Hamilton·Video

Livestreamed transphobic assault in Hamilton shows why Canada must be tougher on hate, expert says

The Hamilton man who livestreamed himself unleashing a transphobic tirade and assaulting someone on a city bus in 2022 is a prime example of why Canada needs stronger legislation against cyberbullying and online hate, according to an expert and 2SLGBTQ+ advocates.

Bullying expert Wayne MacKay says Hamilton incident is the type that inspired the Online Harms Act

A man standing
Chris Pretula was sentenced to 225 days or roughly seven-and-a-half months in jail after livestreaming a transphobic assault on a city bus in 2022. (YouTube)

WARNING: This story contains details that readers may find disturbing and offensive.

The Hamilton man who livestreamed himself unleashing a transphobic tirade and assaulting someone on a city bus in 2022 is a prime example of why Canada needs stronger legislation against cyberbullying and online hate, according to an expert and 2SLGBTQ+ advocates.

"This unfortunate case of the person taking on transgender people is the kind of case the government was looking at and thinking about in introducing the Online Harms Act," said Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law and a former task force chair on bullying and cyberbullying in Nova Scotia.

Last week, Chris Pretula was sentenced to seven months in jail for assault and breaching court orders for the incident in August 2022.

During the unprovoked incident, Pretula made multiple transphobic comments including calling the rider a "goofball, weird, transformer-looking fool" and said, "what is your pronoun, dipsh-t?"

Pretula later kicked a rider in the leg three times and threatened to "kick your f---ing head off" as he got off the bus.

When police charged Pretula, a day after CBC Hamilton asked them about the video, the clip he posted online of the assault spread on social media, sparking reaction from local members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community among others.

A man standing.
Chris Pretula pleaded guilty to assault and breaching release conditions. He previously said he'll continue to livestream when he's released from jail. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Some people wondered why some of the comments Pretula made weren't enough to warrant their own criminal charge.

That's because right now, the Criminal Code only uses motivation by hate or bias as a factor that influences sentencing. In Pretula's case, the judge found his crime was hate-motivated, which led to a harsher sentence.

But MacKay and 2SLGBTQ+ advocates say if the government's proposed Online Harms Act becomes law, it will be a step toward combating hate — because under the act, Pretula could've faced a third charge for carrying out crime motivated by hate.

"Our hate crime legislation was not built for a digital or social media world," said Fae Johnstone, executive director of the Society of Queer Momentum, a 2SLGBTQ+ non-profit.

The act is before the House of Commons and had a first reading in late February.

Some of the proposals in the act related to hate include:

  • Making carrying out a crime motivated by hate a separate offence.
  • Policing hate speech and content that incites violence or terrorism, among other things.
  • Changes to existing criminal laws, including raising the maximum sentence for communications promoting hatred.
  • Requiring social media companies to help users avoid seeing harmful content.
  • Creating a digital safety commission to enforce the new rules.

Critics of the act, such as Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, have said the proposal violates people's rights and freedoms.

"The bill includes overbroad violations of expressive freedom, privacy, protest rights, and liberty. These must be rectified before the bill is passed into law," Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, the association's executive director said in a February press release.

Act won't ban 'awful but lawful' content online: minister

Justice Minister Arif Virani clarified what the definition of hate will look like if the act becomes law and emphasized it won't undermine people's free speech.

"People insult groups or people or races or religions all of the time. That's going to continue to be awful but lawful," Virani previously told Matt Galloway, host of CBC's The Current.

"But when you call for the extermination of a people, you're hitting a hate standard that's already been entrenched by the courts."

LISTEN: Praise and concern for proposed online safety bill

MacKay said he's "hopeful" the act will be effective because not only will there be changes to the Criminal Code, there will also be an oversight body and expectations from social media platforms.

Johnstone also said the act is a step in the right direction.

"It is integral we have legislation in this space so folks have recourse and we have means of managing when freedom of expression crosses a line into hate," she said.

'I hate that this is becoming more normal'

Pretula posted the livestream of the hate-motivated crime on YouTube, among other sites. Despite facing charges for the incident, he continued to post other livestreams the judge in his case deemed were hate-motivated.

CBC Hamilton contacted YouTube for comment but didn't receive a response. Pretula's YouTube channel is still on the website, though he hasn't posted videos since he was sentenced.

WATCH: 2SLGBTQ+ advocate says Online Harms Act act is a step forward

2SLGBTQ+ advocate says Online Harms Act act is a step forward

1 month ago
Duration 1:03
Fae Johnstone, executive director of The Society of Queer Momentum, says new legislation is needed to combat hate, especially online hate.

Johnstone said the act shouldn't be politicized and social media platforms need to act in good faith, especially amid rising hate.

Hamilton police's most recent data on hate incidents, from 2022, shows that year saw the largest number of reported hate incidents since at least 2012. The report did not specify whether some of those incidents occurred online. 

"I hate that this is becoming more normal," said Johnstone. 

Rebecca Banky, chair of Hamilton's LGBTQ advisory committee, echoed those comments, saying there's a bigger picture people ought to remember when considering the act.

"We're looking for punitive responses, but someone's sense of safety was disrupted in a really significant way and the entire community has a reason to be afraid now. We don't deserve that," Banky said.

"The trans community deserves dignity and respect. And we just want to live our lives."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.