The recent Yellow Vest protests in Canada have once again brought new energy to a tired debate over freedom of speech.
The Yellow Vest movement began in France in response to an increase in the fuel tax in that country.
The protests in France have had a uniquely pan-political character. But a majority of the French protesters are from the left-wing. They have criticized the government for imposing a financial burden on the working class to combat climate change when corporations are responsible for the lion’s share of pollution.
The French protesters have rioted in Paris’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, denounced corporate power and have a multiracial make-up.
In Canada, the Yellow Vest movement has been co-opted by the far right-wing.
And in the strangest of reversals, the Canadian variant of the movement seeks to enhance corporate power, reduce corporate accountability for climate change and demonize immigrants.
Though this movement is largely just existing far right-wing organizations donning yellow vests, the violent character of the movement in France is migrating to Canada.
The movement — which brought signs reading “We are not racist,” and told reporters “We are not Neo-Nazis” at its protests — is now making headlines after many death threats were found on its Facebook group.
It should be made abundantly clear that both the right and the left should be able to be heard and express themselves through protest. It is a fundamental freedom and there is nothing more Canadian than passionately protesting an issue one feels strongly about.
While the Yellow Vest protesters express lament over “not being allowed to say Merry Christmas anymore,” and “Trudeau […] giving all of our money away to immigrants,” it seems to be several key issues like refugees seeking citizenship, opposition to carbon tax and a distinctive animosity toward the prime minister which unite them.
While most of these grievances are based entirely on misinformation, it is clearly within their right to express themselves.
Where freedom of expression becomes groundless is in of hate or violent speech.
This is precisely what is found on the Yellow Vest Facebook group: specifically, the multiple death threats directed at the prime minister. Comments ranged from “Trudeau needs to be shot,” to “He needs to eat led [sic],” and “Just shoot him.”
If people are completely comfortable inciting violence in a public forum under what is likely their own names, should anyone be surprised if they say far worse at their rallies?
Sections 318 and 319 in the Canadian Criminal Code are clear in outlawing the promotion of genocide or incitement of hatred in public.
While freedom of expression is protected under 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, speech under Canadian law is not without reasonable, common-sense limitations. Those limitations must be enforced on the Yellow Vest protesters immediately.
Groups founded in hatred like the Yellow Vests are growing stronger because of government and law enforcement inaction. This in turn is leading to an uptick in hate crimes in Canada — with violent hate crimes rising by 16 per cent in 2016 from 2015.
Both law enforcement and the government must seriously begin to take these groups and their threats of violence seriously.
In this case, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service must take every single threat issued publicly on Facebook seriously and investigate the group and its leaders further.
Next, groups with a consistent message of hate speech and incitement of violence like Yellow Vests Canada should not be permitted on public forums like Facebook. The internet — and a social media site like Facebook in particular — is a powerful tool extremist groups use for recruitment.
Presently, the Yellow Vests Canada Facebook group remains live. It is a tool which is mobilizing some of the most extreme people in Canada who have expressed a desire to kill the prime minister.
If Facebook cannot be consistent in enforcing its own, common-sense limitations to speech — hate speech and credible violence — it must be held accountable by law. New precedents have deemed that service providers can now be held liable for failing to remove hate propaganda on their servers.
Canada’s laws must evolve to hold tech and social media to the same standard.
A failure to address these urgent issues is a recipe for more extremist groups to flourish online and in the public square.
To have a harmonious society which celebrates tolerance and peace, it is the obligation of the government to protect the its people by shutting down hate and violent speech.