Last Wednesday the Harper Government’s controversial anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51, passed its third reading in the House of Commons following a 183-96 vote that saw Justin Trudeau and the Liberals support the bill with Thomas Mulcair and the NDP standing firmly against it.
The proposed legislation sparked nationwide protests in March and has prompted civil society groups, more than 100 Canadian legal experts and Canada’s own privacy commissioner to speak out against what they say is an attack on Canadians’ civil liberties—promoted in a politics and culture of fear—in the name of national and public security.
Once rubber-stamped by the Senate, the Anti-Terrorism Act will give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) new powers to intervene in suspected terrorist plots and will allow 17 federal departments and agencies to share information more freely. It will also permit the RCMP to restrict the movement of suspects and hold them in private detention longer, and it will expand no-fly list powers while making it a criminal offense to encourage someone to carry out a terrorist attack.
The bill’s critics say it goes too far in turning CSIS into a “secret police” force with lack of Parliamentary oversight. They also argue the bill paves the way for the infringement of Canadians’ civil liberties and breaches the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Bill C-51 is a legislative drift net that has a reach far beyond its immediate target of radical Islamic terrorism,” Doug Cuthand recently wrote in an opinion piece for CBC Aboriginal. “It has the potential to scoop up environmentalists, aboriginal rights activists, union members and anyone who is seen to stand in the way of national security.”
Others argue it will increase racial profiling of Muslim Canadians.
Stephen Harper has been widely accused of fear mongering in citing last year’s highly publicized killings in Montreal and Ottawa as justification for C-51 when he introduced the bill in January.
“Jihadist terrorism is not a future possibility, it is a present reality,” he said during a speech to Conservative party supporters in Toronto on Jan. 25. “Violent jihadism is not just a danger somewhere else. It seeks to harm us here in Canada, in our cities, and in our neighbourhoods through horrific acts like deliberately driving a car at a defenceless man, or shooting a soldier in the back as he stands on guard at a War Memorial. Canadians are targeted by these terrorists for no other reason than that we are Canadians. They want to harm us because they hate our society and the values it represents.”
A brief history of Bill C-51
An Angus Reid poll in February found that 82 per cent of Canadians supported C-51, with 69 per cent wanting additional oversight “to ensure law enforcement’s powers aren’t abused.”
The federal Green Party almost immediately opposed the bill, citing a Feb. 2 Globe and Mail editorial that urged, “Parliament must not allow Mr. Harper to turn CSIS, an intelligence agency, into a secret police force.”
Thomas Mulcair and the NDP were slower out of the gate, but on Feb. 18 announced they too would oppose the bill on the basis the legislation is “sweeping, dangerously vague, and likely ineffective.”
The Liberals expressed concern over several aspects of the bill too but said they would ultimately support it.
During a speaking engagement at the University of British Columbia in early March, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau revealed the Liberals’ support for the bill was reactionary, to what he called the Conservatives’ move to make “political hay” out of national security in an election year.
“[W]e know that, tactically, this government would be perfectly happy if the opposition completely voted against this bill because it fits into their fear narrative and [their desire to] … bash people on security,” the Huffington Post reported him as saying.
In February a group of former prime ministers, Supreme Court justices, privacy commissioners and justice ministers signed a public letter calling on Harper to amend the bill to ensure adequate CSIS oversight. Meanwhile, public campaigns and petitions to stop the bill have garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures.
In March, during House of Commons public safety committee hearings, several prominent legal experts, individuals and representatives of advocacy groups testified against Bill C-51, at times futiley, according to at least one account. The committee did not invite former prime ministers Joe Clark, Jean Chretien, Paul Martin and John Turner—who had previously written the public letter expressing concern over the bill—to testify. Despite efforts by the NDP, the committee also left federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien out of the hearings.
In a written submission to the committee earlier in March, Therrien was critical of the bill.
Canadians are unable to have a full democratic debate on whether the proposed legislative changes are worth the price we will pay in civil liberties. — Law profs Craig Forcese and Kent Roach
“I have repeatedly heard that Canadians understand the need to share their information with the government, but that they have concerns about how this information is going to be used. They are particularly concerned with the issue of government surveillance,” he wrote.
“Bill C-51 does nothing to assuage those fears.”
By mid-March, a poll showed that 56 per cent of Canadians who were aware of Bill C-51 disapproved of it, while 33 per cent supported the legislation.
Following the public safety committee hearings and submissions of proposed amendments by opposition parties, the Conservatives amended some of the bill’s vague wording to appease concerns — but critics say the amendments did not go far enough, arguing CSIS was still being left with sweeping new powers and no adequate oversight.
Craig Forcese and Kent Roach, two law professors who have led in the nationwide resistance to the bill, wrote in a mid-April Walrus article that the government’s “real agenda” with C-51 is to liberate CSIS from its “dysfunctional relationship with the RCMP” and allow it to act unilaterally without oversight and with powers it seems are unprecedented among secret service agencies in western democracies.
“Unfortunately, we don’t really know the full extent to which CSIS would use the powers contained in C-51, because the government won’t tell us. As a result, Canadians are unable to have a full democratic debate on whether the proposed legislative changes are worth the price we will pay in civil liberties,” Forcese and Roach wrote in the article.
“Dealing with [the threat of terrorism] will require more than just enhanced powers for our security and intelligence services. It also will require a commitment to prosecute and punish terror suspects in a manner that is consistent with due process, civil liberties, and human rights.”
Most Newfoundland and Labrador MPs support the bill
Of Newfoundland and Labrador’s seven Members of Parliament, four voted in support of Bill C-51, including three of four Liberal members (Humber—St. Barbe—Baie Verte MP Gerry Byrne was absent for the vote), and now-independent Avalon MP Scott Andrews. Both NDP MPs voted against the bill.
All three of the Liberal MPs The Independent spoke with admitted they were concerned about the lack of CSIS oversight but echoed Trudeau’s statements that the need for increased protection against terrorism trumped the potential thwarting of certain civil liberties, therefore warranting their party’s unanimous vote in support of the bill.
“There’s no doubt about it, there’s an element of danger to [Bill C-51],” said Bonavista—Exploits Liberal MP Scott Simms. However, he explained, “the immediacy” of the situation was enough to sway him to support the bill.
“[Y]ou’ve got security measures in the world, like what happened in Charlie Hebdo and places like in Paris — some of this stuff starts out as cells,” he continued. “We’ve already had some arrests here regarding some of these cells now to get off the ground. And a big part of that is to have the security in this country to be able to have preemptive detention in order to be able to stop this.”
Labrador MP Yvonne Jones offered a similar explanation for her vote in support of the bill, saying if she had “went and voted against this bill today, and in the course of the next month somebody shows up and takes the life of every student in a school in this country, I’m going to feel pretty bad. I’m gonna feel like it was partly my responsibility for not voting for the safety and the security and the enactment of the legislation that may have protected them.”
Jones acknowledged there are “sections of this bill that are very disturbing…to me and to a lot of the people that I represent,” but that it has “unfortunately…always been the way of the Harper Conservatives to take what is meant to be something good—protecting the safety and security of Canadians, or doing something good in the interest of Canadians—and throwing it in with some very evil, nasty tactics.
“Well unfortunately that’s once again what Bill C-51 is doing.”
Graphic by Michael Philpott.
Asked what she has to say to Labradorians who are standing up for their Aboriginal rights, serving as land defenders and fighting the large scale industrial destruction of sacred places like Muskrat Falls, Jones responded: “I would say to people in my riding, it’s a very difficult task when you’re asked to [choose between] the protection of the country, and the protection of privacy. And that is a very, very difficult situation to be put in — however, that’s the situation [the Conservatives] put each of us in.
“That’s the decision that we were forced to make, it’s not a decision that you can make lightly, and no one should ever undermine it to be that way. And yes, I have heard people out there saying this is unfair, that we should have the right to protest, that we should have the right to our opinion, we should have the right to protect our privacy and our private information, and I totally agree with them. And I hope that come October I’m going to be in a position in a government to fix this and to do it right.”
All three Liberal MPs suggested the changes they, and most Canadians, want made to Bill C-51 can happen if the Liberals form government following this fall’s federal election.
“I can live with it as it is for now, with the intention of following through with ensuring that those shortcomings that have been identified, that when we form government that we will in fact make the changes necessary to respond to the concerns that have been expressed,” said Liberal MP for Bonavista-Burin-Trinity Judy Foote.
Trudeau made a similar remark during his talk at University of British Columbia in March—that the Liberals would amend the bill once elected as the next Government of Canada—to which one student replied: “Sir, I must say that supporting the bill that you know is dangerous while promising to reform it when you’ve been elected to government is tantamount to putting our rights hostage, and our vote is our ransom.”
[If I had] went and voted against this bill today, and in the course of the next month somebody shows up and takes the life of every student in a school in this country, I’m gonna feel pretty bad. — Yvonne Jones, Liberal MP for Labrador
St. John’s East NDP MP Jack Harris criticized the Liberals’ support of C-51, saying “that’s hardly a proper role to play in a democracy, when you say you believe that [proposed legislation] is unconstitutional and wrong but you’re voting for it anyway.”
Each of the Liberal MPs The Independent interviewed cited the Conservatives’ majority government as part of the reason they supported the bill, arguing the Tories would have pushed the bill through Parliament with or without Liberal support — so it was better to propose amendments and support the bill regardless of whether or not those amendments were accepted, and then change the bill to their liking if and when they formed government after the fall election.
