Question Period Live

No one talked about the internet's obsession with a hate crimes threat

The opposition steered clear of a big story about boycotting Israel that had the internet aflutter

This video has nothing to do with boycott, divestment or sanctions campaigns against Israel. This afternoon, New Democrats didn’t anywhere near touch the CBC’s big scoop that claimed the feds were threatening to charge BDS campaigners with hate crimes. The NDP stuck to much safer ground, leading question period with requisite fury about the Prime Minister’s Office apparently encouraging changes to a Senate audit of Mike Duffy’s expenses. The Liberals stuck to questions about whose tax plan is best for the middle class.

As for that scoop about hate crimes, well, it succumbed to the echo chamber of internet chatter. The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald, an occasional CBC contributor and Paul Calandra’s favourite alleged porn spy, jumped on the story and claimed that Prime Minister Stephen Harper “is the perfect Poster Boy for how free expression is tribalistically manipulated and exploited in the West.” Fighting words. Greenwald even posted CBC reporter Neil Macdonald’s correspondence with a departmental spokesperson to prove the veracity of the story, critics be damned.

But the critics were many. David Frum called bullshit and questioned the existence of a single threat against BDS campaigners. Warren Kinsella used many words, including “recklessly false,” to describe the story. Jean-Christophe de Le Rue, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, called Macdonald’s story a “bizarre conspiracy theory.” Later in the day, the CBC changed the story’s headline.

Back to the email exchange with that departmental official, just for a second. The response, read a certain way, comes off as a total non-sequitur. “As previously mentioned, DFATD will be addressing your questions regarding the work being done with Israel regarding BDS,” wrote Josée Sirois. That’s where the correspondence could have ended, and often does when departments refer reporters to other departments.

But Sirois went on: “With regards to Canadian criminal law,” she wrote, before citing the Criminal Code provisions barring hate speech. Which question was she answering as she elaborated? If Macdonald inferred something improperly from that response, the government ought to explain itself: either the spokesperson misspoke, or someone approved that correspondence deliberately.

We know that Blaney’s office has vowed never to speak of this again, and that the opposition is taking a pass on the whole kerfuffle. But questions about that odd electronic exchange, which briefly whipped the internet into one of its regular tizzies, will just hang there, forever, unanswered.

The context

When a political leader humiliates herself, utterly and completely, after a string of bad jokes and the odd expletive, and she does this in front of fellow politicians, and the stage is, disastrously, a press gallery dinner, people are going to talk. And talk. And talk. This is today’s hell for Elizabeth May, the Green Party leader who hopes to bolster her caucus’s ranks in the House of Commons after the next federal vote.

May apologized profusely for her onstage romp at the Canadian Museum of History over the weekend, the sort of speech that would probably kill the careers of any of her fellow party leaders. Imagine the scene if Justin Trudeau or Thomas Mulcair had told the world that Omar Khadr “had more class than the whole f–king cabinet.” That scene is science fiction, because the people around those leaders would never let it happen.

So, yes, May might take a few days to get her groove back, and she probably won’t find much public sympathy in the process.

Question period, however, will go on, and it will remain totally unconcerned with the events of a fancy gala across the river from Parliament Hill. More likely, May’s colleagues in opposition will raise a fuss about the government’s possible plans for anyone in Canada who boycotts Israeli products.

The CBC’s Neil Macdonald quoted a spokesperson for Public Safety Canada making some noise about connecting boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns against Israel to hate speech.

“In response to specific questions about what ‘zero tolerance’ of BDS means, and how it will be enforced, Public Safety Canada spokesperson Josee Sirois gave CBC News a much clearer picture of the government’s intent,” wrote Macdonald, who quoted Sirois saying the following: “I can tell you that Canada has one of the most comprehensive sets of laws against hate crime anywhere in the world.” She went on: “We will not allow hate crimes to undermine our way of life, which is based on diversity and inclusion.”

The story prompted the kind of criticism you’d expect from organizations that engage in such boycotts. They deny to high heaven that they’re part of a campaign of hate. Predictably, Blaney’s office has distanced itself from the CBC report, dismissing it as “inaccurate and ridiculous.” But the staffer’s quotes remain online, as does the story. Blaney’s task is to give the evening news a quote that’ll have viewers changing the channel. Of course, if news networks wants to keep people interested, they could just keep playing clips of May’s attempt at humour. From that kind of disaster, no one can look away.

UPDATE, 3:08 p.m.: As it happened, the opposition was also mostly unconcerned with the CBC report mentioned above. Not surprisingly, the NDP led with questions about suspended senator Mike Duffy, and the apparent influence of the Prime Minister’s Office in changes made to a Senate audit of Duffy’s expenses. The Liberals stuck to their script of late: stumping for middle-class tax cuts and blaming the Tories for tax changes that favour the wealthy. Among all the heckles and shame, Elizabeth May’s antics were all but forgotten.