Hours before the House of Commons adjourned for the summer, the Liberals introduced a bill to crack down on “hate speech” published online.

Liberal Justice Minister David Lametti tabled the last minute bill Wednesday, which would reinstate a controversial provision in the Canadian Human Rights Act, section 13, which was repealed by the Conservatives in 2013 for heavily restricting free speech rights. The bill will also amend the Criminal Code and the Youth Criminal Justice Act to give the government new powers to preemptively address hateful content.

Under the proposed bill, it will be illegal to use the internet to “communicate or cause to be communicated hate speech…in which the hate speech is likely to foment detestation or vilification of an individual or group of individuals on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.”

The Canadian Human Rights Act sets out numerous protected grounds, from race and sexual orientation to religion and gender identity.

This bill would also give the Canadian Human Rights Commission the power to compel citizens to cease online communication and in some cases, pay a monetary fine. The Ontario Civil Liberties Association believes that this bill “grossly violates the fundamental right of freedom of expression.”

In an interview on The Andrew Lawton Show, Canadian Constitution Foundation litigation director Christine Van Geyn said the bill is fundamentally at odds with free speech.

“(The government’s) proving once again that they’re one of the most anti-speech, anti-expression and anti-technology governments we’ve ever seen in this country,” she said.

“This type of arrogance from this government on imposing their views on what Canadians should and should not be allowed to say and how they should communicate it and how to monitor it – Canadians should be very concerned.”

Conservative justice critic Rob Moore said in a statement that “this bill will not target hate speech — just ensure bureaucrats in Ottawa are bogged down with frivolous complaints about tweets.” 

He went on to call out the Liberals for their heavily restrictive measures on free speech saying, “The Trudeau Liberals are empowering a bureaucracy to subjectively restrict the rights of Canadians.”

The bill says hate speech does not include content that solely “expresses mere dislike or disdain or…discredits, humiliates, hurts or offends.”

These are “subjective” criteria, Van Geyn said, raising questions about what speech is actually off limits, especially on contentious issues that are not yet settled.

These concerns were echoed by True North fellow and free speech advocate, Lindsay Shepherd, who testified before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights during its study on online hate in 2019. 

“This shows us that if the views you’re expressing fall outside the liberal-progressive orthodoxy, you can and will be shut out — and with a return of section 13 or some other similar online hate speech law, Canadians who express non-politically correct opinions could potentially face fines or legal trouble,” Shepherd said.

This legislation comes just weeks after a London attack on a Muslim family renewed calls from many that the government needed to take a stronger approach to tackling online hate. 

The government confirmed that this bill will be accompanied by a new regulatory framework that will tackle harmful content online and in the coming weeks will outline a proposal to hold social media companies accountable for harmful online content.  

If a fall election is called by the Trudeau government, the bill will die and will have to be reintroduced in the next parliamentary session. 

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Harrison Faulkner is producer and journalist for True North based in Toronto.

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