by TREVOR HEWITT
Ballistic safety goggles: $17.99, Baseball helmet: $19.99, 3M Respirator: $39.99, Tactical vest with level two body armour: $179.99.
There are some things free speech can’t buy, and one of them is safety.
An anti-immigration and anti-Trudeau rally organized by the far-right Canadian Nationalist Front (CNF) took place in Peterborough, Ont., at Confederation Park last September. The organizer of the rally and leader of the CNF is Kevin Goudreau, a self-described white nationalist. The party’s website lists “the return to Canada’s original predominantly white-European and Native Aboriginal ethnic make up” as one of its main goals. Because the group had no official permit, multiple counter-protests were planned for the same day by left-wing activists.
The results were predictable. On one side, about 20 right-wing protesters. On the other, a few hundred counter-protesters, many wearing masks or bandanas to cover their faces from being identified on social media. Shortly after the original protest begins, hundreds of counter-protesters converge on their position, chanting, “Go home.”
They begin to circle a man wearing full camouflage and a shirt with the Nazi death’s head skull over the Iron Cross. Shortly after, an individual breaks through the crowd and punches him in the face, knocking off his glasses. “This is my home, that’s what you bastards don’t understand!” the man yells back, the police now acting as a barrier between the two groups. “You have no rights, you Nazi piece of shit,” a counter-protester yells. “Everybody has rights,” someone responds. “No you don’t, get out!” the counter-protester yells back.
SEE: LEFT AND RIGHT WING PROTESTORS CLASH AT PETERBOROUGH, ONT., RALLY
Police say Goudreau did not attend the rally. He made it clear in an email that he does not identify as a Nazi, but rather as a white nationalist. He also says he does not hate other races, but thinks Canada should remain predominantly European and Indigenous. Goudreau has not replied to further questions.
Free speech. It’s a concept that is as vague as it is entrenched in Canadian culture. Almost everyone recognizes the idea; however, in a world where America is more divided along the political spectrum than ever (and where the Conservatives’ most recent leadership race shows Canada isn’t that much better off) it seems increasingly difficult for people to agree on what it means. For some, it’s carte blanche to say anything, as long as it does not break an already-defined law like slander or libel. For others, it’s more of a testament to the democratic premise of Canadian government, a respectful nod to the notion that you can say things in Western society that could get you killed in more oppressive regimes. And last, but certainly not least, is the growing number who say that it’s time to redefine what free speech means.
* * *
To punch or not to punch (a Nazi)
Sitting in a Timothy’s Coffee in Toronto’s east end, James Sears goes through an old Nokia flip phone while taking small sips from a ceramic mug. His messianic black hair extends into waves, bouncing off broad shoulders onto a freshly-ironed shirt. Sears is 54. He doesn’t look it. He is also a self-described National Socialist. He doesn’t look like that either.
Sears is the editor of Your Ward News, a controversial quarterly newspaper that describes itself as Canada’s “largest anti-Marxist publication.” Much like Goudreau’s CNP, Your Ward News promotes what it describes as “pro-European and Aboriginal sentiments” and is critical of Zionism and what it calls “cultural Marxism” – the idea that there are no inherent differences in behaviour or culture between different races and demographics. Sears describes the newspaper as satire. On June 6, 2016, after several years of campaigning by groups that have labeled the paper anti-semitic and and pro-Nazi, Canada Post issued what’s known as a prohibitory order, halting future delivery of the paper. Not only was mailing Your Ward News prohibited, Sears and his publisher were both prevented from sending any mail, personal or otherwise, through Canada Post. This has only happened twice before, and only one of those orders concerned hate speech. In 1981, the then-minister ordered that a publishing company owned by Holocaust denier could not use the delivery service. In this case, the order was overturned in a few months by a board of review. Despite his beliefs, Sears says he doesn’t actually hate anyone. That might be true, but other people certainly hate him.
James Turk is a journalism professor at Ryerson University in Toronto as well as the director of Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression (CFE). He has followed Sears’s case closely as he believes it will likely be the next case where the Supreme Court clarifies their position on what constitutes hate speech. This has already happened before. In 1990, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling against James Keegstra, a public school history teacher in Alberta. Keegstra had been teaching his students a revised history of the holocaust, reinforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes and claiming that Jewish people were overwhelmingly responsible for WW2. He also claimed that the number of Jews killed during the holocaust was wildly exaggerated to garner support for Israel in the aftermath of the war. Keegstra was charged under section 319(2) of the criminal code, which states that it’s illegal to “communicate statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promoting hatred against any identifiable group.” After he was convicted in 1984, Keegstra appealed to the Alberta Supreme Court, who overturned his conviction. The crown then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada who, in 1990, gave a very definitive definition of what hate speech is in their 4-3 split decision to uphold Keegstra’s conviction.
SEE: FULL INTERVIEW WITH JAMES TURK
“The term ‘hatred’ connotes emotion of an intense and extreme nature that is clearly associated with vilification and detestation … [it] is predicated on destruction, and hatred against identifiable groups therefore thrives on insensitivity, bigotry and destruction of both the target group and of the values of our society,” the ruling reads. “Hatred in this sense is a most extreme emotion that belies reason; an emotion that, if exercised against members of an identifiable group, implies that those individuals are to be despised, scorned, denied respect and made subject to ill-treatment on the basis of group affiliation.”
