Asked about online harms bill, Poilievre raises Trudeau's past use of blackface

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Wednesday his party is vehemently opposed to the government's forthcoming online harms legislation — a bill designed to combat hate speech, terrorist content and some violent material on the internet.

Trudeau should 'look into his own heart and ask himself why he was such a hateful racist,' Poilievre says

Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks about housing at a news conference.
Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre said nobody should take lessons on hate from a prime minister who wore blackface and racist costumes in the past. (Christinne Muschi/Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Wednesday his party is vehemently opposed to the government's forthcoming online harms legislation, a bill designed to combat hate speech, terrorist content and some violent material on the internet.

Saying he won't accept "Justin Trudeau's woke authoritarian agenda," Poilievre said the prime minister and his government shouldn't be deciding what constitutes "hate speech" online and called the legislation an "attack on freedom of expression."

"Justin Trudeau said anyone who criticized him during the pandemic was engaging in hate speech," Poilievre said, citing Trudeau's COVID-era comment that trucker convoy protesters were "a small fringe minority" who were "holding unacceptable views."

The Liberal government has touted the legislation as a way to rein in online abuse and force social media companies to do a better job of policing platforms where degrading content is a regular feature of the user experience.

Poilievre said that as far as his caucus is concerned, the bill is dead on arrival.

"What does Justin Trudeau mean when he says the words 'hate speech'? He means the speech he hates," Poilievre said. "You can assume he will ban all of that."

Poilievre also framed his opposition in deeply personal terms, saying Trudeau is not the leader to legislate on this issue.

He said no one should take lessons on hate from a prime minister who once wore blackface and racist costumes.

"I point out the irony that someone who spent the first half of his adult life as a practicing racist, who dressed up in hideous racist costumes so many times he says he can't remember them all, should then be the arbiter of what constitutes hate. What he should actually do is look into his own heart and ask himself why he was such a hateful racist," Poilievre said.

WATCH: Poilievre raises Trudeau's past use of blackface 

Online harms bill sparks personal attacks from opposition

2 months ago
Duration 2:06
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is taking aim at the prime minister and the government's plan to fight online hate. Poilievre launched a very personal attack against his political rival, pointing to his past use of blackface. Justin Trudeau fought back, arguing Poilievre's only plan is to sow division.

While he opposes the upcoming online harms legislation, Poilievre suggested he's open to another kind of crackdown on content.

Asked Wednesday if he supports a law that would require age verification before accessing pornography online, Poilievre said he does.

There's a Senate bill, S-210, working its way through Parliament aimed at doing just that.

Trudeau's blackface incidents

Pictures of Trudeau dressed in blackface first emerged in the 2019 election campaign.

The decades-old images showed Trudeau dressed up as Aladdin, with his face darkened by makeup, at an Arabian Nights-themed gala held when he was a teacher.

Justin Trudeau is seen wearing blackface in this April 2001image published in a newsletter from the West Point Grey Academy.
This image was part of an April 2001 newsletter from the West Point Grey Academy. (West Point Grey Academy)

Trudeau later said he also wore blackface in high school to sing Harry Belafonte's hit Day O at a talent show.

Another image surfaced of Trudeau wearing blackface at an unidentified event in the 1990s.

Trudeau has apologized repeatedly for the incidents, saying he should have known better.

"I take responsibility for my decision to do that. I shouldn't have done it," he said after Aladdin image surfaced at the height of the 2019 campaign.

"I should have known better. It was something that I didn't think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do and I am deeply sorry.

"It was not something that represents the person I've become, the leader I try to be, and it was really embarrassing."

Trudeau hit back in a press conference of his own later Wednesday, saying Poilievre is hurling personal attacks to distract from his party's own policies.

"He has a plan for stoking division, creating fear, throwing out personal insults. That's not leadership," Trudeau said.

WATCH: Poilievre only interested in 'hurling insults,' Trudeau says

Poilievre only interested in 'hurling insults,' Trudeau says

2 months ago
Duration 1:33
Asked about the Conservative leader's comments about the upcoming online harms bill, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Pierre Poilievre is only interested in insulting people and distracting Canadians.

Trudeau said Poilievre is commenting on a bill that he hasn't even seen yet.

"He's already telling people what it is and what it isn't," Trudeau said.

Trudeau said the "right-wing" claims legislation like this is an attempt to "censor the internet," but he insisted that's not what the government has in mind.

The prime minister said the bill will be tailored to "protecting our kids," citing the phenomenon of young people being subjected to "hatred, to violence, to being bullied and seeing and being affected by terrible things online."

Freedom of speech

The long-promised online harms bill that prompted Poilievre's comments and Trudeau's defence could be tabled as soon as next week, government sources tell CBC News.

A similar bill was introduced in 2019 but died on the order paper when the 2021 election was called. It hasn't been revived until now.

The last bill was roundly criticized by privacy experts and civil liberties groups who said its provisions requiring that online platforms remove content flagged as harmful within 24 hours would encourage companies to take an overly cautious approach, resulting in suppression of free speech.

Other groups have championed the legislation as a way to protect kids and keep people safe online in an era of rampant abuse.

That's what NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Wednesday his party supports — a narrowly focused online harms bill that protects kids.

He said there are "so many heartbreaking stories" of kids engaging in self-harm or suicide after facing abuse online.

He also said the internet is sometimes used to exploit or "sexploit" kids.

"I'm focused on saving kids' lives, keeping them safe and protecting them," Singh said. "That's my sole concern. I don't see who could oppose such a thing."

Justice Minister Arif Virani, who is expected to table the bill, has vowed to strike the right balance between offering protections to Canadians and upholding freedom of expression.

In a recent speech to the Canadian Bar Association, Virani said he's confident the government can legislate measures to promote an online world where "users can express themselves without feeling threatened or fuelling hate."

The Liberal Party's 2021 election platform promises to "combat serious forms of harmful online content, specifically hate speech, terrorist content, content that incites violence, child sexual abuse material and the non-consensual distribution of intimate images."

The platform said the government would do this through changes to the Canada Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code.

  • The federal government says its impending online harms bill will focus on keeping children safe on the internet. What questions do you have for our expert about keeping kids safe online? Tune into the very first episode of Just Asking on Saturday, Feb. 24 on CBC Radio.


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

With files from the Canadian Press

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