Are we going to be safer when Bill C-51 criminalizes peaceful protests against injustice?

By Joanna Kerr Executive Director, Greenpeace Canada

In my global roles as chief executive of ActionAid International, policy director with Oxfam Canada, and now with Greenpeace, I have seen first-hand the power of protest and dissent in effecting real, transformative change for the betterment of people and the planet.

I’d really like to start with a few very simple questions. Would women have the vote today if the suffragettes had not engaged in widespread non-violent protest? Would racial desegregation in the US have occurred without sit-ins, march-ins, public protests, and peaceful sustainable resistance to unfair laws? Would despotic governments have been overthrown around the world without people merging onto the streets and holding ground? Would decolonization have happened without non-violent direct action?

All of these movements and those against slavery and apartheid, to name but a few, employed peaceful but actually unlawful means to confront unjust laws and practice and challenge society’s views of right and wrong. They expedited change, which was urgently needed. That is the kind of change that is required today if we are to address the formidable threat that is posed by climate change.

Greenpeace’s mission was forged in non-violent direct action, and we have used it to great effect over 40 years. We were instrumental in ending nuclear tests in the waters of the South Pacific, in ending scientific and commercial whaling, in ending toxic dumping in the world’s oceans and getting a treaty to curb acid rain, and in the protections now afforded Canada’s Great Bear rainforest. None of these critical environmental protections would exist without peaceful confrontation—what we refer to as non-violent direct action.

Do we really believe the interests of national security will be served by restricting these fundamental options for civil protest, be it against injustice, corruption, racism, or pollution? Because that is what Bill C-51 proposes in the name of national security.

Professors Craig Forcese and Kent Roach have shown that the bill could be used to target democratic protests engaged in such struggles. Based on public statements by cabinet ministers, as well as leaked RCMP and government documents, there is strong reason to suspect that these powers could and would be used against those advocating for clean water, for precious ecosystems, and an end to catastrophic climate change.

We are very concerned that the draft legislation appears to target environmental and first nation climate activists as a threat to security. To borrow a line from David Suzuki:

Pollution and climate change caused by excessive burning of fossil fuels are [the] real threats, not the people who warn that we must take these threats seriously. And while we must also respond to terrorism with the strong tools already in place, we have to remember that our rights and freedoms, not fear, are what keep us strong.

Greenpeace joins many others in having serious concerns with this legislation. More than a hundred legal experts wrote an open letter to Parliament calling on you to amend or kill this bill on the grounds that it is a danger to the rule of law, to protected rights, and to the health of Canada’s democracy. They argue that it may be ineffective in countering terrorism and also could actually frustrate anti-terrorism efforts. We share their concerns.

Today I would like to focus on what this bill could mean for democratic debate in this country.

The government says the sweeping new powers to be granted to CSIS would not be used to target its political opponents. If that is so, then as legislators you have an obligation to write the legislation so that it cannot be used in that way. This was a key finding of a 2009 United Kingdom parliamentary review of the relationship between policing and protest movements. It stated that “the better approach is to draft legislation itself in sufficiently precise terms so as to constrain and guide police discretion, rather than to rely on decision makers to exercise a broad discretion compatibly with human rights”.

The government’s British colleagues went on to note that “We are concerned by the reports we have received of police using counter-terrorism powers on peaceful protesters,” and to urge that amendments be made to make clear “that counter-terrorism powers should not be used against peaceful protesters.”

As University of Ottawa law professor Craig Forcese has pointed out, the anti-terrorism law with its reference to “foreign influenced activities within or relating to Canada that are detrimental to the interests of Canada” could be used in the case of “a foreign environmental foundation funding a Canadian environmental group’s secret efforts to plan a protest (done without proper permits) in opposition [for example] to the Keystone Pipeline Project…”.

We have already seen evidence of this. Government ministers have already characterized anti-pipeline protesters as foreign-funded radicals and even money-launderers. A copy of the federal government’s oil sands advocacy strategy obtained by Greenpeace under access to information legislation identified environmental and aboriginal groups as “adversaries”, while oil companies were listed as “allies”.

It’s more detrimental than just name-calling. The 2012 omnibus budget bill not only rewrote Canada’s environmental legislation to reduce public involvement in decision-making, but also gave the Canada Revenue Agency millions of new dollars to conduct audits of charitable organizations that disagree with government policy.

The Voices-Voix Coalition has documented more than 100 cases of recent attacks against those who have simply raised their voices to criticize government policy. Last month, the newspaper La Presse obtained a copy of a secret RCMP critical infrastructure intelligence assessment that names Greenpeace, Tides Canada, and the Sierra Club as part of “a growing, highly organized and well-financed anti-Canada petroleum movement that consists of peaceful activists, militants and violent extremists who are opposed to society’s reliance on fossil fuels.”

Remarkably, this RCMP report downplays climate change. It says that these groups “assert climate change is now the most serious global threat, and that climate change is a direct consequence of elevated anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions which, they believe, are directly linked to the continued use of fossil fuels” and that by highlighting “the perceived environmental threat from the continued use of fossil fuels” we are fuelling a “broadly based anti-petroleum opposition”.

While the RCMP questions the legitimacy of the threat of climate change, the Pentagon has called climate change a “threat multiplier”. The most recent U.S. national security strategy identified climate change as a threat on a par with terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and disease. The World Bank says that it “is a fundamental threat to sustainable development and the fight against poverty.” An article published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found “that human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict.”

Perhaps most worrying in light of Bill C-51, the RCMP document categorizes civil disobedience and unlawful protest as being “beyond peaceful actions,” conflating peaceful activists with those who engage in violence in the category of “anti-petroleum” extremists.

To be clear, we believe the threat of climate change must be addressed through peaceful, democratic means. If for any reason someone causes another person harm or damages infrastructure or property, that person should and would, under current laws, face legal consequences.

The vast majority of people calling for a debate on fossil fuels and climate change, including those who engage in civil disobedience, aren’t violent anti-petroleum extremists. They are schoolchildren and grandmothers. They are ranchers and parents. They are people from all walks of life who care. They care about their family.

The word “lawful” was struck from the current anti-terrorism law, following expert testimony in 2001, so that unlawful activity such as trespassing or minor property damage would not be conflated with terrorism.

I want to ask you again, in closing, do you believe that the interests of national security will be served by restricting fundamental, often vital, options for citizen expression and civil protest?