But Turk says it’s the prohibitory order issued by Canada Post that he feels is unconstitutional. When the minister responsible for Canada Post decides to issue a prohibitory order, the affected party has no legal recourse. They can’t challenge the order in trial or have the case heard by a judge. Instead, there only option is to challenge the order and have the case heard by a committee. The problem? The very minister who issued the order gets to select the committee. Not exactly an impartial process. In this case, that minister was Judy Foote, the minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada. Turk says he finds the use of this sort of order to be unconstitutional. “To give the minister sole authority to indefinitely take away your rights to use the mail and for you to have no right to go to court or anything else but simply to appeal to a review panel that the minister appoints really is below a level of procedural protection that is common in any democratic society.”
Your Ward News has challenged the order, saying it’s unconstitutional and the satirical nature of the paper makes it OK to distribute it. Sears says that this case is a perfect example of how free speech in Canada only exists on paper. “Legally we can publish our paper. The police haven’t charged us. We haven’t been charged by the cops. So we have free speech. But stones have gone through our windows. People have spray-painted our office. People have intimidated us. People have left shit on my car. So yes, we have free speech, but you have to have balls of steel to exercise it.”
He says that these restrictions against his paper foster an environment where, despite having free speech on paper, people are actually afraid to exercise it daily. “I’m at the grocery store looking at fruit or vegetables, and somebody comes up to me and whispers, ‘I love your paper.’ and I go, ‘Well why are you whispering’ and they say, ‘Well, I don’t want anybody to know.’ Is that free speech?”
Despite what he describes as “Soviet-style intimidation” tactics reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, Sears says most of his public interactions are positive and that the majority of negative attacks he receives are either online or over the phone. He plays a recording for me. “How dare you put this in my mailbox. It’s disgusting,” a woman’s voice says. “They don’t even say where they live so we can’t put it in their mailbox anymore,” he says, grinning slyly. Sears says Canada Post’s prohibitory order is political, brought on by what he refers to as the “Zionist lobby” of Canada. He also says the courts are afraid to rule on the case due to the precedent it would set regarding hate speech laws.
Frank Addario, whose legal office is representing Sears, says that it’s only illegal to distribute hate propaganda or libelous claims and that Your Ward News does neither. He says it’s wrong that Canada Post can prevent someone from using tax-funded services without “[putting] any corresponding obligation on itself to act swiftly after it takes away the citizen’s right to use the postal service for purposes of free expression,” Addario told CBC when the initial review of the case was announced.
On November 2, the committee put together by Foote issued a preliminary decision. It found that Foote had not given enough evidence of her reasons for issuing the prohibitory order against Sears. “A mere recitation of the language used in the CPCA without explanation does not constitute ‘reasons’. The repetition of the statutory requirements does not inform [Sears] or this Board of the reasons why a decision was made. The material relied upon by [Foote], the IPO, and the covering letter accompanying the IPO lack the analysis which is vital to enable [Sears] to appreciate why the IPO was issued and the case they have to address before the Board,” the report read.
But as Sears would soon find, his legal battles were far from over.
Last October, the “Unity Rally to End White Supremacy” took place at Queen’s Park in Toronto, a response to a planned (and subsequently cancelled) event by the Canadian Nationalist Party (CNP). Hundreds of protesters came out to speak against white supremacy – the belief that white people are innately meant to rule over other races. Speakers from Black Lives Matter, as well as the Marxist organizations Fightback and Socialist Action, spoke to the crowd from the steps of Queen’s Park.
PHOTO ALBUM: UNITY RALLY TO END WHITE SUPREMACY
Jessica Cassell is a member of Fightback, a Marxist organization at Ryerson University. She says the rally is a response to the rise of far-right groups espousing hateful values in Canada. According to Cassell, free speech doesn’t apply to white supremacist groups because they themselves are infringing on the rights of others. “These people don’t care about free speech. They want to shut down whole sections of society, they want to exterminate them,” she says. Cassell says Fightback is committed to “militant mass organizing” against racist ideas and groups.
But according to Sue-Ann Levy, an investigative columnist for the Toronto Sun, it’s often the right that is being attacked by the left. As I am preparing to interview her, a woman waving a Palestinian flag comes up to me. “To be clear, she is a fascist,” she says, pointing at Levy. “Oh yeah, I’m a fascist, don’t you know?” Levy says sarcastically, explaining to me afterwards that the woman knew who she was and had been following her around since she got to the rally. She describes herself as a “right-wing lesbian journalist in a left-wing world.” Levy says that when she is called homophobic and points out that she herself is gay, she is told she’s a “self-loathing lesbian.”
“I think what happens is the left has a free pass. They can say outrageous, inflammatory things but if you happen to respond and happen to be identified as someone who is right of centre — whether it’s right of centre fiscally or whatever, you’re considered hateful.”
