Paula Simons: We cannot fight hate by criminalizing speech, no matter how vile

The Senator rejects Liberal proposal to outlaw Holocaust denial

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Alberta Senator Paula Simons rose in the Senate on Tuesday to speak out against legislation that would make it a crime to promote anti-Semitism “by condoning, denying or downplaying the Holocaust” in public. The measure is contained in Bill C-19, the budget implementation act. Here is her speech:

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The Holocaust loomed large in my childhood imagination, growing up in Edmonton in the 1970s. My father’s family was one of the very few in Alberta who succeeded in sponsoring some relatives who were able to escape Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938, just weeks before Kristallnacht.

Mackenzie King was a polite anti-Semite and his government’s attitude towards Jewish refugees was “none is too many,” yet my father’s mother’s cousin Luba was somehow able to win the support of her MP from Vegreville, who, according to family lore, fought for a special order-in-council for visas to allow my grandmother’s first cousin Rosa, her husband Hans and their small children, George and Helen, to escape Vienna just in the nick of time.

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That was little short of a miracle at a time when Canada had pretty much barred the door to desperate Jews. Most European Jews were not so lucky. In September 1941, the Nazis occupied the area around Poltava, in today’s Ukraine, where my grandmother’s family had come from. By November of that year, every single Jewish resident of the once-thriving Jewish community had been executed. The Nazis didn’t even wait to send them off to concentration camps; they simply shot them all.

On the other side of my family, my mother’s family were ethnic Germans living in that same part of the Soviet Union we now call Ukraine. When the Nazis invaded, my mother’s father and uncles were forced into the German army. My grandfather perished on the Russian front. But one of my great-uncles — tall, blond, courtly and educated — ended up recruited into the elite Waffen-SS. He spent the rest of his life trying to atone for that.

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The war was something we talked about a lot when I was growing up, but I can pinpoint the moment when the Holocaust became more real for me. I was 8 years old and in Grade 3. That year, I had a Jewish teacher who decided, in a well-meaning way, that I might enjoy the little fairytales written by Anne Frank, stories she wrote while hidden away in her Secret Annex sanctuary. I don’t think my teacher meant for me to read Anne Frank’s diary itself, but I tracked it down and read it anyway, transfixed. I wasn’t too young to read the words, but I was far too young for the horror of its message. My 8-year-old self spent the next few weeks searching my parents’ house looking for places where we could hide when the Nazis came for my family. Would the basement cedar closet do? No, too small. The furnace room? Too obvious. The attic crawl space? Just maybe.

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As I got older, I became a bit obsessed with the Holocaust. I used my Scholastic Reading Club form to order every book I could get, from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit to William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of Adolph Hitler.

I knew the German people hadn’t been monsters, that they’d been ordinary people like my own beloved aunts and uncles. Yet, millions of ordinary Germans had been corrupted, seduced and intoxicated by the toxic lure of anti-Semitism to the point where they were willing to look the other way or even enthusiastically participate as their Jewish friends and neighbours and relations were rounded up, arrested and massacred.

I looked a lot like Anne Frank. At the age of 8 I had to ask myself: Would the day ever come that my nice ordinary Canadian neighbours might turn on me and people who looked like me? I had dark, curly hair; thick glasses and a prominent nose. Was that all it would take for someone to want to kill me, to see me as subhuman?

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Let me be very clear. There is no good-faith way to debate or question the reality of the Holocaust, one of the best‑documented, well-researched atrocities in modern history. Anyone who questions or denies or diminishes its full horrors is not engaging in authentic, intellectual debate; they are spreading hate. Holocaust deniers are hatemongers. There is no way to question the reality of the Holocaust that is not, by definition, anti-Semitic.

Downplaying the Shoah is every bit as morally vile. When people who oppose masking rules pin yellow stars to their chests or dare to compare vaccine mandates to the Nazi war crimes prosecuted at Nuremberg, their facile appropriation of the horror of the Holocaust dishonours the memory of all those who died and all who survived.

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Yet, my friends, today I rise in this chamber to oppose Bill C-19’s efforts to criminalize the denial or downplaying of the Holocaust.

Attaching criminal sanctions to such statements and actions won’t reduce anti-Semitism. It will, however, give neo-Nazis and racists a platform to play the martyr, to wrap themselves in the rhetoric of free speech and to claim the public spotlight as faux defenders of intellectual freedom. Is this funny? I don’t think this is funny. Maybe you could stop laughing. How do I know this will not work?

Forty years ago, Alberta was convulsed in a political and legal debate over Holocaust denialism and the trials of Jim Keegstra. Keegstra had been a high school social studies teacher in the Town of Eckville. He taught his students that the Holocaust was a hoax, faked by an international Jewish conspiracy to control the world and the global economy. He taught this horrific hate for years without being stopped by any principal or school trustee until one heroic mom, Susan Maddox, fought to have Keegstra fired. He was finally fired in 1982. Two years later he lost his teaching licence.

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So far, so good, you might think. But in 1984, Jim Keegstra was also charged criminally with the willful promotion of hatred. That case, fought all the way to the Supreme Court twice — there and back again — finally concluded in 1996 with a conviction and a sentence of 200 hours of community service — a pyrrhic victory at best.

