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Evan Wiens, a sixteen-year-old who is trying to start a gay-straight alliance at his Manitoba high school, is photographed beside a billboard beside the highway entering Steinbach, Manitoba, on March 17, 2013. Provinces differ on how to define ‘bullying’ in anti-bullying legislation, and the topic has a hotly debated topic in Wiens’ hometown.John Woods/The Globe and Mail

Provinces introducing laws to crack down on school bullies are taking different approaches as they decide where to draw the line between chronic abuse and a one-time insult or slight.

There are also questions, as in Manitoba, as to whether legislation will have any effect. That province's proposed law does not require principals to hand down specific penalties or even report bullying to parents or authorities.

The rush to rein in bullies across the country is partly in response to the suicide last year of Amanda Todd, a British Columbia girl who was tormented online after being sexually exploited.

But what is the most effective definition?

Ontario's law, passed last year, defines bullying as causing – or intending to cause – physical or emotional harm, causing damage to another student's property, placing that pupil in reasonable fear of harm or creating a hostile environment at school.

In Quebec, bullying must be repeated direct or indirect behaviour involving a power imbalance which causes distress and "injures, hurts, oppresses, intimidates or ostracizes."

In Manitoba, the definition under a bill now before the legislature is broad enough to include a single intent to cause hurt feelings. The education minister says the wording is deliberate.

"We really wanted to make sure that we captured, in the definition ... negative intent. We're very comfortable with this definition," Nancy Allan said.

But the definition is so general, it could make bullies out of any student, argue the Opposition Progressive Conservatives.

"It's so vague ... that it will either be unenforceable or enforced arbitrarily," said education critic Kelvin Goertzen.

"It's going to make bullies out of a whole lot of people ... including teachers and volunteers."

For example, Mr. Goertzen fears teachers could end up getting questioned for disciplining a student or a coach could be criticized for suggesting a player was not doing well.

The public debate over Manitoba's proposed law has focused on a separate clause that requires schools to allow students to set up gay-straight alliances if the students want to. Some religious leaders say it's an infringement on the freedom of religion, because their private schools would be required to accommodate student groups that run contrary to their beliefs.

Mr. Goertzen said the issues that have not garnered as much attention, such as the definition of bullying, are also problematic.

The bill defines bullying as behaviour that "is intended to cause, or should be known to cause, fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of harm to another person's body, feelings, self-esteem, reputation or property."

Creating a negative school environment for someone else would also qualify as bullying and the act could be either repeated or occur once.

The same language has recently been adopted by Nova Scotia's NDP government.

The wording is broad partly so that school principals and others could use their own experience and knowledge to address bullying, Ms. Allan said.

The proposed law would also give school officials the authority to determine what, if any, punishment should be handed down. There are no consequences specified in the bill.

"We are going to rely on the professionals in our public education system to make a determination in regards to what that specific incident and what those consequences look like," Ms. Allan said.

"They're the ones that know their schools ... they know the family circumstances of those young people."

Manitoba schools are already required to have codes of conduct that outline an array of consequences for bullying and other problems, but what those consequences should be is left up to the school.

Mr. Goertzen says the anti-bullying proposal's vague definition and lack of a mandatory penalty make it "one of the weakest in North America." He says the reporting requirements are also lax as teachers are required to tell their principals, but the bill goes no further than that.

Debate has become so polarized, largely due to the gay-straight alliance clause, that neither side appears ready to give an inch. Ms. Allan said Tory concerns over the definition of bullying are just a "smokescreen" for their religious opposition to the bill. The Tories counter that Ms. Allan is more concerned with optics than with passing a law that will work.

Mr. Goertzen says he has heard from many school officials who share his concerns, and a group of independent schools has expressed worries as well. About 1,200 people attended a recent meeting in Steinbach, the city Mr. Goertzen represents in the legislature, to air their opposition to the bill.

A group that represents schools, parent councils and others in promoting school safety is supporting the proposed law.

"I don't believe that it's problematic," said Mary Hall, director of Safe Schools Manitoba, a provincially funded body set up with support from the Manitoba School Boards Association.

"It makes sense for the principal to exercise discretion because the bullying that might occur between primary school children will differ from high school. You may have a child where perhaps it's an age or maturity issue. Is there a prolonged pattern of bullying or did it happen a few times?

"So the principals are encouraged to look at all these different factors and then determine the best consequence in that particular situation."

The bill is expected to become law by mid-June, but it must first undergo public hearings before a legislature committee.