MP's extend hate crime protection

September 17, 2003
Globe and Mail and Canadian Press

MPs approved a bill to extend hate-crimes protection to gays and lesbians on Wednesday, voting 141 to 110.

Bill C-250, a private member's bill introduced by New Democrat MP Svend Robinson, would amend the hate propaganda section of the Criminal Code to add homosexuals to a list of groups legally protected from incitement of hatred and genocide.

"It's been a good week for equality in Canada," an emotional Mr. Robinson said outside the Commons. "I feel proud to be a Canadian."

Approval of the bill came a day after MPs narrowly defeated a motion to maintain the traditional definition of marriage, marking another victory for Canada's gay and lesbian community.

Although private members' bills have a history of being rare to pass in the House of Commons, Bill C-250 was approved on several readings.

Mr. Robinson said the bill was necessary.

The existing hate propaganda law, passed in 1970, bans incitement of hatred on the basis of colour, race, religion and ethnic origin, but not "sexual orientation." Conviction carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison.

Gays have long protested the omission, citing the fact that homosexuals are frequently targeted for verbal and physical attacks. Mr.Robinson has fought for its inclusion since 1981.

"What my bill would do is to recognize that just as we say it's wrong to promote hatred or violence against racial or religious or ethnic minorities, so too, should we say it's just as wrong to promote that hatred or violence directed at gay or lesbian people," Mr. Robinson told CBC Newsworld before the vote.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Canadian Police Association, representing 28,000 front-line officers, support the bill.

Police have so far been powerless to prosecute the likes of Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan. who runs a virulent anti-gay website. Supporters of Mr. Phelps have entered Canada twice in recent years to stage anti-gay rallies.

The bill still requires Senate approval and royal assent before becoming law.

The Canadian Alliance and many church groups say they fear that extending hate-crime protection for gays could criminalize religious texts, including the Bible, that condemn homosexuality.

Not so, said Liberal MP Derek Lee. He pushed for a change to the bill that unanimously passed in the Commons three months ago. The amended bill exempts from the hate crime section anyone expressing an anti-gay belief based on a religious text.

That change removed a handy excuse for those who would unjustly refuse equal protections to homosexuals, Mr. Robinson said.

"What this bill is about, fundamentally, is sending a message to the gay bashers. It's about sending a message to those who promote hatred and violence and death of gay men like Aaron Webster who was beaten to death with a baseball bat in Vancouver," Mr. Robinson said.

He said fears that freedom of speech and religion will suffer are "a mask for homophobia for people who don't want to be honest about the real reason why they don't want to include sexual orientation in the law."

Mr. Robinson said he regularly receives hateful e-mails and his constituency office in Burnaby, B.C. was trashed in 1988 when he became Canada's first openly gay MP.

Conservative MP Scott Brison, representing Kings-Hants in Nova Scotia, came out of the closet last winter. He said that he too has been verbally threatened and physically attacked for being gay.

Prior to the vote Mr. Robinson said he was proud of the fact that some of the MPs who voted in favour of the Canadian Alliance motion on Tuesday were voting in favour of his private members bill.

Progressive Conservative Leader Peter MacKay was one such MP.

Mr. MacKay told reporters that he supports Mr. Robinson's bill because it modernizes laws that have not changed in 100 years.

Alliance MP Brian Pallister, representing Portage-Lisgar in Manitoba, voted against the bill. He resents being called "homophobic," and said he has fought for equal economic rights for gays in the past.

"It's unhelpful to label people just because they disagree with you," Mr. Pallister said. Physically and mentally disabled Canadians, along with other identifiable groups, are also hate-crime victims but aren't specifically protected under the law, he added.

"Where do you draw the line? To suppress free speech only drives bigots and abusers underground, he said. "You want those people out in the open, then they show how stupid they really are."