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Announcing the launch of the Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression



OTTAWA, May 21, 2020 /CNW/ – In light of growing misinformation concerning public health, political disinformation, hate speech and targeted discrimination, the Public Policy Forum (PPF) announces the Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression. The annual Commission will develop policy options to directly address the harmful impacts of digital technologies on Canada’s democratic institutions and public life. The Commission is supported by national citizen assemblies as well as by an independent research program led by the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians have become even more reliant on digital technologies to communicate with friends and loved ones, pursue education, and participate in the economy.  They also see how misinformation circulating on social media can influence behaviour and pose a direct and immediate threat to public health. In this way, the pandemic underscores the importance of this initiative and the value of its recommendations.

This initiative grew out of earlier insights about the relationship of digital technologies to Canada’s democracy covered by the Public Policy Forum’s ground-breaking report, The Shattered Mirror and its subsequent interdisciplinary research outlined in the Democracy Divided report (with UBC) and through the Digital Democracy Project partnership with McGill.

The Challenge
Digital media and technologies broaden access to information, enable new forms of participation and reshape the economy.  They also pose systemic challenges to democratic institutions and public life. Today, algorithms embedded in social media platforms work to shape our public and private lives. These technologies can compromise the quality of publicly available information, and increase the prevalence of hate speech and identity-based discrimination both online and off. 

The challenge is to maximize and safeguard the democratic potential of the digital public sphere while mitigating threats that pose significant harms. 

Each year, this initiative will bring together a small group of eminent Commissioners to develop recommendations that address the democratic harms of digital technologies. Their work will be informed by an annual citizens’ assembly and research managed by the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy at McGill University.

Announcing the 2020 Commissioners
We are pleased to announce the participation of seven eminent Canadians who have agreed to serve as Commissioners. The Commissioners bring a range of perspectives and skills and have extensive experience in the areas of law, media, technology, citizen participation, and politics.

Announcing the 2020 Citizens’ Assembly
Earlier this spring, 12,500 households across Canada received an invitation to volunteer to support the Commission by serving on a Citizens’ Assembly. More than 450 Canadians volunteered, and 42 have been randomly selected to serve as citizen representatives. The Assembly will meet in Winnipeg and Ottawa over six days and advise the Commission on its values and priorities with respect to digital technology and democratic expression.

Announcing the 2020 Research Program
Led by McGill’s Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy, the research program aims to inform the Commission and its stakeholders on key issues pertaining to democratic harms of digital technologies; to support the Commission’s deliberations and the work of the citizen’s assemblies, and to respond to their needs throughout the deliberative process. The research program will develop timely reports from international experts and disseminate results to the broader public on the following key issues for year one:

  • Legal aspects of hate speech and freedom of expression in Canada
  • Technological infrastructure of online harm
  • The digital public sphere
  • Targeted online hate communication
  • Online hate and vulnerable communities
  • Public health misinformation and disinformation
  • Technologically-facilitated gender-based violence online

Open Invitation for Submissions
To ensure that all interested members of the public and institutions have an opportunity to have their voice heard, the Commission will invite written submissions consistent with the areas of inquiry. Submissions will be accepted from July 1 to September 30, 2020. Details regarding how to make a written submission will be announced in late June via the PPF website.

To learn more about this initiative and how Canada can chart a new course in public discourse, democratic expression and the use of digital technologies, please contact the Public Policy Forum.


