Skip to main content

In the wake of suicides by Amanda Todd and other young people, Port Coquitlam adopted a bylaw aimed at bullying.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

For Greg Moore, the mayor of Port Coquitlam, B.C., the suicide of Amanda Todd in October – one of four young people in his community to kill themselves this year – crystallized the need for a municipal response to bullying.

"We have a lot of education going on, but sometimes you need a little bit more than that," Mr. Moore said. "The police have a sledgehammer in their back pocket called the Criminal Code, but then you don't necessarily need that sledgehammer all the time."

And so, the idea of an anti-bullying bylaw was born, and on Monday, his city council passed a resolution to give the go-ahead for new rules that will make bullying an offence punishable by fines or mandatory programs.

"I sat back and I thought if four people died at an intersection, we'd look at it and redesign it," said Mr. Moore, adding that the municipality's response to bullying should be no different, "A lot people, including myself, said as a community we need to do more."

Anti-bullying bylaws are being enacted across the country in response to a heightened awareness of the youthful behaviour. But how effective are they? Few tickets are ever handed out. Sometimes they are little more than a symbol of a community's stand against bullies, while offenders end up charged once the behaviour has escalated to serious criminal offences such as uttering threats and assault.

And while this patchwork of responses goes on community by community, on Wednesday in Ottawa, the Senate standing committee on human rights issued a 126-page report on cyberbullying calling for more a national response to the problem.

Port Coquitlam plans to use Regina as a template for its bylaw in the new year.

In 2006, Regina became what is believed to be the first Canadian city to prohibit bullying in a public place and bullying through written or electronic communication, as well as fighting, encouraging a fight or recording a fight. The offences come with fines of up to $2,000, required attendance at an anti-bullying course, or up to 90 days in jail.

The bylaw was drafted partly in response to the murder of Reena Virk, another B.C. bully victim.

Kaeli Decelles, social media officer with the Regina Police Service, said that, while only a few tickets have been written and none of incidents have made it to court or resulted in fines, it doesn't mean the bylaw isn't effective.

"People say: 'Why aren't you doing anything?' We say, no, if there's a criminal element, we're going to go with that," she explained.

The number of criminal charges stemming from incidents of bullying is unclear, but the bylaw still sends an important message, Ms. Decelles said. "This is not something we're going to stand for. It's not okay with us. There are consequences for this."

In 2008, the central Alberta community of Blackfalds enacted a community standards bylaw to include bullying, which is defined as verbal or physical abuse, taunts threats, teasing, name calling or repeated abusive communication through any medium.

Fines for youth start at $125 and adults at $500. Regardless of age, fourth-time and subsequent offenders could be hit with a $10,000 fine. Nobody has ever been hit with a massive fine, but in just the past few months, three tickets have been handed out.

"We've been consistent in its application," said Corinne Newman, the town's chief administrative officer. "We've taken it very seriously."

The bylaw was initially a response to feedback from junior high school students, who reported cases of being bullied. The bylaw is having an impact, she added. "It is not a token gesture."

An anti-bullying bylaw in the central Alberta community of Hanna enacted last month comes with the potential for stiff jail time of up to six months, and also a clause that deals with bystanders who act to "encourage or cheer on" a bully.

Meanwhile, some civil-liberties experts wonder if the bylaws go too far. Brian Seaman, a research associate with the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, said the bylaws could be considered unconstitutional as encroaching on federal criminal law and wouldn't be surprised if someone launches a challenge. Instead, a better solution is for officials to be more proactive to deal with bullies, he said.

"Why have school authorities – teachers, principals – not been actively intervening in bullying incidents to date using the tools they already have?" Mr. Seaman asked.