Linda Larson is angry. She is even considering a lawsuit. The town of Oliver, where she serves as mayor, has been declared "the hate capital of Canada" by a controversial Toronto Jewish leader. The area's 9,000 residents are irate at receiving such a reputation because of material written mostly by people who live outside B.C. in what many believe to be a political publicity stunt.
At a Vancouver press conference two weeks ago, Sol Littman, the Canadian representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre of Los Angeles, said he wants Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh to charge Internet service provider Fairview Technology Centre (FTC) and its owner, Bernard Klatt, with violating Canada's hate laws.
FTC provides Internet access and space for users to set up their own sites on the World Wide Web. Mr. Littman claims that at least 14 websites on FTC contain hate material from white supremacist and other groups.
Mayor Larson calls Mr. Littman's remarks "irresponsible" and accuses Mr. Littman of employing guilt by association. "I don't think it was necessary to sacrifice a community to get the publicity", she says. "That's what the Wiesenthal Centre is supposed to be against, sacrificing an innocent people ... Mr. Littman wants this community to rise up physically against Klatt. Tar and feathers went out with the Dark Ages." She says Oliver's residents are "incredibly upset".
Mayor Larson believes Mr. Littman's charge is nonsensical. She points out that the town of Oliver and the school district were both customers of FTC, but took their business elsewhere after this controversy first arose 18 months ago. She adds, "No one here in Oliver writes or produces that [controversial] material."
Mr. Littman apologized to Mayor Larson, but refuses to retract his remarks - and appears to be unsure of what he actually said. During a CBC radio confrontation between him and Ms. Larson, he claimed he had never called Oliver the hate capital of Canada, even after both Mayor Larson and the interviewer told him that his allegation had been recorded by reporters.
Mr. Littman has often been in the news. In 1984 he wrote the prime minister that his organization had information Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele had applied at the Canadian embassy in Argentina in 1962 to enter Canada. Mr. Littman's demands for an investigation led to the creation of the Deschenes Commission. Mr. Littman later admitted that Mengele had never applied to come to Canada.
Mr. Littman was reluctant to speak to B.C. Report, and first attempted to discern whether the publication would depict him in a positive light. He did agree to explain what he found on FTC's websites that violated hate laws. "The thing we found most dangerous was one of the websites especially aims its message at children", he explains. He says a comic book promotes hatred of Jews and blacks. The website he discusses, however, contains only a link to the comic books, which was at a New York site but has since disappeared. Another website he complains about is a list of material that can be ordered, which includes Nazi paraphernalia and writings. The attorney general's office has passed on Mr. Littman's complaint to Vancouver's hate crimes unit, which reports it is currently assessing it.
Mr. Klatt believes Mr. Littman's eagerness to have him prosecuted may backfire. "With Mr. Littman's publicity, in conjunction with major media outlets, they have managed to generate far more publicity for those web pages than those young people who put them together could ever hope to accomplish on their own in several lifetimes", he declares. He says the websites do not reflect his own opinions. But, he adds, "Just because I don't agree with someone's viewpoint doesn't mean I would refuse them a website."
Mr. Klatt believes himself to be an agent of free speech. "The major media outlets are uniformly negative toward freedom of expression on the Internet", he says. "We get uniform responses from individuals in support of freedom of expression. It gives the impression the major media fears the Internet and the lack of controls over what people can see and evaluate with their own judgement."
University of British Columbia computer science professor Richard Rosenberg, vice-president of Electronic Frontier Canada, points out that the Internet's chaotic nature makes it impossible to control. "What should Canada do if there are websites in the U.S. that carry material which is Canada would violate hate laws?" he asks. "Is the government going to check on individual access to these sites? I don't think that's in the cards ... What they're really doing is using the particular event to bring attention to their concerns rather than having any realistic hope of remedy or control."
The Canadian Human Rights Commission is currently engaged precisely in what Prof. Rosenberg considers so dubious. The commission is in the midst of hearings against Toronto Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, arguing he is delivering hate speech by providing material for a website run out of California by Ingrid Rimland. His lawyer, Victoria's Doug Christie, believes Canada's laws are too vague. "Hate is in the eye of the beholder", he argues. "Is it criticism? Is it recognizing the influence of a group? Is it attributing more influence to a group than it actually has? It seems to be convincing the attorney general to lay a charge."
Mr. Christie believes courts are reluctant to interfere for fear of being labelled racist or anti-Semitic. "These human rights tribunals are nothing but the modern Inquisition", Mr. Christie declares. "There is very little willingness in courts to uphold free speech."