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As indigenous peoples face vicious online attacks, including threats to their lives, Chief Bobby Cameron says those ‘spurring death online deserve to go to jail’

Amid growing online attacks on Canada’s indigenous peoples – laced with vitriol, stereotypes and even death threats – a prominent First Nations leader is urging the government to crack down on hate speech.

“It’s getting out of hand,” said Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in the province of Saskatchewan. “Our people deserve to feel accepted. They shouldn’t feel that their lives are in danger.”

During a meeting this week with Canada’s justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, he pushed the government to consider strengthening the country’s hate speech laws. While prosecution of hate speech is not common in Canada, those found guilty face up to two years in prison.

“We’re calling for harsh and swift penalties, as well as prosecution,” he said. “These people, if they say, ‘So and so should die,’ or ‘I’m going to kill you,’ immediately they should be charged. Those that are spurring hatred and spurring death online deserve to go to jail.”

He pointed to last year’s fatal shooting of 22-year-old Colten Boushie, who was driving home with friends to Red Pheasant First Nation when a tyre blew out. The car pulled into a nearby farm, where Boushie was shot dead.

Police charged the farm’s owner, 55, with second-degree murder, sparking a torrent of racist comments on social media. Some linked First Nations to crime while others praised the idea of vigilante justice.

The hateful reaction provoked a response from aboriginal leaders across Canada. “To see racist, derogatory comments about this young man – and about First Nations people online and on social media in response to this tragedy – is profoundly disturbing,” said Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. “They are racist, insensitive and ignorant. They are disheartening and a stark reminder of how much work we have to do to eliminate racism and discrimination.”

Soon after, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said they were looking into the hundreds of racist comments to determine whether hate charges were warranted. So far, no charges have been laid.

Online attacks – which at their most extreme have included calling for the sterilisation of indigenous people as well as rape and murder – have become disturbingly regular, said Cameron, leaving many worried that the online violence will spill into their daily lives. “It’s making everybody feel like garbage – low self-esteem, low self-confidence – and fear being attacked when you’re out in the world.”

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