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Conservative MPs vote against cyberbullying legislation

Death of Rehtaeh Parsons moved MP to draft new 'revenge porn' bill

The Conservative government is taking a step forward on tackling cyberbullying. Credit: ThinkStock

The Conservative government likes voting against cyberbullying bills so much, it voted against its own.

A provision to criminalize the "non-consensual distribution of intimate images" was a surprise announcement in the Speech from the Throne on Oct 16, as the Conservatives take a step forward on tackling cyberbullying.

"Our government will introduce legislation giving police and prosecutors new tools to effectively address cyberbullying that involves criminal invasion of privacy, intimidation and personal abuse," the speech reads.

So when Robert Chisholm stood in the House on Oct 17 to ask that the government move forward with the revenge porn legislation immediately by skipping its normal life cycle and sending it straight to committee, it seemed like a sure thing. But when the Speaker asked for the unanimous consent needed to pass a bill without debate, he didn't find it. The two dozen Conservative MPs left in the House refused.

Now, the bill will slog through the House at the typically glacial pace of legislation. It will be even slower if the Conservatives choose to stick it in one of their controversial omnibus bills, which always meet fierce opposition.

It's not the first time that government MPs have wrung their hands on passing legislation to ban the act.

Chisholm introduced similar legislation in June and received tepid support from the government. A report backing up the idea of the legislation, and a new justice minister, seem to have changed the government's tune.

At the end of the day, it's six of one and half a dozen of the other. But Chisholm told the House he was asked by Glen Canning to turn the bill into law as quickly as possible.

Canning is the father of Rehtaeh Parsons, the 17-year-old high school student from Halifax who took her own life after she was allegedly sexually assaulted at a party and then bullied relentlessly online. Photos of her at that party were spread around the school, leading to child pornography charges against two of those allegedly involved. The government named Parsons as inspiration for the bill in the Throne Speech.

There's little doubt the bill will be passed, but it's a question of when.

If the bill looks anything like a federal-provincial report published in July, penalties for the newly created crime could range from six months to five years.

But the House has a bad track record of enshrining bullying bills into law. On top of Chisholm's bill, which never moved forward, bills by New Democrat Dany Morin and Liberal Hedy Fry were both defeated, the latter with help from the NDP.

While the provinces have experimented with preventing cyberbullying, there are still divided opinions about whether the Criminal Code is the right way to stop the growing trend.

In Nova Scotia, the now-defeated NDP government enshrined into law provisions that allow victims of cyberbullying to sue their harassers or, should they be underage, their parents.

Federally, where the government can introduce criminal laws, there has been some trepidation on moving forward with national laws on cyberbullying. Fry's bill, which sought to add cyberbullying to the Criminal Code, was panned and defeated by both the New Democrats and the Conservatives.

Then Parliamentary Secretary for Justice Robert Goguen told the House "that an increased criminal law approach for the issue would not be effective, would predominantly target Canada's youth population and might put a chill on the use of other appropriate Criminal Code offences in relation to bullying in some more serious cases."

The NDP's misgivings mostly revolved around the idea of trying to slap Criminal Code provisions on minors.

On their side, the NDP's anti-bullying bill was also killed but was eventually replaced by a more comprehensive proposal from a Senate committee.

A spokesperson for Justice Minister Peter MacKay wouldn't give any details of the bill or say why the government didn't support the idea of passing the bill immediately. They would say only that "further details on the initiatives announced in the Speech from the Throne will be revealed in our busy parliamentary session ahead."