“The Commission is inspired in part by the 1960s Special Committee on Hate Propaganda in Canada, chaired by McGill University Law Dean Maxwell Cohen. It confronted a period marked by an upsurge of hate speech, studied the issue, deliberated, and issued recommendations that led to Canada’s anti-hate laws. These issues now need to be revisited in light of the digital age.” 
Edward Greenspon, President and CEO of Public Policy Forum

The Commission has been constructed with true participation at its core:  the public’s voices and the experts, filling a gap on research not overseen by technology providers or a study’s sponsoring party.  We look forward to engagement across the spectrum and the valuable input both the Commissioners and the public will provide.”
Michel Cormier, Executive Director of the Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression

SOURCE Public Policy Forum

For further information: MEDIA CONTACTS, Communications: Heather Cavanagh, Director of Communications, Public Policy Forum, [email protected], 613-791-9546; About the Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression, Michel Cormier, Executive Director of the CCDE, [email protected]; About the Citizens’ Assemblies, Peter MacLeod, MASS LBP, [email protected]; About the Research at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy, Professor Taylor Owen, [email protected]

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LaGrange unveils changes to spur more charter schools, unfunded homeschooling option




Alberta’s education minister, Adriana LaGrange, says she’s making good on an election promise to safeguard parent choice in education. 

On Thursday afternoon, LaGrange introduced Bill 15, the Choice in Education Act.

She said this strengthens the idea that parents have the right to choose the type of education their children receive, through amendments to the Education Act.

Premier Jason Kenney said this proposed legislation is important because there continues to be special interest groups and political parties in Alberta who “undermine” this right.

“This legislation won’t let them do so in the future,” he said. 

“This legislation enshrines the belief of Albertans in freedom, diversity, pluralism and choice as well as parental responsibility. Because we believe that parents know better than politicians or bureaucrats about what’s in the best interests of their kids.”

LaGrange said that when she was in “election mode,” something she heard at doors across the province was that parents really valued the choices that they had in Alberta, and they wanted it to be something that was highlighted.

“That’s how it became a platform commitment that we would be bringing forth a piece of legislation that would strengthen that.”

‘Unsupervised, non-funded’

Among the proposed changes, Bill 15 would amend the home education programs section of the Education Act, allowing for “unsupervised notification-only, non-funded home education program,” meaning those choosing that option would no longer need to be supervised by an Alberta school board.

Parents who pick this option would have to notify the ministry annually of their intention to home school their kids, and they would have to submit an education plan that shows the ministry that the student would have the opportunity to achieve appropriate learning outcomes.

“We heard very loudly from that community that they wanted an option that was unsupervised, notification only, non-funded home education programs,” she said.

But LaGrange said that doesn’t mean they get a carte blanche.

“[The plan] is not there to be approved, but on the other hand, we would also have that dialogue with the parents to ensure proper oversight and the proper outcomes would be looked at,” she said. 

The minister said at home school programs don’t necessarily all adhere to the Alberta Education guide or program of studies, but if they were adhering to the Alberta program of studies, then they would have to follow all of the required course content material as well as the examinations for those particular programs.

“There are home school parents and authorities that choose other programs from other areas, and then they have different outcomes as well as different assessments that they follow,” said LaGrange.

She said that when parents choose not to follow the Alberta program of studies, they are made aware that their children will not receive an Alberta diploma.

Charter schools applications 

The bill also proposes changes to how charter schools can be established. 

Current laws say that those wishing to establish a charter school have to go to the school board in the area they want the school to be in and request that the board establish an alternative program before considering the charter application. 

Under the proposed changes, those wishing to establish a charter school would go directly to the minister. 

It would then be up to the education ministry to reach out to all school divisions in that area and ensure that proper consultation takes place, to find out if a program similar to the proposal is already in place, has been considered or is waiting to be considered by the public school division.

“It takes a little bit of the angst out of the situation in terms of individuals going to the actual boards themselves and having conversations about it, whereas the department can do this and it eliminates one of the steps,” said LaGrange.

Despite not one application for a charter school since Kenney took office, he said his hope is that these changes encourage more people to consider establishing charter schools to meet public demand.

“The waiting list for charter schools is unacceptably long. Last I heard, there were 14,000 students provincewide waiting for a position in a charter school,” he said.

He said that since the creation of charter schools in Alberta in the mid-1990s, there’s been a statutory requirement that they take kids from all backgrounds.

