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Wikipedia – There are anti-blasphemy laws in a few US states, but they have not been enforced. Some good news is that blasphemy laws were abolished in:

    England and Wales in 2008
    France in 1881
    Sweden in 1970,
    Norway 2009 and 2015,
    Netherlands in 2014,
    Iceland in 2015,
    Malta in 2016,
    France for its Alsace-Moselle region in 2016,
    Denmark in 2017
    Australia at the Federal Level in 1995

    Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, blasphemy is punishable by execution.

  7. Posted June 12, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Denmark, too,

    “Danish lawmakers have repealed a 334-year-old blasphemy law that forbids public insults of a religion, such as the burning of holy books.

    “Only a handful of blasphemy trials have taken place in the past 80 years, and several high-profile cases have been dropped, including one involving a caricature of the prophet Muhammad published in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005.

    “Denmark was the only Scandinavian country with a blasphemy law, which called for up to four months in prison upon conviction, although most people were fined instead.

    “Politicians who wanted to repeal the law introduced in 1683 “do not believe that there should be special rules protecting religions against expressions”, the Danish parliament said on its website.”

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/02/denmark-scraps-334-year-old-blasphemy-law

  8. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 12, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I’m a bit confused about “Fraudulently pretending to practise witchcraft”.

    First of all, “fraudulently pretending” is either redundant or a double negative.

    Does this mean if you are really practicing witchcraft this is OK, but only pretending is illegal??

    Also, is blasphemy that is not libelous or libel which is not blasphemous OK? What would these be??

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted June 12, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      I take it to mean that it’s legal to pretend to practice witchcraft, but not to do so for fraudulent purposes — for example, to charge the gullible a fee to cast a spell on their enemies or the objects of their unrequited affection.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted June 12, 2017 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        But, then, I’m always lookin’ for a loophole. 🙂

  9. Mark Reaume
    Posted June 12, 2017 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I believe Jody Wilson-Raybould is the same MP who has put forward Bill C-16: “An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code” which has some language that could be considered compelled speech wrt usage of a persons’s preferred gender pronouns.

    This is the bill that Jordan Peterson and Gad Saad (I believe) testified against at the Senate hearings.

    Well, anyway, I think she is batting .500 with these two proposals.

  10. Tom
    Posted June 12, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    So if I used only the most polite wording to defame the christian religion (for instance, saying misleading instead of utter cobblers) it may not be blaphemy in Canada?
    That seems a bit odd.
    Mind you, blasphemy in Common Law was only abolished in the England in 2008 and we haven’t publicly burnt a witch in at least the last couple of years. (What is going on in Conservative Party Central Offices may soon end this quiet period)

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted June 12, 2017 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      Hope witches are enjoying the interregnum while it lasts.

    • Simon Hayward
      Posted June 12, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      I believe similar comments/concerns centered around Conservative Central Office were also raised in 1990

      • Simon Hayward
        Posted June 12, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        It just occurred to me that the first female PM was the longest serving of the 20th century, while the second may end up holding the brevity record in the 21st.

        • Mark Reaume
          Posted June 12, 2017 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

          Canada’s one and only female PM lasted only 5 months. But that was mostly due to Mr. Mulroney’s unpopularity.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted June 12, 2017 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

          Speaking of witches on the heath …

  11. Johan Richter
    Posted June 12, 2017 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    The sexual assault clarifications seemingly do not change the current law which is unfortunate, because the current law is absurd in some respects. It is currently illegal in Canada to kiss ones sleeping spouse.

    But it is welcome that blasphemy is decriminalized of course.

    • Simon Hayward
      Posted June 12, 2017 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      Which part is illegal “sleeping” or “spouse” or is it only the combination that causes issues 😉

  12. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 12, 2017 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Zündel was a lot more than a guy distributing pamphlets and stupidly backward history. He was associated with violent new Nazi groups that committed crimes. You can read about him here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernst_Zündel

    What amuses me with the whole Zündel situation is in high school I wrote an English essay that concluded that Zündel should stay in Canada because in order to remove him we would need to change the constitution. My English teacher filled the paper with red ink proclaiming Zündel to be a nazi. Well, I wasn’t disputing that and had said in the paper that I found his ideas abhorrent. I think my dad got involved in that whole discussion at some parent teacher interview. Basically my stupid English teacher couldn’t get past his dislike of this nasty neo nazi to see my argument.

    And then Canada changed the constitution and got rid of Zündel. So clearly I had a point.

  13. Posted June 12, 2017 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    This is good news – and unexpected too.

    I hope this passes.

  14. Heather Hastie
    Posted June 12, 2017 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Good on Canada. Another hole in the dam.

    I hope NZ politicians are taking notice. It’s about time they got around to getting rid of our blasphemy law too. It has NEVER been successfully used, and only once was an attempt made – nearly a century ago. It’s an embarrassment to our country that it still exists.

    • Ken
      Posted June 12, 2017 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      There’s every reason to hope it will go during the next term of Parliament. Fingers crossed.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted June 13, 2017 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

        Yep! I’ve even started a post ready to celebrate the occasion!

  15. Posted June 13, 2017 at 2:06 am | Permalink

    No blasphemy laws in Canada?

    Does this mean it is legal to buy a Koran and dispose of your own property by burning it?

    • Posted June 13, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      I am not a lawyer, but I’d guess it would be now, even before that bill passes, as that’s not in any sense a libel. This is because there is no language involved.

  16. Posted June 13, 2017 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    Didnt Canada pass a law in March making it illegal to criticize Islam?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 13, 2017 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      No that was not a law. It was just a motion which is the go ahead to have a debate in parliament. There is no legislative teeth to a motion.

  17. Posted June 13, 2017 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Here, here to ending outdated laws, though I find it hard to believe that anyone would have the guts to use it. And as for Zundel, while I agree that he should have the right to say what he likes no matter how atrocious it is, it’s kind of ironic that he was one of the first victims of the Dept. of Homeland Security who broke into his compound in upper New York state and deported him to Canada without a hearing. Canada later deported him back to Austria where he was wanted for- ta-da Hate Crimes. So you can write what you like but you better be a citizen!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 13, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      I actually think all these hate laws happened because of Zundel. That guy was almost impossible to get rid of. Germany kept not wanting him back.


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