Bullying laws in Canada are not a new invention; they have been in development for quite a while. Due to issues that began to appear at least two decades ago, Canadian legislation has been appearing and evolving for years, at first simple in construct and then growing more detailed and complex with new revisions. The level of legislation that exists today is still a bit behind the curve; legislation often takes time to reflect the current sentiments of Canadians. However, it is primarily focused on trying to keep a lid on growing violence in modern society as well as keeping children safe in school and in their communities.
New legislation bills being proposed as well as passed are tackling some of the hardest challenges now versus previous years when addressing violence and bullying between children and teens. Studies and observations are all in agreement that aggression and violence has been increasing in schools and in the schoolyard, creating hostile environments for children of all ages. The aggression and violence is often from child to child versus adult to child, which makes enforcement harder as children are often given the default treatment of still being at the age that they can be corrected versus treated as outright criminals.
The other big challenge for legislation in Canada is the fact that many bullying victims often become bullies themselves in a repeat cycle. So the predator versus victim traditional paradigm doesn’t work well in real cases because both child or teen parties are often victims in their own respects. Again, this aspect is often why legislation is still geared more towards correcting the behavior of a minor involved versus punishment and retribution.
However, victims still exist and their injuries are not simple matters that just brush off after a bad day. Many victims suffer chronic attacks on an ongoing basis, and these victims often become scared, lonely and lose self-confidence prior to adulthood. That in turn has the potential to produce people who may continue with their own anti-social behavior as a result. Violence is often a learned action that is frequently picked up after one has been a victim to violence beforehand.
The National Canadian Government launched the National Strategy on Community Safety and Crime Prevention in 1998, including program components that focused on school violence and related victimization of students. With a primary focus on reducing such crime, the program put emphasis on protecting children, women, teens and Native Canadian populations. Teens were targeted to effect early intervention efforts and catch development towards violent trends early on, hopefully heading off more serious problems later on.
National Criminal Laws
No one has to convince a victim or even witnesses how damaging and harmful cyberbullying can be. Further, it can also be a serious crime that can be charged and punished in criminal court in Canada. Behavior ranging from vicious insults to public shaming and ridicule can generate charges of harassment as well as behaviors that involve making threats or intimidating victims. When it comes to Internet bullying, Canadian law breaks the matter down into multiple crimes versus just one specific activity. This is typical of criminal codes, which is why one criminal event can often result in multiple charges when finally prosecuted in court. For cyberbullying, the typical criminal charge categories will include:
- Harassment – defined as a specific crime under the Criminal Code, this charge is associated with criminal activity where a person speaks or acts in such a way to make another person be afraid of a related safety risk or the safety of someone else. It doesn’t matter that the perpetrator may have only been joking; if the victim genuinely felt afraid, the harassment charge can be applied and punished in court. The current Code punishment can include a prison sentence as long as 10 years.
- Libel – Libel is a charge can exist in both the criminal and civil arena. Under the Criminal Code, libel involves statements intentionally made in some print form to make them permanent and meant to serious harm the victim’s reputation. If convicted, a perpetrator can see up to 5 years in prison.
Current criminal laws already apply to most forms of serious cyberbullying such as criminal harassment or uttering threats. However, with digital technology changing rapidly, and the behaviors that go along with it, our laws need to change as well. The Government of Canada is committed to enabling law enforcement to take action when warranted, and is proposing changes to the Criminal Code to make that possible.
Today laws are varied and cover a significant amount of activity that previously would have just been brushed off as problem behavior but not amounted to any charges. Now, under the current Canadian Criminal Code, charges could be filed for the following:
- Making or speaking threats
- Data mischief such as deletion or altering files to intentionally cause harm or problems
- Illegal use of a computer
- Criminal harassment
- Faking someone’s identity
- Advising or encouraging someone to commit suicide
- Stirring up hatred (which doesn’t have to be only against specific groups)
- Creating any kind of pornography of a child, including jokes or hidden filming unknown to the child or teen
- Creating fake messages or harassing messages on communication devices
- Creating or contributing to libel
In addition to the national level Criminal Code, Canadian provinces can create their own local laws or add onto the restrictions as well as penalties established at the national level. This includes laws against both in-person bullying as well as digital or cyberbullying online. Here are number of examples by Province.