“It’s not like independent schools, though — there’s not a screening process. They are inclusive schools and there are children from all different social and economic backgrounds who attend charter schools, which have great outcomes. And so that’s exactly why we hope to see a growing number of charter schools to respond to the demand that exists.”

‘Valued and integral’

In addition to these changes, there are also a number of smaller changes, including two additions to the preamble — the introductory part of the statute.

The first would add a new whereas statement to the act: “whereas parents have the a priori right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” — which is also the language used in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The second addition recognizes all of Alberta’s current choices in education as “valued and as integral” in providing choice in education to students and parents.

Included on this list are public schools, separate schools, Francophone schools, private schools, charter schools, early childhood services programs and home education programs.

A few of the changes proposed to the Education Act. (Alberta Education)

No changes to private school funding

A similar new statement in the bill would recognize private schools as “being important in providing parents and students with choice in education.”

“Private or independent schools have played a very important role in choice for parents in this province and I do believe that they felt that they were not valued but threatened under the previous government,” said LaGrange.

LaGrange said the proposed changes would not lead to any financial gain for independent schools, and that their funding formula would remain the same.

“They still only receive 70 per cent funding and they do not receive any capital funding,” she said. 

“This is strictly true to give them the comfort and to reinforce what we heard from parents … that they value the choice and that they see independent schools as a very real choice that they want to make for their children.”

Administrative changes

Other administrative changes include amendments to the Education Act so it specifically references the ability to establish vocational charter schools. Another change would exclude charter school operators from being subject to the Board Procedures Regulation as they are actually considered societies or companies registered under the Companies Act.

The minister said Alberta Education engaged with several groups through in-person meetings and webinars to find out what they would like to see as part of the Choice in Education Act. Consultations included the education system partners, interest groups and students through the Summer Student Advisory Panel and the minister’s Youth Council.

Alberta Education also held a month-long online public survey offered in English and French. It generated more than 50,000 complete responses.

The survey found that 61.6 per cent of those responding were satisfied with the amount of educational choice in Alberta, and 59.1 per cent were satisfied with the information available about school choice.

The minister said an additional 2,357 surveys arrived via email from people associated with Support Our Schools, a public education advocacy interest group.

These completed surveys were “very similar,” contained no demographic information, and answered two questions with the exact same answers, she said.

LaGrange says a special interests group, Support Our Students Alberta, attempted to ‘hijack’ the survey by submitting 2,357 responses that were virtually the same. (CBC)

The ministry said it analyzed these surveys separately as it did not want to impact the demographic components of the overall analysis, as it’s important to show how people experience education differently in Alberta.

“When you have a special interest group that wants to hijack the survey, I found that a little disconcerting,” said LaGrange.

“I find it strange that as an advocacy group they have never reached out to myself or my department for a meeting or to have a conversation, and I would welcome that opportunity.”

Bill 15 will be debated and voted on in the coming weeks.

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Northern students flocking online to continue postsecondary studies




As COVID-19 keeps post-secondary students out of the classroom, Contact North is seeing increased demand for online learning, and that’s only expected to grow.

“No question that there is a big, big, big uptake in online learning – full stop,” said Maxim Jean-Louis, Contact North’s president and CEO.

“And that’s from all categories of people, whether they are students who are just finishing high school, whether they are adults, whether they are people who are already in the system who are already taking courses or programs.”

Created by the provincial government in 1986, Contact North administers online learning on behalf of Ontario’s colleges, universities, Indigenous learning centres, and training institutes.

By studying online, learners in rural, remote and underserviced communities can still earn an education while remaining in their home communities, making post-secondary education more feasible for many.

Jean-Louis said there are roughly 15,000 students currently enrolled in online courses through Contact North.

The results of an early-April survey of 1,555 students indicates that online learning is a trend that’s expected to continue.

Fifty-three per cent of respondents are planning to take more online courses in the future, while 61 per cent said they weren’t experiencing challenges continuing their education as a result of COVID-19.

