Federal justice minister Arif Virani called for legislation to quell online hate on Tuesday, saying that it’s an “absolute priority” during the Israel-Hamas war. 

A rise in online hateful rhetoric has been part of the fallout from the conflict in the Middle East, with several incidents of violence in the streets and at religious and community centres in places like Toronto and Montreal. 

“That’s not what we need in this country, and I think an online hate bill can help to address that,” said Virani, prior to the government’s weekly cabinet meeting in Ottawa.

The Liberals initially promised to introduce legislation to combat hate speech and terrorist content during their election campaign in 2019. 

“I’m deeply disappointed,” said chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network Bernie Farber. He was a member of a panel of experts tasked with guiding the development of the legislation in 2022.

“It’s a pretty frustrating situation,” said Farber, who is calling on Ottawa to better protect Canadians from online hate, saying that there is a “dire need” for the legislation. 

According to Farber, the question is not if Canadians can become radicalized by the online content they consume, but when. 

In June 2021, the Trudeau government tabled a bill that claimed to protect Canadians from online hate speech, which would have amended both the Criminal Code and the Youth Criminal Justice Act. 

Additionally, it would have allowed groups to file hate speech complaints under the Canadian Human Rights Act. 

The bill would have brought back provisions that the previous Conservative government repealed from the Canadian human rights code in 2013.

The bill didn’t pass and Trudeau promised to table a new version of it within 100 days of re-forming the government in September 2021, however the deadline was never met. The government instead assembled a new panel of experts to provide recommendations for the new version. 

University of Calgary professor Emily Laidlaw, who also served alongside Farber on the panel, said that the legislation will likely be “highly controversial” as it is an issue of free speech. 

“It’s time to have that discussion,” said Laidlaw. “This is extraordinarily complicated legislation.”

According to her and Farber, the bill will require the creation of a regulator to deal with social media companies to hold them accountable for allegedly hateful rhetoric which appears on their platforms.

“It will be an important shared responsibility led by Justice Canada with the support of Canadian Heritage. Minister Virani will introduce legislation in due course,” confirmed the Prime Minister’s Office in a recent statement.

Virani acknowledged that it will be more difficult to regulate online platforms than it will be to introduce changes to criminal law.

“My hope is that it’s tabled soon, because I’m hearing that from stakeholders and I’m hearing that from concerned Canadians.”

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has been in talks with the government regarding the legislation, according to CTV News.

Shimon Koffler Fogel, chief executive of CIJA, said he wants to see “a clear, transparent protocol” so that platforms can deal with those who are spreading hateful rhetoric.

Fogel said the CIJA has been trying to suspend the account of Laith Marouf, a former consultant for the federal government from X, even writing a letter to its owner Elon Musk.

Marouf has accused the CIJA of trying to “silence their critics,” and cited the fact that hate propaganda laws already exist which “protect criticism of their supremacist political ideology and colonial project.”

The National Council of Canadian Muslims has also reported seeing an increase of hateful comments against Muslims since Oct. 7. CEO Stephen Brown said it has had many conversations with the government regarding the legislation. 

However, the legislation must start from a framework that has clearly defined “what is considered hateful in Canada,” said Brown.

“We also oppose anything that would prevent legitimate criticism of foreign governments or anything that would prevent legitimate expression of political views.”

Brown said that users have had their accounts suspended for posting certain messages that call for a ceasefire or expressing support for Palestinians.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to express support for Palestinians online,” said Brown. “How are the social media platforms handling it?”

Trudeau called the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia in Canada and around the world “really scary,” on Tuesday, saying that the possibility of a two-state solution is in danger.

“People are forgetting a little bit that we’re a country that protects the freedom of expression, that protects liberty of conscience, that respects and supports people even when we disagree with them,” said Trudeau.

“We have to remember that just waving a Palestinian flag is not automatically antisemitism. And someone expressing grief for hostages taken is not an endorsement of dead civilians.”