Bill C-51: Why it is dangerous and what you can do to fight it

By an independent group of concerned Canadians (and residents of Canada)

“Canadians should not be willing to accept such an obvious threat to their basic liberties.”
— The Globe and Mail

On January 30th, 2015 the Harper Government tabled Bill C-51, a bill misleadingly titled, “The Anti-Terrorism Act”. The bill is used to target “activities that undermine the security of Canada”, including “terrorism” – A category of activities that is so broad that it has the ability to impact almost anyone and put them on par with “terrorism”. The bill also introduces unprecedented powers to law enforcement to deal with these “threats”.

So concerning are its contents that the four past Prime Ministers (alongside 18 other prominent figures including Supreme court Justices, Justice Ministers, Solicitor Generals, privacy commissioners, and members of the security and intelligence review committees) have penned a letter to the government expressing their serious concerns. In addition, over a hundred law experts have written an open letter warning that Bill C-51 “is a dangerous piece of legislation in terms of its potential impacts on the rule of law, on constitutionally and internationally protected rights, and on the health of Canada’s democracy.

In addition to these prominent figures, many people ranging from academics and journalists to activists and Edward Snowden himself as well have expressed serious concerns about this threatening bill. The broad and open language of Bill C-51 is so extreme that critics have likened it to Orwell’s fiction novel, 1984. We will attempt to summarize the issues with this bill here.

1. An Overly Broad Reach

Among the many things that this bill lumps into “activities that undermine the security of Canada” they include: “Terrorism; interference with the economic or financial stability of Canada; changing or unduly influencing a government in Canada by unlawful means; interference with critical infrastructure; and any activity that undermines the security of another state.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this language could be open for interpretation and could be applied to labour movements and union strikes, indigenous rights activism and demonstrations, environmental activism and protests, student-sit-ins to protest tuition hikes, anti-war and peace demonstrations, or something as simple as what Rosa Parks did when she sat in the wrong section of the bus.

Strong evidence reveals that indigenous and environmental activism is already seen as a particularly strong threat by the current government, and critics have warned that they are likely to be a popular target for this bill. In general, it can be used to target those who challenge the status quo and the policies of the current government.

2. Criminalizing Advocacy of “Terrorism in General” and the Resulting “Chill” of Free Speech

Bill C-51 allows imprisonment for what they call “the advocacy or promotion of terrorism offences in general” through speaking, writing, recording, gesturing, or through other visible representations. Keeping in mind the extraordinarily broad definition of “terrorism” being used, as well as the broad concept of “advocating” and “terrorism in general”, serious concerns have been raised about how this new speech crime could chill free speech or ensnare government dissenters.

So, for instance, if the government considered Greenpeace a potential “terrorist” organization (and evidence shows that they are positioned to do so) and you verbally state that you support Greenpeace’s actions, regardless of whether or not you ever intended to participate in their work, you could be deemed to be “advocating terrorism” and this “crime” could be punishable by law with up to five years in prison. Roach and Forcese further warn “that the proposed offence can, unlike willful promotion of hatred, be applied to statements made in private. Thus, any understanding of the effects of the offence should take into account the implications of expansive anti-terror wiretap and other surveillance powers. What is said in both surveilled public and private conversations may be criminalized”.

3. Further Lowering the Threshold for Arrest Without Cause

This bill explicitly changes wording to lower the threshold for arrest without trial, evidence, or charge – also known as preventive detention. The law currently reads that law enforcement may arrest someone who they suspect “will” commit a terrorism offence whereas the new legislation would allow them to arrest someone they suspect “may” commit a terrorism offence. In addition, it increases the maximum allowable length of detention without cause from three to seven days and house arrest up to a year. And remember: These are detentions without trial, evidence, or charge. In short, these are detentions of people who have been convicted of no crime.

4. Granting CSIS “super powers”

The bill grants unprecedented and sweeping powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, including the ability to circumvent the law and due process with little to no oversight. In fact, amongst many other things, the bill explicitly grants CSIS the power to circumvent law and the Charter of Rights. The suggested limitation that they must first seek a judicial warrant is misleading: A warranting system is intended to prevent violations of the Charter, not authorize them, making this a completely unprecedented use of warrants.

Experts have questioned the need for creating and strengthening CSIS powers in Canada and critics have noted that the government has not provided one case for why existing anti-terrorism laws are insufficient and that a bill as flawed as this is likely to do more damage than good.

4. Ending Privacy
As described by Forcese and Roach, “Bill C-51 speaks of information sharing aimed at “detection, identification, analysis, prevention, investigation or disruption” of these “threats.” And so the government may be empowered to distribute information preemptively, in anticipation of this sort of conduct that may be unlawful.
In sum, it is hard not to read this bill as aimed at “total information awareness” of real threats, and also more banal forms of dissent. But even if it were more reasonable in its scope, this bill fails to include proper safeguards. Information can injure. Improperly shared information may result in rumours and innuendo being reconceived as fact, and used to justify action. Information sharing lay at the core of the Arar commission of inquiry [where information sharing played a role in Arar’s rendition to Syria as well as the torture of three other Canadians]”.

How Canadians are Fighting Bill C-51

One of the first steps to any movement is education. Spread the word. Let people know what is going on and what it means. Up until February 19th, national media was overwhelmingly negative and critical of the bill. As soon as the story hit mainstream media on February 18th with Peter Mansbridge’s coverage of it as a hot election topic, there have been far more favorable articles and stories.

Almost all of these stories cite a recent poll of 1500 Canadians claiming that the bill has an 82% approval rating. Review of the methodology of the poll shows that the questions asked do not actually address Canada’s response to the tradeoffs and shortcomings of the bill identified in this article and that the majority of Canadians don’t actually know what’s in the bill.

Canadians are also being encouraged to contact their Members of Parliament to express their concerns about the bill, encourage those MPs voting in support of the bill to reconsider, and those opposing it to stand strong.

Petitions are a popular form of voicing opinions there days and there are numerous online petitions. Only hardcopy petitions in a specific format, however, can be presented in Parliament.

And of course, what democratic discontent is complete without a public rally? Dozens of communities across Canada are participating in a coordinated “Day of Action” Rally against Bill C-51 on Saturday, March 14th.