M-103: A Step Forward Or A Step Back For Canada?

In Canada, the House of Commons has passed a motion calling on politicians to condemn Islamophobia. On March 23 the members of parliament adopted the motion, known as M-103, by a margin of 201 for the motion to 91 against the motion. This motion became a matter of bitter debate as the opposition depicted the motion as a slippery slope towards limiting freedom of speech and even bringing in Sharia law. Both liberals and conservatives accused one another of playing politics with the rising tide of prejudice and hate crimes facing Canadian Muslims. In recent months, several mosques and synagogues have been vandalized in towns across Canada; spurring Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to respond.

Canada’s parliament approved the M-103, which is a non-binding motion calling on the government to “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.” However, the text of the motion does not clarify what constitutes “Islamophobia” and has led many to speculate what that may mean in the future. Even some critics fearing this classification could lead to Shariah law courts. This concern has led to the circulation of an anti-Shariah petition on the Parliament of Canada website, which has been signed by over 24,000 people. Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, who was born in Pakistan and moved to Canada, largely sponsored this motion. Khalid stated that the definition of Islamophobia was “the irrational hate of Muslims that leads to discrimination.”

Another part of the bill that has stirred controversy is the passage that asks the government to “recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear.” It is currently unknown what measures the government will take to “quell hate and fear” as the motion is not classified as a law and has no effect on current criminal law. A motion is a formal proposal by a member of a deliberative assembly to set up procedures to take certain actions. Bills on the other hand are proposals to make a new law, or change an existing law, which becomes legally binding.

I definitely applaud the actions of the Canadian parliament and MPs. I think this is a very appropriate and prudent motion to propose considering the current climate of relations between the communities in Canada but also globally. Creating isolation and fear between various groups in society only leads to greater divisions and conflict.

One of the major critiques of this motion is that condemning Islamophobia barred people from criticising Islam curtailing their right to free speech. Freedom of speech is commonly defined as the inherent human right to voice one’s opinion publically without fear of censorship or punishment. In that sense the critics are correct as it limits speaking out against particular communities in a negative sense. However, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that the exercising of these rights carries special duties and responsibilities. Therefore, freedom of speech should not be recognized in absolute terms but pertains elements of respect. The ICCPR further explains that common limitations to freedom of speech can relate to slander, obscenity, fighting words and more. Justification for such limitations come under “the harm principle” which suggests that the only acceptable purpose for power to be exercised over a member of a community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. In light of this, I believe that the M-103 is clearly a step forward for Canada in dealing with these issues.

There are various factors and events that led to the passing of this motion and also the criticisms. The Conservative Party of Canada is currently holding leadership elections and many of the candidates have come out against M-103. One of the conservative front runners, Quebecer Maxime Bernier said he voted against the bill and tweeted “I am opposed to #m103. Canadians should be treated equally regardless of religion.”

Whereas during the election campaign Trudeau championed Muslim women wearing hijabs and full face niqabs. He dropped an appeal by the previous government that would not allow women to wear niqabs to Canadian citizenship ceremonies. Trudeau proudly proclaimed that “diversity is a source of strength, not just a source of weakness, everyone here, (I see) the diversity we have just within this mosque, within the Islamic community, within the Muslim community in Canada.”

Khalid actually introduced the motion last December but it gained significance after the January attack on a Quebec mosque that left six Muslim men dead. Khalid noted that “we need to continue to build those bridges amongst Canadians, and this is just one way that we can do this.”

Within the M-103, it asks a parliamentary committee to launch a study on how the government could address the issue, with recommendations due in mid-November. The study will look at how to “develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination, including Islamophobia,” the motion says. With this motion now in action, it will be interesting to see how this impacts relations between Canadians, Muslims, and the Islamic community over time.

Sarah Hesson