Hate speech and the law in British Columbia

BC’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner (BCOHRC) developed this question and answer page (Q&A) as part of its mandate to address the root causes of inequality, discrimination and injustice in B.C. The information in this Q&A applies to British Columbia, Canada.

CAUTION: This Q&A includes examples of hate speech that some readers may find distressing.

To provide feedback, please contact us at: info@bchumanrights.ca

Disclaimer: This Q&A provides general information only and is not legal advice. If you need advice about a legal problem, please contact a lawyer or legal clinic. Note that BC’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner does not necessarily endorse the views expressed in the websites that this Q&A links to.

Current as of: BCOHRC most recently reviewed this Q&A for legal accuracy in April 2021.

  • What is hate speech?

    Hate speech comes in many forms. It can include hatred rooted in racism (including anti-Black, anti-Asian and anti-Indigenous racism), misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy.

    Both Canada’s Criminal Code and B.C.’s Human Rights Code describe hate speech as having three main parts:

    • It is expressed in a public way or place
    • It targets a person or group of people with a protected characteristic such as race, religion or sexual orientation
    • It uses extreme language to express hatred towards that person or group of people because of their protected characteristic

    Hate speech uses extreme language to describe the targeted group that is likely to expose them to detestation and vilification. Here are a few examples of what hate speech typically includes:

    • Describing group members as animals, subhuman or genetically inferior
    • Suggesting group members are behind a conspiracy to gain control by plotting to destroy western civilization
    • Denying, minimizing or celebrating past persecution or tragedies that happened to group members
    • Labelling group members as child abusers, pedophiles or criminals who prey on children
    • Blaming group members for problems like crime and disease
    • Calling group members liars, cheats, criminals or any other term meant to provoke a strong reaction

    Hate speech is not limited to the types of negative words in these examples. But these examples show how disgusting and extreme speech must be to be considered hate speech under the law.

    Effects of hate speech

    Hate speech is more than offensive or hurtful; It is harmful to those who are targeted and to society at large. Hate speech tries to delegitimize and dehumanize the people who are targeted in the eyes of society. People who are victims of hate speech can often feel traumatized, excluded, unsafe, angry, or sad. It may make them so uncomfortable that they do not feel welcome in their communities.

    B.C.’s Human Rights Commissioner recognizes that there is a lot of speech that is hurtful and offensive that is not captured under hate speech laws.

  • What is discriminatory speech?

    B.C.’s Human Rights Code prohibits speech that discriminates or intends to discriminate against a person or group of people because of characteristics including race, place of origin, religion, disability, sex and gender identity. The same speech might be both hate speech and discriminatory speech but that is not always the case.

    Discriminatory speech has three main parts:

    • It is expressed in a public way or place (for example in a flyer, notice, article or speech)
    • It intends to make a highly negative distinction between groups
    • It intends to create negative consequences for the targeted group (regardless of whether those consequences occur)

    Examples of discriminatory speech include:

    Depending on what else these flyers or posters say, they might also be hate speech under the Human Rights Code.

    See “Is online hate speech also prohibited by B.C.’s Human Rights Code and Criminal Code?

  • If someone says something offensive but not so extreme that it’s hate speech or discriminatory speech, are there any other laws they may have violated?

    There are other laws and policies that someone could violate if they say offensive things.

    Under the Human Rights Code many acts of discrimination involve offensive speech.  Whenever people use words in a way that attacks and undermines a person’s dignity in connection with their work, housing or access to public services because of personal characteristics protected by the Code, the Human Rights Tribunal could find that they have discriminated under the Code.

    For example, when showing an apartment for rent to an Indigenous person, a landlord makes some negative and stereotypical comments about Indigenous people and says that “we don’t usually rent to Indigenous people but will consider your application.” The landlord never contacts the prospective tenant but they notice the apartment continues to be advertised for rent for a few weeks. The prospective tenant tries to contact the landlord but receives no response.

    It is unlikely the negative and stereotypical comments the landlord made would amount to hate speech under the Human Rights Code—though that depends on the precise content and context—but they may amount to discrimination in tenancy (under section 10 of the Code).

