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The Criminalization of Dissent: Feminist Prof. who gave anti-U.S. speech under investigation for Hate Crimes

g and compass

Vancouver Sun

Thobani accused of hate crime against Americans

Complaint sent to Ottawa police 'pure harassment', UBC professor says

Glenn Bohn and Kim Bolan
Vancouver Sun

Wednesday, October 10, 2001

A University of B.C. women's studies professor who criticized U.S. foreign policy has been accused of a hate crime -- publicly inciting hatred against Americans.

An unidentified B.C. resident alleged Oct. 4 that assistant professor Sunera Thobani violated the Criminal Code of Canada during an Oct. 1 speech to a women's conference in Ottawa, RCMP Corporal Michael Labossiere of the B.C. hate crime unit said Tuesday.

Thobani, a former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, said in an interview Tuesday she had not heard anything about the complaint and she is curious to know who made it.

"This is just pure harassment," she said. "They are trying to silence dissent in this country."

Thobani said her speech was intended to explain how U.S. foreign policy has affected life in many countries of the world.

"If you point to the factual record of U.S. foreign policy, you are now accused of spreading hate," she said. "It really is unbelievable."

The RCMP's Labossiere wouldn't disclose any more specifics about the complaint or the complainant. He said he forwarded the complaint to the hate crimes unit of the Ottawa-Carleton police force, which has jurisdiction in the area where the offence is alleged to have occurred.

Ottawa police Detective Frank Corkery, a member of Ottawa's hate crime unit, wouldn't confirm whether police there are investigating Thobani.

Corkery said police generally don't discuss ongoing investigations or reveal the subject of an investigation until charges are laid and it becomes public knowledge.

However, the detective added: "Any complaint made to the hate crimes section is taken seriously and is investigated on the substance of the complaint.

Labossiere, who last week reported bomb threats had been made against Islamic mosques in Vancouver and Surrey, said he went public with the complaint against Thobani to show that majority groups can potentially be targets too.

"Here we have a complaint against someone who is obviously from a visible minority, whom the complainant feels is promoting hate," he said.

"Normally, people think it's a white supremist or Caucasians, promoting hate against visible minorities . . . We want to get the message out that it's wrong, all around."

Section 319 of the Criminal Code of Canada allows for a jail sentence of less than two years for anyone convicted of the "public incitement of hatred" against an identifiable group of people, when the comments lead to a breach of the peace.

An "identifiable group" is defined as any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion or ethnic origin.

However, the same section also provides some broadly worded legal defences. For instance, no one can be convicted "if the statements were relevant to any subject of public interest, the discussion of which was for the public benefit, and if on reasonable grounds he believed them to be true."

Murray Mollard, a lawyer and executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said that, legally, a charge against Thobani would be an uphill battle for the prosecution.

Mollard also said the state shouldn't prosecute someone who criticizes public policies in a democratic forum.

"This is absolutely the wrong thing to do," he said. "We need to have an open debate about our response to Sept. 11."

Thobani received a standing ovation at the Women's Resistance Conference in Ottawa after she argued that the U.S. government -- not international terrorists -- is the most dangerous global force, "unleashing prolific levels of violence all over the world.

"From Chile to El Salvador, to Nicaragua to Iraq, the path of U.S. foreign policy is soaked in blood," she said in comments that received front-page coverage in Canada's daily newspapers, including The Vancouver Sun.

Many Canadians said Thobani's speech was an ill-timed and anti-American attack, while others accused the mainstream news media of a McCarthy-style witch-hunt.

Thobani said Tuesday she has been stunned by the reaction to her comments.

While she said she has received a lot of support, she has also been shocked by hateful e-mails and telephone calls not just from within Canada, but from the United States.

"It is just unbelievable what it is like," Thobani said. "I am just getting sent all this porn and hate mail."

She said the past week has made the controversies during her term as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women "seem like a piece of cake."

But, she said she doesn't want to restrict her life because of the hate mail and threats, even though it has disrupted her life and her job.

"I have security outside my class," Thobani said.

Convictions for public incitement of hatred are rare in Canada, but not unprecedented.

In 1982, Alberta public high school teacher Jim Keegstra was fired for teaching students that the Holocaust -- where millions of Jews died in Nazi concentration camps -- was a fabrication of a "Jewish conspiracy" that wanted to destroy Christianity. The courts later convicted Keegstra of promoting hatred and ordered him to do 200 hours of community service work.

In 1999, a Christian evangelist in Ontario was convicted of inciting hatred against Muslims in flyers he distributed and in a phone-line message. Mark Harding received a three-month conditional sentence and was required to perform more than 300 hours of voluntary service for the Islamic community.

Copyright 2001 Vancouver Sun

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