“The Madness of the Heart”
Posted Tue, Jan 4, 2011

The British scientist John Haldane once observed that, “…words are well adapted for description and the arousing of emotion, but for many kinds of precise thought other symbols are much better.”

Political leaders, for good or ill, have long grasped this intuitively, perhaps no other régime in history better than Nazi Germany. To be sure, Hitler was a master manipulator of words. But the Nazis’ preternatural ability to harness the potency of visual imagery to touch the chords of emotion was central to their ascendancy to absolute power and the horrors they perpetrated. Chief among these totems was the swastika, the logo, if you will, of Nazi tyranny.

Decades after the War, the swastika can still inspire fear as it remains among the most visceral and repellant symbols of hate and evil. Contemporary hate crimes targeting the Jewish community often feature the daubing of swastikas precisely for this reason.

In recent years, Canadian law has acknowledged that crimes ranging from mischief to murder take on an additional dark element when motivated by hate or bias against identifiable groups.

It’s been over a decade, for instance, since Parliament changed the sentencing régime in Canada to allow hate-motivation to be considered an aggravating factor in sentencing to permit harsher penalties for such offences.

It was always understood that hate is incompatible with the values of a democratic society and corrodes and undermines the very essence of that society. But the sentencing change reflected the truth that a spray-painted swastika on a Jewish day school was a different order of vandalism than, say, graffiti on the side of a store. Yes, both physically mar the property they deface, but, like all hate crimes, the former terrorizes the targeted community and imparts upon it a profound psychological impact, sending a chilling message to the victimized community that you are isolated, different and, ultimately, unwelcome.

Here in Canada, the Criminal Code sets out penalties and sanctions for the most serious types of conduct that we proscribe as a civilized society, including those based on hatred, what Lord Byron called “ the madness of the heart”. William Blackstone, the 18th-century English jurist whose seminal work, Commentaries on the Laws of England remains an important reference for understanding common law, noted that, “The law, which restrains a man from doing mischief to his fellow citizens, though it diminishes the natural, increases the civil liberty of mankind.”

In 2001, the legislation passed after 9/11 known as the Anti-Terrorism Act contained a provision to amend the Criminal Code making it an indictable offence to commit mischief in relation to a house of worship or cemetery, if the commission of this mischief was motivated by bias, prejudice or hate.

At the time Canadian Jewish Congress argued that the ambit of this protection was too narrow,
with far too much communal infrastructure left uncovered. In the intervening years we have been proven right. The unconscionable fire-bombings of two Jewish day schools and attacks against Muslim schools, for example, were not subject to these provisions. Nor was the community centre on the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg reserve in Maniwaki, Quebec when it was covered in swastikas and white power slogans.

The House of Commons is now considering a Private Member’s Bill, C-451, that would rectify this situation. First tabled by Bloc Québécois MP Carole Freeman, and now standing in the name of its current sponsor, Liberal MP Marlene Jennings, the legislation extends the coverage of the mischief section aimed at protecting vulnerable minority communities identified on the basis of colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, sex, language or sexual orientation. It further criminalizes bigotry-motivated attacks against their schools, community centres and the buildings and facilities they principally use which fulfill an administrative, social, cultural, educational or sports function.

Bill C-451 represents an important arrow in the quiver of the state to protect vulnerable minorities. We will look for all-party support of this legislation when the Bill returns for second reading consideration. Its passage will send a critical message that Canada will not tolerate hate crimes deliberately aimed at the infrastructure of vulnerable minorities; crimes that traumatize the target community well beyond the immediate users of a particular building and well after the soap and brushes have washed away the swastikas.

BY: Eric Vernon, Director of Government Relations and International Affairs, Canadian Jewish Congress (evernon@cjc.ca)

One of Canada's leading experts on antisemitism and human rights, Bernie M. Farber is the National Chief Executive Officer of Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC).

Mr. Farber has spent more than 20 years with CJC, battling hatred and racism and strengthening relationships with police services, government and other ethnic and faith communities across the country.

The recipient of countless awards, Mr. Farber is an associate member of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, and was recently selected by the Ontario government to serve as a member of the Hate Crimes Community Working Group. He also serves with the city of Vaughan Mayor's Task Force on Community Safety and Security and the York Regional Police Community Crime Prevention Advisory Council.

Mr. Farber is a published author and has contributed numerous articles on the Jewish political scene, human rights issues, the Holocaust, hate crime and white supremacy to newspapers and periodicals including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star, and many others.


Eric Vernon was born in Toronto in 1953. He was educated at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and Ohio State University, in history and political science.

For over twenty years, Mr. Vernon has been the principal lobbyist in Ottawa of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the lead advocacy organization for Canada's Jewish communities and UJA Federations.

In 1987, he established the Ottawa Advocacy Office of Canadian Jewish Congress and is currently the Director of Government Relations for CJC. In these capacities he has written numerous briefs, op-eds, position papers and correspondence on national legislation, public policy, and international issues affecting Canada and its Jewish community, including antisemitism, Israel and Holocaust commemoration.

Mr. Vernon has performed a wide range of advocacy duties with federal Members of Parliament and Senators, senior public servants, government agencies, members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of other non-governmental organizations. In conjunction with these duties he has staffed several Congress committees, represented CJC at inter-faith tables, organized conferences and been involved in legislative and social policy development for CJC on a variety of domestic and international issues.