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Paula Simons: Criminalizing speech won’t reduce anti-Semitism

Commentary

This essay is adapted from a speech given by Senator Paula Simons in response to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada contained in the government’s budget act. Read the full speech or watch the video here.

Forty years ago ⁠— the very same year that Canada adopted its Charter of Rights and Freedoms ⁠— Alberta was convulsed in a political and legal debate over Holocaust denialism and the trials of Jim Keegstra.

Keegstra had been a high school social studies teacher in the village of Eckville.

He taught his students that the Holocaust was a hoax, faked by a international Jewish conspiracy to control the world, and the global economy. He taught his horrific hate for years, without being stopped by any principal or school board ⁠— until one heroic mum, Susan Maddox, fought to have Keegstra fired. He finally was, in 1982. Two years later, he lost his teaching licence.

So far, so good. But in 1984, Jim Keegstra was also charged, criminally, with the willful promotion of hatred. That case, fought all the way to the Supreme Court, twice, there and back again, finally concluded in 1996, with a conviction…and a sentence of a mere 200 hours of community service.

The landmark legal precedent in the Keegstra case established the constitutionality of Canada’s hate speech legislation.

But far from silencing Keegstra, much less changing his mind, those 12 years of appeals and retrials gave him a bully pulpit to posture as a false defender of civil liberties – and to amplify his conspiracy theories.

He basked in national notoriety. In 1987, he was catapulted from being a village school teacher to leader of the federal Social Credit Party. Meanwhile, Keegstra’s lawyer, a fellow Holocaust denier named Doug Christie, used the profile he gained while defending Keegstra, to become the founder and leader of the Western Canada Concept separatist party.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jim Keegstra, Doug Christie, and their dark legacy this week, as the Senate has been debating Bill C-19, the new budget implementation act.

Hidden away in the fine print of the budget bill is a line that amends the Criminal Code of Canada. Bill C-19 creates a new offence: to “prohibit the communication of statements, other than in private conversation, that willfully promote antisemitism by condoning, denying or downplaying the Holocaust.” The crime would be punishable by up to two years in prison.

This little provision, hidden away in the budget bill, hasn’t had much public attention. But I fear it’s a ticking time bomb.

As the Keegstra case amply demonstrates, denying the Holocaust is already a hate crime – making this law redundant at best. But prosecutions of this type often have ugly, unintended consequences.

As the child of a Jewish father and a German mother, let me very very clear. There is no good faith way to ‘debate’ or ‘question’ the reality of the Holocaust, one of the best-documented, well-researched atrocities in modern history. Anyone who questions or denies or diminishes its full genocidal horrors is not engaging in authentic intellectual debate.

Holocaust deniers are, by definition, hate-mongers. There is simply no way to question or interrogate the reality of the Shoah that is not, by definition, anti-Semitic.

Downplaying the Holocaust is every bit as morally vile.

Instead of criminalizing speech, let’s be sure we tell the real stories of the Holocaust and of the rise of Hitler, over and over.

When people who oppose masking rules pin yellow stars to their chests, and or dare to compare vaccine mandates to the Nazi war crimes prosecuted at Nuremberg?

Their facile appropriation the horror of the Holocaust dishonours the memory of all those who died ⁠— and all who survived.

Yet attaching criminal penalties to such statements and actions won’t reduce anti-Semitism. It will, instead, give neo-Nazis and racists a perfect excuse to wrap themselves in the rhetoric of free speech, and to claim the public spotlight as faux defenders of “intellectual freedom.”

Slipping this criminal code amendment into a budget bill could well open the door for hundreds of new hate-mongers and bigots to claim victimization, to strut and fret their hour upon the stage, spreading their bile via every social media channel, in ways Keegstra could never have imagined. He had a small captive audience of Eckville school children. Today’s anti-Semites spray their bile to hundreds of thousands of people with the click of a keyboard.

I’ve spent my whole life as an advocate for free speech and civil liberties. I learned that from my father, from my uncle, from my grandfather – all passionate Jewish civil libertarians who taught me early not to trust in the power of the state as protection.

I do not believe we can fight hate by criminalizing speech, however vile or deluded. Nor by silencing it — even if we could. Driving hate underground to curdle and fester doesn’t help.

Once we start to criminalize speech, to police, literally, what is true and what is false, once we use the Criminal Code and the criminal courts to silence the nasty political fringe, we start down a path that leads precisely where we do not wish to go. This strategy will only convince the paranoid and the conspiracy-prone that they are correct. It plays right into the hands of the far-right thought scammers and grifters who prey on fear and ignorance.

I have no doubt the government is well-intentioned, in making this amendment. Many in the Jewish community have advocated for precisely this change — and many in the Jewish community, including many I love, will disagree me, vehemently.

