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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks as Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair, centre, and Blair's parliamentary secretary Joel Lightbound listen at a news conference in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2021.PATRICK DOYLE/The Canadian Press

New legislation on hate speech and hate crimes should make major online companies accountable for their role in the dissemination of illegal or unsavory material on their platforms, activists say.

Bill C-36 was presented at an evening news conference on Wednesday, the last sitting day of the House of Commons, by a group of cabinet members that included the ministers of justice, heritage and public safety.

Among its provisions, it would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to define a new discriminatory practice of communicating hate speech online that applies to public communications by individuals, but not to operators of social-media platforms that enable communication with others.

Daniel Bernhard, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, expressed frustration over the omission.

Ottawa announces new legislation targeting hate crimes, online hate speech

“The biggest purveyors of online harm are these businesses like Facebook and Google, who are the ones making money off this,” he said.

Effective legislation would need to make the companies responsible, he said, not just the users. “It’s like banning drug use but legalizing drug dealing.”

The government said Canadian Heritage will consult with operators of those platforms about approaches to regulating social media and online hate speech.

Bill C-36 is an attempt to better define online hate speech in law, and it would empower individuals and groups who feel targeted by hate speech to pursue removal orders through the federal commission and tribunal system under the Human Rights Act.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the government has taken previous steps to deal with hate, and additional measures targeting online hate are in the works for the fall. The House of Commons is not scheduled to sit again until September, and a fall election is widely expected.

Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and a long-time human-rights advocate, said the legislation is timely and necessary, given the radicalization of young people, and “an upsurge of hateful, murderous violence that we have never seen before in this country.

“That said, I am saddened that it was not followed immediately by promised legislation or regulation dealing with internet service providers and social-media companies,” Mr. Farber said in an interview.

He called for “significant” fines for social-media companies that refuse to take hate off their sites, suggesting without such measures, “the battle is only halfway done.”

“It’s not that this legislation falls short, but that more legislation is needed and the second part should have followed the first, and that’s my disappointment.”

Still, he said the legislation will bolster the fight against hate, and that he hopes the Conservatives and the NDP will commit to the same path.

Michael Mostyn, chief executive of B’nai Brith Canada, said the organization is “disappointed” the bill does not contain elements of a regulatory framework for dealing with online hate that his group discussed with the heritage minister and justice department over several months.

Still, he said in a statement that Bill C-36 is an “important first step.”

The National Council of Canadian Muslims agreed, and the legislation meets council concerns about civil liberties, said a statement by spokesperson Fatema Abdalla.

But a spokesperson for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association was less optimistic.

“This legislation gives rise to the same concerns that come up every time about freedom of expression, and is the line about what constitutes hate speech clear enough for people to know when they are crossing it or is it subjective so you don’t know if you have crossed it until it’s too late,” Cara Zwibel, director of the association’s fundamental freedoms program, said in an interview.

She said the association will speak further on the issue when the bill goes to committee for review.

Senator Pamela Wallin compared the new legislation to Bill C-10, currently before the Senate, which would subject streaming sites like Netflix and Youtube to federal broadcasting regulation. Much of the debate has focused on whether the new rules would apply to individuals who post on social media.

Ms. Wallin noted on Twitter on Thursday that Bill C-36 would clearly apply to posts by individuals.

“Election or no election, we need a fundamental rethink [of] the consequences of Bill C-10 and C-36,” she wrote.

With a report from Bill Curry

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