Trudeau’s flirtation with regulating speech
Trudeau may launch a full-blown assault on democratic norms

In the six years that Justin Trudeau has been prime minster of Canada, his government has been in the hot seat for several pieces of legislation that limit freedom of speech. Prior to Trudeau dropping the writ and dissolving Parliament for the federal election, his government was working on several pieces of legislation containing limits to Canadians’ freedom of speech. Such laws included Bill C-36 and a not-yet-proposed law to curb pandemic misinformation. Possibly the most egregious example can be found in the now-dead Bill C-10.

The right to free speech is not absolute. In Canada, freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression — “including freedom of the press and other media of communication” — are protected by section two of the Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These rights are limited by the first section of the charter, which indicates these fundamental freedoms are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

The legalese of section one requires a bit of parsing. Reasonable limits to charter rights must be prescribed by law and the legislators must demonstrate the justification of such limits while upholding principles of freedom and democracy.

Canada has a history of placing reasonable limitations on free speech. Such examples include prohibiting social evils such as counselling a crime, advocating genocide, public incitement of hatred and discriminatory speech and actions under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Each of these limitations are codified into Canadian law and are demonstrably justified in accordance with freedom and democracy.

In 2016, Bill C-16 — An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code — was met with uproar from free speech enthusiasts who claimed that additional restrictions to speech were unwarranted and unconstitutional. However unpopular in certain circles, it was generally agreed among elected officials that extending human rights protections to gender expression and identity was consistent with Canadian laws and values despite the limitation on speech.

Debate surrounding Bill C-16 fractionated Canadian society into warring political camps that exploded into protests, epithets and — in some cases — outright violence. Perhaps Trudeau’s team recalled the effective wedge issue and decided to employ it in advance of the 2021 campaign.

In the spring, Trudeau’s government rushed to pass several key pieces of legislation before Parliament went on summer break. One such bill was Bill C-10, introduced to the House of Commons by Steven Guilbeault, minister of Canadian heritage. The bill sought to amend the Broadcasting Act, granting the government more control over Canadian content in several newly emerged online platforms. Specifically, the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) — which oversees traditional media — would be granted similar authority over web-based platforms.

The CRTC regulates content to promote so-called Canadian content. Canadian content does not simply refer to content’s country of origin but must also meet the “needs and interests” of Canadians, the definition of which is loose and marred with the relative secrecy of the CRTC innerworkings.

To quell fears, Bill C-10 was introduced with a provision to prevent user-generated content from being regulated by the CRTC. However, in a controversial move, Guilbeault removed the provision and thus opened the doors for the government to regulate the social media content created by Canadians.

In response, Peter Menzies — the sitting vice chair of the CRTC — rebuked the controversial decision to remove free speech protections for citizens.

“Granting a government agency authority over legal user generated content […] doesn’t just infringe on free expression, it constitutes a full-blown assault upon it and, through it, the foundations of democracy,” Menzies said, according to the National Post.

Proponents of the bill point to clause 1 in section 2 (2.1) which distinguishes a user from a broadcaster. The upshot of this clause is that while the government would not be able to regulate the content that Canadians post, it would instead be able to regulate which user-generated content could be broadcast over the platform.

In short, if your tweet was not consistent with the standard of Canadian content — that is, it did not promote the loosely defined “needs and interests” of Canadians — Twitter may have been compelled by Canadian law to suppress the tweet.

The possibility for misuse or malevolent application should be enough to send a shiver down your spine.

Could a political party have their content suppressed for lacking loosely defined Canadian values? Could citizen dissent be suppressed under the same guise?

The answers remain unclear. Such blatant disregard for fundamental freedoms should not be ignored.

Trudeau’s Liberals had the audacity to propose the legislation once and you can bet that similar restrictions will be coming down the pike. As Trudeau enters his third term as prime minster, we must reject his flirtations with regulating speech.