© Joseph Cicerone
© Joseph Cicerone
But according to Shannon McDeez, the organizer of the rally, free speech laws in Canada aren’t doing enough to protect minorities.
“One of our organizers was the victim of a hate crime just a couple weeks back. A few people followed him to his home and told him to get out of our country,” she said in an interview following the rally. “When he spoke to the police, they were kind of wishy-washy about it. They were like, ‘Oh, that’s not really hate speech.’’” McDeez says this indifference toward reports of hate crimes skews the relevant statistics and stops people from coming forward due to fear of not being taken seriously. “The police aren’t doing enough. I think that these people need to be treated like the terrorists they are and I think that broadening the legislation surrounding hate speech and hate crimes is … the only thing that can actively address that problem.”
Then, almost like clockwork, an anti-immigration rally organized by the Proud Boys was scheduled for Oct. 21, at Nathan Phillips Square. The left’s response? A pro-immigration counter protest. Same day. Same place. Same time. Both rallies take place as expected, with the counter protesters slightly outnumbering the original protest. The police put up a barricade between the two, but aside from that they basically let them have at each other. They both had the right to be there and protest, after all.
I arrive early and find a few of the anti-immigration protesters standing in a circle. I want to talk to them about why they came out. It was an odd mix of individuals — six men and one woman, four of which appeared to be above 40 and three who were well below 30. All white. Though a few would not speak to me (I heard them muttering something about “fake news” as I mentioned my occupation), the consensus amongst them was that Trudeau’s immigration policies are altering the racial demographics of Canada in a way that they saw as bad.
“Bad for who?”
They tell me it’s bad for white Canadians. “You don’t see any non-white first world country getting forced to take in these immigrants? Why is that? Because anti-immigration is code for anti-white,” said one of the younger men, who identified himself as Jay and would not give his last name for fear of punishment at work. “They want us dead.”
He starts going off about globalists and the top one per cent, trailing off into a massive conspiracy about the human race becoming enslaved by a one-world government. But he also makes rational points too. He says that hate speech is free speech and that you don’t create a free society by limiting or restricting what people can say, giving examples like China under Mao and North Korea. “We debate things in Western society … If you don’t like what I’m saying, let’s have an actual fucking conversation about it.”
I head over to a small group of pro-immigration counter protesters hanging out on the other side of the square. I wanted to get their thoughts on free speech. Two of them are dressed in all black and wearing dark bandanas over their mouths and touques on their heads. These guys seemed prepared. As I approach, one of them makes eye contact with me and turns to the others to say something. They turn and stare. I get closer and wave, beginning to try and tell them what I’m trying to do. They quickly cut me off and one tells me that they saw me talking with “the neo-Nazis” and that they won’t talk to someone who sympathizes with Nazis. I try to explain that I want to hear both sides, but they use some not-so-elegant words that make very clear their position. So much for an open dialogue.
Maybe that’s what free speech really means. Using language to shame people that do things or associate with people you don’t like. Or is it using that same language to speak out against the aforementioned shamers? The problem with obscure terms like free speech is that, even if the law surrounding it was clear-cut (spoiler alert: it’s not), very few people actually understand the laws surrounding free speech in Canada. It means something slightly different to everyone. Which is why it’s so hard to debate. Arguing over a topic two people who know each other both understand well is one thing. But arguing with a person you’ve just met over a term you have completely different definitions for? That’s when you get meaningless rhetoric and ad hominem attacks, from both sides.
But it’s almost like that’s what these groups wanted. These rallies seemed like a thinly-veiled excuse for giant arguments with a chance of bloodshed. Neither groups had any real booths or information desks. There was no real message on either side. It was always just “We’re right. The other guys are wrong.” The police had been there since I arrived, but as more protesters started to show up on both sides, they put up a barricade and started to usher people onto either side based on what protest they were with. More and more protesters begin to arrive and around 2 p.m., well over 200 are in the square.
“No hate, no fear. Nazis are not welcome here,” the counter protestors chant.
“Commies, go home, you have low testosterone,” the protesters respond.
“God, why are they all so fucking disgusting?” one girl there with the anti-immigration protesters says about the counterprotest. “You guys are terrorists — you’re literally terrorists,” a counter protester shouts back. “What’s wrong with not liking Trudeau, huh? We don’t want a dictator, that’s it. What’s the fucking problem?” another protester responds. Amongst all the violence and anger, It seemed like the only real thing keeping the fabric of free speech alive was a slightly thicker layer of body armour. Lots of talking, but no listening.
According to Anjelika Oulanova, a police officer cleaning up after the event told her that he understood why she came. “He told me that I was there to defend my freedom that the violent kids didn’t understand what they were doing,” she said, referencing the counter protesters. Oulanova says she feels the media has a bias towards the left, pointing out that there was lots of Communist and Marxist imagery on their side but that aspect of many rallies and counter protests often goes unreported. “That Communist symbol represents an ideology which resulted in the systematic murder and starvation of 100 million people in the 20th century. Do the organizers of this march endorse Communism, yes or no?” reads one comment on a photo containing a flag with the hammer and sickle logo posted to the event’s Facebook page.
