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Conservative MPs are afraid of Motion 103, and things it can’t do

Four months ago, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion to condemn Islamophobia. Now, Conservative MPs suggest that doing it again could stifle free speech.

Motion 103 has become one of the hottest political controversies in Conservative circles, and now, in the House of Commons – all because of pumped-up fears about things it won't do.

It is making some Conservative MPs twist themselves into pretzels. They've been scared by a campaign of false claims that the motion will somehow restrict freedom of speech, provide "special privileges" to Muslim-Canadians or, most bizarrely, that it will lead to sharia law in Canada.

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Many Conservative MPs spent Thursday arguing that the problem with Motion 103 is a word – that it asks people to condemn "Islamophobia" and study it, when the term Islamophobia is too vague.

But the word wasn't a problem last Oct. 26, when Conservatives gave consent to a motion condemning Islamophobia "in all its forms."

Of course, none of those scary things about stifling speech or sharia law are actually in the motion, which was first proposed in December.

In fact, it doesn't do much at all except ask the Commons to condemn Islamophobia and request that a Commons committee study "reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia."

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Yes – request a study – this motion can't even order a committee to study the subject. It has to ask nicely.

There's a critical point that must be grasped by those who don't spend their days watching Commons debates: Motions are passed every week, and they don't change the laws of the land. If anything, the worst thing about most Commons motions is that they're all talk.

MPs can use a motion to convey an opinion, or demand some form of parliamentary process or call on the government to do something. But they don't establish new crimes, and they can't undo the constitutionally enshrined right to freedom of speech.

But there's an effort to persuade people this one will.

Right-wing activist Ezra Levant has a campaign using the slogan, "Support free speech, not sharia."

His site insists the government is preparing to silence people "who so much as criticize Islam."

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Many Conservative MPs have been reluctant to rebut the falsehoods.

Four Conservative leadership candidates – Kellie Leitch, Chris Alexander, Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux – attended Rebel Media's Tuesday night event to endorse them.

Ms. Leitch argued she's against it because no religion should enjoy "special privileges." Who knows what privileges she's thinking of, because they're not in the motion – which by the way, condemns discrimination against all religions.

It's one thing for MPs to say they oppose the motion. But it's another to accept the bogus reasoning.

One is the slippery-slope argument. Mr. Levant is telling Canadians that once a Commons committee starts studying the vague notion of Islamophobia and what to do about it, they're going to propose laws that make it illegal to criticize Islam, and restrict free speech.

The obvious weakness in that is that Motion M-103 doesn't even ask the committee to propose laws, nor could it force them – let alone the kind that stifle free speech. If they ever did, MPs could vote against it then. And it still could not violate constitutional guarantees on free speech.

If Conservative objections really were about a vague term, some deal-making would be in order. There are arguments that in some countries the term has been used to refer to any criticism of Islam.

Of course, this motion calls for MPs to study it, so they could define it.

But Liberals were unwilling to compromise when the Conservatives asked them to change "Islamophobia" to "hatred for Muslims."

But it's not about the word. Ironically, it's about fear.

All this began when Montreal-area MP Frank Baylis started a petition last year to assert that all Muslims should not be equated with a few extremists. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair later asked for unanimous consent for a motion condemning Islamophobia – and got it on his second attempt on Oct. 26.

Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen responded to Mr. Mulcair's motion with her own, condemning religious discrimination.

Both were adopted. The word Islamophobia was fine for Conservatives then, before they got scared.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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