Town Called Hate Capital of Canada
TORONTO (AP) _ It wasn’t the sort of phone call that makes a mayor’s day. Linda Larson was told her little town had just been branded at a news conference as ``the hate capital of Canada.″
``I was angry _ and astounded that somebody would make such a foolish comment,″ said Larson, who does double-duty as mayor and owner of a wool shop in Oliver, British Columbia. The town of 4,000 used to be known as Canada’s cantaloupe capital.
The denunciation of Oliver came from Sol Littman, director of the Canadian branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. At a news conference in January, he said a businessman in the town was providing Internet web sites for groups in North America and Europe that were spreading vicious anti-Semitic and racist diatribes.
Acting on a complaint from Littman’s organization, a police hate-crime team is investigating whether Bernard Klatt and his Oliver-based company are violating Canada’s laws against public incitement of hatred.
Sgt. Rick McKenna said this week that investigators may be months away from a decision on whether to seek prosecution. Meanwhile, Oliver is coping with the fallout of Littman’s comment, which put an intense media spotlight on the town.
The comment enraged many residents, but it has had other effects _ public debate over freedom of speech, efforts to raise awareness about racism, and questions about whether the town is in fact blameless.
Larson initially considered suing Littman, but now has decided she doesn’t want to keep her town’s name in the news through lengthy litigation.
``This community has kept its mouth shut, stood firm and handled this very responsibly,″ Larson said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Larson said there was no legal step the town could take on its own to stop Klatt’s Internet activities. Instead, she and other civic leaders have been cooperating with hate-crime investigators, helping with multicultural programs in schools and organizing a symposium March 4 about racism.
Littman, a prominent leader of efforts to track down suspected Nazi war criminals in Canada, has apologized to Oliver’s residents for any offense he caused them. But he also said Larson and other angry citizens should have been upset with Klatt, not him.
``They should have been upset with the fellow who is running that operation that is essentially stigmatizing them,″ he said.
In the local weekly paper, the Oliver Chronicle, readers have been debating the case on the letters page.
``A couple have been defending Klatt’s freedom of speech,″ said the editor, Kathleen Connolly. ``Others are saying he’s giving the town a black eye. I don’t think he has as much support on the free speech issue as he thinks he has.″
Klatt has declined interviews, but has confirmed in Internet messages that his customers include groups with controversial views.
``I do not believe that I should refuse access to any individual or group based on the content of their message,″ he wrote. ``Why should we say on the basis of what a person is or believes, they should not have an opportunity to have anything to say?″
One of the sites, containing virulent anti-Jewish material, is operated by the Charlemagne Hammer Skinheads, which has been the target of police investigations in France and Britain over the past few months. French police last week announced the arrest of 13 people linked to the group on charges ranging from provoking racial hatred to desecrating a grave.
Littman contended that nearly all of about two-dozen sites offered by Klatt’s company are racially provocative, and that 14 of them violate Canada’s hate laws.
The laws, which curtail free speech more sharply than in the United States, call for maximum two-year jail terms for anyone convicted of promoting or inciting racial hatred.
Oliver, in south-central British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley about 12 miles from the U.S. border, has moved out of the cantaloupe business and is trying to establish itself as a wine-making center.
So far, said Connolly, there is no indication that Littman’s comment has hurt tourism, though this is still the off-season.
Connolly said the town may have overreacted to Littman and missed a chance to reflect on its shortcomings.
``In the summer there are French-Canadian students coming through here to pick fruit, and they’re not treated well,″ Connolly said. ``There is some hate in our town.″