A few months ago, as I was driving and listening to the radio, CBC Radio reported a story of University of New Brunswick professor, Ricardo Duchesne, being accused of hate speech for his online xenophobic comments about the presence of Muslims and Africans in “the West,” making a call for White men to “rise to resurrect the West.” I am concerned with the increased perpetuation of hate speech here in Canada. And, as a doctoral candidate, I am also trying to understand how the lines between ‘hate speech’ and ‘free speech’ are being drawn or blurred. I followed the recent story on CBC Radio and its ensuing online write-up: “Case of ‘white supremacist’ professor raises debate about free speech vs. hate speech on campus.” The article brings forward multiple perspectives on such lines of inquiry, including a justification on behalf of the UNB professor made by Mark Mercer, a Philosophy professor at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia and the President of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. Mercer claims that, “We should be free, all of us, to explore ideas as we will.” How far may one go in damaging a society and justifying the act as free speech? 

What I have come to realize, is that hate speech is still part of Canadian social norms. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network, an organization that monitors and works to counter hate groups, declares that “White supremacism is on the rise at an alarming degree.” Moreover, “there are over 130 active right-wing extremist groups in Canada. Most explicitly they target our Muslim and Jewish neighbours, but extreme misogyny, anti-LGBTQ+, hatred towards people of colour, Indigenous peoples, those who are differently able, and other forms of bigotry are extremely prevalent in these groups” (See Canadian Anti-Hate Network website). Should such increase in discrimination not be alarming for a society that touts itself as being open to members from different cultural and religious communities?

Recently, Canada put an end to its indifference on the matter. In 2018, the Library of Parliament published “Hate speech and freedom of expression: Legal boundaries in Canada.” In it, they call for the following action: 

It is clear that societal changes and technological developments will mean that the way our laws attempt to contain the harms caused by the spread of hatred will continue to inspire debate and the search for new solutions.

(p. 14)

Following strong public debate on the role of social media in disseminating hate, in May 2019 the Canadian Government announced a new digital charter to combat hate speech. While its details are yet to be shared, there is hope that through such initiatives Canadians will realize the principles which differentiate free speech and hate speech. 

Critically addressing hate speech in public spaces, real or virtual, is one of the great political and educational challenges of our time. Schools face this challenge more than any other time. Education needs to take a proactive role in addressing hate speech. How might curricula include material that, rather than being ignored, seeks to create an open and safe environment for us to discuss what constitutes hate speech? Moreover, how might teachers must develop and implement pedagogical approaches that build those safe and ethical spaces so students not only learn that free speech does not mean speech without consequences, but also learn to respectfully present and respond to comments and opinions with which others may disagree? The point is not to downplay the negative power of hate speech and chalk it up to an opinion to be ignored. The aim is to help students learn to distinguish between statements that contribute to debate and analysis of an issue to further knowledge and understanding, and statements that simply but violently exclude people based on particular identities or characteristics. 

We all are responsible for and capable of disrupting hate speech in our own capacities. Following the news on UNB professor’s hate speech allegations, his peers sent out a statement condemning White supremacy. While the initial news was disappointing, particularly because it came from and was defended by the academia, the words of professors who wrote against hate speech sent arrays of hope for a better future.  This said, it is evident that education has the potential to harm or heal a society. It is up to the educators to take a path that sustains our social harmony and restores justice.

Written by Noorin Nazari