On Saturday St. John’s will join about 60 other Canadian towns and cities holding demonstrations as part of a nationwide day of action to protest the federal government’s impending anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51.
Although the government’s stated objective with the new legislation is to increase national security, critics of the controversial omnibus bill, which the Harper Government has rushed through two readings in the House of Commons, say it will effectively create a Canadian “secret police”, further suppress free speech, expand information-sharing among federal agencies, enhance government surveillance, criminalize dissent—including Indigenous and environmental protests—and not offer recourse to people erroneously or unjustly arrested and detained under the new laws. Moreover, legal experts say, C-51 lacks adequate oversight, opening the door to the “prospect of avertible security service scandals.“
“I think every Canadian should be concerned about the sweeping implications and potential overreach contained in this anti-terror legislation,” says Erika Steeves, one of the organizers of Saturday’s demonstration in St. John’s, which begins at Harbourside Park at noon and will include a march through downtown to the federal government’s Sir Humphrey Gilbert Building.
On Jan. 28 Harper announced the bill and issued a statement referencing the “recent attacks in Ottawa”—referring to the murders of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in Montreal last year—as well as those in France and Australia, saying they “are reminders that the world is a dangerous place and that Canada is not immune to the threat of terrorism.”
He said “extreme jihadists have declared war on us, on all free people, and on Canada specifically,” and that through the new legislation the federal government “would provide [Canada’s] security and law enforcement agencies with the required tools and flexibility they need to effectively detect and disrupt national security threats before they happen, keeping Canadians safe.”
Last month an Angus-Reid poll found that 82 per cent of respondents support the legislation, with 36 per cent saying it doesn’t go far enough. But opposition is mounting now that the bill has been heavily scrutinized and more people are speaking out with grave concern, including former prime minsters, supreme court justices and justice ministers, law professors, human rights groups, Canada’s privacy commissioner, and the national media.
“My chief concern—beyond what is the new normal under Harper of steamrolling through contentious legislation—stems from the vague language of Bill C-51,” says Steeves. “The legislation doesn’t address the threat of terrorism in any way that current legislation doesn’t already do. I worry that the bill will do more to criminalize legitimate protests, especially indigenous and activists, in the name of national security than to actually avert terrorism.
“The language is so broad that anyone who participates in a protest considered to ‘undermine security’ or ‘interfere with critical infrastructure,’ for example, could be considered potential terrorists,” she continues. “Many types of behaviour that we generally accept as part of a healthy democracy, including democratic protest movements, would fall under the purview of this legislation.
“In a very real sense this bill is like a Canadian Patriot Act, implemented in a climate of fear and uncertainty at the expense of our hard-fought constitutional rights and freedoms.”
Last week world-renowned American whistleblower Edward Snowden said during a livestream Q&A on Bill C-51 hosted by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression that Canadian intelligence “has one of the weakest oversight frameworks out of any western intelligence agency in the world,” and that decisions such as Bill C-51 “are necessarily conversations of public interest.
In a very real sense this bill is like a Canadian Patriot Act, implemented in a climate of fear and uncertainty at the expense of our hard-fought constitutional rights and freedoms. — Erika Steeves, protest organizer
“They need to be decided, debated, and the decisions ultimately determined not just by representatives of the public, not just by elected officials — although they clearly have an important role — but by the people who ultimately have to live with these programs and under their scrutiny,” Snowden said. “And that’s the people in this room, that’s the people in universities across the country, and that’s average people going about their daily lives who don’t want to have to deal with getting down into the minutiae of political movements, political motions, these sort of policy debates. They just want to be able to look at what they want to do in their lives, and pursue that in a free and fair way, and that can only happen in liberal societies if we have liberal access to the facts.”
One of the aims of C-51, Steeves explains, is to “supposedly facilitate information sharing among numerous federal government agencies.” The new powers given to agencies like CSIS, “to collect and share citizens’ private information, and to even engage in ‘preventative detention’, will have no additional oversight,” she continues. “These changes will have the power to dismantle many of the rights Canadians take for granted.
“Activist groups will likely come under increased scrutiny and people will generally be deterred from openly criticizing government policies and engaging in civil disobedience.”
Steeves says the extent of the opposition to the bill should be reason enough for Harper to withdraw the bill and find a way to protect Canadians without threatening, or taking away, so many civil liberties. “The bill has received nearly unanimous condemnation in the mainstream press and also from academics and civil society organizations, which should give us pause to ask why Stephen Harper continues to push forward.
“The politics of fear coming out of the Harper government seems like a cynical and desperate move from a party that is on the ropes in an election year.
“I hope that the demonstrations being held across Canada this Saturday will alert the public to the sweeping implications of Bill C-51 and that because of public pressure the bill will be reconsidered, redefined, or shelved altogether.”
Bill C-51 Explained:
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