Monique St. Germain and the Canadian Centre for Child Protection's fight

Addressing internet challenges, Bill C-63 aims to enhance child safety and accountability online
Monique St. Germain and the Canadian Centre for Child Protection's fight

In 2022, police reported 2,492 incidents of online sexual offences against children – a rise of 139 compared to 2021. According to Statistics Canada, between 2014 and 2022, there were a staggering 15,630 incidents of reported online sexual offences against children – that translates to an average annual rate of 25 incidents per 100,000 children in Canada. These figures do not include the 48,816 incidents of online “child pornography” recorded by police during the 2014-2022 period (“Child pornography” is a legal term used in the Criminal Code, and the term Statistics Canada uses in the context of police-reported crime data).

When looking at the combined annual rates of online sexual offences against children and online “child pornography” offences, the 2022 rate is more than what it was in 2014.

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection, or C3P, is at the forefront of combatting online child exploitation – not just in Canada but all across the world. Dealing with multiple jurisdictions and locations, however, makes understanding all nuances of varying legal policies essential.

Monique St. Germain, serving as general counsel, is at the legal helm of C3P. She tells Lexpert that one of the key legal challenges for her is the sheer vastness of the internet and its absolute global reach.

“It involves pretty much all the countries in the world. There is legislation domestically, but there isn't an international law that is governing all of this,” says St. Germain. “The internet has done all sorts of wild and wonderful things for all of us, but it’s also done a tremendous amount to ruin childhoods for children around the world. Technological innovation is a huge opportunity, but it's also a challenge, particularly in terms of this work.”

A major legal challenge is the traditional approach to online child exploitation as a purely criminal law matter, focusing on individual offenders.

“The whole issue of online child sexual exploitation has been approached as a criminal law matter from the get-go,” St. Germain adds. This approach overlooks the broader child protection perspective, which often has a lower threshold for intervention and different legal frameworks. “When something is about child protection, we have a much lower threshold to intervene,” she says

C3P, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, leverages its position as a charitable entity to address these challenges as quickly and efficiently as possible. They operate, Canada’s national tipline for reporting the online sexual exploitation of children, and Project Arachnid, an innovative tool that operates to reduce the public availability of child sexual abuse material. Operating these programs provides C3P with insight into issues facing Canadian children and families.

“ gives us a real lens into things that are facing Canadian children and families,” says St. Germain. “And through Project Arachnid, we try and address the enormous problem of child sexual abuse material – leveraging technology to find it where it's sitting online...and then issue requests to have it removed. Over 10,000 requests a day are made, illustrating the enormous scale of the problem.”

Despite the organization's efforts, the challenge remains extensive due to the ways in which tech companies' services can be misused to proliferate such content. St. Germain says, “Police focus on individual victims and offenders because that's where their jurisdiction lies, but the role that companies play in making this content proliferate...that's not really being tackled.”

However, recent legal bills will help organizations like C3P help an increasing number of children and their families – especially Bill C-63, or the Online Harms Act, introduced in April. This bill introduces a duty on certain online platforms to act responsibly and protect children.

“Right now, the regulatory aspects of this bill are limited to social media services. It’s a start,” says St. Germain.

Canada is following in the footsteps of countries like Australia and the UK, which have already implemented similar regulatory measures. The UK, for example, passed their online safety legislation last year and introduced an age-appropriate design code to protect children specifically.

“Canada is now entering this regulatory regime with Bill C-63 as its toe in the water,” says St. Germain. “As an organization that has been working in this space for a number of years, we know how much damage victims incur when companies do not act responsibly. Even the companies that you might think are doing a good job... there are still many, many issues.”

At C3P, St. Germain and her colleagues played a pivotal role in shaping new policies and legislation.

“We need to ensure that there is accountability built into the system and that there are guardrails for the products and services that children are using," she says. This includes holding online companies responsible for how their platforms are used to victimize children.”

St. Germain is optimistic about the progress of Bill C-63, which aims to address these issues. "We’re really pleased to see Bill C-63 in the works and making its way through the legislative process.”

And the need for government intervention is clear. St. Germain likens the current situation to cars driving on the road without any safety precautions.

“We have these apps and sites that are out there, and there isn’t enough attention paid to how those apps and sites are designed, what they offer, how they actually work, and how their use of people’s data can create unsafe situations,” she adds. “Privacy and safety aren’t necessarily the same thing, and sometimes they’re going to be at odds.”

At C3P, they’re not just dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse, they’re also passionate about amplifying the voices of victims.

“Everyone knows what victim impact statements are,” adds St. Germain. “What sets C3P apart is we focus on victims of child sexual abuse material, which is legally termed child pornography. “Up until we started this initiative, criminal proceedings involving possession of child sexual abuse material focused almost entirely on the offender.”

Sentencing decisions typically describe the number and content of images and videos in the offender’s possession, but the victims' perspectives were conspicuously absent. This gap existed because the victims were often unknown and unheard.

“Now judges across the country can regularly have at least one victim impact statement from someone depicted in the collection,” says St. Germain. These statements provide insight into the victims' feelings about their abuse images being possessed and used by others, a significant shift in legal proceedings.

Also, the concept of a community impact statement was added to the Criminal Code in 2015 as s. 722.2. “It was a really big thing to have happened,” she adds. “Before this provision, community impact statements were very limited. We now file statements that our organization authors on behalf of certain types of communities affected by online sexual exploitation of children (such as victims of online luring or those at risk of becoming victims). We also work directly with a group of victims who wrote a statement on behalf of victims of child sexual abuse material, which we are able to file on their behalf.”

And working in a sector as emotionally heightened as this one, St. Germain has certainly seen her fair share of impactful cases.

“Back in 2013, we met with families who had lost their children to suicide due to online interactions," she recalls. "Understanding just how much this impacts families and communities really drove our work forward.”

A pivotal legal moment for C3P was its 2015 intervention in the Supreme Court case R v. Barabash.

 "This case involved child sexual abuse material and a specific judge-made exception that applied to its production," she tells Lexpert. "We felt very strongly that the exception was misapplied in the case. Participating at the Supreme Court taught us a lot about the importance of submitting information at the trial level to ensure it was part of the record for any subsequent appeals.”

Another significant legislative effort was Bill C-84, which introduced a definition of bestiality into the Criminal Code. This bill was important to C3P because of its implications for child sexual abuse.

"We knew that animals were also used and abused in the context of sexually abusing children," St. Germain explains. "Our organization advocated very strongly for this clarification within the criminal code.”

For C3P, a critical component of tackling these issues is education and awareness, and a significant amount of effort is geared towards that. For example, C3P monitors trends in online child sexual exploitation and regularly issues public alerts about apps and websites being misused to abuse children. The C3P legal team also makes sure that relevant information gets in front of Crown attorneys and judges through presentations, court submissions and publications such as this one.

C3P also leverages case law to illustrate the broader trends they see through

“We use case law in a different way than most legal professionals would because we use it more to illustrate and to back up a lot of the things that we see through operating,” explains St. Germain.

“Individual offenders are operating in the context of a borderless internet, with numerous anonymous tools available for people to be able to hide themselves in plain sight. It’s critical to understand that whole backdrop while working through the individual details of a case.”