09/05/2013 01:24 EDT | Updated 11/05/2013 05:12 EST

Manitoba government denies Liberal attempt to make bullying a human rights offence

WINNIPEG - The Manitoba government has rejected a call to make bullying an offence under the province's Human Rights Code.

It is the province's latest attempt to find the line between an offhand insult and intimidation that warrants punishment.

Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard introduced a bill in the legislature this week that would allow people who felt bullied to file a complaint with the human rights commission. Gerrard, who is the party's only legislature member, struck a deal with the NDP government to have the bill debated on Thursday. But the government raised several concerns, most notably the bill's broad definition of bullying that would include hurting someone's feelings.

"Sunday afternoon, I'll again be putting on my (Winnipeg) Blue Bombers jersey and heading out to the brand new Investors Group stadium. I fully expect that I will be faced by several thousand Saskatchewan Roughriders fans," Attorney General Andrew Swan said, referring to an upcoming Canadian Football League game.

"I don't actually think anybody believes that I should have the right to go to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission to complain about the way that I was treated by someone wearing a watermelon on their head next to me," he added, referencing a Roughriders' fan tradition.

The government is in the midst of passing its own anti-bullying legislation — Bill 18 — with the same broad definition, but it only applies to school children. Critics say it has the potential to make anyone a bully, even teachers and coaches who criticize a child's performance.

The bill defines bullying as behaviour that is "intended to cause, or should be known to cause, fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of harm to another person's body, feelings, self-esteem, reputation or property."

Intending to "create a negative environment" for another student is also considered bullying under the proposed law.

It's a broader definition than in many other provinces, some of which also require a repeated pattern of behaviour for an act to qualify as bullying.

The government bill was one of several pieces of legislation that was stalled by the Opposition Progressive Conservatives in the legislature for four months. More than 300 people signed up to speak to the bill at public hearings that are scheduled to wrap next week.

Swan said there is a big difference between protection that should be offered to children versus adults.

"If my daughter goes to her school and she happens to wear her (Blue Bombers) jersey, and she gets bullied, I want her to have protection."

Gerrard's bill has yet to come to a vote, but as his party's lone legislature member, he would need the support of many New Democrats and Tories to have it pass. Swan made it clear Thursday the NDP, which holds 37 of 57 legislature seats, will kill the bill.

"I can tell you we have no intention of passing the bill."

Gerrard defended the idea of extending bullying protection to adults and said he adopted the government's definition on purpose.

"Bullying is bullying," he said.

The Human Rights Code includes protection against actions that may qualify as bullying, such as harassment or discrimination, but only if the actions are based on specific characteristics such as gender, race and sexual orientation.