Anti-hate groups fear wording issues could delay new law against online vitriol

OTTAWA — A coalition of advocacy groups is urging the federal government to keep its promise to take immediate action against online hate speech and take steps to address the issue in Tuesday’s speech from the throne.

The coalition members say they want ministers to treat such a law as an urgent matter, fearing that concerns over its formulation could delay its progress for years.

Liberals promised in the recent federal election that legislation against online hate would be a priority in the new parliamentary session, which starts Monday.

Shortly before parliament was adjourned ahead of the September vote, the Liberal government introduced a bill against extreme forms of online hate speech.

That proposed legislation, known as Bill C-36, has been criticized by opposition conservatives and others who expressed concerns that it could curtail free speech or be difficult to enforce.

That bill eventually died on the promissory note when parliament was dissolved.

Canadian Heritage and the Department of Justice say they are working on ways to address the problem, noting that the solution could involve more than one bill.

According to the Heritage Department, the government has been discussing drafting new legislation on online harm in recent months.

Justine Lesage, a spokeswoman for Heritage Secretary Pablo Rodriguez, said Bill C-36 was part of a major push by the government to crack down on hate speech.

“The bill will not work on its own,” she said, adding that tackling online harm remains “a government priority.”

During the recent consultation efforts, the liberals have also pushed for the creation of a new government agency to deal with online harm.

But groups consulted on the proposals fear problems with wording and the scope of new legislation could see the issue lose its priority on the government’s to-do list.

The Coalition to Combat Online Hate, which includes Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Indigenous and Black organizations, has written to Attorney General David Lametti and Rodriguez urging them to ensure that a bill that eliminates online hate and vitriol regulates, gets “rapid passage” through parliament.

The letter states that regulation is necessary because “the social media industry cannot be trusted to regulate itself”.

“Now is the time to act. Every day Canadians are exposed to a barrage of hateful content,” the letter reads, adding that young people and racialized Canadians are more likely to interact with such content than others.

Bill C-36 is said to have amended the Canadian Human Rights Act to introduce a new version of a controversial section that was repealed in 2013 after criticism that it violated the right to free speech.

The proposed change would have defined hate more narrowly as “the emotion associated with disgust or slander”, which is “stronger than disgust or contempt”. Bill C-36 is also said to have amended the Criminal and Juvenile Criminal Code.

The bill would have allowed individuals or groups to file hate speech complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. It also included measures to prevent abuse of the process.

At the time, Conservatives dismissed Bill C-36 as 11th-hour “political posturing.” The conservative election platform pledged to criminalize statements inciting violence against people or identifiable groups, while not protecting speech, such as criticism.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has called for stronger regulation of hate online.

Bill C-36 would have applied only to those who write a hate message online, not the social media platforms where they post it.

The liberal platform said legislation to ensure “social media companies and other online services are held accountable for the content they host” would come in the first 100 days of a new mandate.

Richard Marceau, a former Bloc Québécois MP who now heads the coalition pushing for swift action, said there is a clear link between online vitriol and violent attacks on Jews and Muslims.

“We understand that they are working very hard on this, but their thinking is not quite finished,” Marceau said of the government’s efforts so far.

“We understand that when dealing with freedom of expression, especially online hate, you have to strike the right balance. We want to make sure audiences are protected from online hate that too often leads to actual violence.”

There are concerns that a rushed bill would not survive parliamentary scrutiny, or that comedians or those expressing thorny political opinions would be unintentionally entangled in its scope.

Fatema Abdalla, spokeswoman for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said there are clear links between hate forums and a series of attacks on Muslims.

“We think this is an urgent issue that we want to address this session. But we also believe it needs to be done right,” she said.

Bernie Farber, founder of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said it would be better to introduce a bill and refine it in a parliamentary committee than see further delays.

“I’d rather have poorly worded legislation than nothing at all,” he said.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on November 21, 2021.

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