Tougher legislation needed
By Kristopher Wells And Murray Billett, Freelance
May 12, 2010
Hate crime has a long and pernicious history in human society, including atrocities such as the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing campaigns in astern Europe and Africa, and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Canada's conscience is not clear as we have our own history of hate and hate crime, which includes the forced internment of Japanese Canadians, the tragic legacy of the residential school system, active and vocal Holocaust deniers, and here in Alberta, the Aryan Guard marching in the streets of Calgary and the public desecration of synagogues.
In response to the ugly legacy of hate, more than 30 countries around the world have enacted specific hate crimes legislation. Here in Canada, the gravity of hate crimes was officially recognized in 1970, when the government amended the Criminal Code to include hate propaganda as a punishable offence.
In 1996, the government also introduced enhanced sentencing provisions for offences motivated by hate, and in 2001 included mischief to religious property as a specific hate-motivated offence.
Despite this evolution, we argue that these legislative responses to hate have not gone far enough. The problem most concerning to many diverse communities and law enforcement officials involves the fact that there are still no direct provisions in the Criminal Code to identify hate crime as a violent offence (such as assault) or as a crime against a person or individual property (such as vandalism).
Hate crimes have often been called "message crimes" because they not only target individuals who are different, but also are designed to strike fear and terror into the very heart of communities. These crimes not only threaten the safety and welfare of vulnerable individuals, but also set communities against each other and, in turn, erode the very tenets of democracy and serve to unravel the social fabric of our diverse, pluralistic, multicultural society.
In Canada, the Supreme Court has ruled that individuals have the right to hold discriminatory beliefs; however, they do not have the right to act upon them in public space. This is the difference between belief (freedom of conscience and speech) and conduct (freedom to act in discriminatory ways).
Accordingly, hate crime laws are an important deterrent, as they provide enhanced recognition of the gravity of hate crimes and acknowledge the importance of protecting diverse and vulnerable populations within our society. In essence, hate crime laws are fundamental to a democracy that believes in the rights of the minority to be protected from the tyranny of the majority. Hate crime legislation not only serves as a deterrent, but also serves as a symbolic representation for the kind of society that we aspire to become.
Although the term "hate crime" has entered into the popular lexicon, there is little consensus in Canada as to its exact meaning and, therefore, we see differentiated responses from the police and justice systems, which may cause communities to lose trust and faith in our social institutions.
Hate crimes are different in that they have a specific motivating factor (hate, prejudice, or bias) not found in other crimes. The challenge and problem for the police and justice system centres on the complexity of proving motivation when investigating an alleged hate crime. For example, crimes often have multiple motivations that can prove difficult to pinpoint to one defining factor.
Unfortunately, research indicates that only one in 10 hate crimes is reported to law enforcement and even fewer are prosecuted. For example, in Alberta, within the past decade there have only been two successful hate crime prosecutions.
A standardized hate crime definition, professional training, accurate data collection, and establishing collaborative policing-community relationships with diverse communities would help to significantly enhance our understanding of this complex and socially divisive issue.
We believe that communities, law enforcement and the justice system need to become better educated on hate crimes. Police also need to work more closely with diverse communities to help increase the identification and reporting of hate crimes.
Together we need to improve and support restorative justice models that seek to educate and change discriminatory behaviours, rather than to simply mete out discipline and punishment as corrective measures.
Hate is a learned behaviour, which divides families and communities. Rather than let hate divide us, we call for communities to stand united against hate and announce that it is not a value that will be tolerated in the province of Alberta. After all, hate imprisons everyone: the victim, perpetrator, and community.
To help achieve this vision of a hate-free Alberta, we call on the province to develop a strategy against hate. It should include:
- Directed advocacy to include specific provisions within the Criminal Code of Canada for hate crime offences;
- Development of a standardized definition and response to hate crime;
- Mandatory reporting of hate crime statistics by all law enforcement agencies;
- Support for restorative justice and innovative educational programs (punish the problem, not the people);
- Creation of a provincial hate crimes office to help with investigation, training, public education, and support for victimized communities.
Kristopher Wells, a graduate student in the U of A's faculty of education, is a member of the Alberta Hate Crimes Committee. Murray Billett, a former vice-chair of the Edmonton Police Commission, is a longtime human rights and community activist.
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