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From Free Speech to Censorship
Egale Canada's stunning about-face
Last month, I was researching Egale, Canada’s largest “2SLGBTQI” advocacy organization, with a focus on the way that the organization evolved from fighting for gay rights like marriage to trans rights like sex self-ID. It seems that while Egale was making that transition, it was also making the transition from championing free speech to advocating for censorship.
Over the course of my research, I came across an interesting 2007 article by Ezra Levant. In the piece, Levant, a Canadian conservative activist and media personality, was actually praising—with admiration—Egale’s stance against censorship.
He references a 2005 piece on Egale’s own website by then-executive director Gilles Marchildon: Freedom for all means freedom for each.
“It can be challenging to hear an opposite point of view,” Marchildon begins. “When that opinion is vehement and hurtful, it’s even more challenging to defend the right of that opinion to be expressed.”
His words are in reference to an anti-gay pastor, Stephen Boissoin, who called LGBT people “perverse, self-centered and morally deprived” and who declared a “war” and called on his readers to “take whatever steps are necessary to reverse the wickedness.”
Pretty inflammatory stuff. In fact, Boissoin became the subject of a human rights complaint for his words.
Nevertheless, Marchildon passionately defended his right to speak:
For reasonable people who believe in equality and safety for all, it is easy to condemn Boissoin’s hurtful and inflammatory language. Furthermore, the temptation is strong to want to silence such an angry diatribe which might find an audience of people willing to join his war against equality.
While it is difficult to support Boissoin’s right to spew his misguided and vitriolic thoughts, support his right, we must.
If Boissoin was no longer able to share his views, then who might be next in also having their freedom of expression limited. Traditionally, the LGBT community’s freedom has been repressed by society and its laws.
Levant notes that this attitude was not uncommon among gay rights organizations and activists at the time, and he commends them for it:
It wasn't too long ago that Canadian gays were themselves the targets of censorship, and other violations of civil liberties. Even I'm old enough to remember when Little Sisters book store had their, uh, materials seized by Canada customs. And it wasn't so long before that that homosexuality was actually a crime in the criminal code.
My point is that for many Canadian gays, especially those for whom being gay is a political statement, memories of censorship -- especially at the hands of the government -- is still fresh. For the bulk of Canadians, the idea of government censorship is completely alien.
I like moral support in the war against censorship from my conservative friends. But I must admit that I like it even more from left-wingers who, like Xtra's colunnist, think my views are "drivel". Because that's the point here: no-one needs political or legal support to say bland, inoffensive things that everyone agrees with. It's those things that cause divisions that are prone to censorship. For those on the other side of the political divide to support my freedom of speech, despite their own political tastes, is an act of principle that I admire.
Unfortunately, the happy free speech coalition was not long for this world.
By 2011, Egale was singing a very different tune in the similar case of William Whatcott, another anti-gay preacher.
In this case, Egale was on the opposite side of the issue:
Not everyone is prepared to see Mr. Whatcott’s actions as those of a tireless public crusader for keeping children safe. Cynthia Petersen, a lawyer representing Egale Canada, a gay and lesbian rights advocacy group, is concerned about the precedent that could be set when the rights of minority groups are tiered below generic free speech provisions.
“Egale is very concerned…because we fought for a long time to have sexual orientation included in Human Rights legislation,” Petersen told Xtra!, Canada’s Gay and Lesbian Newspaper. “And we are now included in every jurisdiction in Canada, so those statutes have to be interpreted in a way that protect all of the vulnerable groups equally.”
From this point on, Egale began using terms like “hate speech” and arguing for censorship against speech it judged to be “hateful.”
In 2015, it joined the National Council of Canadian Muslims in calling for elected officials to “do more to educate Canadians about the ramifications of hate crimes and to help find ways to address this phenomenon.”
Ryan Dyck, the Director of Research, Policy & Development at Egale, offered the following view:
Hatred is rarely limited to one target. We must look at all forms of hatred together, rather than each one in isolation.
Because unless we address the root of the problem—the hateful idea that one group of people can be set above the rest; that one set of characteristics can be considered ‘normal’ and therefore superior to all others—we will never be successful in addressing any one of its symptoms.
Then, in 2017, now-executive director Helen Kennedy wrote an open letter to Kevin Pillar, a Toronto Blue Jays player who called an opposing player a “faggot.”
“I feel compelled to address you directly,” Kennedy began, “because the word that you shouted in a packed stadium that has now been aired over and over on TV, should be called out for what it is, hate speech.”
Remember, Egale once defended a pastor who called gay people “perverse” and “morally deprived.”
In the subsequent years, under Kennedy’s leadership, Egale has not relented in its crusade against “hate speech.”
In 2023, the organization, in partnership with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, released a Pride Safety Toolkit intended to serve as a “guide for 2SLGBTQI people and allies on how to stay safe amid rising levels of anti-2SLGBTQI hate at public events.”
While the toolkit notes that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of expression, it also says that “Hate speech is not protected by the Charter.” It references sections 318 and 319 of the Criminal Code on “hate propaganda,” which includes the offenses of advocating genocide, public incitement of hatred, and wilful promotion of hatred.
Egale has moved so far away from its 2005 position to be unrecognizable, and I shake my head at the foolishness of this pivot. Levant was right when he noted that censorship was used against gay people and that was why gay people were, rightly, particularly sensitive to it.
But long gone are the days of that kind of activism. Now, the accusation of hate speech is directed not just at unsavory speech, but at mere disagreement. People who state that humans cannot change sex, for example, are routinely accused of genocide.
If there is a slippery slope, it’s the slide from forgetting about how important free speech was to your own movement and your own cause and advocating for censorship once you are in power. I believe that Egale’s earlier stance showed that this doesn’t have to go hand-in-hand with gay rights. Unfortunately, they’ve done their best to make it seem like it does.
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