The Province of Ontario passed a number of legal changes associated with bullying in the Ontario Education Act. This law defines bullying by a student specifically, where it is intentional the student should have known better, the act causes harm or fear or creates a negative environment, and it occurs where there is an obvious or perceived power imbalance. The action or harm can be based on multiple factors ranging from demographic factors or physical ones. Further, the Ontario Act has a specific crime definition of cyberbullying as well, which is bullying performed through electronic tools and methods, including websites, fake messaging, or sending of material intended to cause social, mental or physical harm.
Ontario schools also have a burden under the Act to actively prevent bullying and teach students how to report the activity as well as the fact that bullying will now be allowed if found and identified. This also includes a requirement for schools to develop remedial programs to assist and help victims. Finally, every school board is required to have a plan in place for how to deal with bullying and to train teachers accordingly.
The Province of Quebec added to the baseline of the Education Act and also passed the Act Respecting Private Education. This Province law also defines bullying as well as cyberbullying, and puts an emphasis on the use of social media to create harm. Schools boards in Quebec have to have bullying plans in place for prevention efforts, and all staff has to be trained on the matter, not just teachers.
Alberta’s definition of bullying on the law books specified the criteria of repeat, hostile behavior that is demeaning to a victim in a school environment, and the activity is intentional to create harm, fear or stress in a victim. Students are specifically banned from bullying and have a personal requirement to report bullying and not allow it to occur. This version of Province law sets a far higher standard versus other provinces, with students essentially under a legal burden to act on bullying and not be silent witnesses to it. The bullying covered can occur in a school or outside of it. School boards in Alberta have to have anti-bullying policies in place and provide a caring environment for all students as well as a code of conduct.
The Province set its own standards for the definition of bullying and cyberbullying. However, Nova Scotia made a point to get parents involved by making them the responsible party for any actions by their children when the perpetrator is under the age of 18 years.
The New Brunswick Province places a burden on schools and school boards to create positive environments for students and promote mutual respect between students. Parents are encouraged to be involved as well through programs that create parent school support committees. However, the Province is not as severe in crime definitions as others; New Brunswick laws label bullying as serious misconduct by students versus an outright crime.
Civil laws on bullying and related remedies have already existed for a long time and continue to be in place. However, these tools require a victim or his or her parents to initiate a lawsuit against the perpetrator to see results. There is no automatic trigger of a civil case against a bully or attacker after bullying or violence has occurred, unlike the criminal law side of the matter. The civil remedies often chosen and used as causes of action include:
- Defamation – Defamation laws allow a victim to seek financial damages as well as a court-ordered restriction of further activity against a perpetrator when the activity involves damaging a victim’s reputation or spreading false information about the victim. This action can be used to pursue both slander, which is temporary in nature, and libel, which permanent and is often put into some kind of print form that can be found again and again.
- Creating an Unsafe Environment – This charge has to do with making surroundings or areas so hostile for a victim that he or she can’t go about business or school without fearing being attacked or being subjected to violence or threats again and again. The action can include both those who commit the attacks as well as institutions responsible for keeping a location safe, such as schools, companies, and property managers in public areas and similar.
- Negligence – Where an individual could reasonably be expected to know that his or her actions would result in harm or had a high likelihood, that person can be sued for negligence. This can range from basic negligence to intentional recklessness, which has higher civil penalties.
The legal environment will continue to change to stay consistent with new tools and behaviors. As a result, while there are plenty of anti-bullying laws on the books now, they still leave open loopholes for future legislation.