Security versus civil rights Debating anti-terrorism Bill C-51

Stephen Harper announces anti-terrorism measures. PMO photo.
Stephen Harper announces anti-terrorism measures. PMO photo.

There’s an intense debate happening in Parliament and now in the streets over Bill C-51, which the Harper government says is needed to prevent terrorism on Canadian soil. The legislation provides sweeping new powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which collects information covertly on security threats and forwards that information to the RCMP. Bill C-51 proposes that CSIS be allowed not only to monitor individuals who the agency thinks pose a threat, but also to disrupt their activities in a variety of ways, including seizing passports and cancelling travel reservations. Bill C-51 would also provide the RCMP with new powers to make preventative arrest or detention of suspected terrorists and lower the legal threshold under which such arrests occur.

Caught in the web

What’s more, Bill C-51 would allow 17 government departments and agencies to share amongst themselves — and with security agencies — information that they collect about Canadians, including tax records and details of travel for business or pleasure. It’s something Daniel Therrien, the federal Privacy Commissioner, objects to, saying “All Canadians — not only terrorism suspects — will be caught in this web.”

The bill would also allow CSIS to counter any activity that “undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada.” That list includes “terrorism,” obviously, but also “interference with the capability of the government of Canada in relation to … the economic or financial stability of Canada.” Does this mean that CSIS can disrupt aboriginal protests against pipelines or mining on their lands, or target trade union members engaged in a rail or postal strike? Government ministers insist that legitimate protest is exempted but critics remain skeptical.

“So-called experts”

In defence of the legislation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that “the international jihadist movement has declared war” and Bill C-51 is needed to keep Canadians safe. The context here involves two domestic fatal attacks on Canadian soldiers by disturbed and lone-wolf individuals, as well other attacks in Paris, Australia and elsewhere. These acts, as deplorable as they are, can hardly be accurately described as a war.

The Conservatives accuse those who question Bill C-51 as being soft on terrorism and they mock as “so-called experts” those scholars, government privacy commissioners and ombudsmen who say that the bill goes too far in offending the privacy and civil rights of Canadians.

Harassing  Zunera Ishaqa

Meanwhile, the Conservatives continue to defend the prohibition of Muslim women from wearing the niqab, a face covering, during oath-taking at citizenship ceremonies. Zunera Ishaqa, a new Canadian, had agreed to unveil in private before an official prior to taking the oath but not in the public ceremony but she was refused. She fought the ban in court and won, but now, the government is appealing the ruling.

The Conservative Party at one point even used Ishaqa’s case as the basis of a fundraising letter to its supporters. More recently, Harper responded to questions about the government’s appeal by asking, “Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice that … frankly is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?”

Election prism

This must be seen through the prism of a coming federal election. The Conservatives laud themselves as good managers, but the economic news has been bad as of late: lacklustre job creation, an oil industry meltdown, growing inequality among Canadians and mounting consumer debt. As a result, the Conservatives’ new narrative is that only Harper can keep us safe from Muslim terrorists.

So what are we to do? For one thing, we can start treating rhetoric out of Ottawa with some scepticism. We can make our views known. We can also reach out to our Muslim neighbours. After all, this cannot be a pleasant time for them.

A shorter version of this post appeared on the United Church Observer blog on March 12, 2015.           

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament