We should all be talking about online abuse: Mary Simon

Governor General draws on her own experience to host symposium on building a safe digital world

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon, right, discusses online abuse and building digital safety with journalist Lisa LaFlamme at the symposium Building a Safe and Respectful Digital World at Rideau Hall on Thursday. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

By Madalyn Howitt

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon is making it a mission to stand up to online abuse, and to help others do the same.

That was the aim of the Governor General’s Symposium: Building a Safe and Respectful Digital World, a one-day event Simon hosted at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Thursday.

The discussion brought together individuals from across the country who have been hurt by online abuse. The goal was to raise awareness of the problem, and encourage people to collaborate to make the digital world safer.

The day was spurred by Simon’s own experiences with online abuse and harassment she received after she became Canada’s first Indigenous governor general in 2021.

“They weren’t directed at the office, really, they were directed at me as a visible person, as a woman and an Indigenous person,” she said of the comments she read on her social media accounts.

“Public life is not easy as it is, but with that [abuse] added to it it becomes very heavy,” Simon said, speaking with journalist Lisa LaFlamme to open the event. 

“The impact of social media can’t be minimized.”

2SLGBTQ+ activist Fae Johnstone discusses online abuse and building digital safety at the symposium Building a Safe and Respectful Digital World at Rideau Hall on Thursday. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

LaFlamme, herself the target of online hate campaigns, revealed that she too read messages that went beyond just criticizing her work as a reporter.

“Everything from ‘you’re an old hag’ to ‘you deserve to die,’” she said.

“Honestly, when you receive a detailed, graphic plan for your death, it really does frighten the hell out of you.”

Simon said in her situation, she struggled to know what to do, especially as the increasingly negative harassment started to affect her family and staff.

“At one point, I felt I should just walk from it, just pretend it wasn’t happening,” she said.

Instead, knowing she wasn’t the only public person experiencing online abuse compelled her to speak out.

Simon ultimately turned off comments on her official social media channels, which helped mitigate some of the daily abuse.

“I don’t think there are any easy answers,” she said about how to tackle targeted online abuse, “but I think we have to inspire one another and [build] a network of resilience.”

“I think the first thing is to speak up, and speak out,” she said, and to have allies who will listen.

“We should all be talking about it.”

Other panelists spoke about how they’ve been targeted with online abuse and the dangers they faced as some of it spilled over into their personal and professional lives offline.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer and a prominent media voice during the COVID-19 pandemic, chose not to turn off her social media comments even after receiving racist abuse online.

She said she still doesn’t feel safe taking a cab by herself, after the negative experiences she’s had in being refused service.

Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam discusses online abuse and building digital safety at the symposium Building a Safe and Respectful Digital World at Rideau Hall on Thursday. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

“We cannot tolerate hate. That’s not what Canada means,” she said.

Journalist Rachel Gilmore, who was subjected to a series of escalating death threats along with fellow female journalists Saba Eitizaz and Erica Ifill in a targeted hate campaign, said there needs to be a better understanding from newsrooms about how outrage that is organized and intended to be hurtful can quickly spiral online.

Her advice to other young journalists navigating hostile online spaces is to “not seek respect from people who do not respect your safety or your identity.”

2SLGBTQ+ activist and business owner Fae Johnstone, who has been the target of consistent anti-trans hate online, said she worries about the effect of social media on activism, when it can feel like it’s “crisis after crisis after crisis.”

“My worry is I’m getting tired,” she said, adding that young trans and queer people deserve to live in a healthy democracy that protects them.

Panelists also included TV host Kevin Raphaël, Indigenous content creator Santee Siouxx, MediaSmarts director of education Matthew Johnson, YWCA CEO Aline Nizigama, Virtual Guardians Foundation president François Savard, Centre for Newcomers president Anila Umar and Inuk artist and content creator Vanessa Brousseau, who posts as ResilientInuk online.

The panels were moderated by columnist and anti-racism advocate Emilie Nicolas.

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(20) Comments:

  1. Posted by Big Ben on

    Is it wrong for me to ask if or why the King’s representative is engaging in partisan political activity?

    • Posted by Serious question on

      What is partisan in this?

    • Posted by alex on

      It probably is wrong when you can’t show any evidence of how this is partisan.

      • Posted by Big Ben on

        I guess you haven’t been following the Liberal’s Online Harms bill.