© Joseph Cicerone
ABOVE: Many left-wing protesters displayed signs containing Communist imagery, most notably the hammer and sickle first used in the Russian revolution as well as throughout the Soviet Union.
It’s not clear how many white supremacist groups there are in Canada, mostly because of the overlap between white supremacy and white nationalism – the idea that all races are equal, but that whites have a specific claim to North America and Europe, and the right to remain a majority in those areas. Groups like the Proud Boys. People like Sears. There are about 100 white nationalist groups in Canada, according to Barbara Perry, a University of Ontario Institute of Technology professor who studies hate crimes.
Paul Fromm is one such white nationalist. He also leads the Canadian Association for Free Expression (CAFE), an organization committed to promoting and defending “total freedom of speech” in Canada. Fromm says he can’t think of a time in Canada’s history where it’s been more important to fight for free speech. “It’s under attack on campuses it’s under attack, particularly from government institutions and from big businesses, who will fire a person at the drop of the hat for the nonviolent expression of their beliefs on their own time. It’s a bad time to be anything other than a [liberal] in this country,” he says, referencing a construction worker who was fired from his job in August for bringing a Confederate flag to his work site.
McDeez acknowledged that defining the line between free and hate speech is tough, but that it’s not as clear cut as whether someone is assaulted or slandered. “Is spray-painting something on a garage door breaking bones? No, it’s not, but it’s actively destroying lives. There’s been scientifically proven effects on mental health, which resonates into heart health. So hate speech and racism is killing people.”
SEE: UNITY RALLY TO END WHITE SUPREMACY
So what’s the solution to extremist groups that want publicly? Well that’s the million-dollar question.
For James Pasternak, the solution is to block hateful groups from gathering in public spaces, such as city halls, parks and libraries. Last September, the city councillor for Ward 10 launched an administrative inquiry, asking the city if there are options available for the city to prevent “hate-sponsored rallies” from taking place on city or provincial property. Speaking to the Ryersonian, he said that these limitations are long overdue. “These groups can do their little hate-fests in restaurants or on private property. I don’t think the city has any obligation to provide them space and resources … because they’re out for a stroll of hate.” In the initial answer to the inquiry, the city delayed its response until November. Pasternak says he understands why, as the response will deal with different legal elements – from Supreme Court rulings to Canada’s Criminal Code – and the very issue of free speech itself.
© Tomasz Bugajski
Regarding what to do about individuals such as the one wearing a T-shirt with Nazi symbols at the Peterborough, Ont., rally, Pasternak said he wants such questions answered through the inquiry. “For an individual to adhere to those ideologies is nothing short of despicable. Can we go and arrest him or bring him in for questioning? That’s what we’re trying to find out through this inquiry — what kind of reach we have as a municipal government to stop this.”
On Nov. 2, the city issued a response to Pasternak’s inquiry. It acknowledged that the city did not condone rallies that harass or discriminate against groups or individuals and that in order to obtain a permit on city property must sign a anti-harassment and discrimination contract, which includes adhering to the Human Rights Code. But it also pointed out logistical challenges in preventing protests from occurring on city property. “Sometimes there are rallies and protests that appear on Nathan Phillips Square and other City property without staff knowledge or without the issuance of a permit. The public has the right to assemble on City squares and to express their views. If activities occur at a rally on a city square that jeopardize public safety or if the rally incites hatred or violence against a group, these actions will not be tolerated.”
The letter ends by acknowledging that provincial rules regarding public property supercede any decisions made by the city regarding public property. Consequently, any rules on restricting protests would need to be made by Ontario, not the City of Toronto.
However in some cases, people already have been arrested. On Nov. 10, police charged Sears and LeRoy St. Germaine, the publisher of Your Ward News, with “the willful promotion of hatred against women and Jews”. That first charge against women has never been laid before in Canada’s history. The charges cited Your Ward News issues, going back over three years, as the offending material. To Turk, the charges come at a suspicious time. They were laid just eight days after the board put together by Canada Post ruled in Sears’s favour. “It’s really odd it happened one week later, especially after three years of investigations that never found there was a basis to do this.” Turk says that there is no doubt in his mind that this will be the next major Supreme Court case on free speech in Canada.
According to Ontario’s Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, the seriousness of charging someone under hate speech laws was why prosecution took so long to bring charges against Sears. “Hate crimes are, by their very nature, serious offences because their impacts can be devastating, spreading from the individual through the social fabric of our communities as a whole,” Naqvi said in a statement after the charges were announced. “In a multicultural and inclusive province like Ontario, the promotion of hatred stands in direct opposition to our fundamental values of equality and diversity.”
To Sears, the charges coming just over a week after the Canada Post decision was nothing short of a political hit job. “It’s so brazen. It’s like a banana republic. For them to think they can get away with those optics… it’s unbelievable.” Sears says he believes that the hate speech charges stem from the Liberal establishment, angry over the fact that the review board’s decision once again allowed Sears to use Canada Post and distribute Your Ward News.
