TO: Honourable David Eby, Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Housing Rachna Singh, Parliamentary Secretary for Anti Racism Initiatives
I am writing to you on behalf of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (“BCCLA”) to urge you and the government of BC not to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (“IHRA”) definition of antisemitism.
We are deeply concerned about the prospect of such an initiative based on comments made by Michael Lee, member of the legislature for Vancouver-Langara, who spoke on behalf of the B.C. Liberal caucus at an event outside of the legislature marking Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on April 28 and spoke during the same day’s legislative session. Our understanding is that in both instances he called for the IHRA definition to be adopted in British Columbia.1
The BCCLA is Canada’s oldest civil liberties and human rights organization, founded in 1962. We are unequivocally opposed to antisemitism and all forms of racism. We support provincial initiatives to combat racism, racial profiling, and racial targeting. However we are strongly opposed to the IHRA definition because of its threat to freedom of expression. The legal adoption of the IHRA definition is inconsistent with the values underlying the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and would greatly narrow the scope of political expression in British Columbia and Canada.
Section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms holds that everyone has the following freedoms: freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication. The values underlying the protection of freedom of expression are the enhancement of individual self-fulfilment, democratic discourse, and the search for truth. On numerous occasions, the Supreme Court of Canada has held the Charter-protected right to freedom of expression is closely connected to and “perhaps the linchpin” to the political process and democratic governance.
Any contemplated adoption of the IHRA definition into our provincial law or policy would likely infringe upon expressive content — specifically, highly-protected political speech — and unjustifiably removes Charter section 2(b) protections both in purpose and effect. Canadian courts interpret section 2(b) generously and broadly, thus taking government infringements of freedom of expression seriously. The Supreme Court of Canada has held where the purpose of a government action is to restrict the content of expression, to control access to a certain message, or to limit the ability of a person who attempts to convey a message to express themselves, that purpose will infringe freedom of expression. Canada is also a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 19 of which holds “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.”
The IHRA definition of antisemitism is extremely vague, open to misinterpretation, and the document states that it is “non-legally binding.” Not only is the text unsuitable for any legal or administrative purpose in British Columbia or Canada, but the accompanying illustrative examples suggest that the definition conflates certain critiques of the state of Israel with antisemitism. If implemented, the IHRA definition will serve to severely infringe on freedom of expression, as well as chill political expressions of criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights. We note that similar legal initiatives have been presented in Vancouver, Calgary, and Montreal city councils but were not adopted in any of those cities.
The BCCLA strongly believes that a broad range of perspectives must be welcome in our public sphere. We support the rights of people to celebrate or condemn the actions of foreign or domestic governments, without being vulnerable to censorship or other action from their provincial government. The BCCLA joins others in calling on all levels of government to continue to combat antisemitism and other forms of racism while ensuring that Charter rights are protected in the context of political speech and legitimate political action.
Meghan McDermott, Policy Director CC: Premier John Horgan
cc: Kevin Falcon, Official Opposition Leader and MLA for Vancouver-Quilchena
Micheal Lee, MLA for Vancouver-Langara
Sonia Furstenau, Green Party House Leader and MLA for Cowichan Valley
1Soblinsky, N. [@NicoSoblinsky]. April 28, 2022. MLA @MichaelLeeBC speaks about the importance of never forgetting and the responsibility to uphold our commitment to fight antisemitism in all its forms. MLA Lee calls for the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in British Columbia [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/nicoslobinsky/status/1519764733385003008?s=20&t=zhViRGyAYp9gqaAcIsWWeA and BC Liberal Caucus [@BCLiberalCaucus]. April 28, 2022.WATCH: BC Liberal statement by MLA @MichaelLeeBC in recognition of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/BCLiberalCaucus/status/1519751938820112384 .