“For them, it’s business as usual because they were already taking it online, so they’re just going to take more, because there are more courses available online now,” Jean-Louis said.

The most popular areas of study include health support services (nursing, personal support worker, social work), business courses, and the trades.

When it comes to courses that require students to complete a practical component, instructors are adapting to restrictions introduced by the pandemic.

For example, trades students can complete their theoretical component online, and then professors will arrange for them to come in at staggered times during the week to work on the practical component.

It allows students to meet their course requirements while still maintaining physical distancing. 

“The colleges and universities are being very, very insightful and innovative in finding ways to help the students’ access,” Jean-Louis said. “That’s what we are observing all across Northern Ontario.”

Even before COVID-19 hit, he said, Ontario was leading Canada in the sheer volume of online courses available – there are 1,000 full programs and another 10,000 courses available online.

But transitioning to online learning isn’t as simple as just connecting to the internet and turning on a device.

Faculty need to be trained and supported in making the switch to a new teaching method, and students themselves have to be able to adapt to a new way of learning, Jean-Louis said.

“It’s a mistake to think that because all of our young Millennials are very good at using their cell phones that they are actually very good automatically at using technology to learn,” Jean-Louis said. “It doesn’t necessarily transfer.”

Students learn from both their educators and their peers, and so losing the social interaction gleaned from in-person communication can be an adjustment, he said.

“So we have to figure out a way online to provide both aspects,” Jean-Louis said. “You learn as much from your fellow students as you learn from the faculty sometimes.”

Learning online also requires a fair amount of discipline and focus, he added. Some courses allow students to log in any time of the day to complete coursework, while others are scheduled to offer live instruction at specific times, as with traditional classes.

It’s up the student to make sure they tune in as required.

But after decades of offering online learning, Northern Ontario has an advantage over other jurisdictions that are just now getting into distance education, Jean-Louis said.

Even students in the most remote or fly-in Indigenous communities, like Moosonee or Attawapiskat, have been able to get an education, without ever leaving home to do it.

“Because of the huge distances and the sparse population, they’ve been doing online for decades,” he noted. “So for them… you are not new at this game at all. You’ve had to do it because it was the only choice in many ways to reach residents who were isolated.”

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‘Invisible disability’: Masks making it harder to communicate, deaf and hard of hearing say




Going to get groceries these days is the source of anxiety for many people during the pandemic — the lineups, the narrow aisles, the touching of produce. But when you’re hard of hearing or deaf, the task can be exponentially more difficult.

“The masks that everyone is wearing right now are quite the barrier,” said Leah Riddell, community outreach director for the Ontario Cultural Society of the Deaf.

Riddell, speaking through a sign language interpreter, said masks prevent people from being able to read lips or facial expressions.

“For those wearing masks, I’m not sure if they’re talking to me or if they’re talking to somebody else. So there’s a lot of assumptions. And if you ask somebody to repeat they can be very dismissive,” said Riddell.

“We have to go out, we have to survive. We have to work. So there are a lot of members within the community that are quite anxious and quite concerned when they need to go out.”

Leah Riddell is the community outreach director for the Ontario Cultural Society of the Deaf. The society works to advance the education and awareness of deaf culture. (Submitted)

With more and more businesses opening their doors, and Canada’s top health official now officially recommending the use of face coverings in public, the task of communicating has become increasingly difficult for some who are deaf or hard of hearing.

While options such as clear masks have emerged in some places, they are not widely available or worn, so people who are deaf or hard of hearing and are struggling to communicate now are asking for patience and understanding from the public.

Different levels of hearing

The widespread use of masks has affected a range of people with different levels of hearing ability.

Craig Lund, a Toronto-based marketing head hunter, has been hard of hearing since he was three. He is deaf in his right ear, has about 30 per cent hearing in his left ear and wears a hearing aid.

“What the pandemic has shown is that I rely on reading lips a lot more than I realized,” said Lund.

