When was the last time a Canadian bill made headlines worldwide? You’ve probably stumbled upon an article or two talking about the Great White North’s new anti-terror laws, Bill C-51. By-in-large, Canadians and non-Canadians share a perceived identity of the state as green, progressive and peaceful.
Since 9/11, there has been a documented upswing in security measures in Western countries. To make things worse, this year alone Canada has experienced an attack on Parliament hill and numerous ISIS-related incidents bringing the issues of terrorism even closer to home. The Stephen Harper and the conservative government have used this tumultuous time to their advantage by consolidating power and surveillance. C-51 would disproportionally benefit the government structure, while still failing to address the societal and cultural causes of home-grown terrorism.
The proposition and subsequent infamy of Bill C-51 has lifted this veil of Canada’s peace efforts and revealed an emerging trend of domestic securitization and targeting of the disenfranchised.
The proposed new Anti-Terrorism Act 2015 is an omnibus bill of five parts largely focusing on the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s (CSIS) projected role change from monitors to actors. The proposed changes in mandate not only increase the surveillance of domestic Canadians, but gives space for agents to interfere abroad, disregard foreign laws and break the Charter of Rights. Bill C-51 has the potential, if abused, to affect peoples’ lives across the globe. Here are five reasons why we should all take notice, Canuck or not.
It broadens the definition of ‘terrorism’ to a fault
Up until now, terrorism has been defined by acts or the concrete planning of terror on the public or individuals. Bill C-51 would redefine this to include “advocating or promoting terrorism offences in general.” The use of the term “in general” can be interpreted in so many different ways, and here lies the danger. This gives space for academic discussion and dialogue to be deemed a crime, and be punishable. Activist education, like the ones offered by Tides Canada in the hopes of having well-intentioned activists and protesters could have the potential to be criminalized. Resistance to police control, or defence retaliation, by extension is endangered as well – verbal and physical resistance could be wrapped under terrorist compliance.
On top of this, it discourages those in the spaces of society to step forward and get help if they are considering terrorism as an escape. Dialogue and openness are key to not only democracy, but preliminary preventative action. By making terrorism loosely defined, it has the potential to find those who are innocent culpable, while creating fear and re-entrenching terrorism as an escape for those who have fallen through the supportive social fabric.
There’s a distinct lack of checks, balances, and privacy
Canada continues to be one of the only democracies with a spy agency which is not overviewed by parliamentary members. In other words, there is no discussion or debate in the house of what the spy agency can or cannot do. is meant to be the governmental department in charge of checking in on CSIS, however with issues of underfunding and staff turnaround many operations go unchecked. The non-partisan nature of the committee is one of its largest downfalls, as it lacks stakeholders and lasting interest in politics. As bill-51 works to expand and create active agents, the review panel continues to function retrospectively, leaving decisions up to agents and judges alone.
Part one of the law will also allow free flow of information between Canadian agencies. This includes the Canadian Revenue Agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and CSIS. In other words, agents and their frameworks could access anything from travel documents to taxes, and share those with the police, as well.
It allows the targeting of marginalized groups
With the sharing of information and the broadened definition of terrorism, groups that question or are marginalized in Canada are put increasingly at risk. There has already been documentation of environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and Tides Canada, being targeted by the RCMP because their campaigns are described as “anti-Canadian.” There has also been increased surveillance of Aboriginal activities, including healing ceremonies and Pow-wows.
Interfering with the economic fabric of Canada and “unlawful” protesting are two other striking features for the new definition of terrorism. Opposing oil and deforestation campaigns, which are under the economic umbrella of government planning, are now even more serious offences. Protesting, at its core, is also about opposing control and lifting up the oppressed. Turning any protester at a gathering without a proper and cumbersome permit has some serious power to silence opposition efforts.
Agents could be allowed to break foreign laws and influence travel
Bill C-51 would give agents the authority to break both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and foreign laws. By acquiring a warrant from a judge, CSIS members could “legally” disregard local laws in the sake of information gather or interference. By switching the role of the warrant from ensuring the charter is followed in to allowing its disregard also radically alters the regular legal process. The creation of no-fly lists, that I discussed before in section two of the bill, would replicate those seen in other places like the US. These have the potential to be used as manipulation techniques by security agents, threatening travel bans for individuals who do not surrender information.
Allows enhanced interrogation
Possibly the most troubling point in the new legislation is it’s space for detention and interrogation. The timeframe for detention without charge will be extended from 3 days to a full week. In the seven days, interrogation can be applied to the captive. Another new feature is the expansion of permissible interrogation techniques. Anything barring bodily harm, infringement of sexual integrity, and death would be allowed.
There is however no working legal definition of “sexual integrity,” which is problematic and can be interpreted differently to each individual. Historically, the use of sexual abuse in interrogation has put women and LGBTQ people at increased risk. It seems unacceptable to leave any room for these acts to be used. This wording may also create room for techniques like water boarding and psychological torture in order to gather information and subdue those who have been detained. Information extracted from these sessions is still not accepted in court; therefore their use is moot from a legal standpoint.
Opposition from the bill has been strong, yet it has continued to move forward through the House of Commons. Not only did 100 academics step forward with an open letter, but Margaret Atwood recently tweeted:
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) April 17, 2015
These are only five points in a larger set of problems. Bill C-51 endangers Canadians and foreigners’ safety by stifling constructive opposition, protesting and targeting marginalized groups. It also steps on the rights of global citizens by granting legal immunity world-wide to agents who are humans and have the ability for human error.
Bill C-51 is just one more example of Canada’s trend away from social mindfulness. The nature of the legislature itself, as an omnibus bill, walks the line of being unconstitutional. To deal effectively with terrorism, we need to address the social and cultural influences. We all need to ask ourselves how issues of racism, poverty and disenfranchisement intersect and create spaces for people to turn to such drastic measures. Creating ‘band-aids’ and criminalizing dissent could have the opposite effect (domestically and internationally) the Canadian government is striving for.
Image via Alex Indigo.