OTTAWA—Education and law must go hand in hand when it comes to protecting Canadians from harm online, said Diversity Secretary Ahmed Hussen, as the federal government takes steps to help children confront hateful content online.
“I don’t think it’s one or the other, I think we should do both,” Hussen told reporters. “We know that what happens online affects the real world…and so we have a duty to protect Canadians from those consequences in real life.”
Ottawa on Wednesday launched a toolkit aimed at confronting and preventing hate in Canadian schools — an effort anti-racist advocates say is necessary as young people are increasingly exposed to and attracted to harmful movements such as white supremacy in online spaces. The federal government funded the project — which was being developed by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network — through its anti-racism action program.
The toolkit exists as a virtual document that explores hate-promoting movements and ideologies, the role social media plays in enticing young people into these movements, digital literacy, and approaches for parents and educators to confront harmful scenarios inside and outside the classroom. offer. The resource will be delivered in workshops at schools across the country.
“Wherever young people are online, there are hate movements and networks out there looking to recruit them,” said Elizabeth Simons, deputy director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
Simons referred to a 2020 report from the UK-based Institute of Strategic Dialogue, which found that more than 11 million people have been reached by 6,600 extremist and hate-promoting pages, groups and accounts online in Canada.
Earlier this year, Alberta’s Organization for the Prevention of Violence also published a survey that found that 86 percent of youth in the province had encountered hateful content on one or more of the online platforms they use.
The decision to introduce online hate resources into classrooms comes as Ottawa is still in the process of drafting its online safety legislation — a framework poised to become the most controversial of the government’s online regulatory laws amid concerns it could stifle freedom of expression on the internet.
“I don’t think fighting online hate should be considered controversial,” Hussen said. “We need to support organizations, but also look at other ways to use all the tools in our toolkit to fight hate both offline and online.”
For those who have expressed caution about an exclusively legislative approach to tackling dangerous content online, the project was seen as a welcome step.
It’s important to ensure that “new generations have the cognitive resources to make better decisions about the information they consume,” said Marcus Kolga, senior fellow at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute.
“That goes for foreign disinformation, domestic disinformation, online damage, all that. Awareness and digital media literacy are critical.”
Kolga said Canada should look to countries like Sweden and Finland that have already started that process in primary schools, publishing books with “cuddly characters” and accessible language to help children navigate the online world safely.
“This has to be built into our curricula and it has to be a sustained effort,” he said. “That’s the only way we can build significant long-term resilience to this kind of damage and misinformation.”
The president of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, Bernie Farber, said it is imperative that any online harm legislation be accompanied by an educational component.
Farber was a member of Canadian Heritage’s panel of experts on online security, which met in recent months to advise on the forthcoming bill and concluded its work on June 10.
“Law mixed with understanding, with education, is really the menu for dealing effectively with hate,” he said of the group’s latest recommendations.