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Conservatives accuse minister of 'politicizing' Governor General's office over online harms

Governor General Mary Simon delivers a speech during a luncheon to mark International Women's Day, in Ottawa, Friday, March 8, 2024. The luncheon was presented by the Canadian Club of Ottawa and the Women Heads of Diplomatic Mission in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick Governor General Mary Simon delivers a speech during a luncheon to mark International Women's Day, in Ottawa, Friday, March 8, 2024. The luncheon was presented by the Canadian Club of Ottawa and the Women Heads of Diplomatic Mission in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
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OTTAWA -

A spokeswoman for Gov. Gen. Mary Simon says she will continue to advocate for "digital respect," despite suggestions it's inappropriate for her to wade in when a government bill targeting the issue is being hotly debated.

Justice Minister Arif Virani raised eyebrows last week when he posted photos of himself with "industry experts" at a recent symposium hosted by Rideau Hall.

Virani made mention of the government's new Online Harms Act, which aims to better protect Canadians on the internet, saying in the social-media post that he discussed it with some attendees.

Virani and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau "should be ashamed" for "politicizing and exploiting" Simon's staunchly non-partisan office, said Sebastian Skamski, a spokesman for Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who opposes the bill.

Skamski depicted the exercise as "a pathetic campaign to promote their controversial legislation that has received significant criticism."

The Online Harms Act, if passed, would require social media companies to limit the exposure of their users to harmful content -- in particular, anything that could be used to bully a child or encourage a minor to commit self-harm.

The legislation would also create a new digital regulator and would force companies to promptly remove images of child sexual abuse or sexual images shared without consent.

Conservatives believe existing laws should be enforced to protect vulnerable people online, rather than "push it off to a new bureaucracy," Skamski said. He accused Trudeau of wanting to ban opinions with the legislation.

Civil-society groups and legal experts say they fear a chill on free speech from the bill's more rigid hate crime penalties, as well as provisions that create a new hate crime offence and reinstate hate speech as grounds for discrimination.

Virani and Justice Department officials say the changes would only apply to extreme cases and that a high threshold would have to be met for a human rights tribunal to hear a hate speech case.

Simon has been making her own efforts to raise awareness about online abuse since her office decided to turn off comments on its social-media accounts last year following a barrage of harassing remarks.

The symposium brought people together to talk about their personal experiences of such abuse, and the agenda didn't include any discussion of the government bill, a spokesperson said.

Lynne Santerre, the Governor General's deputy director of public affairs, said last week's event had been in the works since 2023 and its "planning and organization" was led "exclusively" by Simon's office.

Santerre says as part of Simon's priority to raise awareness of online abuse

She used her "convening power" to gather an array of stakeholders at Rideau Hall, including members of Parliament and senators "who had spoken out on the issue of online abuse," she clarified on Wednesday. Journalists also took part, including one from The Canadian Press.

Simon's office confirmed that out of the parliamentarians who were invited, only Virani and Independent Sen. Bernadette Clement attended.

"The symposium provided an opportunity for participants to make connections and collaborate on potential solutions. The Online Harms Act was not on the agenda or part of the panel discussions," Santerre said.

"The Governor General will continue to promote the need for digital respect."

 

Parliamentary expert and Carleton University professor Philippe Lagasse described the event as "risky."

He compared it to the questions raised by the environmental advocacy of the former Prince of Wales, whose new role as King Charles requires that he more carefully navigate the narrow space between politics and the monarchy.

The role of Governor General is a strictly non-partisan one that requires plenty of work that bridges both party lines and "ideological divides," Lagasse said.

That means it becomes tricky once an issue becomes personal to a viceregal, who is expected act "completely impartially when it comes to major political debates," he added.

"The more personal it becomes to the office holder, the more they need to make sure that they're not touching it if it's part of a major debate in the country, because then their partiality becomes quite exposed."

Hosting the symposium became "inadvisable" once the government tabled its legislation, at which point Simon should have paused her advocacy efforts, Legasse said.

In a statement, Virani said he only showed up for lunch and that the legislation "naturally" came up with some attendees.

"It has come to my attention that a post I made last week has caused some confusion," he said.

"It is disappointing to see an event held in good faith to provide a safe space for victims to share their experiences, and to discuss a problem of widespread concern to Canadians, receive entirely unwarranted criticism."

Virani said he was pleased to accept Simon's invitation because he wanted to support attendees who shared deeply personal experiences of online abuse and harassment and "to discuss the pressing social problem of online safety."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2024.

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