OTTAWA -- A series of steps would need to happen before a judge can restrict a person's movement because of fears they could commit a hate crime, federal Justice Minister Arif Virani said Thursday as he defended a suite of tougher penalties to combat hate. 

Virani said he listened to calls for Ottawa to better respond to a rise in hate-motivated crimes when drafting the Online Harms Act, which includes a new peace bond provision. 

"I know what I've heard from victims, and whether that's the rise of hatred that we're seeing against Jewish victims, Muslim victims right now — people are concerned about the rising spike of hatred," he said Thursday. 

The Online Harms Act, known as Bill C-63, would usher in a new regulator to compel social media companies to outline how they plan to reduce the risks their platforms pose to users, particularly minors. 

The bill, tabled this week, looks to address a wide range of dangers, from content used to bully a child online to material that incites hate or promotes terrorism. 

To address freedom of expression concerns, Virani has said that under the new rules, platforms would only be compelled to remove material within a tight 24-hour time frame if it contains child sexual abuse or the non-consensual sharing of intimate images. 

Critics including legal experts and civil society groups like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have raised concerns over proposed changes to the Criminal Code that usher in stiffer sentences for hate propaganda crimes, including up to life imprisonment for advocating genocide. 

The minister has said discretion remains in the hands of the courts as to how penalties are determined. 

The bill also seeks to reintroduce online hate speech as a type of discrimination that can be adjudicated under the Canadian Human Rights Act, which critics say could lead to an influx of complaints. 

The legislation also seeks to amend the law so that someone who fears a person will commit a hate crime — including a hate propaganda offence such as advocating genocide or inciting hatred — can ask a judge to impose conditions on that person. 

That could include requiring them to wear an electronic monitoring device, stay at their residence, refrain from going to certain public places or stay away from the person seeking the order.

Virani defended the new measure, saying similar peace bonds can already be sought in cases involving domestic violence, and called it a well-understood tool under Canadian criminal law. 

An individual seeking such a measure would have to provide evidence to a court, and any order must be approved by a provincial attorney general, the minister said. 

Those "safeguards," he said, are there to address concerns around the constitutionality of imposing restrictions on someone before any crime has been committed.

He added such "vetting features" are what "make it a high threshold to achieve but an important threshold where it's warranted in a given case."

B'nai Brith Canada, a national Jewish advocacy organization, suggested the measure may be redundant, as individuals can already seek out peace bonds and restraining orders. 

"We're supportive of the fact that the courts can intervene on behalf of somebody who is the victim of a hate crime," said research and advocacy director Richard Robertson. 

However, he said if the government wants to help victims of antisemitic hate crimes, it should consider expanding the definition of what constitutes the wilful "promotion of antisemitism" in criminal law.

The current phrasing defines that as "condoning, denying or downplaying" the Holocaust, which Robertson said is too narrow.

"We believe that that's insufficient," to respond to hate speech against Jewish people that the organization has documented, he said in an interview Thursday.

"We were hoping that that would have been expanded … and we were disappointed that it wasn't." 

Richard Marceau of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said his group considers the proposed hate-specific court order "worth pursuing and looking at very seriously."

The two groups, along with other Jewish organizations, have been calling on the government to do more to address hate crimes since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. 

Kyla Lee, a British Columbia-based lawyer who chairs the criminal justice section of the Canadian Bar Association, said she expects to see the new hate-related peace bond used more often should the bill pass. 

"In some respects, that's helpful because those types of orders can keep things out of the court and can help things from being diverted from trial," she said.

"It also avoids a criminal conviction where one might not be necessary to protect the public."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 29, 2024