Craig Lund, who uses a hearing aid, says since the pandemic started he’s realized how much he relies on lipreading to understand people. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

“Masks came along and all of a sudden I started to struggle a whole lot with understanding what was going on.”

Lund described a few instances at the grocery store where he’s been unable to understand what someone is saying.

“There’s a lot of anxiousness when people are having conversations — they want you to move along quickly. And people start to get irritated really quickly too,” said Lund.

For those who are deaf, masks present an additional challenge: about 70 per cent of  American Sign Language (ASL), involves facial expressions and body movements, and only 30 per cent comes from hand signs, said Riddell.

“Facial expressions are quite critical in the language, and with the masks it’s a barrier that prevents communication from happening because half the face is covered,” she said.

Seventy per cent of American Sign Language relies on the face and the body and only 30 per cent comes from hand shapes and signs, according to Leah Riddell. (CBC)

Until recently, the struggles have been at grocery stores.

“Now that things are starting to slowly reopen we’re noticing it even more. There are more concerns, more anxiousness, about, ‘Are they going to understand, are we going to be able to do this?'” said Riddell.

Masks plus physical distancing

Another challenge is just how much masks muffle the sound of a voice.

“There have already been some studies to show that general surgical medical masks … may reduce the way someone perceives sound by three to four decibels (DB),” said Rex Banks, an audiologist and director of hearing health care at Canadian Hearing Services, adding that can make someone’s voice 25 to 30 per cent softer.

Masks make it harder to perceive sound. Combined with physical distancing, they can make communication a challenge for the deaf and hard of hearing. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Physical distancing makes the problem even worse.

“So you have the level of speech that’s decreased and then also when you put the distance in there — so trying to stand maybe six feet away from each other — who knows at this point how much of the sound is actually reaching the person,” he said.

Banks said there are a number of speech-to-text apps and other tools that he’s advising people to use during this time. Canadian Hearing Services has also been conducting a series of webinars that offer resources for people who are having challenges right now.

Clear masks

In recent weeks, there’s been a popularization of clear masks intended to help those who are hard of hearing communicate. 

Meredith Brookings, owner of Couture Alterations in Whitby, Ont, pivoted to manufacturing PPE after the pandemic was declared. She typically tailors wedding gowns or dresses for special occasions.

A snapshot of the clear masks made by Meredith Brookings, owner of Couture Alterations in Whitby, Ont. (Meredith Brookings)

One of her products that’s seen a spike in demand: clear masks. It started with a request from the Canadian Helen Keller Centre.

“We put our heads together to come up with a design to help,” said Bookings, who has now been inundated with requests for clear masks.

“From New Brunswick to Windsor to up north and Peterborough. I even had a couple of requests from Kansas City and Texas down in the States.”

While clear masks offer some benefits, the problem is that it’s other people — not just those in the deaf community — that need to be wearing them for them to help those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Because of that, Riddell said right now many still prefer face shields because they’re more accessible. Some are even getting creative and making shields at home.

Medical grade masks

Health Canada recently authorized the use of one type of mask with a clear mouth for medical use against COVID-19, manufactured by Clearmask LLC, a Baltimore company

It’s the first clear mask that’s been given the green light by the federal body during this pandemic, but it’s unclear how many health-care workers are wearing them in Canada.

Health Canada authorized the use of this mask during the pandemic from Baltimore-based Clearmask LLC. (Clearmask)

In the meantime, the deaf and hard of hearing community is asking for understanding from the public.

“A lot of times it’s an invisible disability,” said Lund.

“People don’t realize that there are other things going in other people’s lives. Everyone has various levels of stresses or abilities whether it’s mental health or hearing.”

Anxiety levels are high during interactions in public right now. Members of the deaf community are asking people for understanding and patience. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Sometimes that means putting yourself in another person’s position before reacting, said Riddell.

“It’s just very important for mainstream society to understand you just need to have some patience with us to communicate.” 

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