Last October, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper hid in a closet as shots rang out in the halls of the Canadian Parliament. The “terrorist attack,” which tragically took the life of Nathan Cirillo, a soldier on sentry duty at the National War Memorial, was the act of an unstable 32-year-old man named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau.
Zehaf-Bibeau, whose father was Libyan, had converted to Islam in 2004 and had no known ties to any terrorist group. He’d been living in a homeless shelter and had long-term problems with substance abuse. His attack – along with another that occurred near Montreal shortly before it, in which another man with a long history of mental illness ran over a soldier with his car – were seized on by politicians and the media to push forward new tools needed to fight “Islamic extremism” both at home and abroad.
Soon after Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack, Canadian pilots joined in NATO airstrikes on ISIL targets in Iraq, drawing the country into renewed war in that nation – a conflict former Prime Minister Jean Chretian had wisely avoided in 2003. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, the Harper government crafted legislation further empowering Canadian security services at the expense of rights guaranteed to Canadians under the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Due to the Conservative majority in Parliament, and aided with support from the Liberal Party, the final bill, C-51, easily passed its second reading – despite being more wide-ranging than most observers expected. One glaring example was a provision in the bill allowing police to engage in what were previously illegal searches and seizures in terrorism cases.
If made into law, Canadian judges will now be able to issue “disruption warrants” in terrorism cases that “would give cops and spies the go-ahead to ‘enter any place or open or obtain access to anything,’ copy any documents and install or remove anything they see fit.” Some of the language in C-51 defines terrorism so broadly, it appears that anyone who disagrees with neo-liberal aims – whether in economic or foreign policy – could be tarred with the “terrorist” brush.
The Public Debate
Thankfully, there have been strong voices opposing the bill. The NDP, the left-leaning Official Opposition party, along with Elizabeth May, the leader of Canada’s Green Party, have demanded more hearings on C-51 before it is passed into law. Many Parliamentarians have also said they will vote against it if substantial amendments aren’t made to the final bill.
The Conservatives and their Liberal allies talk as if terrorism is an existential threat. The desire of some sensible people in Ottawa to further study and debate C-51 provoked this response from Conservative MP Daryl Kramp: “Time is of the essence. I don’t want Rome to burn when Nero fiddles. The terrorism threat is real.”
While it’s unlikely that the second largest country in the world will catch on fire anytime soon due to the actions of “lone wolves” like Zehaf-Bibeau, Kramp and others like him have showed themselves unable to avoid using such tired metaphors. And it’s this fearful attitude that has already led the government to legalize “preventive arrests” – a process wherein Canadians can be “detained without charges and arrested without warrants.” Bill C-51 goes even further in eroding constitutional rights than the eight pieces of anti-terrorism legislation already passed by the Canadian government since 2001.
Besides the objections put forward by the NDP and the Greens, in an unprecedented display of unity, four former prime ministers and five former Supreme Court justices sent a letter to the Globe and Mail national newspaper on the subject of C-51. In an important passage, they stated, “Protecting human rights and protecting public safety are complementary objectives, but experience has shown that serious human rights abuses can occur in the name of maintaining national security.”
A few sensible commentators have also noted that the money that will be spent as a result of the bill – not to mention the costs of bombing ISIL in Iraq – could have a greater impact if it were used to help the mentally ill in the country, not only regarding possible acts of terrorism but also mass shootings at schools and in other public places that have claimed far more victims.
In recent years, the Canadian government has also created a new class of terrorist: “anti-petroleum extremists.” These dangerous subversives have, according to a report issued last summer by Canada’s federal police, the RCMP, “aligned themselves with violent aboriginal extremists. As the petroleum industry expands its operations across Canada, criminal activity associated to the anti-petroleum movement will increase nationally.”
The Conservative Party in general, and Stephen Harper in particular, are known to be very friendly with the petroleum industry, especially tar sands producers who wield significant influence in the country. In December, the Harper complained that it was “crazy” for opposition MPs and environmentalists to demand more regulations on the industry to combat global warming. He has also used his majority rule to muzzle government scientists, especially those researching climate issues, placing restrictions on their right to speak to the press or the public.
Although there is a vague clause protecting “advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression” in the text, Bill C-51 doesn’t define when these protected behaviors cross over into the “promotion” or the actual commitment of terrorist acts. For example, C-51 makes clear that hurting the country’s economic interests in any way falls under this definition. Thus, blocking a pipeline or organizing a protest without permission from authorities could be considered terrorism if the bill becomes law.
It isn’t just environmentalists who are likely to be targeted under C-51. Non-violent animal rights activists and anti-capitalists are other groups that federal authorities have labeled “extremists” of late. The bill could even make most forms of non-violent protest and civil disobedience technically illegal, especially when those activities haven’t been pre-approved by authorities.
Conservatives used to talk about the difference between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” regimes. Totalitarian regimes, associated by conservative intellectuals with the Soviet Union and its most extreme surveillance state in East Germany, were considered worse than authoritarian governments like the Latin American military dictatorships supported by the West.
But recent revelations from the trove of documents provided by Edward Snowden revealed that the CSE, Canada’s version of the NSA, is up to similar tricks as the U.S. agency, and is only accountable to a single retired judge. Add C-51 into the mix and we’re on the road to creating a state the totalitarians of old could only dream of.
If history teaches us anything it’s that governments rarely relinquish new powers once they’re acquired. Laws like Bill C-51 are likely to stay on the books regardless of who takes over the government in the upcoming election. Canadians need to raise their voices in opposition to Bill C-51 before it’s too late.