OTTAWA — The Liberal government has introduced a bill it says will protect Canadians from online hate speech, insisting it is committed to the legislation despite announcing it hours after the House of Commons rose for a summer break.
The bill would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to reinstate an amended version of a controversial section that was repealed in 2013 amid widespread criticism that it violated freedom of speech rights. It also amends the Criminal Code and Youth Criminal Justice Act.
It would more narrowly define hatred to mean “the emotion that involves detestation or vilification” that is “stronger than dislike or disdain.” And it would specify that a statement would not be considered hate speech “solely because it discredits, humiliates or offends.”
“Hate and vilification are realities for Indigenous people, Asian, Jewish and Black Canadians, LGBTQ2 people and people with disabilities,” said Justice Minister David Lametti at a news conference Wednesday. “And some of the worst examples of hate are visible online, in that virtual public space.”
The bill would allow individuals or groups to file hate speech complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which would be empowered to order perpetrators to cease communications or, in some cases, to pay monetary compensation and penalties.
It comes weeks after police said a 20-year-old man intentionally drove his truck into a Muslim family out for a walk in London, Ont. Nathaniel Veltman faces four first-degree murder charges and an attempted murder charge that prosecutors allege constitutes an act of terrorism.
The bill has little chance of becoming law any time soon. It was introduced just as the House of Commons adjourned for the summer and, if an election is called as many expect before September, it will die.
Lametti and several other ministers at the news conference insisted that the legislation was important to the government and that it was committed to ensuring its passage. He and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair also highlighted other actions the Liberals have taken on online hatred.
“The recent events in London, tragically, although they didn’t raise new issues, did put this in the spotlight,” Lametti added. “We heard the cries to say, ‘We know you’re moving on this but we want you to act as quickly as possible.’”
Pressed on whether the amendments to the Human Rights Act would realistically make an impact on online hate speech — given that victims would have to initiate a potentially years-long tribunal proceeding to remove an offending comment — the ministers said the changes were an important step advocates have long been asking for.
“Clarifying the definition of hatred, both in the criminal law and in the CHRA, will be helpful in defining the parameters of the public space,” said Lametti. “We won’t catch everything that’s awful out there. But we will identify a lot of things that are unlawful and that’s what we’re targeting.”
The government also said the bill will be complemented by a regulatory framework to tackle harmful content online and, in the coming weeks, it will engage Canadians on a discussion paper that will outline the proposal for holding social media platforms accountable for hateful content online.
The framework, as set out in the discussion paper, would create rules for how social media platforms and other online services address hate speech, terrorist content, material that incites violence, child sexual exploitation and non-consensual distribution of intimate images.