    Another example comes from the world of work. Offensive speech might violate an employer’s bullying and harassment or respectful workplace policies. Employers in B.C. must implement procedures for responding to bullying and harassment in the workplace. Bullying and harassment is any conduct that could reasonably result in another worker being humiliated or intimidated. For example, calling someone derogatory names or being verbally aggressive might be bullying and harassment.  Bullying and harassment do not need to be linked to a protected characteristic like gender identity or race to be considered offensive speech.

    For more information about bullying and harassment, see WorkSafeBC’s Bullying and Harassment page.

  • Which characteristics are protected by the Criminal Code and B.C.’s Human Rights Code?

    The characteristics protected by hate speech laws are generally the same, but there are some differences:

    • age
    • ancestry
    • colour
    • place of origin (called “national or ethnic origin” in the Criminal Code)
    • race
    • family status (not protected under Criminal Code hate speech)
    • gender identity or expression
    • marital status (not protected under Criminal Code hate speech)
    • physical or mental disability
    • religion
    • sex
    • sexual orientation

    Indigenous identity (sometimes referred to as “Indigeneity”) is not currently a separate protected characteristic under either law. But Indigenous identity is included in the categories of ancestry, colour, place of origin and race.

  • Which laws prohibit hate speech? What do they say?

    In B.C., hate speech is prohibited by both B.C.’s Human Rights Code and Canada’s Criminal Code. The Human Rights Code also prohibits discriminatory speech, which is similar to hate speech but not exactly the same (see What is discriminatory speech?)

    The term “hate speech” isn’t used in either the Criminal Code or the Human Rights Code. Canadian law uses terms to refer to hate speech that are different from the words we use every day. The Criminal Code refers to hate speech as:

    The Human Rights Code refers to hate speech and discriminatory speech under the heading Discriminatory Publication (section 7).

    There are important differences between hate speech provisions of the Criminal Code and Human Rights Code. Some of the differences involve what exactly is illegal, while others involve the process and possible remedies if someone has breached these laws.

    Summary of differences between hate speech under the Human Rights Code and the Criminal Code

    Law B.C.’s Human Rights Code Canada’s Criminal Code
    Prohibition(s) against hate speech Prohibits hate speech and discriminatory speech. Prohibits “wilful promotion of hatred” and “public incitement of hatred” and allows courts to consider whether other crimes in the Criminal Code were motivated by hate and to increase the punishment.
    Process for filing a complaint Individuals (complainants) file complaints with the BC Human Rights Tribunal. Complainants make decisions about the case, including gathering evidence and whether to settle. Generally, victims file complaints with the police, the police decide whether to recommend charges under the Criminal Code and the prosecutor (Crown Counsel) decides whether to approve the charges and prosecute the accused. Like any charge under the Criminal Code, the person who complains to the police is not the one who controls what happens with that complaint. For example, they do not decide what evidence is important or choose whether their complaint goes to court.
    Protected characteristics Protected characteristics are race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression or age. Protected characteristics are colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, mental or physical disability or any other similar factor. This does not include marital status or family status.
    Decision maker The BC Human Rights Tribunal is responsible for hearing complaints of discrimination under the Human Rights Code, including the hate speech section in the Code. Courts are responsible for hearing and deciding cases against an accused person.
    Standard of proof Standard of proof is on a balance of probabilities. This means it’s easier to prove that the hate speech occurred. Standard of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. This means it’s harder to prove that the hate speech occurred.
    Consequences If the BC Human Rights Tribunal finds that someone has used hate speech under the Human Rights Code, the Tribunal can order: That the hate speech stopThat the complainant be financially compensated for injury to dignity, feelings or self-respectOther remedies The Tribunal cannot send anyone to prison. If a court finds someone guilty of hate speech, the person can be sentenced to prison time, fines and other criminal sanctions. There is less flexibility in sentencing than there is for orders by the Human Rights Tribunal, and there is no possibility of financial compensation for the victim other than through the Crime Victim Assistance Program

    For more information about hate speech under the Criminal Code in B.C., see the Hate Crimes In BC website and the BC Prosecution Service Policy Manual, Hate Crimes.

  • How is someone convicted of “public incitement of hatred?”

    Key definitions

    Public incitement of hatred is a criminal offence in Canada. Someone found guilty of the offence of “public incitement of hatred” made “statements” in a “public place” with the intention of stirring up or encouraging hatred against a particular group of people. That person’s attempt to incite hate must also include the strong possibility of a public disturbance, which the law calls a “breach of the peace.”

