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Critics: Canada’s latest safety bill will further criminalize “offensive” speech and thought


Based on its recent record of harassing and jailing pastors and other ideological opponents for their views, Canada is already a tyrannical country. The Online Harms Act, if passed, would make sure it stays that way.

The Canadian Parliament has proposed legislation known as the “Online Harms Act,” a bill critics claim would enable the government to imprison for life anyone who expresses disfavored beliefs or opinions.

C-63 was introduced by the Liberal Party and is couched as a way to stop the spread of hatred and calls for genocide on the Internet. Proponents of the legislation also cite the need to protect children and victims of sexual exploitation. The legislation does contain provisions requiring platforms to remove content involving sexual exploitation or the sexual abuse of a minor within 24 hours, but this is not the source of disagreement.

What upsets critics is the definition of “hatred” provided by the government, the creation of a Digital Safety Commission to oversee the law, and the increase in penalties for hate speech and hate crimes.

C-63 defines “content that foments hatred” as “content that expresses detestation or vilification of an individual or group of individuals on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.”

Critics claim that C-63 could lead to life in prison for those who espouse views the government disagrees with and deems to be “hatred.”

Hate speech is already illegal in Canada, though C-63 would create a possibility of civil action against an alleged perpetrator of hate speech and increases penalties for hate speech and hate crimes. Advocates claim that the bill does not allow for life imprisonment for dissenting speech, however, as the text of C-63 specifies that “content does not express detestation or vilification solely because it expresses disdain or dislike or it discredits, humiliates, hurts or offends.”

Arif Virani, Canada’s justice minister and attorney general, also argued that expressing offensive statements would not be considered hate speech but calls for genocide would be.

“People insult groups or people or races or religions all of the time. That’s going to continue to be awful but lawful. But when you call for the extermination of a people, you’re hitting a hate standard that’s already been entrenched by the courts,” he said.

Under the proposed law, the possible sentence for hate speech would increase from two to five years imprisonment, while advocating for genocide would increase from a sentence of not more than five years imprisonment to life in prison.

Committing a hate crime would also be punishable by life in prison. The bill says that an act is a hate crime “if the commission of the offence is motivated by hatred based on race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.”

Critics say that the bill encourages regular everyday citizens and activists to inform on other residents by requesting a “peace bond” and also gives government power to impose house arrest or electronic monitoring on those who might commit hate crimes, a move that would be based solely on their speech or online associations rather than any actions they have actually taken.

Virani admitted that such tools were “very, very important” to restrain the behavior of certain people, explaining that if “there’s a genuine fear of an escalation, then an individual or group could come forward and seek a peace bond against them and to prevent them from doing certain things.”

Under the law, if passed, the government could also impose additional restrictions on an arrestee’s movements and ability to use the Internet, as well as who they communicate or associate with. Virani explained that such steps “would help to deradicalize people who are learning things online and acting out in the real world violently — sometimes fatally.”

This is not the first time Canada has implemented legislation that grants people the right to claim harm from alleged hate speech. The now-repealed Section 13 resulted in supposed victims levying complaints against those they disagreed with. This led to a climate in which “the process is the punishment,” wrote Christine Van Geyn, litigation director at the Canadian Constitutional Foundation.

As Van Geyn and others note, a supposed victim under Section 13 did not have to prove any actual harm to claim a person had committed a crime. Simply claiming to feel offended launched an investigation and the alleged perpetrator was responsible for legal fees and, if found guilty, tens of thousands of dollars in restitution and penalties.

Critics warn C-63 would lead to similar problems because the complainant is not responsible for any fees, even if the complaint was not justified or was even an outright lie, something the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms pointed out in this recent X post:

“The Online Harms Act would enable thousands of activists to file human rights complaints against the speech of people they disagree with. Even if many of these complaints are dismissed, good Canadians will still be forced to spend time and money defending themselves. Meanwhile, activists making the complaints will pay nothing. Your next salty YouTube comment or X post could get you hauled before the Canadian Human Rights Commission and ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars.”

Not everyone thinks the legislation has the same issues as previous versions. Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, where he also holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce law, said that despite being wary of the legislation, he thinks the bill’s proponents took the many concerns under consideration and adequately addressed them.

Geist gave the bill a “B+” grade. “I think that they did listen,” he said. “Especially in terms of focusing on this notion of a duty to act responsibly on the part of the platforms, on focusing on specific kinds of harms and harms that I think most would be on board with, I think they get some of those issues right.”

Virani also says that legislators listened to criticisms and have sought to value free speech, stating, “What we’ve done is reflected on that on the critical importance of enhancing freedom of expression and promoting freedom of expression and ensuring that we calibrate this, and we’re doing this now in a very measured and appropriate manner that addresses the harms as we see them but ensures that Canadian’s private communications will be exempt.”

Spreading hatred is wrong and calls for genocide are detestable; however, arresting or imprisoning people for words spoken or even thinking thoughts is anathema to a free society. As critics have cautioned, such a law is ripe for abuse and will no doubt be used as a bludgeon to silence political opposition and dissidents. Worse, everyday citizens will be intimidated into self-censoring their own political opinions and religious beliefs out of concern that their words could lead to their arrest, massive legal defense costs, and possibly lengthy prison sentences.

Canada seeks to silence those who espouse views the government or advocates disagree with and, in fact, has been violating citizens’ rights to free expression for some time. Government agents have arrested pastors for holding church services and giving sermons and have threatened those who preach or counsel biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality. They have punished psychologists for sharing opinions about controversial topics over social media. And they misused a national security law to shut down a peaceful trucker convoy, beat protesters, freeze bank accounts, and harass supporters.

Then there’s the case of Marta Kartasheva, a Russian woman whose citizenship application in Canada is being blocked by immigration authorities because she criticized the Russian government over the war in Ukraine, criticisms that Russia deemed to be false and therefore a crime. Canadian authorities stated that because Russia convicted Kartasheva (which was conducted in absentia without any due process), her conviction aligns with Canadian law. As a result, she could be deported and incarcerated in her home country.

As George Washington University law professor and free speech advocate Jonathan Turley wrote,

“So this brave woman made it all the way to the West to live in freedom only to find that Canada also puts people in jail for voicing dissenting or opposing viewpoints. The problem is not that Kartasheva is fundamentally different from most Canadians. The problem is that Canada is legally not that different from Russia on free speech.”

The belief that a group of unelected, self-righteous, woke bureaucrats won’t further abuse their power and punish their opponents is naïve.

Any nation that criminalizes speech is tyrannical. Canada, under its current leadership, is no longer a free country. The Online Harms Act, if passed, would just make sure it stays that way.

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