Canada gov’t mounts new attack on political rights

By Steve Penner
March 18, 2024
Canadian riot police use pepper spray against truckers, other protesters in Ottawa, Feb. 19, 2022. Despite Emer-gencies Act being recently ruled illegal by federal judge, Justin Trudeau government is pressing new attack on political rights, the Online Harms Act.
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via APCanadian riot police use pepper spray against truckers, other protesters in Ottawa, Feb. 19, 2022. Despite Emergencies Act being recently ruled illegal by federal judge, Justin Trudeau government is pressing new attack on political rights, the Online Harms Act.

MONTREAL — In a major new attack on the right to free speech, Canada’s Liberal Party government has introduced Bill 63 — the Online Harms Act. It is sweeping legislation to strengthen existing “anti-hate laws” and impose government censorship over the internet, as well as increasing prison sentences up to life in prison for anyone a judge rules committed an offense “motivated by hatred” or who advocates “genocide.” It also includes penalties of up to $70,000.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cynically disguised the attack by claiming the main purpose of the new law is to protect children from online sexual predators. “But don’t be fooled,” warned Joanna Baron, executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation. “Most of the bill is aimed at restricting freedom of expression.”

“This act shows the government’s determination to deepen attacks on fundamental political freedoms — the right to freedom of speech and assembly, as well as other liberties that are needed by working people to defend ourselves and our unions,” Katy LeRougetel, Communist League candidate in the coming Montreal federal by-election in LaSalle-Emard-Verdun, told the Militant  March 1. “We need to fight for our rights against the attacks of the capitalist rulers.”

The bill allows a judge to place people under house arrest who, while committing no crime, the judge rules might  commit “hate speech” crimes in the future. They can be forced to wear an ankle monitor to track their movements, can be forbidden from communicating with persons or organizations the court decides, and made to provide random urine or blood samples to check for alcohol or drugs. The breach of any of these conditions can be grounds for up to two years in prison.

Another threat to political rights in the Online Harms Act, Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, executive director and general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, told the press, is “the vast authority bestowed upon a newly established body,” the Digital Safety Commission. This new spy agency would be comprised of “government appointees” tasked “to interpret the law, make up new rules, enforce them, and then serve as judge, jury, and executioner.”

The act will also give the Canadian Human Rights Commission, appointed by Ottawa, new powers to prosecute and punish speech considered “hateful.” The government asserts it has this power because Canada’s Supreme Court “has repeatedly upheld laws that combat hate speech as justified limits on freedom of expression.”

As the resistance by working people to the deepening economic and social crisis of the capitalist system grows, Ottawa and other capitalist governments around the world are moving to take broader control over our lives with increasingly undemocratic rules and regulations.

The “broad criminal prohibitions on speech in the bill risk stifling public discourse and criminalizing political activism,” the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says, and will “censor strong opposition to political authorities” and limit “debate and dissent on contentious issues.”

Under the new law, condemning Hamas for its Oct. 7 pogrom killing 1,200 Jews in Israel could be considered by a judge as “likely to foment detestation or vilification” of Palestinians, a violation of Bill 63.

The law would also give the federal cabinet the power to unilaterally enact regulations, which have the force of law, restricting the content permitted on social media sites.

Ottawa mounted this new assault on political rights only weeks after federal judge Richard Mosley ruled that Ottawa’s imposition of the Emergencies Act against protesting truckers and others in February 2022 was illegal and a violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Trudeau administration says it plans to appeal the court’s ruling, and is driving ahead with frame-up trials of the leaders of the Freedom Convoy and many of the other protesters arrested and charged after the Emergencies Act was imposed.

The New Democratic Party has said it supports Bill 63, ensuring its passage. Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre says his party, a minority in the Parliament, opposes it because the party doesn’t agree with “censoring opinions.”

“Working people and our unions should oppose the Online Harms Act, demand the repeal of the Emergencies Act and call for the dropping of all the charges against participants in the Freedom Convoy,” Communist League candidate LeRougetel said.