War of the words
- Subtitle: Cover Story
Words simply spoken can turn thousands toward malevolence with gas chambers. Or machetes. Which is why the preservation of a peaceful, pluralistic society like Canada hinges on outlawing hate. Or does it? Perhaps words are simply words — offensive, even forceful at times, but essential to a public discourse from which reasonable citizens in a democracy inform their personal opinions.
This polemic has alternately simmered and boiled for more than three decades and no two lawyers in Canada exemplify this debate more precisely than hate propaganda sleuth Richard Warman and free speech libertarian Douglas Christie: crusaders, courtroom foes, and fellow vegetarians. And though they’d cringe at being compared further, they do share one thing more: strangers want them dead.
Someone drove a truck through lawyer Doug Christie’s street-level office once. He wasn’t there at the time. Christie’s been threatened and his property has been vandalized. People have thrown rocks at him, clenched fists, and a veritable thesaurus of insults: “perverted monster” was one of his favourites. He sued for defamation in that case and lost. “They called it fair comment. I mean, where do you go from there?” asks Christie, munching bean salad in the Ottawa courthouse cafeteria during a break in a defamation suit he’s pursing against Warren Kinsella and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on behalf of his client, Ian Verner Macdonald, a retired foreign service diplomat.
“I believe a person should be judged as an individual. But I realize some people can’t do that and they’ve judged me according to what they think is the company I keep,” says the 62-year-old Christie, whose client roster of Holocaust deniers, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists has come to define the Victoria lawyer as much as his signature cowboy hat and boots.
Likewise, Warman might as well have crosshairs on his chest. His enemies have repeatedly posted his home address online with Google map directions, beckoning those within range to point and shoot. Notorious neo-Nazi Bill White, head of the American National Socialist Workers Party, sent Warman an e-mail once. “He said, ‘I have a Ruger P90 and its bullets have your name on it fag-boy Warman.’ It’s hard to get any more direct than that,” he says. White was indicted in December 2008 on seven counts of uttering threats, extortion, and intimidation based partly on testimony Warman gave before a grand jury in Virginia. Resulting from such threats, Warman reveals precious little about himself aside from saying he works for the federal government, obtained law degrees from the universities of Windsor and McGill, and is in his late 30s.
The clatter from this war of words reverberates into mainstream media and Parliament Hill. Obstreperous right-wing commentators Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant were both accused of hate crimes —Steyn, a Maclean’s columnist, for passages in his book America Alone and Levant, who also writes the Back Page column for this magazine, for publishing those notorious Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in the now-defunct Western Standard. Both men perpetually mourn the death of free speech and fill the blogosphere with calls to repeal s. 13, the Canadian Human Rights Act’s hate provision.
Scrapping s. 13 is a good start, says Christie. Then get rid of Criminal Code hate offences too, he says, because they unreasonably inhibit our right to speak freely about controversial topics. Other Criminal Code offences already cover conspiracy to commit crimes, counselling in the commission of offences, and threats to do bodily harm, and there are defamation laws as well, he says. Expressing opinions about race and religion, no matter how nasty, should not be a crime, he argues.
Warman, who has tracked hate groups for 20 years, disagrees and cautions against removing legal barriers. Given free reign to meet, organize, and publicize their views online and in person, he says, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups would grow and hate-related acts of violence would as well. Like it or not, Canada has a policy of multiculturalism and has signed international protocols to uphold human rights and eliminate discrimination, Warman says. It has a responsibility to preserve a hate-free society.
Freedom of expression in Canada and the legal constraints of it have evolved over time but most scholars point to the 1965 Special Committee on Hate Propaganda in Canada — dubbed the Cohen Committee — as the beginning of the modern debate between free speech and hate speech. The committee, which included a young Pierre Trudeau, was struck in response to the growth of fascist groups in Canada only 20 years after the Second World War and Holocaust. In its report to Parliament, the committee concluded: “. . . the hate situation in Canada, although not alarming, clearly is serious enough to require action. It is far better for Canadians to come to grips with the problem now, before it attains unmanageable proportions, rather than deal with it at some future date in an atmosphere of urgency, of fear, and perhaps even crisis.”
*Richard Warman and Douglas Christie were photographed separately for this article.