Canada conservatives push to curb civil liberties

VANCOUVER, Canada – Canadian conservatives aren’t slowing down their steamroller attempt to impose legislation criminalizing dissidents. 

The right-wing conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper used its majority in Parliament to end debate on Bill C-51 and pass it Feb. 23, a little more than three weeks after it was introduced on Jan. 30.  The Conservatives and Liberals voted in favor of Bill C-51 while the center left New Democratic  Party (NDP) opposition and the lone Green Member of Parliament (MP) voted against it.

The bill is now before the public safety committee where MPs are listening to public comments on Bill C-51 until the end of March. The NDP MPs have filibustered the committee to extend hearings on the legislation. The Conservatives want to limit hearings so it can be sent to the Senate where a Conservative majority will likely assure it’s passage.  “This really is a reckless pace for such a sweeping piece of legislation, that will drastically undermine age-old civil liberties. It’s clear the Conservatives are moving at such breakneck speed in order to ram this through before opposition can make itself felt,”  Open Media’s David Christopher told the Peoples World in an interview. Open Media is a coalition of 60 groups, ranging from the National Firearm’s association to major unions, fighting against evasive legislation that undermines privacy rights and civil liberties. 

The Conservatives have also started running TV ads to build public support for Bill C-51.

A wide range of organizations and parties inside and outside of Parliament have opposed the legislation: the Greens, Communists, NDP, trade union and environmental movements, civil liberties associations, Open Media, the Federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien as well as groups on the right such as the Libertarian Party.  

Bill C-51 defines terrorism as “interference with the capability of the government of Canada in relation to intelligence, defense, border operations, public safety, administration of justice, diplomatic or consular relations, or the economic or financial stability of Canada; changing or unduly influencing a government in Canada by force or unlawful means; inference with critical infrastructure; interference with global information infrastructure; an activity that causes serious harm to a person or their property …; an activity that takes place in Canada and undermines the security of another state.”

The legislation will give spy agencies new powers to, among other things, override privacy protections to increase information sharing between government agencies and security agencies. It would expand the Canadian Service Intelligence Service’s (CSIS) -Canada’s version of the CIA – powers to include placing Canadians on a no-fly list. It criminalizes advocating, promoting and supporting terrorism online – even when the person has no intention of carrying out a terrorist act –  and will allow the CSIS to apply for court orders to remove websites. The bill also allows police to arrest  suspects and detain them for one week without charges based on mere suspicion they might carry out a terrorist act.   

Critics fear that Bill C-51’s broad new definition of terrorism will allow the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and CSIS to clamp down on the environmental and labor movements, for example, if they interfere with critical infrastructure or economic and financial stability.  It will also allow security agencies to go after supporters and organizers of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement against Israeli apartheid policies as potential terrorists because it is “activity that takes place in Canada and undermines the security of another state.” Critics assert that the police already have enough power to deal with domestic terrorists with existing Canadian law.  

Even exiled US whistleblower Edward Snowden weighed in against Bill C-51 recently.  In video clip from Russia, he warned that the legislation threatens civil liberties and political freedoms in Canada.

The Conservatives counter that the legislation has built in safeguards because judges will have to approve intelligence operations and that it excludes legitimate dissidents from being targeted.  

Meanwhile, an open letter signed by 100 academics and law professors opposing Bill C-51 has been sent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  The letter, among other things, criticizes the legislation because:  

— The law defines ‘activities that undermine the security of Canada’ in such an exceptionally broad way that ‘terrorism’ is simply one of nine examples, and only ‘lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression’ is excluded. Apart from all the civil-disobedience activities and illegal protests or strikes that will be covered (e.g. in relation to “interference with critical infrastructure”), this deep and broad intrusion into privacy is made worse by the fact there are no corresponding oversight or review mechanisms adequate to this expansion of the state’s new levels of information awareness. Concerns have already been expressed by the Privacy Commissioner, an officer of Parliament, who has insufficient powers and resources to even begin to oversee, let alone correct abuses within, this expanded information-sharing system.

— Making it criminal to advocate or encourage terrorism could affect people advocating  armed revolution or rebellion abroad.  If Bill C-51 had been in effect during the apartheid period, it would have affected thousands of Canadians who supported the African National Congress’s efforts to overthrow the apartheid government.    

—  Allowing the CSIS – which can currently only collect information – to intervene and disrupt activities is dangerous because the organization defines the threat to the security of Canada “so broadly that CSIS already considers various environmental and aboriginal movements to be subject to their scrutiny.”  

— It also highlights that Bill C-51 will subvert the role of judges who are there to assess whether legal measures violate laws and instead turn them into agents for security agencies to pre-authorize violations of Canadian law. “Now a judge can be asked to (indeed, required) to say yes in advance to measures that could range from wiping a target’s computer clear of all info to fabricating materials (or playing agent provocateur roles) that discredits a target…”

— The letter criticizes the lowering of the threshold for preventive detention and allowing the CSIS to place people on no fly lists.  It concludes by criticizing the conservatives for limiting debate on bill C-51:  “It is sadly ironic that democratic debate is being curtailed on a bill that vastly expands the scope of covert state activity when that activity will be subject to poor even non-existent democratic oversight or review.”  

Leadnow, Open Media, BC Government Employees Union, and others are planning to stage joint demonstrations across Canada on Mar. 14 to oppose Bill C-51. 

Photo: Parliament – Ottawa.  |   Wikipedia (CC)