Tue Feb 24, 2015 4:55PM
Soon after the October 2014 attacks in Ottawa and Quebec, the Canadian government began working on new anti-terror legislation, and thus, Bill C-51made its debut.
Although both incidents were the raison d’etre of this bill, there is nothing in it that could have stopped the crazed, lone gunmen from their respective shooting sprees.
Former prime ministers, four of them to be exact, and eighteen other former government officials, ranging from Supreme Court judges to others, have written an open letter demanding oversight, while warning that ‘given the secrecy around national security activities, abuses can go undetected and without remedy.’
Politicians opposed have called C-51 ‘sweeping, dangerous, vague and ineffective.’ The vagueness of the bill certainly opens it to interpretation that will possibly result in politically motivated actions towards dissent of any sort.
A former Canadian intelligence officer has even observed that PM Harper is using the same techniques that fascists have availed of in the past.
The indigenous peoples of Canada too are concerned about the wide-ranging reach of Bill C-51. A Manitoba First Nations leader fears aboriginals protesting would be arrested under this legislation. ‘Treaty rights, land rights, natural resource development, any protest like that, they could be considered eco terrorists.’
The Prime Minister, though, argues Bill C-51 does include ‘considerable’ oversight, while adding he doesn’t ‘buy the argument that every time you protect Canadians, you take away their liberties.’
Despite the debate, with a Conservative, ruling party, majority in parliament, and the Liberals’, the main opposition, backing, Bill C-51 will become law.
Blind to the facts
It would seem, at first glance, that public opinion is on the side of the ruling party and that it may have a political winner on its hands. A much-touted Angus-Reid poll found that 82 per cent of Canadians are in favor of the new anti-terror legislation. But is that the whole story? Its interesting to note that though the majority support C-51, 56 percent ‘had neither consumed a news story nor had a discussion about the bill.’
When the poll asked Canadians: ‘The federal government introduced new anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51, it would expand the powers of police agencies and CSIS [Canadian Intelligence]. How familiar are you with the proposed legislation?’ only 18 per cent said they had either ‘read or seen stories’ about the bill and ‘discussed it with friends and family,’ while 20 per cent of respondents said they had neither seen nor read anything about the bill. That does not bode well for such significant legislation and the sweeping powers it will give to intelligence agencies and law enforcement.
On the issue of oversight, the official Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) watchdog known as the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), admits it is only an after-the-fact review body, not ‘oversight’ body that vets spying activities, as government officials have been falsely propagating during debates over Bill C-51. In addition, while speaking of the SIRC, the government has said CSIS needs to have updated tools at its disposal in the wake of new terrorism, but SIRC is not even mentioned in C-51. In effect, the government’s own legislation exposes the criticism at the heart of C-51 about a lack of oversight, or even review after-the-fact.
This comes even though SIRC has been demanding greater powers and more funding to be able to do its job properly, but ‘there is nothing Bill C-51 that gives us the ability to follow the thread or the ability to do joint reviews [with the likes of Canada’s foreign signals spy agency, for example]. Those legislative tools are not included. Nor are additional resources.’
So what is all the hoopla about?
Under C-51, CSIS will actively end threats to the national security, a noteworthy expansion of its current mandate to provide security intelligence for the government.
To do this, the Canadian intelligence agency would only need judicial ‘threat disruption’ warrants when its activities are certain to be illegal or unconstitutional. The government states all of its other activities, including warrant-less disruptions, would be under the ‘robust oversight’ of SIRC, a subject already spoken of above. The lack of oversight of new powers given to both the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and CSIS mean they would operate in a out-of-sight manner, while snooping anywhere for nearly any, often unknown, reason.
Bill C-51 also bypasses elected officials’ abilities to vote out laws that are not the will of, or in the interest of Canadians, and instead allows un-elected government agents to create laws behind closed doors.
New powers granted under C-51 would include the searching and seizing of private property and bank accounts without warrants. It also weakens the right to free speech by providing unnecessarily sweeping powers to police and prosecutors to prohibit speech that they deem promotes or glorifies terrorism. This will push any even irresponsible or politically extreme talk, which is not actually threatening or violent, underground.
The bill would also potentially allow the government to rein in alternative media and clamp down on activists’ use of social media to either organize or report on actions that involve even the smallest form of civil disobedience. This would, together with anti-terror legislation in place since 9/11, give the government power to crush dissent in a ‘legal’ manner.
It will also become easier to place Canadians, without charge, in seven days of detention and the fear is that this, without any safeguards, will mean abusive interrogation. Many innocents will no doubt get caught up in this.
The bill broadens the category of ‘activities that undermine the security of Canada’ to include much illegal protest. It would allow Federal Court judges to limit all sorts of Charter (of Rights and Freedoms) rights, including the right of Canadian citizens to return to Canada. Such judicial decisions will not be made public, given the apparent need for ‘secrecy’ in terror cases.
All legal deliberations will be done in secret, with only the judge and government represented. The person affected will not be there nor can they defend their rights. No civil rights group will be able to weigh in. There will be no public, democratic discussion and no one will be able to appeal decisions reached by such secret legal proceedings.
What does this mean for Canada?
While Stephen Harper claims this bill is important, his not showing up to the rushed debate on the bill in the Commons shows his lack of respect for Canadians. That many support him on this while not knowing what its ramifications will be is a testament to the atmosphere created by the current Conservative Canadian government. Contrary to what the government may believe, it is not treasonous to oppose its such legislation, and Canada must not sign on to the George W. Bush government’s ‘you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists’ ideology.
Every Canadian in his/her right mind condemned what happened in Ottawa and Quebec. Yet, this bill should be opposed as being simply too vague and putting too much of the burden of trust without verification on those who will work behind the scenes with no accountability to citizens.
If this is, as some have argued, the Prime Minister’s political ploy to play on the fears of Canadians about terrorism to gain support in the wake of a faltering economic legacy, then that is truly sickening. While playing up the fear of terrorism as being around the corner, Canadian leaders should know better than to rush through a bill which will likely silence activism and dissent of all sorts, as well as free speech, all hallmarks of a good democracy.
Looking at the Harper government’s track record so far on the lack of open debate about its policy-making decisions does not set a good precedent for his and his officials’ lack of respect for the democratic process in Canada. Checks and balances were put in place for a reason, and voters as well as their elected officials through whom their will is carried out must be involved and informed about every new wide-ranging legislation that shall affect them from here on in.
Canadians must wake up before it is too late to stop the Harper-train from changing a once peaceful, tolerant Canadian society which appreciated its dissidents and activists, to one which increasingly takes on its southern neighbor’s ‘take no prisoners’ attitude.