But my father, of blessed memory, had a line he liked to use, half-joking and half-not — “Is it good for the Yidden?” Is it good for the Jews?

This bill will not be good for the Yidden. Nor for Canada.

Instead of criminalizing speech, let’s be sure we tell the real stories of the Holocaust and of the rise of Hitler, over and over.

Let’s record and remember and reamplify the stories of the survivors, before they themselves are overtaken by time, and no longer with us to bear witness.

Instead of arresting and charging every online hatemonger and troll — a next to impossible task — we should focus, instead, on making the big tech platforms more transparent and more accountable for the way their algorithms privilege and promote incendiary hateful speech.

Especially now, with hate crimes of all kinds multiplying, with social media platforms aerosolizing racism, with neo-Nazis parading proudly through our streets, with mainstream Canadian parliamentarians embracing and spreading conspiracy theories and classic anti-Semitic tropes, we must call out lies and champion the truth.

Opinion: To improve Quebec’s outdated health records systems, the data must follow the patient

Commentary

Billions of dollars have been poured into Quebec’s health-care system in an effort to improve the capacity of its information technology. The results leave a lot to be desired, though. For instance, when health authorities urgently needed real-time data on the number of COVID cases in the province’s facilities or the population in general, they realized information was still being communicated between institutions and departments via fax. That such an inefficient method of data sharing would still be in use in 2022 is simply unacceptable. 

From the patient’s perspective, the situation can be just as infuriating. Information held within a medical record cannot easily be shared between hospitals due to the lack of interoperability of our existing electronic health systems, requiring patients to repeat their medical history multiple times, or even bring their own scans with them to an appointment. Not only does this burden both patients and care providers, but it introduces a risk of vital information being lost along the way in the treatment process. 

What’s more, Quebec’s existing electronic health records are not even complete; they lack vital information such as past or recent vaccinations, allergies, and the hospitalization summary sheet written by the attending physician after a hospital stay. The physician hours (and taxpayer dollars!) spent trying to play detective to find all the missing pieces are a shameful waste. Not to mention the risk that patients face should certain information not be transmitted to all providers, such as harmful drug interactions or allergic reactions.

Beyond the obvious utility of an accessible medical history for patients and clinicians, routinely collected and detailed health data is also needed to conduct research, yet Quebec’s outdated and inefficient systems make it needlessly difficult for researchers to access data. Therefore, in addition to the current costs, Quebecers are surely losing out on future home-grown health innovations. 

Clearly, the collection and accessibility of health data in the province are in dire need of reform. Fortunately, it appears the health minister agrees since one of the first orders of business in his most recent reform plan is to finally address the obvious technological issues in the health system.Quebec lays groundwork to modernize health data systems https://globalnews.ca/news/8424200/quebec-modernization-health-data-systems/ He need not look very far to find examples of best practices when it comes to the collection of health data and the sharing of data for research purposes, as there are a few promising examples right here in Canada.

Alberta has developed a world-renowned electronic health record system called Netcare, which acts as a portal that retrieves all of the available clinical information from the various provincial systems and presents it as a unified patient record.What is Alberta Netcare? https://www.albertanetcare.ca/WhatIsAnEHR.htm Alberta’s system has been emulated as far away as Abu Dhabi, which introduced a similar system in 2019.From Alberta to Abu Dhabi: Health record system to be introduced for first time in Middle East https://www.thestar.com/edmonton/2019/02/23/from-alberta-to-abu-dhabi-health-record-system-to-be-introduced-for-first-time-in-middle-east.html

Once there is such a unified and interoperable electronic health record, information can more easily be utilized for research purposes. In Ontario, ICES (formerly known as the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences) has been collaborating with data custodians, government, policy-makers, and health system stakeholders to analyze anonymous administrative health data since 1992.About ICES https://www.ices.on.ca/About-ICES 

The information held by ICES is gathered during visits to doctor’s offices, emergency departments, and hospitalizations, and can include drug prescriptions. By sharing this health data, multiple aspects pertaining to health care in Ontario can be studied, including specific health conditions, the outcomes of medical procedures, or measures of health system performance. This model of safely sharing anonymized health data for research purposes with both public and private institutions is one Quebec can learn from.

Quebec has a long way to go to modernize and standardize information in its health-care system. First, health data must be systematically, carefully, and accurately collected. The cataloging and storing of handwritten information must also become a thing of the past. Next, the electronic systems used to gather health information must communicate. Finally, the safe and secure sharing of anonymized health data must be made possible for research purposes. 

Quebec desperately needs to implement a modern and robust digital health ecosystem. Doing so will both maximize patient health today and encourage innovation for even better care tomorrow.