“The news that they have nothing to fear is guaranteed to strike terror into the hearts of innocents everywhere.” –Terry Pratchett, The Fifth Elephant
On Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced his Bill C-51, the “Anti-Terrorism Act” as his response to two “lone-wolf” attacks in Quebec and Ottawa. It includes a number of sweeping new powers for government agencies, especially for Canada’s spy agency, CSIS; and almost no oversight or accountability. Legal experts, constitutional experts, and the nation’s media have all spent the weekend poring over this bill, and as of Monday morning there is a near-unanimous conclusion: This bill goes too far. The Globe and Mail, that venerable institution of Canadian conservatism, condemned the proposed law in this morning’s editorial, calling it “Harper’s secret policeman bill.” The CBC has published an editorial pointing out the clear partisanship of the bill C-51, during the announcement of which Harper outright lied several times, attempting to paint the opposition parties as soft on terror… if not outright supporters thereof. Maclean’s Magazine’s response to the bill decried it as pandering to a tough-on-crime agenda during an election year. Global TV posted an article pointing out that many Canadians are already in violation of the act, simply for the innocuous use of their rights to freedom of speech, opinion and association. Even the National Post, that frothing bastion of pro-Harper neoconservatism, published a half-hearted editoral stating that it won’t lead to a police state just because Canada has a long tradition of not being a police state… even while conceding that more oversight needs to be added to the provisions of C-51.
This is a bad law, is what everyone is saying. Everyone, of course, except the Prime Minister.
The Canadian Security and Intelligence service, CSIS, is basically Canada’s CIA. They’re an intelligence-gathering agency: they investigate and then turn their information over to the military and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as necessary. That’s a normal, somewhat healthy agency for a government to have.
But Harper’s Bill C-51 would transform CSIS, in a stroke, from an Intelligence agency to a State Security agency, and then give them unlimited license to operate in Canada with minimal judicial oversight. With the stroke of a pen, CSIS would resemble the CIA a lot less and Gestapo a lot more. They will be permitted the powers of arrest, of surveillance, of installing wiretaps and keyloggers without a warrant. In fact, the only time they’ll need a warrant is in taking action which might “contravene Charter rights or the law.” That’s right — as long as they’re not doing something outright illegal, they have carte blanche; if they do want to do something illegal, short of killing, maiming or raping somebody (all specifically mentioned as no-nos in the bill), a judge will have to sign off on it.
I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that’s unconstitutional. I mean, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is the ultimate law of the land, isn’t it? Should we be giving a transformed, enforcement-empowered spy agency the right to break the law as long as a sympathetic judge rubber-stamps it?
Bill C-51 would give the Prime Minister’s office a powerful weapon… but not one which would prevent terror attacks like those in Ottawa and Quebec: lone-wolf attacks are notoriously difficult to detect ahead of time, because they generally involve mentally-unstable loners acting in isolation from society (an almost pathological social isolation is in fact one of the tell-tale signs of a lone-wolf attacker, but generally one which is only discovered in hindsight.) Our current laws are more than sufficient to stop terrorist plots — just look at the thwarted attacks in 2006, or the so-called VIA plot which was nipped in the bud.
No, an extrajudicial security agency working at the behest of the executive branch can only have one effective purpose: The suppression of domestic dissent. The Harper government has made it clear in the past that they conflate environmental activism with terrorism. Canada’s law-enforcement agencies have long considered Native activism to be borderline terrorist activity. Pass this law, and I guarantee that CSIS will be used to suppress opposition to Stephen Harper’s necon pro-oil, anti-environment policies.
Am I being paranoid? Nope. Because it says so right in the text of the bill: Threats to the security of Canada “include but are not limited to: interfering with the ability of the Canadian government to maintain economic or fiscal stability; espionage; interference with critical infrastructure; terrorism; and doing anything in Canada that undermines the security of another state.”
Right at the top: Interfering with the ability of the Canadian government to maintain economic or fiscal stability. So… workers’ strikes? Land-use blockades? Chaining yourself to a tree to prevent it being cut down? Marching against a pipeline? Can we get a clear definition of “interfering”, please? Interference with critical infrastructure is another worryingly vague definition: it’s not too far a stretch to argue that causing a traffic slowdown on the 401 as an act of protest could constitute an act of terror. Certainly blocking a train line, or for that matter an access road leading into a uranium mine would count. What about a picket line in front of a power plant? What about hanging a banner off a government building? What about a sit-in?
The potential for this law to be abused is patently obvious.
To be clear, Bill C-51 states “lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression” are specifically exempted in the from being threats to the security of Canada… but to be even clearer, there is no provided definition of “lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression” in the bill. Bill C-51 will quite literally allow the government of the day to define “lawful protest” however it chooses. Even if you’ve never gone to a demonstration, even if you despise “those hippie freaks” for doing so, you’ve got to be worried about that kind of arbitrariness in Canadian law.
