To Permit or Not to Permit – That Is the Question

The City of Peterborough had initially implied that it was willing to grant a permit to a white supremacist group for the use of Confederation Park this weekend. It seems, however, to have retreated from this position following a storm of protest from far and wide – attributing the matter to a technicality.

Municipalities granting permits for rallies have lost sight of the meaning of a “permit.” A permit is a recognized legal document provided by authorities to allow, for example, a rally or demonstration to proceed. The root word for “permit” is “permission,” and in this case it implies that the City of Peterborough is giving authorization or consenting to a potential hate rally that will take place in its city.

According to the Peterborough Examiner, the group in question is the Canadian Nationalist Front, described as a racist, white supremacist and neo-Nazi group promoting white nationalism. In an email to Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, Mayor Daryl Bennet has stated, “We must stand together against racism and hate. While our Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of expression, it also seeks to preserve and enhance our multi-cultural heritage.”

It is true that our Charter protects our freedom of expression, but there are limits to that in Canadian law. In fact, freedom of speech is not absolute in Canada. In Section 1 of the Charter, the government can pass laws that limit free expression – as long as they are reasonable and justified. As significantly, the Criminal Code of Canada’s sections 318, 319 and 320 forbid hate speech, propaganda and the promotion of genocide. Nor is freedom of assembly absolute in Canada. In fact, only “peaceful” assembly is guaranteed and then only “to such reasonable limits prescribed by law” as can be justified under section 1 of the Charter.

Indeed, one would think that after the debacle of Charlottesville last month where Nazi protestors marched with torches in hand yelling “Jews will not replace us,” municipalities would have taken extreme caution with respect to white supremacist rallies.

A city need not necessarily grant permission for a rally – especially if there is wide condemnation by the community at large, including some 100 organizations who have joined together in protest of this activity. The decision to allow the rally to proceed is especially disconcerting given the rising significance of “white power” and Nazism is this country. In the course of this very heated summer, not a week has passed when several antisemitic and racist incidents haven’t taken place somewhere in this country. There were at least three major antisemitic and hateful incidents this week alone, and Canadians are becoming increasingly concerned.

This week’s inauguration of a monument to the Holocaust in Ottawa was a significant milestone in our nation’s history. It gives voice to the six million Jewish children, women and men who were murdered by Nazis as a consequence of antisemitism. It serves as an eternal reminder that hate and intolerance should never ever be “permitted” by anyone, especially not by leaders.

The Holocaust happened because people failed to stand up to hate, even when facing the smallest of incidents. Some even excused the rise of Nazism citing German laws upholding freedom of expression, democracy and civil society at the time. Given this critical historical lesson, can we afford to look the other way and even tacitly grant “permission” to groups who undermine inclusivity? White supremacists have no place in modern society. They are the remnants of humanity’s dark ages – responsible for the death of 60 million people, including 44,000 Canadian soldiers who fought overseas to liberate Europe from the Nazis.

It is an absolute travesty for any municipality to grant permission to white supremacists to use the public sphere. As Jewish communities begin observing Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, it is also a time of reflection in the wake of rising antisemitism and recent hateful incidents. And while this heightens our level of anxiety, it also reinforces our commitment to fight for human rights and Canadian values of inclusivity, diversity and pluralism. Never again shall we allow hate and intolerance to come in the way of this great nation, Canada.

About the Author
Avi Benlolo is the President and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC), a Jewish non-profit human rights organization. Avi is a prominent Canadian human rights activist dedicated to promoting tolerance, freedom, democracy and human rights.
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