But even now, facing years of legal battles and hundreds of thousands in legal bills, Sears’s optimistic nature shines through. He says that when he turned himself in on Nov. 15, the few hours he got to spend in a cell were like a mini-vacation. “It was the first peace and quiet I’ve had in months … and I was lying there, I said to myself ‘Fuck, a month in the slammer, it would actually be like a vacation.’” He says he sees no real possibility of being convicted by a jury because Your Ward News is satirical and any comments he makes about identifiable groups are, according to him, legal under either parody law or fair comment. Additionally, Sears says he is the first person to be charged with a hate crime that isn’t actually hateful.
“All the other people who get charged, whether its someone talking about Jews or a person talking about homosexuals or Muslims, they’re angry. Like [Kevin Johnson]. He hates Muslims. These are hateful people. I’m a guy who isn’t even hateful. But it’s sort of a misnomer when you get charged with hate speech but you got no hate.” Johnson is the Mississauga, Ont., man charged with a hate crime for offering a $1,000 reward for recordings of Muslim students “spewing hate speech during Friday prayers.”
Sears has said on multiple occasions he does not hate any identifiable groups and simply wants Muslims and Jews to “find Jesus”. Although a final decision would be up to a jury and/or a higher court of appeal, this argument has legal precedence. Section 296 of Canada’s Criminal Code says that blasphemous libel is not a convictable offence provided that a person is “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.”
To Fromm, the paper is top-notch satire. He says that it’s controversial and outspoken nature makes it one of the most exciting and interesting publications in Canada in a long time. He also says that the charges against Sears are a test of how far free speech can go in Canada. Turk agrees, adding the ironic point that most of the people he shows Your Ward News to think it’s a joke making fun of traditional right-wing news outlets.
Turk is in the unique position of supporting Sears’s legal right to speak his views despite personally finding them offensive. To him, advocacy of violence is the line that separates free speech from hate speech. In the case of Sears, he says that shutting down controversial speech will not address the underlying systemic issues in society which cause these very ideas in the first place. Turk believes we will not get rid of discriminatory speech until we fix the mechanisms in society that cause people to espouse these views.
“The problem is not the expression of those ideas, the problem is the holding of those ideas … and so the notion the way we bring this to a halt is by criminalizing their expression is wrong.” As an example, Turk points to more restrictive speech laws in Europe that have failed to reduce rates of discrimination towards ethnic and religious minorities. According to Turk, the amount of speech you’d have to make illegal to fully remove hateful ideas from the English language is so large that the task is impractical. Additionally, he says that it’s often microaggressions, and not actual hate speech, that minorities experience most.
“If you’re going to end the kind of experience that marginalized people face you’d have to make illegal not only the use of the N-word and vicious epithets but you’d also have to restrict a whole range of other kinds of things that are demeaning, unpleasant, and the problem there is they’re so common that you’d suddenly give the police the right to arrest almost anybody.” Turk gives the example of someone criticizing the Liberal governments choice to create a gender-balanced cabinet and saying job postings should be based on ability. “Is that promoting hatred against women?”
So what does Turk think is the best way to speak against Sears? “I would rather [he] be seen for what he is. I don’t think there’s any mistaking what he is when you talk to him,” he says. As CFE’s Director, Turk is a strong supporter of counterspeech. He believes that just like Sears should be able to say what he wants, another person should be able to verbally shame him for his views, or tell him he is wrong. Turk also points out that this use of free speech was precisely what people like Martin Luther King (who, ironically enough, was once arrested for violating hate speech laws) and other civil rights activists used to challenge racism in the courts prior to the Civil Rights Act.
But Turk also says that not all people claiming to support free speech truly believe in it. “One of the ironies is… people like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos are portraying themselves as the defenders of free speech. I have no doubt that, were they in power, they’d be the first to suppress free speech.” He also gives the example of Andrew Scheer, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, proposing that universities that suppress free speech should be fined despite condemning universities that took part in “Israeli apartheid week” just months before. “These folks are embracing the defense of free speech as part of their attack on Liberals and liberalism. They’re not committed to free speech.” Turk also points out that it has historically been the right who has attempted to suppress free speech on university campuses, such as in the era of McCarthyism.
When Sears first spoke to me about the charges, he said he was excited. He said he views them as an opportunity to get the hate speech laws removed under what is known as a constitutional challenge, essentially arguing that the laws as they exist are unconstitutional. But Turk says he believes that Sears has another motivation for his excitement: fame. Turk believes that Sears sees this trial as a chance to be thrust into the public eye and put on the radar of more like-minded individuals who otherwise would never know he existed. It’s certainly happened before. Ernst Zundel was a holocaust denier who ran a paper in the basement of his Toronto home. According to Turk, when Zundel was charged under Canada’s Criminal Code in 1984, he went from having a small, obscure group of supporters to being thrust into the public spotlight. “In some cases, i think it’s best we just ignore them. So that’s probably why Sears is delighted he’s been charged. Not only does he see it as a chance to challenge Criminal Code provisions on hate speech, but also its gonna make [him] a national figure.”
