A bill making its way through Parliament with cross-partisan support seeks to criminalize Holocaust denial by adding a specific subsection on antisemitism to existing prohibitions against inciting hatred.
The proposed legislation, which was introduced in the House of Commons on Feb. 9, would add the “communication of statements, other than in private conversation, that wilfully promote antisemitism by condoning, denying or downplaying the Holocaust” to section 319 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits inciting hatred “against an identifiable group.”
Saskatoon-Grasswood Conservative MP Kevin Waugh, who brought the private members bill forward, told The CJN that he was motivated by the fact that Holocaust survivors are dying and there is an increasing ignorance of the Shoah.
He said his bill’s narrow focus on Holocaust denial is intended to ensure its easy passage through the House.
“I don’t want anything else mixed into this bill, because the bigger the bills you get, the less chance it has [of] passing,” said Waugh.
He says he’s not attempting to address any deficiencies in Canada’s existing anti-hate laws, but wants to bring the Holocaust to the forefront through legislation, as well as education.
“We’re dealing with white supremacists all over the world—not just in this country. If we can tone that rhetoric down and have a lawful bill that controls some of the hatred in this country, then [we’re] better for it,” Waugh said.
Mount Royal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather has indicated he will work with Waugh to ensure the bill is supported by all parties, pointing out that Holocaust denial is a criminal offence in 16 European countries, including Germany, as well as Israel.
“I think there will need to be amendments to the bill in terms of limitations on scope and carve outs and we can work together at Parliamentary Committee to do this,” Housefather told The CJN in an email.
“We need to make sure that it is legislation that is a reasonable limit on freedom of expression and permitted under Section 1 of the Charter.”
Martin Sampson of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) said a specific prohibition of Holocaust denial is something CIJA has long advocated.
“Many people have the mistaken impression that the Jewish community is concerned about Holocaust denial because it is offensive or insensitive. Though it is both, this isn’t why Jews devote energy to combatting this pernicious form of antisemitism. The community knows, through lived experience, that hatred of Jews can and too often does lead to the murder of Jews,” Sampson said in an email.
Given how extensively documented the Holocaust is by its victims and perpetrators, Sampson said that denying or downplaying it by nature serves to “demonize or marginalize the Jewish community.”
“Even if one had no consideration for the lived experience of the Jewish people, these malicious forms of antisemitism should be a concern because rising Jew-hatred is a reliable indicator of the erosion of the values that underpin the society people of goodwill aspire to create,” he said.
CIJA also supports a private members’ bill from New Westminster-Burnaby NDP MP Peter Julian to ban the use of hate symbols, which had its first reading in the House on Feb. 3.
Former Canadian Jewish Congress president Bernie Farber, who now chairs the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said under the current legislative framework, Holocaust denial could sometimes, but not always, fall under section 319.
“People can be stupid and say stupid things, and that doesn’t make it a criminal offence,” said Farber. “It’s what comes after that, that criminalizes it.”
Simply saying the Holocaust didn’t happen isn’t illegal, but saying that it was fabricated by Jewish people for financial benefit would be categorized as inciting hatred against Jews.
But Farber, while sympathetic to the intent of Waugh’s bill, said making Holocaust denial a crime in itself “will be a difficult road to go down.”
“I’m not entirely convinced that it will meet the constitutionality test that our anti-hate laws already meet,” he said.
Farber identified mandatory Holocaust education in schools and specially-trained anti-hate units in police forces to apply the law properly as more constructive ways to combat the antisemitism inherent in Holocaust denial than outright criminalization.
“Just because we have law, doesn’t mean it’s effective. We need more than law,” he said.
HEAR more from Kevin Waugh and a debate about the pros and cons of the proposed bill on Bonjour Chai