Fighting online hate to happen in Canadian schools

OTTAWA—Education and legislation must go hand in hand when it comes to protecting Canadians from online harms, Diversity Minister Ahmed Hussen says, 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 need to do both,” Hussen told reporters. “We know that what happens online has real world consequences … and so we have a duty to protect Canadians from those real-life consequences.”

Ottawa on Wednesday launched a toolkit aimed at confronting and preventing hate in Canadian schools — an effort anti-racist advocates say is necessary as youth become increasingly exposed and drawn to harmful movements like white supremacy in online spaces. The federal government funded the project — which was developed by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network — through its Anti-Racism Action Program.

The toolkit exists as a virtual document that dives into hate-promoting movements and ideologies, the role social media plays in luring youth into these movements, digital literacy skills, and approaches for parents and educators to confront harmful scenarios inside and outside the classroom. The resource will be delivered in workshops in schools across the country.

“Anywhere that youth are online, there are hate movements and networks looking to recruit them,” said Elizabeth Simons, deputy director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.

Simons referenced a 2020 report from the U.K-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 study that found that 86 per cent of the province’s youth 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 crafting its legislation on online safety — a framework poised to be the most controversial of the government’s online regulation bills over concerns that it could stifle free speech on the internet.

“I don’t think combating online hate should be viewed as controversial,” Hussen said. “We have to support organizations, but also look at further ways to use all the tools in our toolkit to combat hate both off and online.”

For those who have expressed caution over taking a solely legislative approach to tackling dangerous content online, the project was viewed as a welcome step.

It’s important to ensure that “new generations have the cognitive resources to make better decisions with regards to the information they’re consuming,” said Marcus Kolga, a senior fellow at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute.

“That applies to foreign disinformation, domestic disinformation, online harms, all of that. Awareness and digital media literacy is critically important.”

Kolga said Canada must look to countries like Sweden and Finland which have already started that process in elementary schools, publishing books with “cuddly characters” and accessible language to teach kids about navigating the online world safely.

“This has to be built into our curriculums and it needs to be a sustained effort,” he said. “That’s the only way that we’re going to build long term and significant resilience against these sorts of harms and disinformation.”

The chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, Bernie Farber, said it’s imperative that any online harms legislation be paired with an educational component.

Farber was a member of Canadian Heritage’s expert panel on online safety, which met over the past several months to provide advice on the coming bill and concluded its work on June 10.

“Law mixed with understanding, with education, is really the menu to begin to deal with hate effectively,” he said of the group’s final recommendations.

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel

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