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Portraying a group of people as violent online – or comparing them to vermin, excrement or animals – could trigger a probe under the Canadian Human Rights Act, according to new provisions in the online harms bill, the Justice Department says.

But the bill sets a “high bar” for what would count as hate speech and it would not include offensive or humiliating comments or remarks expressing dislike, disdain or political dissent, according to a background briefing by federal public servants on the bill.

The government’s long-awaited online harms bill would put back a provision in the Canadian Human Rights Act, which was taken out in 2013 by the Stephen Harper government, to make posting hate speech online a form of discrimination.

The updated provision would empower people to file complaints to the Human Rights Commission about hateful posts, which could lead to them being taken down.

The commission would decide if the complaint meets the bar for referral to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for a decision. The bill gives the commission the power to dismiss unfounded complaints swiftly.

Some lawyers have warned that the ability to make such a civil complaint – with a lower burden of proof than a court of law – could have a chilling effect on free speech.

Under the changes to the bill, people found guilty of posting hate speech could be forced to take down the post and pay victims up to $20,000 in compensation. And if they refuse to comply, for example by repeatedly reposting hate speech, they could face a fine of up to $50,000.

The background briefing by the Department of Justice on Wednesday said statements that portray a group as dangerous or violent by nature; portray a group as preying upon children, the aged or the vulnerable; or comments that dehumanize a group through comparisons with and associations with animals, vermin or excrement have been considered “hate speech” under the Human Rights Act.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission and Canadian Human Rights Tribunal are expected to look at precedents and other cases when making judgments as to what counts as hate speech, as well as the bill itself.

The bill would also create a definition of “hatred” informed by rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada.

As well, the bill would establish a new hate-crime offence with a potential penalty of life imprisonment for hate-motivated conduct. The maximum penalty, officials said, would apply to crimes already punishable at that level, such as aggravated sexual assault or attempted murder.

The bill also would increase the penalty for the crime of advocating genocide to life imprisonment.

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But an official said a high bar would apply for conviction for such an offence and advocating genocide is not just saying horrible things about people. According to the Supreme Court of Canada, it requires direct and public communication with intent to directly prompt or provoke another to commit genocide.

The bill would also extend the penalty for other hate-propaganda offences from two to five years, including making public statements inciting hatred or violence against an identifiable group of people, such as Muslims, Sikhs or Jews, or promoting antisemitism by denying, downplaying or condoning the Holocaust.

Mohammed Hashim, chief executive officer of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, said the crime of advocating genocide has rarely been applied and speculated that the harsher life sentence may lead to even fewer convictions.

A provision in the bill would allow a court to impose restrictions on someone feared to be planning to carry out a hate-crime or hate-propaganda offence, even if they have not done so already. The bill says they could be required to remain in their home at certain times or wear an electronic tag, if the Attorney-General makes that request. The restrictions could apply for up to a year, and if the person subject to the peace bond has a previous conviction for hate propaganda or a hate crime, it could last for two years.

Mr. Hashim said he believed that provision, a peace bond, would also rarely be applied.

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