Anti-hate teams concern wording issues could delay a brand new legislation tackling vitriol on-line

OTTAWA – A coalition of interest groups is calling on the federal government to hold on to its promise to take immediate action against online hate speech and to include steps to resolve the problem in Tuesday’s speech from the throne.

Coalition members say they want ministers to consider such a law urgently, fearing concerns about how it is worded could stall its progress for years.

The Liberals promised in the recent general election that legislation against online hatred would have priority in the new parliamentary session due to begin on Monday.

Just before Parliament was adjourned before the September vote, the Liberal government tabled a bill targeting extreme forms of hate speech online.

This bill, known as Bill C-36, drew criticism from opposition Conservatives and others who expressed concern that it might restrict freedom of expression or be difficult to enforce.

That bill eventually died on the bill when Parliament was dissolved.

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

In the past few months, according to the Heritage Department, the government has been giving advice on how to draft new laws on online damage.

Justine Lesage, a spokeswoman for Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, said Bill C-36 was part of a major government push to combat hate speech.

“The bill doesn’t work alone,” she said, adding that tackling online harm remains “a priority for the government”.

Recent consultation efforts have also resulted in Liberals launching the creation of a new government agency to combat online harm.

However, groups consulted on the proposals fear formulation problems and the scope of new laws could cause the issue to 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 Justice Ministers David Lametti and Rodriguez urging them to ensure that there is a law regulating online hatred and vitriol “quickly got 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 deluge of hateful content, ”the letter reads, adding that youth and racialized Canadians are more exposed to such content than others.

Bill C-36 would have amended Canadian human rights law to include a new version of a controversial section that was repealed in 2013 over criticism of violating freedom of expression.

The proposed change would have defined hate more narrowly as “the emotion that involves revulsion or slander” that is “stronger than dislike or contempt”. Bill C-36 would also have amended the Criminal Code and the Juvenile Criminal Law Act.

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

At the time, the Conservatives dismissed Bill C-36 as “political posing” of the eleventh hour. The conservative electoral platform promised to criminalize utterances that incite violence against individuals or identifiable groups while protecting speech such as criticism that does not.

The NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has called for more regulation of online hatred.

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

The liberal platform said that in the first 100 days of a new mandate, laws will be put in place to ensure that “social media companies and other online services are held accountable for the content they host”.

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

“Our understanding is that they are working really hard on it, but the thinking is not quite finished yet,” said Marceau of the government’s efforts to date.

“We understand that when it comes to freedom of expression, especially online hatred, you have to find the right balance. We want to ensure that target groups are protected from online hatred, which too often leads to actual violence.”

There are concerns that a rash law would not stand up to parliamentary scrutiny, or that comedians or those expressing sensitive political opinions could inadvertently fall within its scope.

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

“We think this is an urgent issue that we want to address in 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 was better to come up with a bill and refine it in a parliamentary committee than to see further delays.

“I’d rather have poorly worded laws than nothing,” he said.

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

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