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Combating online hate speech in Canada

Digital literacy expert says problem is best fought with education, not legislation

Canada has been without human rights code protections for online hate speech for four months now, and it doesn't seem so bad.

In June, the Conservatives passed bill C-304, a private member's bill introduced by Alberta MP Brian Storseth. With that, they did away with Section 13 of the Human Rights Act — which made it illegal to propagate hate speech on the internet.

The opposition parties in the House of Commons decried the bill. Liberal MP and justice critic Irwin Cotler called it "ill-considered, uninformed and a prejudicial move in the wrong direction."

The NDP’s LGBT critic, Randall Garrison, and justice critic, Françoise Boivin, also harshly criticized the bill. Garrison underlined that a massive number of neo-Nazi groups have sprung up and targeted queer youth. Boivin argued that eliminating the provision means taking away an important tool from the criminal justice system.

But outside of the House, things aren't quite so contentious.

Matthew Johnson is the director of education for MediaSmarts, an organization that works to promote digital literacy and combat online hate speech through education.

Johnson is mostly ambivalent about the legislative change. "It's probably not going to change much," he says.

He chalks that up, in part, to the courts' limiting the power of this type of legislation. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled in 2009 that the section relating to online hate speech was unconstitutional — the federal courts, who had the power to actually nullify the provision, had not heard the case by the time Parliament repealed Section 13.

In addition, Johnson says a tribunal isn't the best way to combat hate speech and bullying online. "Education and critical thinking are the most effective," he says.

That's why his group has created an arsenal to combat that sort of prejudice online. They've put together resources, literature, classroom lessons and tutorials for kids and parents alike, all aimed at fighting the hate speech that the Human Rights Act was intended to fight.

"Any legislation is a blunt instrument," Johnson says.

There have been dozens of cases before the Human Rights Tribunal, under Section 13, going after white supremacist or neo-Nazi sites. Yet many other charges targeted individuals, some for merely posting messages on forums or comments sections of websites.

Meanwhile, Johnson says, "some of the most pernicious sites, what we call 'cloak hate sites,' are quite cautious to avoid violating the Criminal Code or Human Rights Act."

The Canadian Bar Association, for its part, supported keeping the section, calling it "an important tool to prevent discrimination and promote human dignity and equality."

Jewish rights group B'nai Brith, however, supported C-304. The group's senior legal counsel, David Matas, told a parliamentary committee that "our ideal world wouldn't either support Bill C-304 or defeat C-304, but faced with the choice, which is the choice we have, our choice is support."

Matas did suggest that the government come out with different provisions that still combat hate speech, without trotting over civil liberties.

"In our ideal world, we would build a sandcastle that wouldn't look like Bill C-304 or its defeat," he said.

The government has not committed to replacing Section 13 with anything else.