Cotler Tries to Deflect the Praise As Canada Moves Against Racism

Since he was appointed justice minister and attorney general in December 2003, human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler has shown he’s not afraid to tackle challenging or controversial issues. Cotler, who had been a parliamentarian from Montreal, has fought to make legalization of same-sex civil marriage one of the key legislative goals of the Liberal government, as well as the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

Now the lifelong crusader against anti-Semitism has helped make the fight against racism another priority for Prime Minister Paul Martin’s government.

The rise in hate crimes and racism in Canada and around the world — including incidents such as the April 2004 firebombing of a Jewish school in Montreal — demonstrates the need for the government to take concrete action, Cotler said.

Martin’s government recently unveiled Canada’s first-ever National Action Plan Against Racism, which would earmark some U.S. $45 million to combat racism and racial hatred over a five-year period.

Cotler, who sat down with JTA last week to discuss the plan, said its announcement in early March was no coincidence, coming shortly after the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in late January.

After a series of attacks on Jewish institutions and personal property in Toronto and Montreal last spring, Cotler was asked in Parliament how the government intended to respond.

“I said that we regarded these as an assault on the inherent dignity and worth of every human being, an assault on the equal dignity and worth of all human beings, on assault on the rights of minorities to protection against groups vilifying hate, an assault on our undertakings with respect to protecting against racism and hatred in international treaties,” he said. “I concluded by saying that we would not be silent, we will not be intimidated, we will speak out, we will act and we will consign racism to the dustbin of history where it belongs.”

In October 2004, the government pledged to strengthen Canada’s ability to combat racism, hate speech and hate crimes. The result is the new action plan, which has as its slogan “A Canada for All.”

The plan sets out a 10-step series of measures designed to deal with racism and hatred, both inside Canada and internationally, including on the Internet.

An important first step is moral and political leadership “as an antidote against the consequences of indifference or inaction,” Cotler said. “The second thing is working with civil society to develop a common front against racism, a constituency of consciousness against racism.”

Public education is another major component of the plan, especially focusing on youth.

A legal regime that will combat racism in all forms is being strengthened and publicized. The upcoming 20th anniversary of Canada’s Equal Rights Provision will be used to sensitize the public to issues of equality and multiculturalism in Canadian society.

“We are maybe the only country in the world that has made multiculturalism a constitutional norm,” Cotler said.

It’s essential to increase awareness of the range of remedies available against racism, Cotler said, “because they are not sufficiently appreciated by all actors in the justice system, let alone the public as a whole.”

The Justice Department doesn’t yet have a branch or a person dedicated to researching or monitoring racial hatred on the Internet, Cotler said, but he has made that a priority.

“We need a government agency or department that would be responsible for Internet hate,” he said.

The struggle is an international one, he stressed, “because no country alone can combat what is in effect a faceless, borderless, predatory racist hate that requires the mobilization of international resources against hate.”

Canada will sign an optional protocol to the Convention on Cybercrime that will enhance the country’s ability to fight hate on the Internet, both domestically and internationally, he said.

Cotler also is working with justice ministers around the world to take on racial hatred.

Recently, for example, Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, who had exhausted his legal appeals in Canada, was deported to his native Germany, where he was put in jail. The arrangements around the deportation gave Cotler the opportunity to discuss bilateral approaches for combating racism, hate speech and hate crimes with his German colleagues.

“We agreed to exchange our respective views in order to learn from each other and enhance mutual legal cooperation in this regard,” he said.

Cotler deflected praise from himself, saying that a comprehensive legal program against racism already was in place before he took office, and that the government merely had made fighting racism more of a priority.

Yet some might conclude that it took a committed Jewish human rights lawyer and lifelong enemy of anti-Semitism and racism to get Canada to take such issues more seriously.

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