Bill C-51 and the Conservative culture of contempt

By H. Grant Timms

The debate on Bill C-51, distilled into its simplest form, seems to go something like this. On one side the government and its supporters, borrowing from the rhetoric of the American right, insists that there are people, both foreign and domestic, who hate ‘us’ and our way of life. They insist that terrorism is a clear and present danger to the safety and security of all Canadians. The bill is needed to protect Canadians from this threat.

This argument is not without merit. One needs only watch an ISIS video, or something similar – or, if one simply wants to hear rhetoric that is condemnatory of western civilisation (also known as ‘white hyper-patriarchal genocidal settler culture’), one could perhaps visit a university campus in northern Toronto.

But then the bill’s supporters apparently feel it necessary to reinforce their arguments by claiming that people who are critical of the bill are ‘soft’ on terrorism, do not care about the safety of Canadians, and are willing to suffer the deaths of innocent civilians – or soldiers like Cpl Nathan Cirillo. Often enough a paternalistic and scolding finger is wagged in the face of opponents; proponents say ‘don’t come whining to us when the terrorists blow up the CN Tower or the Lion’s Gate Bridge, or your house in Moose Jaw’, or something like that. Such finger-wagging is not debate of course. It suggests there should be no debate; criticism of the bill is deemed illegitimate.

One should not need to point out that ‘the terrorists’ look upon debate, criticism and diversity of opinion in the same way.

On the other side the concern lies with the bill’s capacity to erode civil liberties, such as the right to assembly, to peaceful protest, free speech, and the all important right to privacy. Under the provisions of the bill protests might be regarded as threats to national security. As Sukyana Pillay wrote, the bill has the capacity to turn citizens into suspects. CSIS, the RCMP, and their American counterparts will have an enhanced capacity to listen in on phone calls, read e-mails, and monitor text messages. Individuals and groups that oppose the government could be considered security threats — and that, as John Bennett suggests, smacks of McCarthyism.

Indeed, if in this context we consider the reassurances of the bill’s supporters, such that all the good law-abiding and non-radical people have nothing to worry about, this McCarthyism begins to speak with a 1930s German accent.

The problem for Canadians (myself included) in trying to decide on the merits of the bill as an anti-terror measure lies with the very nature of contemporary terrorism. Terrorist groups have made great use of information technology to spread their message, to motivate small groups and unaffiliated, isolated individuals into taking action — as the attack on Parliament Hill showed. ‘Terror’ can be anything from large-scale, thoroughly planned actions to random, impulsive acts of violence. Whether they are ‘true believers’ or persons with psychological disturbances who simply use religious ideology as a pretence makes little difference in terms of outcome or effect, though the difference is (or should be) crucial in terms of prevention. However, for security services to be effective against that which can properly defined as terror, especially when it comes to prevention, they cannot disclose information regarding terror operations. The public cannot be fully informed about how many people are involved, where they are located, what they are doing – or planning on doing. Were a government to disclose all the information it has on such activities to allow Canadians to make an informed decision on bill C-51 it would compromise the efforts of security services.

However, secrecy is antithetical to an open society and to the informed consent necessary to democracy.

Canadian history is of little help in evaluating this debate, in part because we have so little experience with either ‘terror’, and in response, the erosion or suspension of civil liberties. There are really only two historical examples.

In the run up to the War of 1812, acting Lieutenant-General Isaac Brock urged the assembly of Upper Canada to suspend Habeas corpus for the duration of the war. Initially, the Assembly refused. Brock blamed the defeat of the measure on domination of the Upper Canadian Assembly by those who only recently immigrated from America, and suspected them of disloyalty. He was not entirely wrong. Some notable opponents, including the notorious Joseph Willcocks, later turned their coats and fought for the Americans. It was on Willcock’s order, in fact, that the town of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) was vandalised and then burnt to the ground leaving the population destitute and homeless. American sympathisers greatly aided and abetted US soldiers, militia and ‘marauders’ in the destruction of Upper Canadian farms and settlements throughout what is now south-western Ontario. Some of these settlements never recovered. Today we’d call these acts of destruction terrorism and rightly so.

