A new survey suggests there is a strong relationship between a person’s political perspective and their views on free speech in Canada.
The 1,000 respondents were asked about the topic and their political leanings through the Canadian Hub for Applied and Social Research at the University of Saskatchewan.
The phone survey was conducted between June 1 and June 27 and those who lean right were more likely to believe there should be no limits on speech, even if it is hateful or untrue.
Nowhere was that sentiment stronger than in the Prairie provinces.
“We decided to ask about freedom specifically, given (Conservative leadership contender) Pierre Poilievre’s campaign focus on the word and other recent events,” research director Jason Disano said. “It would be relevant to find out if people truly feel free, as opposed to the rhetoric coming out of campaigns.”
Adding that so-called “freedom rallies” and anti-mandate movements throughout the pandemic also prompted the question as to how Canadians feel about the term.
He says overall, eight in 10 respondents — or nearly 86 per cent — say they believe they have, or somewhat have, freedom of speech. Most respondents also say they believe governments and corporations like Twitter and Meta — formerly known as Facebook — should intervene to limit the spread of misinformation and hate speech.
“But when you break that down into one’s political leanings, that’s when you really see differences in Canadian views and opinions in the extent to which that freedom of speech should be (limited),” Disano said.
“It’s not surprising,” said Barbara Perry, director of the Centre of Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University.
“If we look at the narrative over the past few years, there has been an emphasis on cancel culture. Free speech has become a rallying call for the far-right. It’s always been there, but I think it was really amplified by the emergence of the alt-right in particular.”
Disano says the Prairies had the highest proportion of people who identified as right-leaning at 31.5 per cent, with people in Quebec having the lowest at 18.6 per cent.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which does not explicitly say “freedom of speech” anywhere, does guarantee Canadians the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.”
That also extends to a freedom of the press, however, there are limits to this. The charter states “the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
In Canada, it is unlawful to publicly incite hate against an identifiable group, under Canada’s Human Rights Act and Criminal Code. Although due to the current nature of the law, many high profile hate speech incidents never end up with criminal charges.
However, a bill to further clarify and combat hate speech was introduced last year, and if passed, it would extend to online hate speech and propaganda. Bill C-36 would see those who engage in hate online through social media, blogs, mass emails, online newspapers, and even users’ public comments on news articles facing criminal charges.
But in the United States, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech including the right to express hateful comments and offensive opinions.
The respondents of the survey were asked if they agree with the Canadian or the American approach to limits on speech and Disano says eight in 10 respondents agreed with Canada’s approach.
However, about one in three respondents, or 31 per cent, who say they are right-leaning supported America’s no-limit approach, with most respondents — 22.4 per cent — coming from the Prairies and the least coming from Atlantic Canada with 4.5 per cent. Quebec respondents were also more supportive of interventions to crackdown on misinformation compared with those in Ontario and B.C.
Women were also more likely than men to support restrictions on free speech.
Perry says “American free speech absolutism” has emerged in Canada and can be linked to social media.
“We’re not just talking about speech that’s offensive or hurts someone’s feelings, we’re really talking about dangerous speech and speech that has the potential to do real harm,” Perry said.
“It comes back to the internet and having what they think is ease of access to spread whatever hateful, and misguided ideas they want.”
The survey was reliable to within plus or minus three per cent, with a 95 per cent confidence level.