Much like Turk’s CFE, Fromm is part of CAFE, an organization that focuses on protecting freedom of speech in Canada. However their similarities end there. Fromm says that freedom of speech in Canada is less about what you’re saying and more about what an individual you’re talking to doesn’t like. “If speech is criticizing the behavior of blacks, it’s hate speech. If you don’t want to use a pronoun that nobody ever heard of two years ago, xe or xer, for someone who is sexually messed up, well then that’s hate speech.” Fromm says he has seen Canada progress to a point where people only pay lip service to freedom of speech and where the statement “I believe in free speech” is almost always followed by a “but”.
© Andrew Hitchcock
Often labeled as a neo-Nazi by his opponents, Fromm says these claims are false. According to him, since Hitler’s National Socialists never used the word “Nazi” to refer to themselves, the term “neo-Nazi” makes no sense. “It’s an invention that suggests usually a skinhead that goes around beating up people, it’s associated with violence and bullying and I have nothing to do that … it’s actually our opponents who practice violence, the ANTIFA who try to physically attack people,” he says.
Fromm says that, despite his opponents claims, he is not a racist. He says his advocacy against immigration and pro-Israel lobbying is completely legal under free speech and fair comment. “I want North America for the European founding settling people. Do I dislike people from other backgrounds? Yes, some of them. Others, no.” He says that the issue is not a matter of individuals, but rather shifting racial demographics. “We are being replaced. By 2050, people that look like [white European males] will be a minority in the country our ancestors built. That’s wrong. We have to reverse this … It’s not about hating people from other backgrounds.” Fromm says. “If you ask any other people on the face of this Earth if they want to be replaced they’d say ‘hell no’ and that’s what it’s all about.”
Fromm may disagree with his enemies on the left, but he does not underestimate them. He says that one thing they’ve been extremely good at is the weaponization of words. “[Saying things] like ‘You’re a racist, so I must not associate with you’ or ‘You’re a neo-Nazi’, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, they use it to divide us.” According to Fromm, the fact that Trump was labelled as almost every negative buzzword in the political dictionary and still won shows that this tactic is weakening. “What it meant was a whole lot of people said ‘Well I don’t care if you call him a racist or a white supremacist or whatever, I understand him and he’s for me.’ They’re terrified of that.”
* * *
The triggering of the campus liberal
If there’s a war being waged on free speech, the main battlefield is undoubtedly the university campus. Since the lead up to the 2016 presidential election there has been a growing trend of campuses shutting down controversial speakers, not just in Canada but across North America. From Jordan Peterson to Ezra Levant to Richard Spencer, numerous controversial figures have been prevented from giving scheduled lectures or speeches, usually by left-wing groups like ANTIFA, short for anti-Fascist. There’s a growing divide between people who think that controversial figures should be able to speak and ones who think that spreading controversial or hateful views in public should be something we put certain restrictions on.
In November, Jordan Peterson and a number of other speakers hosted an event titled “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses” at the Canada Christian College. The irony of this event was that the original venue — Ryerson University — cancelled due to “safety concerns” in August. “After a thorough security review, the University has concluded that Ryerson is not equipped to provide the necessary level of public safety for the event to go forward, particularly given the recent events in Charlottesville, Va., For that reason, we have told the organizers that Ryerson will no longer provide a room for their event,” read Ryerson’s statement.
When Turk heard what happened, he said he was appalled. He wrote a blog post on CFE’s website criticizing the decision.
“In cancelling the event, Ryerson gave in to intimidation, prevented a panel discussion of difficult ideas and disagreement over deeply held views, and denied free speech rights to those with opposing views. The defence that it had to protect public safety is not acceptable. Just as paying ransom to kidnappers or pirates encourages more kidnapping and piracy, shutting down free speech in the face of threats of disruption only encourages more such threats in future as the way to deal with ideas one does not like.” The post also points out that Ryerson’s decision was in direct contradiction of their stated policy on freedom of speech, which states that: “Ryerson does not avoid controversies, difficult ideas, or disagreements over deeply held views … The right to freedom of speech comes with the responsibility to exercise that right in an atmosphere free of intimidation and in an environment that supports the free speech rights of those with opposing views.”
Turk says that when he spoke to Ryerson’s president, Mohamed Lachemi, he was told that the decision was made after consulting with Toronto police. Apparently, because speakers like Faith Goldy and Peterson are so controversial, Ryerson was told they would need security to a degree that was “prohibitively expensive”. “And I said, ‘Well that’s dangerous precedent that you’re setting, because the appearance of disruption was the result of a Facebook page … who knows if that was someone sitting in their basement in Edmonton or whether it reflects [local public opinion].’”
It seems free speech is not safe on university campuses anymore if you or the ideas you represent are “unsafe”. But this brings up a lot of questions. Is this the new normal? Do we just cower and give in to demands at the slightest chance of violence? Are vague threats of violence all someone needs to do to get an event cancelled? And if so, is this very technique being used against people like Peterson antithetical to one of the main reasons that free speech was created — to speak out against those you disagree with?
Almost three months later, on a frosty Remembrance Day, around 1,500 attended the second attempt at the event. Walking towards the building, I saw at least four parking lots within a one-kilometre area of the college that had police cars set up, officers inside. Not doing speed traps, not on a break but alert and ready. After I see the third parking lot I finally realize. They’re there for the protestors.
