It’s been one year since two civil liberties groups filed a court challenge against the Harper government’s overreaching Bill C-51. Sadly, despite the change in government, the fight continues.
Demonstrators gather at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto in March, 2015, to the federal government's proposed anti-terrorism Bill C-51. (VINCE TALOTTA / TORONTO STAR)
Tues., Aug. 02, 2016
The Harper government never met a climate of fear it couldn't use. Take the aftermath of the murders of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo in the fall of 2014, national tragedies that brought home the spectre of terror. The Tories exploited the opportunity to railroad through Parliament constitutionally dubious changes to Canada's security law they had long sought to enact.
A month later, two civil liberties groups launched the inevitable court challenge to the Anti-Terrorism Act, formerly Bill C-51. But in November, as the Trudeau government came to power, the challenge seemed to teeter on the verge of irrelevance. Though the Liberals had supported the bill in opposition, they promised once in office to undertake a broad public consultation and rewrite the act to comply with both the will of Canadians and the Charter.
Eight months later, however, C-51 remains entirely unchanged and the public consultation is still not yet underway. The court challenge is in abeyance, awaiting government response. Meanwhile, our security establishment continues to wield its problematic new powers largely unscrutinized.
This week, exasperated by the glacial progress, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), one of the two organizations that filed the challenge, resumed its campaign to overturn C-51. “This dangerous legislation is doing damage every second we have to wait for action, and we are tired of waiting,” the group writes on its website.
CJFE is encouraging Canadians to sign a parliamentary petition, sponsored by Liberal MP Arif Virani, which calls on the government to commit to an expert review of the act and remove all aspects that violate the Charter. The petition must receive 500 signatures to be presented in the House. It already has more than 1,400. Legislators should listen.
As the Star has argued before, there is no evidence that the legislation makes us any safer, and yet no doubt that it infringes on our civil rights. In its overly vague wording, it is dangerously open to interpretation, a threat to freedom of speech, privacy and security of the person.
Take just a few of its most egregious aspects.
The legislation empowers the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to “take measures” to disrupt activities it believes pose a security threat, without defining what those measures are or creating a public process to ensure the agency doesn’t trample Canadians’ rights along the way.
It casts a chill on free speech, outlawing the “promotion” of terrorism “in general” (whatever that means), even when there’s no intention of committing a violent act.
It vastly broadens the definition of an “activity that undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada” to include any “interference with the capability of the government” in relation to issues such as diplomacy, critical infrastructure and economic stability. As experts have pointed out, this language allows the government of the day to take aim at critics of Ottawa's foreign policy, First Nations, environmentalists or political adversaries, among other troubling targets.
What’s more, if you are deemed to pose such a threat, even if your activities have nothing to do with terrorism, information about you may be shared among 17 federal departments. Indeed, as Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien told Parliament last year, the legislation constitutes a profound violation of Canadians’ privacy. “While the potential to know virtually everything about everyone may well identify some new threats, the loss of privacy is clearly excessive,” Therrien warned. “All Canadians would be caught in this web.”
And Bill C-51 did all this without doing anything to improving the woefully inadequate oversight of our security establishment, granting the state vast new powers while entrenching its impunity.
Only on this last score has the Trudeau government taken some action. It tabled a bill last month that would finally create a much-needed parliamentary committee to watch over our security apparatus.
But that’s only a partial solution to part of the problem. Parliamentary oversight must be complemented by expert oversight, which is desperately lacking in Canada and entirely overlooked by the government’s bill. And in any case, no amount of oversight can compensate for bad legislation.
The climate of fear in which Bill C-51 was passed still prevails today. With terror in the news almost daily, the political temptation to leave these policies in place is undeniably great and will very likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Fear of the potential fallout in case of a tragedy can be politically paralyzing. But the Liberals must now find the courage they lacked when they supported the bill even as they were aware of its fatal flaws.
Public consultations may well prove an important part of designing a policy that addresses our complex security challenges while respecting Canadians’ civil liberties. They should not, however, be used as a delay tactic. There’s nothing Canadians can say to justify Bill C-51’s violations of our civil rights. The government should do the brave and righteous thing: scrap the worst aspects of the law at the first opportunity.