The FLQ crisis of October 1970 was, even at the time, characterised as terrorism. PM Pierre Trudeau claimed an insurrection was in the works in Quebec. Over a period of several years the FLQ had engaged in a bombing campaign (one exploded in Trudeau’s presence as St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations), but it was the kidnapping of British envoy James Cross and Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte that led Quebec Premier Bourassa and Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau to request federal help. The Act suspended civil liberties, allowed the government to put troops in the street, and gave the police far-ranging powers. Over 450 people were arrested, held without charge or bail; only 62 were actually charged. Trudeau contemptuously dismissed concerns over the suspension of civil liberties and the opposition of members of the NDP; they were simply weak-kneed at the sight of guns on Parliament Hill. Political scientists continue to debate whether Pierre Trudeau’s institution of the War Measures Act in response to the crisis was warranted, or even legal.

In both cases, however, the suspension of civil liberties was temporary; they were restored once the crisis had passed.

In contrast, the Harper government’s Bill C-51 is not a temporary measure.

If there is a negative effect on civil liberties the effect will be permanent, particularly if the government (whether the present one or the next) supports the bill with increased funding for the security apparatus. The post 9-11 United States shows the way here. That country, which advertises itself as the bastion of liberty and the freest nation on earth, has refashioned itself as a national security state by creating an enormous surveillance and spying apparatus. The apparatus’ capacity, and its predilection, for intrusions on individual privacy have been well-documented. Proponents of this bureaucracy, and its intrusions on liberty and privacy, defend it by pointing out that there has not been another 9-11. It works, they say. Perhaps. But then we also know that bureaucratic apparatuses tend to be self-justifying, and even if it could be demonstrated that this apparatus had little or nothing to do with the prevention of ‘homeland’ terror, the bureaucracy would not be dismantled.

Because it is impossible for the electorate to make an informed decision on C-51 itself, we should step outside that debate and instead try to evaluate how the law — or any such bill — is likely to be implemented, and to do that we have to look to the past practices and indeed the culture of the government proposing it.

The problems then become rather obvious.

The government has insisted repeatedly that any government’s main priority is the safety and security of Canadians. But its chief responsibility is the protection of the Canadian constitution and Charter of Rights. Our security, in the main, lies in these documents and their enforcement. Any curtailment of liberties, even in the cause of public safety, must be accompanied by compelling and demonstrable reasons, and (to borrow from military terminology) an exit strategy; in other words, it must be temporary.
The government to date appears to take the position that security trumps the Charter. It has appealed to fear, has exploited the electorate’s understandable anger over the attack on Parliament Hill and the public’s solidarity with the soldiers killed in random attacks. It has suggested, American style, that its opponents are ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘soft on terror’.

This kind of argument is as patronising and insulting to the electorate as the Conservative Party’s new anti-Justin Trudeau ‘nice hair’ ads. But reflected there is the kind of generalised scorn for voters, for parliament, for the opposition and many other Canadian institutions that reflects the culture of the present government. An anonymous contributor to this site – a disaffected Conservative voter – provides a comprehensive list of those things the Harper government has shown contempt for. It is a long list that demonstrates the present government has not been above using its power to interfere with independent or arms-length institutions to advance its own ideological or political agenda. There is little or no reason to believe that security services would be exempt from such interference.

C-51 is a bill that is symptomatic of this government’s culture of contempt, and it is this culture that is more alarming than the bill itself.

Of course the 9-11 attacks did not succeed because of a lack of control, a lack of information, or even a lack of information sharing by the FBI, CIA and NSA. Instead, people at the top (i.e. George W.) were not paying sufficient attention. Would that there was a law that would have made the US Executive pay attention.
C-51, in part, is designed to bring Canada into line with American policies and practices, but it is also a promise of control that will yield safety and security. But control is an illusion in any event. To create the illusion of control, governments and institutions strive to manipulate conditions and circumstances, and this always involves restrictions on people – on their movements or speech – or even thought. It is the people who are controlled. Security conscious governments throughout history have always said that security laws do not effect everyone; they effect only the ‘undesirables’, the enemies of the nation or its people. But of course laws do not work that way.

[Photo Credit: Laurel L. Russwurm]