The landmark legal precedent in the Keegstra case established the constitutionality of Canada’s hate speech legislation. And, alas, that probably means that Bill C-19’s Holocaust denial provisions are also perfectly constitutional. Yet, far from silencing Keegstra, those 12 years of appeals and retrials gave him a bully pulpit to posture as a false defender of civil liberties and to amplify his conspiracy theories. He basked in national notoriety.

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In 1987, he was catapulted from being a village schoolteacher to the leader of the federal Social Credit Party. Meanwhile, Keegstra’s lawyer, a fellow Holocaust denier named Doug Christie, used the profile he gained while defending Keegstra to become the founder and leader of the Western Canada Concept party. And all the while Keegstra and Christie were gleefully making headlines and spreading lies, anti-Semitic hate crimes in Alberta actually spiked.

The morals of my story? First, we don’t need this new law. As the Keegstra case amply demonstrates, denying the Holocaust is already a hate crime; this is redundant. Second, and more importantly, prosecutions of this type often have ugly, unintended consequences.

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This stealth addition of a Criminal Code amendment to a budget bill could well open the door for hundreds of new hate-mongers and bigots to claim victimization, to strut and fret their hour upon the stage, spreading their bile via every social media channel, in ways Keegstra could never have imagined or dreamed of. He had a small captive audience of Eckville schoolchildren. Today, anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers spray their bile to hundreds of thousands of people with the click of a keyboard.

I have spent my whole life as an advocate for free speech and civil liberties. I learned that from my father of blessed memory, from my uncle of blessed memory, from my grandfather of blessed memory, all passionate Jewish civil libertarians who taught me early to not trust in the power of the state as protection.

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I do not believe we can fight hate by criminalizing speech, however vile or deluded. Nor by silencing it, even if we could. Driving hate underground to curdle and fester doesn’t help.

Once we start to criminalize speech, to police what is true and what is false, once we use the Criminal Code and the criminal courts to silence the nasty political fringe, we start down a path that leads precisely where we do not wish to go. And the decision to slip this new crime into the budget act, where it cannot be properly debated and voted on independently, will only convince the paranoid and the conspiracy-prone that they are correct. This strategy plays right into the hands of the far-right thought scammers and grifters.

I have no doubt that the government is well intentioned in its Bill C-19 efforts. Many in the Jewish community have advocated for this very change. Many in the Jewish community will disagree with me vehemently, and, if I know my Jewish community, they won’t be shy to tell me so.

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But my father had a line he liked to use, half-jokingly and half not — “Is it good for the Yidden?” he would ask. “Is it good for the Jews?” This bill will not be good for the Jews, nor for Canada. Nothing good comes from this.

Instead of criminalizing lies, instead of criminalizing speech, let us fight back with truth. Let’s be sure we tell the real stories of the Holocaust and of the rise of Hitler, over and over. Let’s record and remember and reamplify the stories of the survivors, before they themselves are overtaken by time and no longer with us to bear witness.

Especially now, with hate crimes of all kinds multiplying, with social media platforms aerosolizing hate, racism and anti‑Semitism, with hate-mongers and neo-Nazis marching proudly through our streets, with mainstream Canadian parliamentarians embracing and spreading conspiracy theories and classic anti‑Semitic tropes, with a new Abacus Data poll showing that one third of Canadians believe in some version of the anti-Semitic great replacement theory, we must call out lies and champion truth.

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But instead of arresting and charging every online hate-monger and troll — a next-to-impossible task — we should focus instead on making the big tech platforms more transparent and more accountable for the way their algorithms privilege and promote incendiary hateful speech.

Indulge me with one last story. In 2019, Library and Archives Canada acquired an extraordinary book for its collection. Compiled by German intelligence in 1942, the slim volume details how and where to find the Jews of North America. While it begins with American data, the final section of the book contains detailed demographic data for Canadian Jews.

Pasted onto the inside front cover? A bookplate reading, “Ex Libris Adolf Hitler.” Yes, we now own Hitler’s personal guide to hunting the Jews of Canada. It contains reports on the populations, mother tongues and national origins of the Jews of Canada. It starts with Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg, the cities with the largest Jewish populations at the time.

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But the book also notes, precisely, that there were 1,622 Jews in Calgary, and 1,057 in Edmonton. Among those Jews so carefully counted in Edmonton? My own father, my aunties, my uncles and my grandparents.

Just think of it: Hitler had every single member of my Jewish-Canadian mishpachah enumerated. My own family, living their quiet Canadian lives. Every single Canadian Jew located, counted and described.

When I held that book — Hitler’s book — a book that the architect of the Shoah likely held in his own two hands, I felt a literal chill — I was holding a concrete testament to Nazi plans to bring the Holocaust to Canada.

The Holocaust wasn’t just something that happened “there” to “them.” It could have happened right here. And the hate and the evil that engendered the Holocaust? They’re not gone. They are all around us once more.

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I used to laugh at the memory of my 8-year-old self, the one who tried to hide from imaginary Nazis in her mother’s closet. But when I see anti-vaxxers sporting their mocking yellow stars, when I see people marching down the streets in our capital waving swastikas, when I read the emails in my inbox spewing anti-Semitic rhetoric, I’m not laughing anymore.

But criminalizing Holocaust denial or Holocaust downplaying, whatever that might be, is not the answer. This bill is dangerous. This bill is misguided. It aids and abets those who would divide and destroy us. And for the sake of the Canada I love, the country that gave my family sanctuary and peace, I cannot and will not support it.

Paula Simons is a Canadian Senator representing Alberta.

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