A Liberal MP is sponsoring a new parliamentary petition that calls for police officers, and other “vocations,” to be protected from hate speech, an idea that advocates decry as offensive and part of a broader attempt to stifle criticism of law enforcement.
The online petition, backed by Winnipeg North MP Kevin Lamoureux and initiated by former Winnipeg Police officer Stan Tataryn, calls on Parliament to “[a]ccept” there are “vocations, most notably police officers, that single them out as an identifiable group.”
The petition, posted on the House of Commons website last week, goes on to urge Parliament to acknowledge that “inididuals [sic] and organizations” are targeting police officers “for the sole purpose of implying ‘that those individuals are to be despised, scorned, denied respect, and made subject to ill-treatment on the bases of group affiliation.’”
To that end, it requests the government add “vocation” to “the identifiable groups against which hatred cannot be publically directed in word or written form.” As of Thursday, the petition had more than 215 signatures. Once it hits 500 or more, the government will be required to respond.
Lamoureux’s spokesperson, Eric Strong, told VICE World News in an email on Thursday the MP’s position is that “all individuals should be protected from hatred … His perspective on this issue is not specific to law enforcement.” Strong also said that Lamoureux is “in no way responsible for the content of the petition.”
“Suggesting that vocations (including law enforcement) should also receive protection from discrimination does not in any way minimize the very real, very legitimate concerns of racialized communities,” Strong continued.
Lamoureux himself gave a different statement on the matter to the Winnipeg Free Press on Wednesday regarding why he was supporting the petition. "There's a great deal of merit for us to give more positive attention to law enforcement officers,” he told the newspaper. “When it comes to law enforcement personnel, it takes just a few bad apples to portray a relatively negative image, and it's not fair.”
Tataryn, who is also a former president of the Manitoba branch of the Liberal Party of Canada, did not respond to VICE World News, but told the Winnipeg Free Press that the “constant, derogatory hatred towards the police makes them start to doubt they have that authority, and they'll go quicker to their weapon, or toward force.”
It’s a criminal offence in Canada to publicly communicate statements that incite “hatred against any identifiable group, where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace.” It’s also against the law to “wilfully” promote “hatred against any identifiable group," which includes any group “distinguished by colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or mental or physical disability.”
Advocates are troubled by the timing of the petition, pointing to the ongoing global reckoning around racism and police brutality. Over the last week, there have been vigils and rallies to mark the year since the death of Eishia Hudson, a 16-year-old Indigenous girl who was fatally shot by a Winnipeg police officer following an alleged liquor store robbery. A 2018 CBC investigation found that the vast majority of people killed in confrontations with police in Manitoba since 2000 were Indigenous.
As for the petition’s substance, advocates say that any vocation, especially policing, cannot be conflated with the groups of people who are currently included in Canada’s hate speech laws.
“This is deeply disturbing and offensive and really represents attempts by law enforcement, their apologists, and those politicians who support unfettered policing power, to shield law enforcement and policing from any accountability,” Harsha Walia, executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, told VICE World News.
“If people say ‘abolish the police,’ if people say, ‘fuck the police,’ if people say ‘all cops are bastards,’ all of that is people responding to the immense amount of power and harm that police cause,” Walia said.
“It is absolutely not the case in any way equivocal to hateful speech, like white supremacist speech, misogyny or transphobia. … Police are not an identifiable group, it’s not a form of oppression, it’s not a trait. It’s a job, one of the most powerful jobs.”
Paula Ethans, a Winnipeg human rights lawyer and an organizer with Winnipeg Police Cause Harm, told VICE News the petition is an erroneous attempt to frame the police as victims.
“When in reality, it is the police who are causing people harm, especially for Black and Indigenous communities, and people are trying to raise awareness about this and trying to hold the police accountable for harmful actions,” Ethans said.
She added that while the petition is not proposed legislation, and may not amount to much, it could be seen as part of a broader attempt to dissuade people from criticizing law enforcement.
“Folks have been hesitant to speak out against the police because: who wants to be branded as a hate group? Who wants to be told they're perpetuating hate speech? It's a strategic tool to throw the heat back on those who are raising the issues,” she said.
“That's what we need to keep an eye out for, is to not be dissuaded or scared from speaking out against harmful institutions, which is what this petition is trying to do.”
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office told VICE World News they “won’t have a comment on this.”
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter.