Dangerous new powers for federal government? – Part 1
By Peter Ewart
The Harper government is in the process of pushing through Parliament more “anti-terror” legislation which will further ramp up the power of the federal government and its security agencies. Could all of this endanger the rights and freedoms of Canadians as a whole?
A number of political figures, journalists, civil libertarians, and even Establishment newspapers, such as the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star think so. Many believe that this legislation is profoundly undemocratic, giving state intelligence agencies such as CSIS even more “secret police” powers at the expense of the civil liberties of Canadians.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that the cherished rights and freedoms of every Canadian are at stake here, the Harper government has provided no process or mechanism by which Canadians can discuss and provide input into this important issue, choosing, instead, to ram the legislation through a Parliament in which the main opposition parties, Liberals and NDP, appear to be cowed and intimidated (the exception is the Green Party and some Independent MPs).
What are some of the key concerns? No one questions that there should be laws against terrorism. But it is quite another thing, if these laws are drafted in such a way as to stifle and suppress the freedom of speech of Canadians, violate their right to privacy, and criminalize their legitimate political activity and protest.
Prime Minister Harper has declared that Canada is currently “at war” with Islamic terrorism and thus we need this new legislation. However, there is a history in Canada of such “war time” legislation being commandeered by the federal government and used against the rights and freedoms of Canadians. Perhaps the most notorious example of such draconian legislation is the “War Measures Act”, which was brought into being at the onset of the First World War. At that time, among other things, this Act was used to unjustly deport, as well as intern in camps, thousands of Ukrainians and other Eastern European immigrants.
Then, over fifty years later, the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, resurrected the Act to suspend the rights of all Canadians during the FLQ crisis of 1970, resulting in thousands of raids by the army and police and the arrests of hundreds of Quebec nationalists and political activists, many of whom had nothing to do with the FLQ (which was already heavily infiltrated by the police) and who were ultimately released without charges. As was noted years later by various observers, the actual main purpose for imposing the Act was to disrupt the Quebec sovereigntist movement.
And so it is that the Harper government’s new “anti-terror” legislation, along with other legislation since 9/11, could come back to haunt us, whether we are journalists, workers on strike, environmental activists, First Nations, immigrants, and even business people.
How is this the case?
First of all, the existing “anti-terror” legislation in the Criminal Code, as well as the government’s “Counter-terrorism Strategy” throws a very broad net as to who might be classified as a terrorist or what might constitute terrorist activity. This net goes far beyond what is termed Islamic or Jihadist terrorism. Indeed, environmental and anti-capitalist groups are specifically identified as potential threats.
However, the new “anti-terror” Bills C-44 and C-51 being rammed through by the Harper government throw an even broader net. According to this legislation, if you, or the organization or company that you are associated with, are deemed by the federal government to be possibly “interfering with the economic and financial stability” of the country or undermining its security or “critical infrastructure,” you could be targeted by CSIS and other federal government security agencies.
The terminology of these Bills creates very broad categories that could encompass a wide range of activities that have nothing to do with “terrorism,” including civil disobedience, environmental protests against pipelines, First Nations blockades of disputed territory, strikes, boycotts, protests, political organizing, support for national liberation or independence struggles in other countries, media coverage and even business transactions.
The world is a complicated place and there are many complicated struggles. Indeed, Canadians often have differing views on international issues. However, under this new “anti-terror” legislation, if you happen to express support for one side or another in a civil war, national liberation struggle or other cause somewhere in the world which the Harper government claims to have something to do with possible “terrorism”, it may be that you could be prosecuted and jailed for up to five years. For their part, media organizations could have computer equipment seized and websites shut down, not to speak of the chill on free speech.
Many, if not most, Canadians could fall under these broad categories, especially when it is taken into account that, under these new Bills, you or any organization you are associated with, do not have to be classified as terrorist to be a target for investigation. Rather, all that is required is that you are simply classified as being “relevant” to an investigation in some way. This, of course, allows enormous latitude for federal security agencies, and opens the door for wide-scale abuse.
And what kind of abuse might this new legislation foster?
If you are targeted for any of the vague reasons listed above or if you are deemed “relevant” in some way to an investigation, CSIS, the spy agency, could literally ransack your personal life without a warrant. It could gather and share a wide range of personal and business information about you from other state agencies, including taxation, medical, financial, commercial, customs, and travel. Furthermore, CSIS could trade your personal information like baseball cards with the spy agencies of foreign governments.
Even more troubling, the legislation explicitly states that CSIS will now be allowed to break Canadian law and violate the Charter of Rights & Freedoms, as well as break the law of other countries. A judge’s warrant will be required, but how hard will it be to find a compliant or corrupt judge, considering that they are appointed by the government itself?
What limitations will be put on the activities of CSIS operatives within Canada? They will not be allowed to kill or cause “bodily harm” to Canadian citizens or “violate their sexual integrity”, which presumably means they can’t rape citizens. But everything else up to this, no matter how egregious and anti-democratic, appears to be fair game.
The legislation, by allowing CSIS to break the law and violate the civil rights of Canadians, opens the door to the official authorization by the federal government of a host of “dirty tricks,” such as planting false information, character assassination, breaking and entering into homes and businesses, installing bugging and surveillance devices, organizing entrapment plots, agent provocateur activity, and so on. The list of dirty tricks is practically endless, with CSIS having the broad power to “disrupt” any activities that, by the federal government’s definition, “undermine the security of Canada.”
Four decades ago, under Liberal Party rule, a huge scandal broke out in Canada over similar dirty tricks by the RCMP, resulting in the MacDonald Commission on RCMP wrongdoing, which uncovered police agents planting bombs, burning down barns, and breaking into premises. Almost 40 years later, under Harper’s Conservatives, here we are again – “back to the future”.
Part 2 of this series will discuss and give examples of how existing “anti-terror” and “security” legislation has already given rise to serious abuses, and how the new legislation, Bills C-44 and C-51 promises to ramp these abuses up even more.
Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: email@example.com