Skip to main content

When Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, seen here on April 17, 2020, mishandled amendments to Bill C-10 in April, the Conservatives saw an opening to attack it as a threat to freedom of speech.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

There are now two politically charged debates going on about the government’s bill to bring internet players under Canada’s broadcasting law.

One, about protecting culture, dominates in Quebec. The other, warning of an Orwellian threat to freedom of expression, has become a flashpoint in English Canada. One barely connects to the other. It has become a two solitudes thing.

And that’s the undercurrent of electoral politics behind the fight over the bill.

Once, the political logic behind the bill was about protecting cultural industries, and the electoral politics were mostly centred on Quebec. All the parties, including the Conservatives, treated it that way.

But when the Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault mishandled amendments to the bill in April, the Conservatives saw an opening to attack it as a threat to freedom of speech. Suddenly, Bill C-10 was an issue in English Canada, too.

Liberals pledge new amendments to Broadcasting Act to address concerns over social media posts

Things changed fast. Back in November, when the bill was tabled, every party in the House of Commons sent out a prominent Quebec MP to be their spokesperson on it, and most said it didn’t go far enough. Conservative MP Alain Rayes complained it didn’t cover social media. Last week, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole signed an op-ed that said regulating social media should never have been on the table.

When it comes to freedom of speech, Bill C-10 isn’t much different today from what it was months ago. But the politics have changed.

The Liberals think the bill is politically important in Quebec. The Conservatives, who only have a rump of hard-core seats in Quebec but faint hopes of winning more, have sacrificed their political interests in the province to crank up opposition to the Liberals elsewhere.

Bill C-10 is aimed at rewriting the law regulating broadcasting to include the big new internet players such as Netflix and Spotify, and so on. It would force those outfits to submit to Canadian-content rules and pay into funds to produce such content.

You can argue about whether that’s a good idea, but opposition parties certainly didn’t. They did criticize several aspects of it, and the fact that the Liberals themselves amended it several times showed it was flawed from the start. But there was an understanding the bill would not be blocked.

There was a political force driving it forward. Cultural industries complained internet giants were eating their lunch. In English Canada, that’s a niche issue, but in Quebec, protecting culture is mainstream. The political pressure was to get it done. The Bloc Québécois and the NDP were going to support the bill, after some deal-making. The Conservatives were going to vote against it, but not block it.

But that changed on April 23, when the Liberals, with the help of Bloc and NDP MPs, changed the bill – and Mr. Guilbeault, the minister, was unable to explain it on TV.

The goal of the change was to expand the bill to include sites that offer both streaming services and user content – mostly YouTube, the country’s most popular music streaming service. But it meant cutting out the section of the bill that exempted platforms with user-generated content.

That led to a firestorm of accusations that the government would be regulating social-media posts.

Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor of internet law who is an implacable opponent of most forms of internet regulation, issued dire warnings that Canadians’ free speech was at risk after the clause was cut from the bill. Mr. Guilbeault, asked to explain on TV, didn’t seem to understand it himself.

The bill was suddenly controversial in English Canada. The Conservatives brought Alberta MP Rachael Harder to the committee hearings, sidelining Mr. Rayes. The party cranked up the issue on social media. Mr. O’Toole called it Orwellian.

Yet despite Mr. Guilbeault’s bumbling, the danger created by withdrawing a section of the bill wasn’t quite the threat that was claimed.

Bloc Québécois MP Martin Champoux noted there was still another clause protecting user-generated content. And MPs on the committee knew that when the clause exempting social media was removed, there were other amendments coming that would limit the power to regulate platforms with such content. There was never any threat, he argued.

Now there are two different political environments for the bill.

Mr. Champoux said the idea that the bill poses a danger to freedom of speech isn’t getting traction in Quebec. He has received several e-mails from Western Canada complaining the bill is a danger to freedom of speech – but none from his Drummond riding, or anywhere else in Quebec.

Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.