At about the same time that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) laid charges against three men in terrorism related matters, two of them in absentia, came the news from the Conservative government in Ottawa about new anti-terrorism legislation giving more powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
In an emotional time, following the deaths of two Canadian soldiers killed by individuals who expressed sympathy or identification with the so-called Islamist militant movement and other dramatic attacks in Sydney, Australia and Paris, France, it would seem to make sense to give Canadians assurances that our government will do its utmost to see that we are protected. Bear in mind also that the Islamic State has issued threats against Canada now that Canadian soldiers are in Iraq.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Bill C-51 would give CSIS more freedom to spy on people even if they are only suspected of terrorism-related activities. But does CSIS need more authority than it already has to surveil terrorist plots and recruitment activities?
Furthermore, this new legislation includes no additional oversight of CSIS operatives as they go forward with these new powers. Already there have been concerns expressed even by some Conservative senators that with these new sweeping powers there will be no parliamentary oversight.
Another concern is that implementation of the new powers have not been precisely defined. With this new legislation, CSIS now has the power to “undertake measures to reduce threat to the security of Canada”. Would that include torture, for example?
What we understand is that this new legislation, which is supposed to make us safer, will at the same time infringe on our civil liberties. There has been concern, for example, that free speech would be under much more scrutiny and that speech deemed as having the intent to recruit into acts of terrorism could be criminalized. The problem would be that the notion of intent may be subjective and there would not be as strong a need to find evidence as previously in order to detain individuals.
It could also be incidental since the government’s communications spying agency – Communications Security Establishment Canada – is collecting metadata that can be used to aggregate any person’s Internet download and email patterns.
It is common sense that if there is a breeding ground here for people intent on acts of terror these activities must be stopped completely. The real concern is that in an attempt to get at those people, there will be overkill and unnecessary targeting of people who have nothing to do with terrorist activities and people will be targeted just because they are Muslim. Further, members of the Muslim faith here in Canada are significantly persons of colour. The tragic assault that occurred in Paris shows this festering dilemma is not only distinctly along religious lines but also along racial lines.
When the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. in 2001 were followed here in Canada with anti-terror legislation, there were also concerns that such security measures would mean loss of civil liberties. The Liberal government at that time had built in a sunset clause, so that that legislation was to have lasted only five years. The Conservatives, on the other hand, want to keep this new legislation in perpetuity and to add even more authority to CSIS.
Of course, with a majority, the Conservatives can push this legislation through Parliament, regardless of the protestations of the Opposition.
The irony of this new legislation and additional legislation to come is that in the attempt to ascertain the possible terrorist activities of a possible few it impinges on Canadians’ civil liberties, thus allowing the terror tactics of faraway militant bogeymen a certain victory.
Is this really the Canada we want?