This became apparent on February 23, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government — backing a sweeping anti-terrorism bill to expand state surveillance powers and criminalize speech deemed to potentially “advocate” terrorism — closed down debate on the same bill after only three days of discussion.
Bill C-51 — drafted in response to two recent lone-wolf attacks, including one that ended in a shootout in the Ottawa House of Commons — broadens the scope of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), including allowing it to intercept private communications with closed-door judicial authorization.
Such a strategy is already ongoing, albeit under a different agency and on more-than-dubious legal footing. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden on January 28 show that Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) has already been monitoring the online downloads of millions of internet users. This followed news in April 2014 that the authorities were effectively copying themselves into Canadians’ emails, and monitoring thousands of texts and phone calls without a warrant.
Apparently emulating the United States by ramping up state powers and surveillance in the name of security is not enough. Canadian officials routinely hand over CSE data to their counterparts south of the border, and they have already agreed to share citizens’ biographic data with the US Border Patrol. Ontario police have even gone one step further and given confidential medical information to US officials, leading to Canadians being denied entry simply for having suffered a previous episode of mental illness.
Such tag-team abuses have a long history. In 2003, US officials intercepted and deported Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria from JFK Airport in New York, where he was awaiting a connection flight back from a family vacation in Tunisia. Canadian intelligence saw him held and tortured for a year, only to be found completely innocent.
If Canada’s security agencies are already overstepping their bounds, the extension of CSIS powers to include the “disruption” of terrorist activity, C-51’s extremely broad definition of terrorism, and preventative imprisonment when a subject “may” engage in terrorism, is nothing short of frightening.
The complaints have come piling in, including from four former prime ministers. The latest plea to scrap C-51 comes from 100 law professors nationwide, with their 4,000-word text covering “some, and only some” of the serious flaws in the bill. The letter notes that the bill opens the door for the stifling of protests and other forms of legitimate dissent.
Beyond this, C-51 transforms the CSIS from an information-gathering body into an aggressive agency, likely leading to to fresh turf wars with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The CSIS may also undertake overseas operations, further stirring up anti-Western sentiment that will likely only blow up in Canada’s face.
This is the grimmest irony of all: C-51 will violate Canadians’ rights only to damage counter-terror initiatives. By criminalizing incitement to terrorism, the frank discussions of deradicalization programs will be stifled, and the online forums and chat rooms that provide key warning signals will dry up, leaving security services in the dark.
Canada, once noted for abstaining from dubious armed conflicts abroad, and adhering to the rule of law at home, is fast becoming a fully-fledged member of an international club that sanctions torture, mass surveillance, and a creeping police state.
Perhaps the majority of Canadians support this process, and welcome the government’s latest bid to monitor their private lives as never before. But if they do, why is Harper so afraid of giving them a chance to debate it?