Canada’s Blasphemous Libel Law
Canada’s Criminal Code Section 296
296. (1) Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years
- (2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.
- (3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.
R.S., c. C-34, s. 260.
Many Canadians are unaware that Canada continues to carry an anti-blasphemy law in the criminal code. Criminal Code Section 296 is the law which has remained on Canadian books since 1892. Blasphemy laws are, by their very design, contrary to the idea of secularism – the separation of church and religion from the state and laws which govern people.
Law Now: In the Nov/Dec 2011 edition of Law Now, Peter Bowal and Kelsey Horvat describe blasphemous libel (Section 296) as one of three laws which “remain the most serious form of crimes (indictable), and contain broad, archaic wording which makes their criminal application and enforcement difficult as well as controversial today.” The article provides an excellent reminded of earlier “social control” mechanisms in Quebec. Bowal and Horvat also indicate that “there is no guidance in the criminal code or in any judicial interpretations as to what “publishes”, “decent language” or “a religious subject” mean, or generally what constitutes a blasphemous libel”.
Macdonald Laurier-Institute: The May 2013 asks the question: Is it Time to Overhaul the Criminal Code of Canada. Dennis Baker and Benjamin Janzen, the paper’s author assert “No prosecutor today would proceed with a charge that is so obviously constitutionally infirm.”
Derek James From: Derek James From, a lawyer currently associated with the Canadian Constitution Foundation has written on criminal code section 296 and has observed that “there is some irony here. While the Canadian government publicly defends the freedom to publish cartoons that mock a religious figure and looks abroad to protect religious minorities from oppression, section 296 of the Criminal Code makes it an indictable offence to publish blasphemous materials in Canada.
Jeremy Patrick: For a detailed overview of this legislation, we recommend reading Dr. Jeremy Patrick’s work. Dr. Patrick is a lecturer at University of Southern Queensland’s School of Law and Justice. He has written extensively regarding Canada’s blasphemy law, having studied law here in Canada (York University – Osgoode Hall).
If you have further information regarding Criminal Code Section 296, please forward any references or material to firstname.lastname@example.org for inclusion in this reference article and our seminar.
Blasphemous Libel – Its Relevance Today
Many legal opinions seem to suggest that a successful application of blasphemous libel is unlikely. Repeatedly, however, lawyers have indicated that this law is “sleeping, not dead”. Canadians need only observe that religious leaders and authorities are eager to support laws which would place them beyond criticism or satire. Religious leaders seeking the privilege of exemption from criticism and scrutiny is to be questioned. There is also a need to be separate hate speech, which is an essential part of modern law from blasphemy.
There are also individuals who believe in a balance between freedom of speech and protecting people’s religious sensitivities. Anver Emon, Canada Research Chair on Religion, Pluralism, and the Rule of Law also wrote in 2005 that Ontario was mistaken to ban sharia. A push to protect Section 296 by a person who has also publicly pushed to include more religion in Canadian law is not unexpected.
Given the low probability of a prosecution in Canada, it is likely that it will take global events to create an environment where the Canadian government will abandon an outdated law. There is precedent for international events or attempts to censor art and entertainment to drive governments to modernise their laws. In 2015, CFI Canada has attempted to bring to Canadians attention the attacks and murders in Paris at Charlie Hebdo, the imprisonment and torture of Raif Badawi, and other events where individuals, groups or governments have attempted to justify their attempts to intimidate, silence, imprison, injure, torture and kill any person who expresses an opinion they do not agree with. Blasphemy Laws are an attack on freedom of speech.
Early in 2015, CFI Canada began work with organizations around the world to oppose blasphemy laws wherever they exist. As a key founding partner, CFI Canada helped to launch the International Coalition Against Blasphemy Laws. Playing a key role in the drafting of the ICABL charter, along with Atheist Ireland, Humanist Canada and International Humanist and Ethical Union CFIC also supported the End Blasphemy Laws website: (CLICK HERE)
For further details regarding CFIC’s response to world blasphemy laws, we have provided extensive links to media articles below as well as in our End Blasphemy Laws Now web-article.
On March 11, 2015 Canada’s Catherine Godin spoke at the United Nations Human Rights Council (see the video at 20:29 at this link http://webtv.un.org/watch/id-contd-sr-on-religion-21st-meeting-28th-regular-session-of-human-rights-council/4104613595001).
An un-official transcription of Ms. Godin’s comments is provided here:
Canada remains deeply concerned about the plight of persecuted religious communities globally, targeted because for their faith, either through government restrictions, terrorist violence, or extreme social hostilities.