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Internet censorship in Canada

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Internet censorship in Canada

In Canada, appeals by the judiciary to community standards and the public interest are the ultimate determinants of which forms of expression may legally be published, broadcast, or otherwise publicly disseminated.[1] Other public organisations with the authority to censor include the Canadian Human Rights Commission, various provincial human rights commissions, and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, along with self-policing associations of private corporations such as the Canadian Association of Broadcasters and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.

Over the 20th century, legal standards for censorship in Canada shifted from a "strong state-centred practice", intended to protect the community from perceived social degradation, to a more decentralised form of censorship often instigated by societal groups invoking state support to restrict the public expression of political and ideological opponents.[2] Subsequently, Canada is believed to have more hate crime legislation than any other country in the world.[3]


The main body monitoring and regulating broadcast content in Canada is the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, a self-governing association of radio and television broadcasters. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), while also having the power to regulate broadcast content, intervenes only in the most serious and controversial cases.

Many Canadian broadcast stations broadcast sexually explicit or violent programming under certain circumstances, albeit with viewer discretion advisories and at adult-oriented times on the schedule. CTV, for example, has aired controversial series such as The Sopranos, Nip/Tuck and The Osbournes in prime time without editing, and some Canadian television broadcasters, such as Citytv, have aired softcore pornography after 12:00 a.m. EST, which can therefore be viewed as early as 9:00 p.m. in other parts of Canada (i.e., anywhere in the Pacific Time Zone).

The Code of Ethics of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters[4] defines the "late viewing period" as the hours from 9:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Outside this period, the Code of Ethics prohibits programming containing sexually explicit material or coarse or offensive language. This association also publishes a "Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming".[5]

In enforcing these two Codes, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council permits nudity to be broadcast during the day as long as it is considered non-sexual. For example, the CBSC permitted a 4:00 p.m. broadcast of the movie Wildcats containing male frontal nudity in a locker-room scene and female nudity in a bathtub.[6] The CBSC has also permitted the film Striptease, which contains scenes of bare female breasts, to be shown at 8:00 p.m.[7]

The CBSC summarizes its policy on sexual activity as follows:

Before the Watershed (9:00 pm - 6:00 am), the CBSC considers that it is inappropriate to show sexual activity that is intended for adult eyes and minds. There is, in the pre-Watershed period, a run of 15 hours (a strong majority of the broadcast day and about 90% of our customary waking hours), during which broadcasters offer their audiences a safe haven, namely, a period in which their television viewing can be free of adult-oriented material, whether sexual or otherwise. There may still, in that time frame, be programming that some parents will not wish their families to see (all adults should make the effort to weigh the appropriateness of all kinds of programming for themselves and their children) but it will not be due to its exclusively adult orientation. And even in the pre-Watershed period, broadcasters advise their audiences of the nature of what is to come.[8]


In the early 1910s, motion pictures were rising in popularity. It was decided nationally that censorship of them was necessary in order to be suitable for a wide, general audience of varying ages, mental, and educational levels. However, since national censorship for such a large and diverse country was unworkable, each province would censor according to their own provincial community standards. However, Ontario would be the "main" censor in that theatrical prints would be censored/edited by the Ontario censors then distributed throughout Ontario, and the other provinces. The other provinces would provide additional censorship/editing if it was necessary for their own province. The Ontario board was formed in 1911, other provinces followed shortly thereafter. Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland never formed any boards but instead took their advice from the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia boards.[9]

The censors had no strict rules however, they often took advice from the British Board of Film Censors in the early years. In the 1920s, the Ontario censor board objected to content such as:[9][10]

  • actors pointing guns directly at the camera, or at other actors due to the possible negative effects on children and mentally weaker individuals
  • machine guns
  • scenes with women smoking
  • profanity, vulgarity, and obscenity
  • disrespect for officers of the law
  • depiction and patriotic waving of the American flag, this was so the boards could promote a sense of Canadian nationalism
  • illicit sexual relations
  • nudity
  • cruelty to animals
  • drinking
  • drug use

In the 1920s, the Canadian film boards removed American patriotism from imported films, citing their damage to a pro-British sentiment.[2]

Eventually, six of the provincial censor boards adopted classification in 1953 though films were still censored for certain categories. The idea of classification was first proposed by Charlotte Whitten in Ottawa in 1920 however, at the time it was criticized with one newspaper editor claiming "A film that's not suitable for a ten-year-old should not be seen at all."[10] It was in the 1950s that the censorship standards became more permissive. For example, A Farewell to Arms contained an intense birth scene, a character yells "Damn!" in Witness for the Prosecution, and Peyton Place contained "pungent language". All of which was passed, in Ontario at least.[9]

In the 1960s, Manitoba became the first province to fully adopt classification and abandon censorship.

Most Canadian provinces still have ratings boards that have the power to order cuts to movies and may even ban the showing of films if they violate Canada's Criminal Code sanctions against depicting sexualized violence and sex acts involving people under the age of 18. Movies formerly banned in some Canadian provinces include Deep Throat and Pretty Baby.

One particularly famous censorship controversy involved the award-winning German film The Tin Drum, which was banned as pornographic by Ontario's film review board in 1980.[11]

The romantic comedy Young People Fucking prompted the Government of Canada to introduce Bill C-10, to allow revoking government funds from films the government deemed offensive. Strong public backlash led to the bill dying on the order paper.[12]


In 1937, under Maurice Duplessis, Quebec's Union Nationale government passed the Act to protect the Province Against Communistic Propaganda (commonly known as the "Padlock Law"), which banned the printing, publishing or distributing of "any newspaper, periodical, pamphlet, circular, document or writing, propagating Communism or Bolshevism". The law was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in Switzman v. Elbling in 1957.

