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OPINION | Criticizing cops is democracy, not hate speech

New petition from a former cop and a Liberal MP conflates accountability with hate speech

by Paula EthansSilas Koulack

Photo of officer and Winnipeg Police helicopter. Photo: WPS Facebook
Photo of officer and Winnipeg Police helicopter. Photo: WPS Facebook

Retired Winnipeg police officer Stan Tataryn recently filed a petition with the House of Commons that seeks to add “vocation” (job status) as a protected group under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, claiming police receive “hate speech.”

The petition, which was sponsored by Winnipeg Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux (who has since pulled support), calls on Parliament to accept there are “vocations, most notably police officers, that single them out as an identifiable group” and need to be protected. It’s worth noting that Lamoureux’s office previously paid Tataryn thousands of dollars as a “subject matter expert.”

This petition is not just legally unsound and an affront to individuals from persecuted groups, it’s part of a broader attempt in Manitoba to stifle valid public criticism of law enforcement and shield police from accountability.

Petition doesn’t pass legal muster

First and foremost, the police cannot be a legally protected group.

In Canada, it’s a criminal offence to express anything that incites hatred against an identifiable group and to “willfully” promote “hatred against any identifiable group." These groups are distinguished by “colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or mental or physical disability.” In short, only groups that share an inherent or immutable trait – something that goes to the core of their identity – are protected.

Police do not fit into this definition. One’s job isn’t an inalienable trait like having a disability or being Indigenous. Policing is a job; one of the most powerful, protected, and well paid jobs. A person can quit their job whenever they want. Canada’s hate speech laws were created to protect disadvantaged and oppressed groups. Police couldn’t be farther from this definition.

Second, there’s no hate speech being hurled at police.

Police are killing Black and Indigenous individuals and people are - rightly - getting upset, gathering together, and demanding answers. Yes, sometimes people call cops “pigs” or “bastards” but the Charter doesn’t protect hurt feelings nor ban name calling. That isn’t hate speech, it is democracy.

The police are an institution funded by the public and they are supposedly meant to serve the public. Thus, the public has every right to hold this institution accountable for its actions. When people demand better from the police, they’re exercising their Constitutional rights of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. To try to deem this hate speech is therefore to deprive people of their basic rights.

A campaign of fear

Unfortunately, this petition is part of a greater antidemocratic trend in Manitoba. 

Just last month, the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) threatened to boycott and defraud a local restaurant for hanging posters from the abolitionist group Winnipeg Police Cause Harm (WPCH), of which we are both members. Facebook posts by police officers called on fellow officers to avoid supporting “these lunatics,” or to call in orders to the restaurant and not pick them up. Other posts labelled WPCH a “hate group.”

Unfortunately, in February of 2021, a Winnipeg police officer died by suicide. Instead of discussing the inherent harms of being a police officer and how that could adversely impact someone’s mental health, the WPS suggested in a public statement that this death was a direct result of Black Lives Matter and protests against police brutality.

The obituary of the officer cited “...anti-police protests, campaigns, growing public hatred and cynicism toward police officers” as the cause of the officer’s suicide. Further, in an article with CBC, one anonymous officer directly blamed civilians for the man’s death: "For the guy that took his own life, the lack of executive support during Black Lives Matter crushed him.”

As one individual wrote in a letter to the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, “...while the suicide of a 43-year-old man is a tragedy, it’s a greater tragedy to see a victim of suicide turned into a martyr for the Blue Lives Matter movement.”

Additionally, the Manitoba Government recently released the text for Bill C-57, The Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act. This bill proposes higher fines and the possibility of imprisonment for those who interfere with “critical infrastructure,” which includes police stations, law courts, banks, grocery stores, and thirty-six other listed locations. The bill would also empower corporations to establish a zone where protest would be disallowed or severely limited. Bill C-57 is a clear response to the Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests that emerged across the country in the winter of early 2020, seeking to drastically restrict the ability of land defenders and activists to exercise their Constitutional right to freedom of assembly.

Just last week, in his comments to the media, petition author Stan Tataryn went so far as to single out Indigenous grassroots groups, saying they’ll “make the situation more tense” with WPS if they continue to gather and speak out. Tataryn also said that criticisms of law enforcement will cause officers to “go quicker to their weapon, or toward force.” These statements, which are deeply threatening, are illustrative of law enforcement’s larger inability to receive criticism, and its inherent violence.

This pushback by government and police has created fear amongst individuals and groups in Manitoba to take a stand against the police. People are wary of speaking out, for fear of being told what they’re saying constitutes hate speech. Folks outright dismiss grassroots groups because they’ve been labelled “hate groups.” This effort to suppress public criticism of the police in Manitoba began long before Tataryn’s petition, and it will likely continue long after.

The police are not victims

These actions represent a widespread crusade by politicians, police, and their supporters to suppress free speech and to shield law enforcement from scrutiny and accountability.

Police are painting themselves as victims, saying they are being harpooned by “hate speech” and unable to cope with the stress of the job. In reality, it is the police who are causing people harm, especially Black and Indigenous communities.

Between 2000 and 2017, police killed 14 people in Winnipeg, most of the victims Indigenous. In 2019 alone, WPS killed Chad Williams, Machuar Madut, Sean Thompson, Randy Cochrane, and three other individuals whose names haven’t been released.

The WPS are facing criticism for their deadly violence, and those in power are pointing the finger back at concerned citizens and marginalized communities as a deflection tactic.

If the police want people to stop criticizing them, then they should stop killing and harming BIPOC. People are angry and critical of policing because police face no accountability or consequences for their racist actions.

The police are denying responsibility, refusing to be held accountable, and playing the victim. They’re giving us a masterclass in gaslighting. 

We must keep speaking out

Over the past year, protests and campaigns against police violence have been slandered, criticized, and declared violent. The attempt to label criticism of police as hate speech is only the latest in this trend.

These efforts to diminish our freedoms and shield police from scrutiny cannot stop people from speaking out and organizing. We cannot be dissuaded or scared from standing up against violent institutions.

Police cause harm. Period. Those who raise awareness about these harms and demand our public institutions stop killing Black and Indigenous people are not the ones causing harm. It’s policing, not social movements advocating for true community safety, that is killing people.

 

Paula Ethans is a writer, poet, and human rights lawyer in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She tweets @PaulaEthans. Silas Koulack is a student-at-law in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They both organize with Winnipeg Police Cause Harm.


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