Section 13 and Freedom of Expression

A Sept. 2 decision by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal continues to provoke speculation that the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Canadian Human Rights Commission and provincial human rights bodies will have less to say in future about hate speech and free expression.

The decision concerned a complaint against Marc Lemire, operator of a far-right website called It found that Section 13 of the Human Rights Act infringed on Lemire’s right to freedom of expression in a way not demonstrably justified under the Charter of Rights.

While this decision could be appealed, it has been widely interpreted as the beginning of the end for hate-speech complaints under the Human Rights Act.

The media have been the targets of several such complaints, notably those against Macleans magazine columnist Mark Steyn over excerpts from his book America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It, and against Ezra Levant, publisher of the Western Standard magazine, for reprinting the controversial Danish cartoons showing depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. Also Stephen Boissoin, a conservative Alberta pastor, was the subject of a complaint over a letter to the editor published in the Red Deer Advocate in which he denounced homosexuals.

The CHRC and two provincial commissions dismissed complaints against Steyn and Macleans. The complaint against Levant, before the Alberta Human Rights Commission, was dropped. The Alberta Human Rights Commission upheld the complaint against Boissoin, who is currently appealing that ruling; the CBC and others have reported on this case.

Levant commented on the decision in the National Post, as did Steyn in Macleans.

In 2007, shortly after the complaint against Steyn and Maclean’s was filed, The Tyee published an in-depth commentary on hate speech and human rights legislation. Among other things it noted that the Human Rights Act is not the only legislation under which hate speech can be addressed. The Criminal Code prohibits inciting hatred against any identifiable group if it is likely to result in a crime – but it allows as defences not only truth but “expression of an honest opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a religious text.”