Bill C-51: Canada’s new McCarthy era where advocating for action against climate change is terrorism

John Bennett, Executive Director, Sierra Club of Canada

First, I’d like to acknowledge the terrible incidents that took place last fall here in Ottawa and in Quebec and share our deepest sympathies for the families. We are very much aware of the threats and support all appropriate measures to protect Canadians. However, we are concerned about Bill C-51 because it casts too broad a net and will very likely undermine the freedoms it is supposed to protect.

The Sierra Club Canada was founded back in 1892, making us probably the oldest conservation organization in North America. We’ve been active in Canada for over 50 years, and we have a number of chapters and groups across the country. We are a volunteer-led, democratic organization. Our members elect the board of directors in annual elections, and our volunteers work along with staff to preserve and protect our natural environment.

Although we employ a wide range of tactics to draw attention to important issues, it’s a clear policy of Sierra Club Canada Foundation to only engage in legal activities. To my knowledge, no one has broken the law in the name of the club in the last hundred years.

Personally, I have more than 30 years of involvement in the environmental movement with international, national, provincial and local experience. Although I’ve worked on many issues, the focal point of my career has been energy issues, and that’s taken me right across Canada. I have relationships and friendships with environmental activists and supporters right across the country.

As a Greenpeace campaigner, I have personally taken part in actions of civil disobedience in order to draw attention to important issues. In fact, my first action was designed to draw attention to the lack of security at nuclear facilities, and as a result of that action, those facilities are now much better protected.

I know the Canadian environmental movement very well. I know of no person or organization that presents a threat to the security of Canadians. There are times, however, where youthful expressions of frustration could be misconstrued and involve us in Bill C-51. It’s also a concern that, because of the necessity to report if you’re part of a discussion that could be considered terrorism, people could actually use that to discredit our movement. Someone could come to one of our meetings, which are practically all open to the public, get up and say something, and we’re all now involved in Bill C-51.

Organizations like Sierra Club, with its 100 years of non-violence and commitment to democratic solutions, could easily find itself engulfed in secret investigations and interference in its lawful operations. I would suggest that this would not only be wrong but also a waste of important resources that should be applied to the real problem.

I’m sure you’re going to ask me why I’m concerned, if Sierra Club of Canada Foundation is a law-abiding organization. Well, because it has already happened.

I call your attention to The Globe and Mail article of February 17, 2015 entitled “‘Anti-petroleum’ movement a growing security threat to Canada, RCMP say.” It quotes from an RCMP document entitled “Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Assessment: Criminal Threats to the Canadian Petroleum Industry.” Sierra Club is mentioned twice in the document, the first time in paragraph 4 on page 2. Because, like Prime Minister Harper, we believe climate change is the most serious threat to Canada and because, and I’m quoting here:

Research and analysis done in support of ongoing RCMP criminal investigations shows those involved in the anti-Canadian petroleum movement have an interest in drawing public attention to, and building recognition of, the perceived environmental threat from the continued use of fossil fuels.

What’s wrong with that? Why are we being investigated as criminals because of that? Well, it goes on to tell us why. This “. . . has led to significant, and often negative, media coverage surrounding the Canadian petroleum industry.”

So now we’ve been named in a criminal intelligence report because we’ve been advocating to take action on climate change, and that puts us within the scope of Bill C-51.

I know you think I must be joking. I wish I was. And we laughed this off at first. I was actually more concerned that the RCMP denies that climate change is happening and doesn’t understand that there are actually challenges to policing as a result of climate change. We saw in Alberta, with the flood two years ago, the RCMP got in trouble for seizing weapons because they didn’t have a method to deal with the problem caused by what could very likely be a climate change event. That’s the kind of things RCMP should be thinking about in terms of climate change, not what I’m saying to the press.

This is a rambling document. It was mostly produced by reading things off people’s websites and copying newspaper articles, but it’s in a document entitled “Criminal Threats.” The author makes no effort in the report to say that the Sierra Club has not taken part in any unlawful activity and certainly does not advocate it. Nor does the author offer any evidence for including us in the report, other than we have advocated for climate action like dozens of other organizations and many governments.

The RCMP prepared this report in secret. No attempt was made to contact Sierra Club or demonstrate any connection between our activities and any illegal activities or violent actions. I would suggest our name was used as a generic term for “environmental organization.” And that’s what concerns us.

We asked the RCMP for assurances that Sierra Club will not be swept up in a Bill C-51-empowered investigation based on this report, and received a stony silence. So I take that to mean that we could be.

In a free country where there are no secret police with the power to secretly disrupt operations of an organization or detain people without charge, this police report would just be a nuisance. We’ve had other reports like this in the past, and we have treated them like that. But in a country that empowers agencies like CSIS to secretly investigate and disrupt the operations of law-abiding organizations, it’s a grave threat.

In the McCarthy-like world created by Bill C-51, one can reasonably envision Sierra Club Canada becoming the subject of a secret investigation just because we were mentioned in this report “Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Assessment: Criminal Threats to the Canadian Petroleum Industry.” It could surely be used to help convince a judge to grant a warrant allowing secret investigators to infiltrate and/or manipulate our organization, breach our confidential database or use us as a tool to investigate others. We have identified this possibility and asked the RCMP to correct it, and as I said, they haven’t changed it.

Environmental groups are not the only ones who question the petroleum industry in Canada. I’m sure most of you belong to organizations or have supported causes at one time or another. Do you think your records should be open to secret manipulation? We have a right to free speech and to associate as long as we act within the law. The state has no business interfering with those rights.

[Photo Credit: Defend Our Climate]