    What the Criminal Code refers to as “statements” includes more than just spoken words or speeches. Statements can be written or recorded, and can include gestures, signs, photographs and drawings.

    What the Criminal Code means by a “public place” is an area or location that the general public normally has access to. Parks, malls and city streets are just some examples of public places.

    In a nutshell, “public incitement of hatred” means that someone said something publicly that could stir up hatred (extreme language that is likely to expose a targeted group to detestation and vilification, as described under What is hate speech?). The speech doesn’t have to result in any further hateful comments or acts for someone to be convicted of the offence of “public incitement of hatred.”

    Process of charging and convicting someone of public incitement of hatred

    The police investigate to find evidence that this crime has been committed. It is then up to the prosecutor (called Crown Counsel) to decide if the evidence is strong enough to charge someone with public incitement of hatred and go to trial. It is then up to the judge who hears the case to decide if the accused person is guilty or not guilty.

    Few people have been found guilty of public incitement of hatred. Here are some examples of hate speech that led to the accused being found guilty:

    Caution: The following examples may be distressing to some readers.

  • How is someone convicted of “wilful promotion of hatred?”

    Key definitions

    Wilful promotion of hatred is a criminal offence in Canada. Wilful promotion of hatred means to make “statements” in public that wilfully or intentionally promote hate against an “identifiable group.” Unlike public incitement of hatred, wilful promotion of hatred does not have to involve a breach of the peace.

    “Identifiable” groups of people share a protected characteristic. The Criminal Code lists the characteristics that may apply: colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and mental or physical disability.

    Again, “statements” includes more than just spoken words or speeches. Statements can be written or recorded, and they include gestures, signs, photographs and drawings.

    A guilty verdict for the offence of “wilful promotion of hatred” does not require proof that the speech actually caused further hateful comments or acts against the targeted group. The purpose of this law is to prevent any serious harm that may result from hate speech, including harm to the targeted group and society generally.

    How is someone charged and convicted of “wilful promotion of hatred”?

    The police investigate to find evidence that this crime has been committed. It is then up to the prosecutor (called Crown Counsel) to decide if the evidence is strong enough to charge someone with wilful promotion of hatred and go to trial. It is then up to the judge who hears the case to decide if the accused person is guilty or not guilty.

    Few people in Canada have been found guilty of wilful promotion of hatred. Here are some examples of hate speech that led to guilty verdicts:

    Caution: The following examples may be distressing to some readers.

  • Does the Criminal Code include hate crimes other than those related to hate speech?

    Yes. The two hate crimes related to hate speech—“wilful promotion of hatred” and “public incitement of hatred”—are not the only hate crimes in the Criminal Code. The Criminal Code defines two more hate crimes:

    In addition, when an offence is motivated by hate against an identifiable group, a judge may consider that motivation as an aggravating factor to a criminal sentence (see section 718.2 of the Criminal Code). Hate can motivate almost any type of crime committed against a person or property.

  • Do the laws against hate speech include all forms of expression?
    Human rights law

    As long as the speech is public and, in the case of B.C.’s Human Rights Code, within provincial jurisdiction, hate speech laws apply.

    Hate speech can include any statement, publication, notice, sign, symbol, emblem, photograph, or other representation that amounts to hate speech.

    Criminal Code

    Hate speech under the Criminal Code talks about “communicated statements.” Communicated statements include written or spoken words, gestures, signs and other images.

    What if the speech is communicated privately?

    Private communications cannot be hate speech under the Human Rights Code or the Criminal Code. So, if someone says something to you that you think is hate speech but nobody else is there or could reasonably have been expected to be there, that speech will not violate hate speech laws. Often it will be obvious if something is public or private, but sometimes this can be complicated.

    Note, however, that private communication can still violate the Human Rights Code under other sections such as discrimination in services, tenancy or employment.

    See If someone says something offensive but not so extreme that it’s hate speech or discriminatory speech, are there any other laws they may have violated?

  • Is online hate speech also prohibited by the Criminal Code or B.C.’s Human Rights Code?
    Criminal Code

    The Criminal Code covers hate speech on the internet, including on social media sites where there is a sufficient link to Canada.

    Human rights law

    Neither B.C.’s Human Rights Code nor Canada’s Human Rights Act explicitly cover hate speech on the internet. This can be a complicated area of law where the answers are not clear.

