Canada's special envoy for combating antisemitism says she is "very interested" in exploring the idea of removing religion as a possible defence against hate speech charges, drawing concern about the prospect of a chill on religious expression. 

Deborah Lyons, whose title also includes preserving Holocaust remembrance, made the comment before a parliamentary committee that is studying antisemitism on university campuses. 

"I am very interested in exploring (it) as an option because I think, frankly, we are seeing it used in this country and in other places as a defence that, frankly, does not stand the ground in these very difficult times," she testified Thursday. 

Still, Lyons said she is not ready to offer a final opinion on the matter, and is still discussing it with Justice Department officials. 

Jewish leaders, students and faculty have for months been voicing concerns over an increase in hate speech and violence since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war last fall.

Lyons said she believes universities' equity, diversity and inclusion strategies are "failing Jews in this country" because they don't make much mention of antisemitism specifically.

Her office is working to develop better training to counter anti-Jewish discrimination, which she hopes institutions, including governments, will use. 

Members of Parliament asked Lyons about the role police and prosecutors play in laying hate-speech related charges, and whether Criminal Code changes are needed.

They pointed to a recent decision by Quebec prosecutors not to charge Montreal imam Adil Charkaoui over comments said during a prayer.

The comments were delivered at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Montreal, and led to a complaint alleging threats and incitement of violence, which was investigated by the RCMP. 

Leading a prayer in Arabic, Charkaoui had called on God to "take care of aggressor Zionists," adding "O God, don't leave any of them."

Last week, the province's director of public prosecutions announced that a committee of three Crown attorneys found the evidence insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the words amounted to an incitement of hatred toward an identifiable group, as defined in the Criminal Code.

Using the case as an example, Bloc Québécois MP Rhéal Fortin asked Lyons whether she supports his party's proposal to eliminate a section of the Criminal Code that allows the use of religious beliefs or a religious text as a defence against the promotion of hatred and antisemitism. 

The Criminal Code states that people shouldn't be convicted of the willful promotion of hatred or antisemitism — defined as downplaying or denying the Holocaust — if, "in good faith," they expressed an opinion "on a religious subject" or "based on a belief in a religious text."

Fortin said his party wants to ban "exceptions" to hate speech based on religion. 

"Certainly I think that it's something we've got to continue to examine," Lyons said. 

Justice Minister Arif Virani's office said the government is reviewing the Bloc's proposal.

“Canadians of any religious identity have the right to express their religious beliefs in public in Canada. This right is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," said spokesperson Chantalle Aubertin. 

"Hate speech is markedly different from free expression."

Virani is already seeking to increase the punishments for existing hate-related offences, including increasing the maximum consequence for advocating genocide to life imprisonment. 

Those changes are part of Liberal online harms legislation tabled in February. 

Boris Bytensky, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, said in light of that legislation, now is the time to examine the defences allowed for hate speech and whether they are being applied correctly. 

He suggested the current reference to religion is meant to apply when someone is lecturing about what a religion or religious text says, not to be used as a justification for promoting hate. 

"That's the line that gets crossed." 

Removing the religion defence altogether would create "genuine fear" among those with deeply held religious beliefs about what they are allowed to say in the public square, said Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett. 

"Often, religious people privatize their faith because they're afraid that if I speak about what I believe, in good faith, in the public square, I'm going to be cancelled, or I'm going to be shut down," said Bennett, the faith communities program director at the Cardus public-policy think tank. 

He said if any "chill" is put on religious expression, that could marginalize a sizable part of the population, including many new Canadians for whom "religion is not just some sort of cultural relic" but "informs all aspects of society."

"In many cases, they've come here because of the religious freedom we enjoy, and so to then say to those new Canadians in particular, 'Oh, by the way, you can't speak about your religion publicly for fear of being (censored),' I think that's a very bad message to send."

Bennett said the debate raises questions about how hate is defined and what makes a hateful view "different from a peacefully held opinion that someone might profoundly disagree with."

In the case of Charkaoui's comments, Marco Mendicino, a Liberal MP, said he found the call by Quebec's Crown not to press charges against the imam "incomprehensible and deeply problematic." 

Mendicino, a former prosecutor who previously served as public safety minister, listed other examples at the committee hearing of what he described as hateful comments uttered at recent demonstrations.

But Charkaoui's words were "perhaps one of the most egregious offences that I have seen," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2024.