OTTAWA -- MPs started the formal debate Wednesday night on a binding motion to condemn Islamophobia and systemic racism that's created controversy over concerns about free speech.

Motion 103, which Liberal MP Iqra Khalid proposed last December, would "condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination" and ask a House committee to study how the government could reduce systemic racism, collect additional data for hate crimes reports, and report back to the House wiithin eight months.

Speaking in the House Wednesday night, Khalid said she doesn’t understand why anyone would oppose it.

“Islamophobia is the irrational hate of Muslims that leads to discrimination,” Khalid said. “With that definition in mind,” she added, “I find hard to believe that any member of this House would vote against a motion that condemns this.”

Critics, including several Conservative leadership candidates, say the motion would limit free speech and that current hate crimes legislation is sufficient. Kellie Leitch, an Ontario MP who's running to lead the Conservatives, has started a petition against M-103. The petition, which collects signatories email addresses and postal codes along with their names, uses the heading "no religion should be singled out for special consideration."

Ontario MP Erin O'Toole, another Conservative leadership candidate, has said he's opposed to the motion as currently worded, and has proposed amendments.

Conservative MP for Cypress Hills-Grasslands David Anderson argued at Wednesday evening’s debate that the motion would be “much clearer” if the word “Islamophobia” was replaced with “hatred against Muslims.”

“If the Liberals are using Islamophobia as a political football here, they’re not serving Canadians well,” Anderson added.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims has called on MPs to vote in favour of Khalid’s motion, particularly in the wake of a shooting at a mosque in Quebec City, which killed six people.

Khalid defended the motion at a press conference earlier Wednesday in front of the House of Commons, accompanied by Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly.

"This is a motion. This is not legislation. And I would be the first person to oppose anything that infringes on our Charter of Rights and Freedoms," Khalid said.

"This motion is about having a study on how we can tackle important issues like systemic racism and religious discrimination in Canada. It's calling for a study. It's calling for a dialogue amongst Canadians."

'Obligation' to stand against Islamophobia

Joly said the government supports the motion and she expects most Liberal MPs will vote in favour of it, though she wouldn't say whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is having the vote whipped. Private members motions come from MPs who aren't part of cabinet.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Wednesday that he supports the motion and the New Democrat MPs he's heard discuss it have expressed support.

"There are cases after cases of Islamophobia, cases of hatred being expressed against Muslims," Mulcair said.

"People who hold public office have the obligation to use what we do have in terms of public relations tools to say clearly and loudly that we stand four-square against Islamophobia."

Asked to define Islamophobia, Joly said it's a "clear and unequivocal definition."

"The definition of Islamophobia is discrimination against Muslim people and people that are of Muslim faith," she said.

Ontario MP Michael Chong is the only Conservative leadership candidate who has so far voiced support for the motion.

In a statement Tuesday, Chong dismissed the idea that M-103 would limit Canadians' ability to denounce terrorism.

"That is not what the motion says. In denouncing Islamophobia, the motion is simply denouncing discrimination and prejudice against Muslims and people of the Islamic faith. Nothing more or less. Motion 103 will not prevent anyone from criticizing Islam or radical Islamic terrorists," Chong said.

He also took issue with the notion the motion singles out Canadian Muslims for "special treatment."

"This is not true. The House of Commons has long had a tradition of passing motions denouncing discrimination and hatred against particular groups, especially religious minorities. For example, in recent years the House of Commons has adopted similar motions regarding Jews (February 22, 2016), Yazidis (October 25, 2016) and Egyptian Coptic Christians (October 17, 2011)," he said.

'Watering down' motion not an option

O'Toole and another Conservative MP, Kelly McCauley, have said Khalid referred to needing permission from cabinet or the Prime Minister's Office when they approached her about amendments to her motion.

"As of a few days ago, MP Khalid was considering my proposed amendment and told me she was going to speak to the Prime Minister's Office about my suggestion," O'Toole said in a statement Wednesday.

O'Toole had suggested Khalid strike a reference to the electronic petition on which her motion is based "because of the broad language in that petition describing 'all forms of Islamophobia'," he said in the statement.

"Regardless of what is intended by that description, it is clear that a significant number of Canadians believe that a broad consideration of the term 'Islamophobia' could be extended to mean that simple criticism of that religious faith or of issues like radical Islam could be considered Islamophobia," O'Toole said.

Joly jumped in several times during the press conference to answer questions directed at Khalid, even when reporters asked for Khalid to respond.

Khalid spoke to reporters again after question period and denied telling the Conservatives she had said she needed permission from Trudeau's office to make changes to her motion.

Khalid suggested during her press conference that she isn't open to changes.

"We've had support from organizations from all across Canada on the wording of the motion as it stands today. We have had support from Canadians at large on the wording of the motion as it stands today," she said.

"Watering down the words of this motion is not in the best interest of all of these people."

The Conservatives said they'll put their own motion forward on Thursday that mirrors Khalid's, calling for the House to recognize Canada isn't "immune to the climate of hate and fear exemplified by the recent and senseless violent acts at a Quebec City mosque."

The Conservative motion would "condemn all forms of systemic racism, religious intolerance, and discrimination of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious communities," and uses the same phrasing as Khalid's to ask the Canadian Heritage committee to study the subject.

The debate is set to begin around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday night. MPs could vote tonight or defer the vote until April.


Correction: This story has been updated to remove a reference to the motion being non-binding. It is a binding motion.