        • Posted by alex on

          Except they are not pushing that bill, they are pushing the issue. You do know that Pierre Poulievre is also against the abuse of online, its just a difference on how liberal and conservatives want to attack it. This forum is specifically about the harms faced online.

          “We believe that these serious acts should be criminalized, investigated by police, tried in court and punished with jail, not pushed off to new bureaucracy that does nothing to prevent crimes and provides no justice to victims,” Poilievre said.

          Again, talking about the online abuse, and hate is not a partisan item. Conservatives, Liberals, NDP all speak about it.

        • Posted by Tired on

          What issue do you have with the proposed bill? Specifically.

          I’m curious because a lot of people like to complain about bills like this simply because some talking head on Facebook or Rebel News told them to.

  2. Posted by Maui on

    Not surprised at all. After so many years on this earth we still experience hatred through the best modes of transmission. Media isn’t to blame just like the gun that holds the bullet. The person behind the weapon is the evil in the heart and head of the crime.

  3. Posted by Li’l John/TGC on

    A brave new world it is not, not with the online abuse, a cowardly world is much nearer to the fact. Good people need to unite as the renowned and sidelined activist Chris Hedges encourages us to do/be.

  4. Posted by Eskimo Joe©️ on

    O.J. Simpson is the topic for April 11, 2024.

  5. Posted by Spending Issues on

    The convenient part of the GGs perspective is that they also get to stamp out all legitimate criticism as “abuse”. Has she not been excessively spending taxpayer dollars in luxuries? Sorry to hurt your feelings but I think being held accountable means facing the public.

    • Posted by IQL on

      When did the GG say anything about limiting criticism like you mention here? It isn’t about that. The bullying and online abuse they are referencing are the disgusting social media comments made about her appearance, ethnicity, culture, and gender.

  6. Posted by Wispa on

    Like the job they’re doing or not, I feel for the people that get abused online, I don’t believe anyone deserves the vitriol that they get. So what do you do? Social media can be used for good as a way to get messages out to people quickly, so people like Dr. Tam need to have a presence there. Do you write tougher legislation and prosecute people? I have my doubts that this could be pulled off by the same people who struggled to issue passports, and frankly, this could be terribly abused by governments promoting their own interest and stifling criticism. No, I think there needs to be pressure put on social media themselves. Proper verification of accounts, and banning for egregious behaviour. With the progress in AI, I’m sure it could be done. These sites need to be less toxic,

  7. Posted by S on

    There are very few topics which Mary Simon and her colleagues should discuss – private and public commentary being one of them.

    If she’d like to talk about the weather, fashion, her grandchildrens’ successes, her favorite foods, her favorite places and past-times, and so on, then she should fill her boots on that.

    Forays into scientific and technical matters or about politics and social policy, on my dime – not so much!!

  8. Posted by S on

    There are many topics which are important for Canadians; limiting private or public commentary isn’t one of them.

    A much more important mandate is to ensure that we are NOT limited in our ability to comment – both privately and publicly; nor that we are prosecuted for our comments. The current Canadian government and its handlers would have us restricted in many ways and prosecuted for disagreeing with its policies and dogma.

    • Posted by This is not a GG Topic on

      I agree with very few of your comments, S, but I can agree with you on this one. It’s kind of embarrassing that our GG took online abuse personally. Her comments really make her sound like she is very removed from the real world.

  9. Posted by Eskimos Fan on

    If it’s on Facebook and Internet, it must be true and real.😂😜😆🤣

  10. Posted by John WP Murphy on

    You want to share an opinion or abuse someone? Be my guest
    But have the balls to do it opening and honestly. Don’t do it anonymously. Let’s see how much abuse would take place if you had to identify yourself. But. Alas don’t expect any change on fb.
    No balls

    • Posted by Anaanamous on

      Hey Johnny Boy, ever think that people (especially those in Education and Healthcare) can’t speak out using their actual names due to reprisal from their childish, vindictive, under-qualified superiors and departments? Teachers are not allowed to speak to the media (regardless if it is a good news story) unless they get consent from their RSOs. Nunavut is a police state… the gestapo don’t fall far from the tree.

      • Posted by Let’s be clear on

        John is retired and of no consequence, it is easy for him to mouth off as is his habit, no pays attention or cares… he is quite clueless about the realities others face outside the cozy and oblivious little bubble he inhabits.

  11. Posted by Ned Flanders on

    My sins are as many as each rain drop and each snow flake that falls and counting….(every morning)

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