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Controversial Online Harms Bill debated in Parliament

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  • June 11, 2024

More than 100 days after its introduction, Bill C-63, The Online Harms Act, which immediately sparked passionate reactions of furor or support, was debated for the first time in the House of Commons June 7.

Minister of Justice and Attorney General Arif Virani said during his sponsor’s speech that the legislation will reduce exposure to harmful content, combat hate crimes, generate remedies for hate victims and augment the platforms for reporting child sexual abuse. He added that the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and the National Council of Canadian Muslims support the bill.

In response to his critics, Virani maintained Bill C-63 “does not undermine freedom of expression. It strengthens freedom of expression by allowing all people to participate safely in online discussions.”

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner took aim at the "deeply flawed" proposed amendments to Section 320 of the Criminal Code of Canada. The new offence would decree that anyone who commits a transgression based on hatred “of race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression” is guilty “of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for life.”

The Calgary MP said this clause “could see a life sentence applied to minor infractions under any act of Parliament… this means that words alone could lead to life imprisonment.”

During the March 21 meeting of the Standing Committee of Justice and Human Rights, Virani said “the new hate crime offence captures any existing offence if it was hate-motivated. That can run the gamut from a hate-motivated theft all the way to a hate-motivated attempted murder.”

Virani avowed on March 21 “this does not mean that minor offences will suddenly receive extremely harsh sentences. This would violate all the legal principles that sentencing judges are required to follow. Hate-motivated murder will result in a life sentence. A minor infraction will certainly not result in it.”

Rempel Garner criticized the impreciseness of Virani’s statements.

“Parliament cannot afford the government to be this lazy, and by that, I mean not spelling out exactly what it intends a life sentence to apply to in law, as opposed to handing a highly imperfect judiciary an overbroad law that could have extreme, negative consequences,” she said.

Virani defended the new provision to the Criminal Code by arguing it is similar to the hate crime laws established in 47 of the 50 U.S. states in that the penalty's severity will match the crime's seriousness.

“Uttering a threat that was motivated by hate would constitute less of a penalty than committing a murder that was motivated by hate,” said Virani in response to Rempel Garner. “For the member's benefit, paragraph 718.1 of the Criminal Code, which I do trust judges to interpret, specifically says that the penalty “must be proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender.”

In a May 30 statement about Bill C-63 tabled by Virani, he wrote that part two of the Online Harms Act would “amend the Criminal Code to create a new peace bond to help prevent and deter hate crimes and hate propaganda offences from being committed.” Critics of the bill across the political spectrum have denounced this measure as a “pre-crime” intervention.

Peter Menzies, a senior fellow of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, told The Catholic Register in March that this course of action “could allow for people to be placed under house arrest because they might commit hate… In other words, by saying something instead of doing something.”

Specifically, the bill seeks to empower the Canadian Human Rights Commission to take complaints based on things people say. Menzies suggested individuals who cite particular Bible passages in debating political issues could be targeted, as well as skeptics of the widespread, yet unproven, mass graves narrative.

Virani has defended such powers before when questioned by media outlets. He said it could deter someone with a dangerous record of targeting certain people or groups. In February, he said 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.”

Other than house arrest, Virani mused that a bond could prevent a suspect from being allowed near a mosque or synagogue or place restrictions on their Internet access.

Though all opposing parties expressed reservations about Bill C-63’s proposed amendments to the Criminal Code and communicated a need for this part of the bill to be comprehensively studied in committee, other aspects of the Online Harms Act received support.

Bloc Québécois MP Claude DeBellefeuille said her party “supports part 1 of the bill, in other words, all provisions related to addressing child pornography and the communication of pornographic content without consent.” She advocated splitting this bill segment apart from the rest so it could get quickly passed and implemented.

NDP MP Peter Julian said his party supports Bill C-63’s intent to combat online child predators and hate crimes. Still, he said there is “a substantial missing piece in the legislation around algorithm transparency.” He said including this component will help “determine precisely why some hateful content or harmful content is promoted on certain platforms.”

Bill C-63 now awaits a second reading vote to determine if it will advance to study in committee. The last parliamentary session before the summer hiatus is scheduled for June 21.

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