Source: Canadian Human Rights Tribunal

A former chair of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is sounding the alarm over Justin Trudeau’s new “sinister” and “shocking” Online Harms bill which could see Canadians thrown in prison for life for “hate-motivated” crimes and given steep fines for so-called hate speech.

“What we are likely to see right away is a chilling effect,” lawyer David Thomas said on True North’s The Faulkner Show. Bill C-63, or the Online Harms Act, will have “a big impact on free political discourse in this country and I think that’s what we should all be concerned about immediately,” he said.

“If this passes, God help us, because I don’t know where it will go.”

Thomas was appointed chair of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, the body tasked with adjudicating violations of the Canadian Human Rights Act, in 2014 for a seven year term.

“The reason I am speaking out right now is that nobody who is on the tribunal is free to speak, they’re like judges sitting on the bench,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s important for somebody with inside knowledge to convey these concerns about this legislation.”

The Trudeau government’s new legislation proposes life sentences for anyone who “advocates or promotes” genocide and for anyone who commits a crime that is “motivated by hatred” based on a protected human rights ground, such as race, religion, or gender identity.

It also allows for prosecution of hate speech, defined as comments “likely to foment detestation or vilification.”

Thomas says that the “vagueness” of the legislation and the definitions of hate speech “that nobody really knows” will cause uncertainty and fear across Canada.

Justin Trudeau is also planning to enshrine into law the idea of punishing people for crimes they may commit in the future.

Under the new legislation, the attorney general, or any Canadian, can apply to a judge to put someone under house arrest and to force them to wear a tracking device there is a “fear on reasonable grounds” that the pre-accused might commit a hate crime in the future.

The Online Harms Act is “an incredibly damping piece of legislation, which I think, of course, will infringe on our Charter rights to freedom of expression,” Thomas said.

“It will take years to get a case to the Supreme Court of Canada to make a decision about that. In the meantime, people will be afraid to say anything.”

Thomas also argues that the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal won’t be able to handle the amount of cases being lodged against Canadians for hate speech under Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which was repealed by the previous Conservative government but will be reintroduced if the government’s online harms bill passes.

“To adjudicate these cases themselves takes years. When someone lodges a complaint when they get a final decision, it would not be surprising if it took three to five years or even longer,” Thomas said. “That’s a terrible thing, especially for an administrative tribunal which is supposed to be delivering access to justice to the public.”

Bill C-63 will empower the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to award $20,000 to “any victim identified” in a successful complaint, with a further penalty of up to $50,000 payable to the government.

While the legislation does allow for the tribunal to award costs to an accuser it feels is abusing the process, Thomas said this carve-out – which doesn’t apply to any other matters the tribunal deals with – complicates an already-fraught process.

“The message there is, ‘Lawyer up, folks, because you’re going to get your legal fees paid for when the tribunal finds in your favour,’” Thomas warned. “That makes me very worried.”

Thomas urged Canadians to “be very careful” about what you post online given the uncertainty and vagueness of new hate speech definitions and the legislation.


  • Harrison Faulkner

    Harrison Faulkner is the host of Ratio'd and co-host of Fake News Friday. He is also a journalist and producer for True North based in Toronto. Twitter: @Harry__Faulkner