So that’s it, then? Free speech has to be protected under threat of arrest? I slump along the final stretch to the college, greeted by four more police cruisers as I reach the front door. It’s sad to think that free speech can’t proceed in 2017 without an immense police presence.
Peterson began the talk by acknowledging Ryerson’s cancellation of the previous event. He points out that, while the speakers were only going to be talking to around 300 people, they now were speaking to around 1,500. Despite the increase in numbers, Peterson says it’s a sad testimony to the state of free speech that a panel on that very topic had to be relocated because of censorship. Peterson also spoke about an incident at Wilfrid Laurier University where teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd was criticized at length for showing a video of a debate on gender-neutral pronouns featuring Peterson. The video in question was shown for a tutorial on grammar Shepherd was teaching. At least one student in the class complained, leading to a meeting between Shepherd and three of her superiors where she was told, amongst other things, that playing a speech by Peterson without denouncing his views beforehand was like “neutrally playing a speech by Hitler”.
“We’re in the upside-down,” Peterson said, referring to what he sees as a system that automatically supports any opinion that is left-of-centre, even if it is not based on empirical evidence.
SEE: PETERSON’S FULL SPEECH “THE STIFLING OF FREE SPEECH ON UNIVERSITY CAMPUSES
But the most ironic aspect of this whole story? Shepherd says she doesn’t even agree with Peterson’s views on gender-neutral pronouns. In an interview with the Ryersonian, she says that there exists a culture in universities where people are critiqued and discredited if they have views which challenge what she describes as the authoritarian left’s narrative. Similarly to Sears description of Soviet-style intimidation, Shepherd acknowledges there is an atmosphere in universities where more moderate Liberals like herself feel the need to “self-censor” ideas for fear of being labelled discriminatory or racist. “You just refrain from saying anything that might upset the authoritarian leftists because you don’t want to be considered one of these labels that they’re going to try to insist you are.”
Shepherd secretly recorded her meeting with her superiors. This is legal, as Ontario is a one-party consent province, meaning only one person has to consent to recording a conversation for it to be legal, as opposed to places like California, where you are legally obligated to ask someone for permission if you would like to record them. Shepherd says that, when she received the message that there were concerns over content in her tutorials and that her superiors had set up a meeting, she recorded it to protect herself, as she anticipated things could potentially get “out of hand”. After she made the recording, Shepherd was unsure of the legality of it and it was not until a reporter told her it was OK for her to release it that she did so. For all their differences, Sears, Turk and Fromm all agree that making the recording was the right decision. “When you hear [it], what the original story said and what she’s claimed all along was exactly true. And that’s appalling,” says Turk. “The fact that she taped that interview, they were so embarrassed,” says Fromm.
SEE: FULL INTERVIEW WITH LINDSAY SHEPHERD
After the release of the recording, the school issued the following statement titled “Open letter from Nathan Rambukkana to Lindsay Shepherd”. In it, Rambukkana admitted he could have done more to support her in the meeting. “I didn’t do enough … which I deeply regret. I should have seen how meeting with a panel of three people would be an intimidating situation and not invite a productive discussion.” He also said that using the analogy of Peterson’s speeches being comparable to Hitler’s was “a poorly chosen [sic] example” and that “the tired analogy does [Peterson] a disservice and was the opposite of useful in our discussion”. Interestingly enough, freedom of speech was not mentioned once in the letter. The closest Rambukkana comes is when he says that “making a space for controversial or oppositional views is important, and even essential to a university,” but even this is directly followed by Rambukkana cautioning that material must still be “properly [contextualized]”. Turk was not impressed. “It’s a terrible apology. Neither the president of the university or the faculty member who did it properly apologized.”
© David Bebee
Shepherd says that universities have moved away from being institutes where debates and discourse surrounding controversial topics are welcomed and students are encouraged to challenge their own views and biases. Instead, she says that schools will try and censor controversial opinions, something she says will not bode well for students once they enter the workplace. “You can’t pretend that there aren’t people who hold these views, what kind of help does that do to those students, to pretend as if there is some country-wide consensus that everyone believes in [using gender neutral pronouns]? It’s not true.”
Shepherd says she has always self-censored and used to think that she was just in the minority with regards to being left-wing but not holding far-left views. But she says this experience has been a wake-up call, showing her there are many more like her, who might tow the line in class but secretly disagree with what they’re pretending to believe. She says that this culture of saying one thing but believing another is anathema to post-secondary education. “You’re not allowing people to have their own thought processes … you can’t call yourself a university if you’re going to do that, you’re now like an institute for authoritarian leftism.” Despite identifying as a progressive liberal, Shepherd says she has been called alt-right because of her views on free speech and defense of her decision to play the video of Peterson. “It’s like, I vote Green and I’m a vegetarian and you’re saying I’m alt-right? You’re insane.”