What really, really worries me, however, is the provision within Bill C-51 that criminalizes “the act of knowingly advocating or promoting the commission of terrorism offences in general by any group anywhere.” (Emphasis mine.)
What does that mean? Seriously, what the fuck does that mean? It’s almost literally doublespeak. As near as I can parse it, it’s a blanket statement that the government can find you guilty of advocating terror simply for belonging to an organization that it deems pro-terror. Once again, this is alarmingly vague.
I’ve been, in my time, a member of several organizations that might fit that vague definition: The Peterborough Coalition Against Poverty, which was closely affiliated with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and a large number of Native Issues groups; several anarchist collectives; The Activist Health Collective of Ottawa; the Toronto Area Collective of Street Medics; The Industrial Workers of the World; Greenpeace. I’ve donated my time, effort and (lately) money to many of those organizations. I opposed the war in Iraq. I opposed the war in Afghanistan. I’ve participated in direct actions, street marches, blockades, occupations. I’ve run workshops on protest first aid, counteracting police chemical weapons, non-violent civil disobedience, passive resistance. I’ve advocated, publicly, the necessity of direct action. I’ve stated that destruction of property is does not violate the principles of nonviolence. I’ve stated — and I genuinely believe this — that self-defense is inherently an act of nonviolence.
You don’t have to approve. You don’t have to agree with me. You can argue for or against the effectiveness of protest tactics, the philosophies of civil disobedience, and the moral dimensions of solidarity and nonviolence. You can praise me for standing up for peace, civil rights and the envionment, or you can condemn me as a hooligan and a troublemaker, and either way you’d be entitled to your opinion.
Because that’s what democracy is: a plurality of opinions, of voices, of views.
If Bill C-51 passes, that list of activities (which I proudly refer to as “my twenties”) would constitute a confession of crimes. Let me be clear: it’s entirely possible that I just confessed to terrorism… at least according to Stephen Harper. Despite the fact that I’m a loyal citizen of Canada. Despite the fact that I embrace, advocate and teach nonviolence. Bill C-51 would make anything — anything — that the government of the day chooses to call terrorism into terrorism. And they’ll have the secret police force available to to whatever they want about it, with or without the benefit of judicial oversight.
If there is anything more destructive to democracy, to the pluralistic society that we live in, I don’t know what it is. Even if Stephen Harper were the most enlightened, pro-democracy leader this country has ever had (insert sarcastic laugh here) I wouldn’t trust him with these powers. And what about the next Prime Minister? Or the one after that? Or the one twenty years down the road facing challenges the likes of which we can’t begin to speculate?
Democracy and law is all about precedent, and Bill C-51 is an ugly, ugly precedent to set in this country. Extrajudicial arrests, warrantless surveillance, vague “disruption” activities, and a state security agency with little to no oversight — this is not the sort of thing we need in Canada. Eventually, one hopes, the Supreme Court would strike down this law if it is passed, but in the meantime the possibility — hell, the inevitability — of abuse makes this a very problematic law indeed.
The best thing one can say about Stephen Harper’s bill is that it’s election-year posturing. Harper is a Prime Minister in trouble: beset on all sides by scandals; with an economy in free-fall, a plummeting dollar and an oil-industry (the only industry his government gives a shit about) in disarray; the provincial premiers hostile; the electorate tiring of a decade of Conservative austery measures; staring down the barrel of a legally-manadated federal election with his apparent successor, Justin Trudeau, all but measuring for new carpets at 24 Sussex. Harper, despite his glassy smile and arrogant airs, is downright desperate. He’s going to lose this autumn, and he’s going to lose big, despite his party’s successful jerrymandering of the electorate. With a triumphantly balanced budget now a fading dream, his only hope is to capitalize on public fear and appear tough on terror… while laying the long-term groundwork for getting rid of that pesky dissent once and for all.
We cannot let Stephen Harper, increasingly a spent force in Canadian politics, undermine our democratic traditions for his own selfish purposes. It’s a bad law. It’s partisan politics. And it’s undemocratic. And, as I’ve said before, it’s another step down a very short path to a very frightening place.
But to end on a positive note, I do find some cause for optimism in this situation: the near-universal condemnation of Harper’s proposed bill. When even your henchmen look nervous and start muttering about amendments to the bill, it’s pretty clear that you’ve gone too far, pushed too hard. Perhaps Harper, usually a slick (if not downright oily) political operator, is getting impatient now that he hears the bell tolling. But this is not going to be a popular proposal with many Canadians. Our job now is to let our MPs — of whatever political stripe — know that we will not support this unjust bill. We don’t need draconian new laws to prevent terrorism… especially at the cost of our freedom of speech, of association and our right to dissent. If we sacrifice that, then the terrorists really have won.