Prisoners are seen behind bars (file image)
Canadians can't be locked up for life for offending people online. Image by AP PHOTO

No, Canadians won’t face life in prison for being offensive online

David Williams April 17, 2024

Canadians could soon be jailed for life if they offend someone on the internet under proposed legislation.


False. Merely offending others online cannot be punished with a life sentence under the proposed legislation.

A social media video claims Canadians will be jailed for life for misgendering someone or disagreeing with the tenets of Islam, under proposed laws to tackle online harms.

This is false. It’s based on a misreading of Bill C-63, which, among other things, seeks to provide protections against hate crimes and child sexual abuse material.

A Canadian law expert told AAP FactCheck that online hate speech under laws put forward by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau‘s government would attract a maximum jail term of five years.

In the Instagram video, posted on March 1 and shared by other users, a man claims: “If you say anything on the internet that somebody finds offensive, especially the radical Islamists of the country and even more especially the radical left LGBTQs, you are going to jail for life.

“That is correct. Bill C-63 in Canada wants you to do life in prison for misgendering somebody or making indications that you may not like the principles or tenets of Islam.”

A screenshot from the Instagram post.
 Misinformation is being spread about Canada’s proposed law changes. 

Posts about the alleged dangers of the Online Harms Bill have also been shared on Facebook since the omnibus bill C-63 was introduced to Canada’s Parliament on February 26.

The bill seeks to enact an Online Harms Act and amend Canada’s existing Criminal Code, Human Rights Act and an act respecting the mandatory reporting of internet child sexual abuse material.

An explainer on the bill states it does not bring undue restrictions to freedom of expression, but “strengthens existing mechanisms and sanctions against harmful content already prohibited in Canada”.

Life imprisonment is mentioned in the bill, as part of amendments to the Criminal Code, under “Advocating genocide” and “Offence motivated by hatred” – based on “race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression”.

The bill defines “hatred” as “the emotion that involves detestation or vilification and that is stronger than disdain or dislike”.

However, there’s also an important exclusion that clarifies an offence isn’t motivated by hatred just because someone “discredits, humiliates, hurts or offends the victim”.

A file image depicting an upset young girl in front of a computer
 The laws aim to boost measures against online bullying. 

Richard Moon, a law professor at the University of Windsor in Canada, told AAP FactCheck that in both cases – advocating genocide and committing a hate crime – life imprisonment was the maximum sentence available.

“No one would imagine a judge imposing such a severe penalty on a hate-motivated crime such as vandalising a synagogue by spray-painting a swastika on the wall,” Prof Moon said.

“And if by chance a judge did impose such a sentence, it would be overturned on appeal.”

However, Prof Moon said “hate crime” as defined in the bill did not include hateful words used online against someone else, as the video claims.

He said the new bill increases the maximum sentence for such hate speech from two years to five years.

“The courts have made clear that these provisions limit only the most extreme forms of bigoted speech – speech that vilifies the members of a group or expresses detestation towards such a group,” Prof Moon said.

“The courts have said that the type of speech caught by these restrictions includes describing the members of a group as subhuman or as inherently violent.

“The bill adopts the court’s narrow definition of hate speech – defining it as communication that vilifies the members of a group.”

Prof Moon said to claim “Muslims, as a group, were committed to violence or that gay people were pedophiles” might count as hate speech – in which the maximum penalty would be five years, not life imprisonment.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (file image)
 Justin Trudeau’s government has introduced the bill. 

But the bill has come in for criticism, including from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Executive director and general counsel Noa Mendelsohn Aviv said the association was carefully reviewing the proposed laws, particularly around hate speech, arguing a “lack of clarity” around wording and definitions “could chill debate and expression”.

Similar claims about the Canadian legislation have been fact-checked here.

AAP FactCheck has also debunked claims amendments to Queensland’s criminal code will result in jail sentences for offending people.

The Verdict

The claim that Canadians could soon be jailed for life if they offend someone on the internet is false.

The proposed piece of legislation makes clear that simply offending someone online cannot be punished with a life sentence.

A law expert told AAP FactCheck hate speech that vilified members of certain groups would attract a maximum penalty of five years in jail under the proposed legislation.

False — The claim is inaccurate

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