    B.C.’s Human Rights Commissioner is very concerned about hate speech on the internet. The Commissioner recognizes that some of the most harmful and widely distributed hate speech happens on the internet, including on social media sites, and is keen to ensure that the law adequately deals with this kind of harmful speech.

  • Don’t people in Canada have a right to freedom of speech?

    Yes, freedom of expression is a constitutional right in Canada. But like all constitutional rights, freedom of expression is subject to reasonable limits.

    Hate speech and discriminatory speech are prohibited because government has decided these laws are reasonable limits on freedom of expression.

    The Supreme Court of Canada has found that laws that prohibit hate speech are reasonable and justified because hate speech can desensitize people to the effects of hate speech on minority groups, making it easier to deny those groups equal rights.

  • How would someone defend themselves if they are accused of hate speech or discriminatory speech?
    Under B.C.’s Human Rights Code

    If a complainant proves that the speech is hate speech or discriminatory speech under the Human Rights Code, the respondent (the person(s) against whom a complaint is made) could say that the communication was private, or intended to be private. Whether someone intends their speech to be hateful or not is irrelevant.

    Under the Criminal Code

    People accused under the Criminal Code of wilfully promoting hatred can defend themselves by proving that the statements they made were either:

    • true
    • an honestly held religious belief
    • part of a discussion about a subject of general public interest and that they reasonably believed was true
    • an honest attempt to point out that the statements tend to promote hate so they can be removed

    People accused of either public incitement of hatred or willful promotion of hatred under the Criminal Code also can defend themselves through general defenses available to anyone accused of a crime.

  • What can I do if I am a victim of hate speech?

    If you are the victim of hate speech, there are different actions you can take and there are supports available to you:

    Ask for help: If you are in a public place and are being verbally or physically attacked, let others close by know you need help.

    Document the incident: If it is safe, make a record of the incident by taking a photo or video of the perpetrator or the incident, or ask someone to do this for you. Note the time, day, location, witnesses, and any other information you can remember about the incident.

    If you experience discriminatory or hate speech in your workplace, consider speaking to your supervisor, manager or human a resources representative and let them know how the behaviour is affecting you. If your workplace is unionized, consider talking to a shop steward. There may be policies and procedures in your organization to address these issues.

    File a human rights complaint. To make a complaint under B.C.’s Human Rights Code, you must file a written complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. Filing a written complaint starts a legal process that is similar to a court proceeding. Consider talking to a lawyer experienced in human rights law about your situation before filing a complaint.

    If you are considering making a human rights complaint, you can find out more information about your rights through the BC Human Rights Tribunal and BC Human Rights Clinic websites, including the complaint process and time limits for filing complaints.

    If you have a low income, there are other organizations that may be able to help you with filing a human rights complaint. The BC Human Rights Clinic provides free representation to residents of B.C. who have or are seeking to have, cases before the Human Rights Tribunal, to those people who meet the financial qualifications.

    Report it to the police: Contact the police if you feel safe and comfortable to do so. The Human Rights Commissioner recognizes that not everyone will feel safe or comfortable with the police based on past experiences including the impact of colonization.

    To report an emergency, call 911. Emergency circumstances include:

    • A crime in progress
    • An immediate threat to your safety
    • An immediate threat to the safety of someone else
    • Property in immediate danger of a criminal act

    To report non-emergency hate speech or hate crimes—where there is no immediate threat to anyone’s safety or property—call the non-emergency number for your local police department, or visit your local police department to make a report in person. Find your local police department or RCMP detachment at: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/justice/criminal-justice/policing-in-bc/bc-police-forces

    Find support: Contact Victim Link for confidential, multilingual crisis support and information and referrals. Victim Link is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Resilience BC has Resources for Victims of Racism and Hate so you can see what supports work best for you.

    Victims, immediate family members and some witnesses may be eligible for services under the Crime Victim Assistance Program. This can include financial benefits to offset financial losses and assist in recovery for coping with the effects of violent crime. In most cases, the application must be received within one year from the date the crime took place. You do not have to wait for charges to be laid or for the offender to be convicted before applying for benefits.

    Specialized support for Indigenous PeopleKUU-US Crisis Line Society (province-wide): Provides a First Nations and Indigenous specific crisis line available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, toll-free from anywhere in British Columbia.

