Editorial: The Bill C-63 hallucination

  • March 21, 2024

First, it was the unlikely Chardonnay-and-ketamine like pairing of Margaret Atwood and Elon Musk that raised alarms about the federal government’s proposed Online Harms Act. Now, someone with years of practice adjudicating human rights law has launched a fusillade against Bill C-63 that should set the ears of all Canadians, including Liberal caucus members, buzzing.

Here at The Register, we hear a bell ringing for Catholics to follow Toronto Archbishop Francis Leo’s recent appeal for us engage in the public square on matters where our Faith and convictions are at risk of attack.

Atwood surprised tout le chatterati in mid-March by playing against liberal-Liberal downtown Toronto type and denouncing the bill as “Orwellian.” For his part, Musk used his X social media platform to call it “insane.”

What moves antipathy to the legislation beyond celebrity rubricating, however, is a March 13 National Post column by David Thomas, who for seven years was Chair of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in Ottawa. Thomas’ opening riposte in his text was to dismiss the Online Harms Act as a “terrible” law. Then he took the gloves off. “Vague,” “draconian,” “deceitful” followed in combination.

His most alarming argument was that the restrictions on Charter-protected freedom of expression embedded in the bill are not mere accidental outcomes, but a deliberate federal Liberal means to silence opposing political voices.

The first sentence strikes a note of hypersonic hyperbole. The second is an inaccuracy wrapped in an anachronism. Robust political discourse in Canada gave up squirming and lay down in its grave shortly after Conrad Black sold the National Post almost a quarter century ago.

Still, Thomas effectively drew on his tenure from 2014 to 2021 as Tribunal chair to dismantle the technical parts of C-63, especially the regurgitation of its role in judging “hate speech” complaints. That responsibility, he noted, was removed more than a decade ago for the sound reason that the proper means for pursuing “hate speech” is using criminal law with its high bar for evidence and conviction.

At the most functional level, he says, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s miniscule 11-member staff doesn’t have the capacity to deal with the “massive influx of new hate speech cases” that will follow C-63. Such an influx will surely come given that the legislation promises up to $20,000 to “any victim” of hate speech communication, he said.

“How many victims might be identified if the hate speech is posted online? Is everyone who sees a hate speech message (online) a victim?” he asked.

In other words, the legislation sets up a perfect storm of risk-free financial incentive to complain. Then there will be contingency lawyers’ fees to assure legal representation. Finally, there’s even the opportunity for complaints to be heard anonymously.

There is where Catholics must begin reckoning the potential cost to ourselves as individuals and to Holy Mother Church as a whole. We live in a society where our most profound convictions are routinely deemed aggressions against the fashionable verities of the day. We live in a country where our churches can be burned with virtual impunity, and we are blamed for striking the match and adding the gasoline.

What, reasonably, can we expect our fate to be when legislation such as C-63 is there to feed the fever dreams, never mind line the pockets, of those who would restrict our speech further? At a minimum, it is not hypersonic hyperbole to predict there will be years, if not decades, of sheer nuisance complaints grinding their way through the bleak house of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal purely because of the creed we profess.

The saving grace is that the half of the Online Harms Act dealing with elimination of so-called “revenge porn,” vile sexualized “deep fakes” and related damage caused to young Canadians is laudable, indeed desirable.  The Catholic call to action against the Act, then, need not be a partisan bid to embarrass the government by having it entirely withdrawn. Its parts just need to be as rigorously separated as, say, Chardonnay and ketamine. One can be considered a welcome accompaniment. The other: a hallucination devoutly to be tossed aside.

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