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Online harms bill: Don't link boy's suicide with government actions, Trudeau says

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OTTAWA -

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that it's inappropriate to draw a link between government actions and the death of a British Columbia boy who killed himself last month after falling prey to online sextortion.

He made the comment as he faces increasing pressure to fulfil a years-old promise to legislate against online harms.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh referred to the death of the 12-year-old in Prince George, B.C., during question period as he asked Trudeau when the Liberal government will table long-promised legislation designed to mitigate online harms.

Trudeau first promised to introduce legislation tackling hate speech, terrorist content and sexual abuse material in the 2019 federal election campaign.

He made a similar promise in the 2021 contest, specifying that a re-elected Liberal government would table a bill within its first 100 days, but it has yet to do so.

Pointing to that timeline, Singh made reference to the boy's death. RCMP say he was a victim of online sextortion, which is when an individual is blackmailed under the threat that deceptively-obtained intimate images of themselves will be publicly revealed.

"More of these incidents have been happening every year," Singh said. "When will the government introduce the online harm bill to protect kids?"

Trudeau told MPs that the government needs to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and addressing the needs of communities subject to "discrimination and marginalization."

The prime minister also cautioned against "associating a tragedy that happened in Prince George with actions or inactions of any particular government," adding in French that it was inappropriate to make such a connection.

"We understand how horrific this is for the family, for the community, and we will continue to work to make sure that kids across this country are protected," he said.

"And that is why we are serious about moving forward in protecting from online harms."

Mounties said they found Carson Cleland in his home with a gunshot wound on Oct. 12, and their investigation later determined he killed himself as a result of online sextortion.

They issued a news release about his death this week as a way to warn parents about the increasing risks children face when going online.

Cleland's parents have since spoken publicly to warn families about the risks of online predators and sextortion.

In a statement following Trudeau's remarks, Singh said advocates of online safety have been calling on the government to take action to better protect children, and the New Democrats are supporting that call.

"The Liberals made a promise," Singh said. "They have delayed action on the online harms bill."

Since Trudeau shuffled his cabinet this summer, the government has shifted responsibility for the bill from the Canadian heritage minister, who has shepherded bills related to online streaming and online news, to the justice minister.

Justice Minister Arif Virani has said the bill remains a priority for the government, and said the delay is because of the difficulty of figuring out how to regulate online platforms.

The government has yet to provide a timeline for when legislation will be tabled, with Virani saying only that he hopes to do so "soon."

The House of Commons is set to take a holiday break beginning Dec. 15.

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc told reporters on Tuesday that the boy's death is a "tragic reminder" of the risks online harms pose, especially to those who are vulnerable.

The Liberals have also been facing increased pressure to do something about online harms in light of the online environment since the Israel-Hamas war began.

Amid an explosion of antisemitic and Islamophobic hate online, Jewish Canadian advocacy organizations have been calling for Ottawa to deal with such speech in the bill.

Though they acknowledge the bill could stir controversy, several experts the federal government convened last year to provide advice on how to legislate protections have renewed their calls for urgent reforms in light of the war.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2023.

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