    First Nations Health Authority Mental Health Benefit (province-wide): Health Benefits partners with Indigenous Services Canada to offer a comprehensive mental health plan to First Nations in BC. The plan covers counselling services from a qualified mental health provider, including psychologists, clinical counsellors and social workers.

  • What can I do if I witness hate speech?

    If you witness a racist or hate incident, you can take action safely and effectively in several ways:

    Assess your safety first: Is it safe for you to say or do something? Your safety is key to being a good witness.

    Focus on the victim: If it is safe, engage the victim in conversation, ask if they are okay or if they would like some assistance. This will let the perpetrator know that the victim is not alone.

    Engage others: If it is safe, engage other witnesses. Talk to others in the space to gather support for the victim. There is power in numbers.

    Document the incident: If it is safe, document the incident by taking a photo or video of the incident or making notes. Keep a safe distance and note the time, day and location. Always ask the victim what they want to do with the photo or video and don’t post it online without their permission.

    When it is safe: Ask the victim if they want to report the incident to the police (see below) and if they would like your help to do so, or if they want to connect with Victim Link. See also: Resilience BC’s Resources for Victims of Racism and Hate.

    If you witness hate speech online

    If you see hate speech on the internet, you can also:

    Report it to the website administrator: Most websites have rules known as ‘acceptable use policies’ that set out what cannot be put on their website and often say they do not allow comments, videos and photos that amount to hate speech. Web and social media sites may have simple ways for you to report about a page or video. Others may have a “report this page” button that you can click.

    For example, companies like FacebookInstagramTwitter and YouTube have policies related to hate speech. The Commissioner is not aware of how effective these policies are and does not endorse their use. We are providing this information for those who are seeking it:

    Report it to the hosting company:  Hosting companies own the digital space that is rented by website owners to have a presence on the Internet. Hosting companies often have their own set of rules about content. You can find out which company hosts a website by entering their web address on the “Who is hosting this?” website.

    Contact your own Internet service provider to get more information.

    About reporting hate speech to the police

    BC’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner recognizes that some people from marginalized communities do not feel comfortable contacting the police due to the history of police violence and systemic discrimination against Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour, LGBTQ2SIA+ people, sex workers, homeless people, people with disabilities and other marginalized communities. Whenever possible, be sure to ask victims of a hate crime about their preferences to determine whether to contact police.

    To report an emergency, call 911. Emergency circumstances include:

    • A crime in progress
    • An immediate threat to your safety
    • An immediate threat to the safety of someone else
    • Property in immediate danger of a criminal act

    The Human Rights Commissioner recognizes that not everyone will feel safe or comfortable with the police based on past experiences including the impact of colonization.

    To report non-emergency hate speech or hate crimes, call the non-emergency number for your local police department, or visit your local police department to make a report in person. Find your local police department or RCMP detachment at: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/justice/criminal-justice/policing-in-bc/bc-police-forces

    Non-emergency circumstances involving hate speech could include:

    1. You are the victim of hate speech or a hate crime, but there is no immediate threat to your safety.
    2. Someone else is the victim of hate speech or a hate crime, but there is no immediate threat to anyone’s safety.
    3. Internet or social media posts that target a person or group—based on a protected characteristic—that threaten, promote hate or indicate a criminal act against a person or property.
    4. Property was targeted by a hate crime.
  • What are some other ways to fight hate?

    There are many other ways to fight hate. All over B.C., people are standing up to hate and promoting tolerance, inclusion and equality.

    1. Educate yourself: Recognize the important role that you play in your neighbourhood, your school, your workplace and your community and understand that your actions can prevent hate and create positive change. Educate yourself in order to understand and overcome your own biases and stereotypes.
    2. Teach acceptance: Hate is often learned early, at home. Teach your children that hate has no place in our society. Model inclusive language and behavior. Search for books and movies that address social justice movements.
    3. Act! Call friends and colleagues and suggest some action, such as repairing hate-fueled vandalism. Be creative—do your part to fight hate.
    4. Support victims of hate: If you learn about a victim of hate in your community, show support by letting them know you care and surrounding them with comfort and protection.
    5. Educate community leaders about the causes and effects of hate: Educate leaders about the impact of hate and the root causes of intolerance so their response can match the incident.
    6. Connect with and support community organizations working on these issues.