Members of Parliament should take a closer look at the thorny question of how to curb misinformation during federal election campaigns without infringing on Canadians’ right to free speech, says NDP democratic reform critic Daniel Blaikie.
In an interview with CBC News, Blaikie said the procedure and House affairs committee should hold hearings on the question instead of waiting for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to draft legislation to replace a section of Canada’s elections law that was struck down recently.
“I think the government should be taking a far more collaborative approach to trying to find a solution to this problem than they did in the last Parliament,” he said. “And perhaps if they do, they won’t land in the same spot where it turns out their solution isn’t adequate.”
Blaikie was responding to an Ontario Superior Court ruling that struck down the section of Canada’s elections law that prohibited the spreading of false claims about candidates or party leaders during an election campaign. In her judgment, Justice Breese Davies ruled that the section was an unjustifiable restriction of Canadians’ right to free speech.
That section was added to the law by the Trudeau government in the last Parliament as part of Bill C-76.
The government confirmed Monday that it won’t appeal the ruling and is looking at how to ensure that deliberate false statements are covered under elections law.
But striking the right balance between curbing misinformation and respecting charter rights would be difficult. While an election is not imminent, Trudeau’s minority government could fall before the October 2023 date set for the next election. That means the next election campaign could proceed without anything beyond libel laws prohibiting someone from spreading lies about a candidate or a party leader.
Blaikie, who sits on the procedure and House affairs committee, said he wants the committee to hear from experts and to open the debate to Canadians.
Blaikie said misinformation during election campaigns is “a huge problem” that came to a head during the recent U.S. election.
“I don’t think anybody supports, that anybody wants, endemic misinformation in our elections,” he said. “So I think it is appropriate to have some kind of regime in place that can hold people to account for the kinds of things that they say, needing to be mindful also of the right for people … to express themselves freely. And that can be a hard balance to strike.”
Blaikie said he would like the committee to also look at online hate speech during election campaigns.
Blaikie said committee hearings could allow for a fuller discussion of the problem, arguing that Bill C-76 was introduced at the 11th hour before the last election campaign.
“It’s not a surprise that not everything checks out in terms of that bill because it seemed like a rushed job in the end,” he said.
Conservative Privy Council critic Marilyn Gladu said the court ruling was the result of the Liberal government’s refusal to accept amendments her party wanted to make to Bill C-76.
“It is important to protect Canadian elections against foreign interference, but in so doing we must also protect the rights of Canadians to freedom of speech,” she said in a media statement.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said the problem calls for a delicate balance.
“I have myself received, no exaggeration, thousands of hateful messages on different (platforms) or social media,” he said. “And each time I say that is the price to be paid, because who’s to say who has the right to say this or that or not? There’s nobody in which I have enough trust to give freely such a power.”
Blanchet said politicians themselves have a role to play in countering false claims during a campaign.
“In the last election, there were some accusations against the prime minister saying that he was a racist because of some blackface frivolity,” he said. “And I was the one to correct things as much as I could, saying that I do not believe that Justin Trudeau is a racist.”
Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
www.cbc.ca 2021-03-24 08:00:00