Capilano University group searches for an antidote to online hate

Roundtable discussion leads to letter asking for protections from internet vitriol

The day after last month’s devastating terror attack in New Zealand, Capilano University student Mohammed Alshuaibi got a call from his father asking him if he was OK.

His answer to his father was yes, I’m OK. The real answer though? He’d been on social media the night of the attack, saw it happen in streaming videos that were shared and re-shared on sites across the internet, across the world. Alshuaibi was far from OK.

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“I [didn’t sleep] that night,” said Alshuaibi, a Muslim from Saudi Arabia. “I was crying all night about it.”

Alshuaibi was speaking at the end vilification roundtable discussion held at Capilano University on March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The topic of the day gained even more urgency after the murder of 50 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 15. Capilano University students, along with their professor, Michael Markwick, are calling for a change in legislation regarding the spread of hate on the internet as well as a higher level of support from university structures against acts of discrimination within their walls.

“This is a very difficult conversation to have,” Markwick said as the roundtable discussion opened.

Together with his students, Markwick drafted a letter to send to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, urging that Section 13(1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act be reinstated into legislation because they believe that it is a fundamental right that the Canadian government should have the power to protect against all discrimination on a social media platform.

Up until 2013, Section 13(1) protected against hate speech in telecommunications, before it was repealed by the Harper government. “As far as we understand it there’s no effort to bring it back,” Markwick said.

With social media being an integral part of our society, Markwick believes that it is important for us to have the power to confront a company such as Facebook and demand action against a violent act of terror being broadcast on the platform. Without Section 13, Canada has lost that power.

Section 13(1) was first instated in 1977 and amended a number of times over the years. In 2001 it was expanded to include protections against hate speech in telecommunications over the internet.

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Michael Markwick, at Dundarave Beach, talks about the work he has been doing with his students at CapU. They are urging for online protection against hate speech and discrimination to return to legislation - photo Mathilda de Villiers, North Shore News

Terry Beech, MP for Burnaby North-Seymour, said that there was debate about it going back and forth over the years until it was taken away.

A private member’s bill was submitted in 2013 that stated that Section 13(1) was in contradiction with freedom of expression, which is protected under section 2B in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Liberals at the time voted against removing it, but the majority vote was passed and it was repealed.

“It’s interesting, the deeper you dive, you find that Canada actually has one of the more comprehensive set of laws against hate crime and hate propaganda almost anywhere in the world,” Beech said. “Which is good. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been controversial.”

Beech said that Canada does have a comprehensive system in place to protect against hate speech. The criminal code prohibits the most serious kinds of hate propaganda, which includes the advocacy of the promotion of genocide, the incitement of hatred, and the wilful promotion of hatred made against an identifiable group.

The waters become murky when it translates into hate speech on social media specifically because it contradicts the protection of freedom of speech. “We have no legal mechanism this side of the criminal code,” Markwick said.

When Markwick worked at the Ontario Human Rights Commision, they told him that life and death issues are found in the criminal law, not in Human Rights law. “That’s wrong. We have life and death issues in Human Rights law. We see it. And that’s because hate always wants to kill,” Markwick said.

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The letter that Michael Markwick and his communications students wrote and sent to Justin Trudeau in an effort to get Section 13(1) reinstated into legislation - supplied image

Beech said the standing committee on Justice and Human Rights recently announced that they are going to undertake a study on online hate speech and incitement to hate-related violence. “They will be talking to all the experts and come up with, I assume, conclusions and recommendations.”

“We see hate speech provisions being taken away in the Canadian Human Rights Act and we continue to believe that we are a progressive people,” Markwick said.

In New Zealand, the terrorist strapped a camera to his head to film and live-broadcast the brutal attack. The video went viral and people across the globe got a front row seat to the violence. Even though the video was taken down from major sites rather quickly, it is still circulating in  dark corners of the internet.

Bowinn Ma, MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale, who attended the roundtable discussion at Capilano University, told the group about how she had experienced discrimination throughout her campaign, with many citizens commenting on the fact that she wasn’t white. They also received emails since the election with subtle assumptions and discrimination towards various groups.

She believes that the growing resentments are being caused by a lack of understanding and incorrect assumptions. “The problem isn’t what they’ve said. It’s the fact that they actually think that,” she said.

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Attendees of the end vilification roundtable held last month at Capilano University, organized by Michael Markwick and his communications students who opened up the discussion about discrimination and online hate speech - photo Mathilda de Villiers, North Shore News

Alshuaibi moved to Canada from Saudi Arabia in 2012 and he chose Canada because it is a safe country. He said that he faces a lot of racism but it doesn’t affect him. His second language is English and he has had other students laugh at him because of it.

“We usually say Alhamdulillah,” said Alshuaibi, which is a common Arabic phrase meaning “praise be to God.”

“We are comfortable [with] everything that comes from God either good or bad that [happens] in your life because most of the time the bad thing happen, there is a good thing that comes out of it,” he said.

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