In 1949, spearheaded by the campaigning of MP Davie Fulton, crime comics were banned in Canada in Bill 10 of the 21st Canadian Parliament's 1st session (informally known as the Fulton Bill),[13] As of 2013, crime comics are still illegal under Part V of the Criminal Code of Canada.

The silence of Canadian officials, their refusal to answer questions...reveals the attitude of Canadian officials on books...if they will ban my book without a hearing, if they will uphold officials who will ban Balzac, Trotsky, Joyce, Lawrence and others, they will be likely to ban still further books.

James T. Farrell, whose 1946 book Bernard Clare was banned[14]

In 1955, the importation of American The Atom Spy Hoax was deemed seditious as it questioned the Canadian government's handling of the Igor Gouzenko affair.[2]

One of the most famous ongoing censorship controversies in Canada has been the dispute between Canada Customs and GLBT retail bookstores such as Little Sister's in Vancouver and Glad Day in Toronto. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Canada Customs frequently stopped material being shipped to the two stores on the grounds of "obscenity" Both stores frequently had to resort to the legal system to challenge the confiscation of their property.

In 2000, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Canada Customs did not have the authority to make its own judgments about the permissibility of material being shipped to the stores but was permitted to confiscate only material that had specifically been ruled by the courts to constitute an offence under the Criminal Code of Canada.

Canadians can be disciplined by their employers for writing letters to newspapers. Christine St-Pierre, a television reporter covering federal politics for Radio-Canada, was suspended in September 2006 for writing a letter in support of Canadian troops in Afghanistan.[15] Similarly, the courts have upheld professional sanctions against teachers and school counsellors for writing letters to newspapers that are found to be discriminatory, limiting their freedom of expression and religion on the basis of maintaining "a school system that is free from bias, prejudice and intolerance."[16] (See related articles, Chris Kempling and Status of religious freedom in Canada).


Internet content is not specifically regulated in Canada, however local laws do apply to websites hosted in Canada as well as to residents who host sites on servers in other jurisdictions. A well-known example is the case of Ernst Zündel, who was investigated by the Canadian Human Rights Commission for promoting ethnic hatred via his website.

In November 2006, Canadian Internet service providers Bell, Bell Aliant, MTS Allstream, Rogers, Shaw, SaskTel, Telus, and Vidéotron announced "Project Cleanfeed Canada"; the voluntary blocking of access to hundreds of alleged child pornography sites. The list of blocked sites is compiled from reports by Internet users and investigated by the independent organization "". Although this was a voluntary step with no involvement from the authorities, the Canadian government did express its approval.[17]

In October 2011 the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that online publications cannot be found liable for linking to defamatory material as long as the linking itself is not defamatory.[18]

Human Rights Commissions

The Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) is charged with enforcing the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) which forbids “hate messages”. The Canadian Human Rights Commission has its national office in Ottawa, Ontario, with regional offices in Alberta, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, Quebec, and Toronto, Ontario.

In Canada under the CHRA it is illegal for any person to make a statement which “is likely to expose a person or persons to ‘hatred or contempt’ by reason of the fact that that person or those persons are identifiable on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.”[19]

Although the CHRA is a federal law which forbids ‘hate messages’ only on the telephone or the internet, provinces such as British Columbia and Alberta have extended this prohibition to all publications.[20][21]

The CHRA prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability or conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted.

White supremacists James Scott Richardson and Alex Kulbashian, who ran a racist website called "Canadian Ethnic Cleansing Team," are currently challenging the constitutionality of section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.[22] Neo-Nazis such as Marc Lemire and Paul Fromm have also criticised the constitutionality of the CHRC. The CHRC has been instrumental in prosecuting anti-Semitism and racism.

The Alberta Human Rights Commission launched an investigation into a complaint against former Western Standard publisher Ezra Levant, and the CHRC has launched investigations into complaints against Mark Steyn and Maclean's magazine for publishing material deemed offensive by Muslims.

Criticism of Canadian censorship

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, prior to becoming Prime Minister, stated "Human rights commissions, as they are evolving, are an attack on our fundamental freedoms and the basic existence of a democratic society … It is in fact totalitarianism. I find this is very scary stuff."[23]

PEN Canada, an organization which assists writers who are persecuted for peaceful expression, has called on "the federal and provincial governments to change human rights commission legislation to ensure commissions can no longer be used to attempt to restrict freedom of expression in Canada."[24]

According to Mary Agnes Welch, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, "[h]uman rights commissions were never intended to act as a form of thought police, but now they're being used to chill freedom of expression on matters that are well beyond accepted Criminal Code restrictions on free speech."[25]

Keith Martin, a Liberal Member of Parliament from British Columbia, introduced a motion that called for the deletion of section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, arguing that it is in violation of Section Two of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees each person’s freedom of expression. Mr. Martin said that hate crimes, slander and libel would still be outlawed under the Criminal Code, while his motion would stop human-rights tribunals imposing restrictions on freedom of speech using taxpayers' money. "We have laws against hate crimes, but nobody has a right not to be offended," he said. "[This provision] is being used in a way that the authors of the Act never envisioned."[26]

A group of several dozen professors from the 7,000-member American Political Science Association contend that recent free speech precedents in Canada put academics at risk of prosecution. The group includes Robert George and Harvey Mansfield, and they have protested holding the scheduled 2009 APSA annual meeting in Canada for this reason.[27] The leadership of APSA selected Toronto as the meeting location.

There have been multiple lawsuits claiming that censorship violates multiple Basic Human Rights, such as Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which protect the fundamental freedoms of thought, belief, and opinion. These accusations have been of the violation of the rights and freedoms through certain types of censorship.

See also

Human rights portal
Canadian politics portal


Further reading

External links

  • The Canadian Encyclopedia: Censorship
  • Freedom to Read
  • PEN Canada

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