“We proposed amendments, we tried to work with the government to make the bill better by proposing those amendments that balanced security and civil liberties,” said Foote.
“You have to make a judgment call, and in doing that you really do consider all aspects; you want to do what is right, and I believe we did,” she continued. “I know people make decisions based on different judgment calls, but we did what we did—I did what I did, as a member of Parliament first and foremost. Again, the measures in it that help keep Canadians safe were important, and I didn’t want to throw that away. Having said that, this was going to pass anyway because [the Conservatives] have a majority.”
Harris responded, saying that voting to support legislation an MP or a party doesn’t fully support because a government with a majority will pass the bill anyway isn’t a legitimate reason to support a bill.
“If you’re opposed to legislation and you vote in favour of it…to say that it would pass anyway — well I guess you should vote for all legislation and not bother to [amend] it until you’re in government. That’s not leadership.”
Avalon MP Scott Andrews, who has sat as an Independent since being expelled from the Liberal caucus earlier this year following allegations of sexual harassment by an NDP MP, said while he understands the widespread concern with Bill C-51, “sometimes civil liberties come at a cost to protection.
“It was a tough balance and I’m hopeful that the oversight measures that are in there will keep a close eye on it. And if not, it’s something that Parliament should come back at some other time to make sure that those concerns that people have with it, and civil liberties, are protected over time.”
Asked if he thought the concerns expressed by the legal experts and former prime ministers, Supreme Court justices and others were warranted, Andrews said, “I do think they have some concerns, but at the end of the day when you try to explain to people what needs to be done to protect its citizens, you know, you’ve got to realize that that’s part of it.
“There may be a lot of people [who disagree with the bill] but I don’t buy into the fear that this is going to trump the right to protest and all that. I take it in good faith and good measure that the authorities are going to use this to help prevent future attacks on Canadians.”
Fighting C-51 in a culture and politics of fear
Ken Kavanagh of the Council of Canadians’ Newfoundland chapter said the passage of Bill C-51 through three readings in the House of Commons was a classic example of the Conservative Government’s fear mongering tactics, and that he’s disappointed Trudeau and the Liberals bought into it.
“The Liberals supported Bill C-51 right from the start because they’re afraid to look like they’re against security — they’re afraid of political backlash,” he said.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with our politicians to call a spade a spade when something is not good…and not to look at their stance in terms of whether it’s going to be politically beneficial to them or not,” he continued.
“In this case, they’re afraid to take on Harper. To say that they would attempt to change this [bill] when they get into power, and not take a stand against it now, to me is the most cowardly thing I’ve heard of. That doesn’t make any sense. Your job in opposition is to challenge legislation and policy of the governing party, and if there are some serious issues with it, to stand up against it.”
Last year it came to light that the federal government was already surveilling nationwide dissent in response to, among other things, the Harper Government’s elimination of environmental protections to clear the way for expanded industrial development like mining and pipelines.
Your job in opposition is to challenge legislation and policy of the governing party, and if there are some serious issues with it, to stand up against it. — Ken Kavanagh, Council of Canadians
Events that turned up on a Government Operations Centre report in Ottawa—collected by various government agencies—included a demonstration in Happy Valley-Goose Bay that saw women, children and elders come together to honour Indigenous sovereignty and to protect their land and water, a community-organized forum on fracking in Stephenville, and a fisherman’s protest on the Island over shrimp allocations.
Speaking in the House of Commons on May 5, NDP MP for St. John’s South—Mount Pearl Ryan Cleary summarized two of the biggest concerns critics have about Bill C-51.
“The Privacy Commissioner is concerned that the bill would allow information on many law-abiding Canadians, as most of us are, to be collected and shared with law enforcement without reasonable cause and would potentially allow the government to build personal profiles on each and every one of us,” he said.
“An even bigger concern is who exactly would keep an eye on who is keeping an eye on us. Bill C-51 would give CSIS greater powers but would not correspondingly expand oversight of CSIS, and without proper oversight, the door would be wide open for abuse, the abuse of our basic Canadian freedoms.
“In the words of Benjamin Franklin,” he concluded, ‘People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.’”
Despite its passage in the House of Commons and the bill being one step away from coming into law, advocacy groups are continuing with their opposition and keeping pressure on decision-makers.
“This development is bad news, although not entirely surprising — but it does not mean Bill C-51 has become law,” reads a May 6 blog post on OPENmedia.ca. “It means we need to keep up the pressure on the Senate and, if passed there, all the way through to the October election. If this bill becomes law, we will make sure every Canadian voter knows where their MP stood when it mattered most.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said four of five Liberal MPs from NL voted to support Bill C-51. In fact, three of four Liberal MPs supported the bill.