But who exactly are these “authoritarian leftists”? In recent years, groups claiming to be “anti-fascist” or otherwise opposed to right-wing, authoritative views have exploded in popularity, much thanks to the election of Trump and the rise of ethnic nationalism across North America. One such group is ANTIFA, short for anti-fascist. The Ryersonian reached out to Toronto’s local ANTIFA chapter as well as their Canadian chapter, but neither responded to multiple requests for comment. Regarding claims that right-wing protestors have initiated violence, Fromm says it’s actually ANTIFA doing the fighting in most cases.
To Turk, ANTIFA is very hard to categorize because it’s made up of such a wide number of individuals, from hardcore Communists to moderate Liberals that are unhappy with people like Trump. He points out that ANTIFA has actually opposed Pasternak’s proposal to ban hate groups from assembling on public property. “They were saying, ‘Look, we bitterly oppose these guys [but] they can do what they want to do, we’re gonna be out there showing them why they’re wrong and denouncing them.” According to Turk, ANTIFA is smart enough to realize that if you give city council the right to say who can and can’t use a public space, then that power can be used against far-left groups just as easily as it can be used against far-right groups.
It’s not just left-wing groups that have grown in popularity though. Fromm says he’s encouraged by a younger generation getting involved in rallies and right-wing politics and that the amount of pro-nationalist rallies in Canada has increased greatly over the past 18 months. He gives the example of the five counter protesters who disrupted the protest against the Edward Cornwallis statue in Halifax. Cornwallis has been alleged to have been involved in the genocide of Mi’kmaq indigenous people and the protest was meant to gain support for removing the statue, however the five counter protesters, who identified themselves as part of the far-right “Proud Boys” group said they believed that the protest was meant to normalize the removal of Western symbols, much like the debate over removing Confederate statues in America.
Fromm says this very act of defiance is huge in the context of a rising nationalist tide. “A year ago the Proud Boys would not have been out there in Halifax. They probably would not have had the stones to do it. Because they’d be afraid of being called names. Now people are just a little less afraid.”
As part of his bail conditions, Sears was ordered to take down all the archived versions of Your Ward News online. He also had the choice to appeal this decision at the bail hearing, which he did. On Dec. 13, a judge ruled that past issues of the newspaper could stay up online and Sears could continue to distribute old editions publicly.
Sears’s first court date fell on the frigid afternoon of Dec. 21 at the College Park Courthouse. The day before he sends me the following text. “I’ll have copies of the next edition of the paper. It’s very offensive.” As I made my way through the metal detectors and into the stuffy, cramped hallway I saw Sears. He was surrounded by colleagues and, sure enough, carrying a crisp stack of Your Ward News under his arm. A woman walked in front of me to give him a hug and wish him good luck. He thanked her and handed her one of the papers. This continues a few more times and before long a small group of us has amassed around Sears, who jokes about how he has an actual entourage accompanying him to court.
© Chris Young
Court begins, with a dozen or so cases coming up in the docket before Sears’s is called and him and St. Germaine walk up to the front. There was initially some confusion about the charge, as Sears is currently going through court proceedings for another charge, uttering threats, against Warren and Lisa Kinsella. The Kinsellas also happen to be named as victims in the hate speech charges, which led to confusion for the Crown and the Justice of the Peace continuing with other cases on the docket as the Crown determined what the issue was (both Warren and Lisa Kinsella did not respond to multiple requests for comment). When the case continued, about 20 minutes later, they clarified the mix-up. Sears then told the Justice of the Peace he wanted to set a pre-trial date, something he had already requested twice since the initial charges. But the Crown said they were not able to set one yet. Sears was clearly annoyed. He asked the Justice of the Peace how long he would have to wait (he previously mentioned he wants court proceedings to go as quickly as possible) to set a pre-trial date. The Crown said they could possibly set one by the end of the day (at this point, it was around 2:30 p.m.). But it was also possible that they would not be able to, and Sears would have to wait around at the courthouse, potentially for nothing. In the end, they set a second trial date for Jan. 4. It seemed as though, after an afternoon of pressing starchy shirts and waiting around, neither the Crown nor Sears had much to show for the effort. Afterwards,
Sears was frustrated that the Crown was taking so long to set a pre-trial date. He says the Liberal government is terrified of putting him in a witness stand, for fear of the politically incorrect things he would say.
On the way home, Sears has moved on from his frustration with the court and is now talking about one of the Crown attorneys. He talks about how physically attractive he found her and how, according to him, attorneys are often among the most sexually-repressed individuals (along with, according to him, real estate agents and anyone involved with early childcare). He jokes about how the “broad definitely wanted it”. It’s a complete 180 from the man who, just minutes before, was furious with a Crown he felt was stalling. But at the same time, it was what I had come to expect of Sears, angry but not frightened, upset but never demoralized.
As I sit in the back of his black Lincoln, listening to Sears talk about the alleged sexual idiosyncrasies of females in the legal industry, I sit and wonder to myself if I’m listening to a conversation that, one day, might be illegal. I wonder if one day the numerous copies of Your Ward News that Sears has given to me will be considered hate literature, comparable to Mein Kampf in the eyes of the law. And lastly, I wonder to myself if, one day, we’ll wake up in a Canada where people with opinions deemed “unsafe”, “hateful” or “intolerant” will be locked up in a cell.
Only time will tell.