The Harper government’s Bill C-51 is a massive assault on the civil and political rights of all Canadians. He is rushing it through parliament without much debate. Leading Canadians including former prime ministers, justices, solicitors general and law professors have decried its draconian measures that will turn Canada into a police state.
It has been compared to George Orwell’s 1984 and in the hands of Canada’s current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Bill C-51 is a very scary project indeed. It gives sweeping powers to intelligence and security agencies to intrude into people’s privacy, their bank accounts, medical records, and indeed any other information the agencies deem necessary. All these powers are being granted without any parliamentary oversight or not the least to the public. When asked whether there would be a parliamentary oversight committee, Harper retorted there is no need for civilians to oversea this work. In other words, people’s elected representatives had better keep out. Only Harper knows how best to “protect” Canada!
There is popular misconception that the bill allows for judicial oversight. Not so. The way it is structured is that if the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) indulges in any illegal act — and there is no reason why it would not because there is proof of past misdeeds by security agencies — all it is required to do is get a judge’s post facto approval for such illegal act. In other words, even judges would be implicated in approving illegal activity. This is scary indeed.
So scary in fact that not only human rights organizations but four former Prime Ministers — Jean Chretien, Paul Martin, John Turner and Joe Clark — the first three liberals and fourth conservative, also called for better oversight of the security agencies. Former justice ministers and solicitors general as well as retired justices and security officials were among the 18 prominent Canadians that signed the statement.
Their joint statement, published on February 19 in Toronto’s Globe and Mail and Montreal’s La Presse said, “Protecting human rights and protecting public safety are complementary objectives, but experience has shown that serious human rights abuses can occur in the name of maintaining national security.” They went on, “Given the secrecy around national security activities, abuses can go undetected and without remedy. This results not only in devastating personal consequences for the individuals, but a profoundly negative impact on Canada’s reputation as a rights-respecting nation.”
Further, in an open letter, 100 Canadian law professors expressed grave concern about the contents of the bill as well as the manner in which it is being railroaded through parliament. A former British Columbia cabinet minister Rafe Mair also spoke out against the bill on February 23. He called it “not only wrong, but also racist,” when he linked Harper government’s support for a niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies that a court has turned down. Harper said he would appeal the ruling. The former US presidential candidate Ralph Nader also criticized the bill accusing Harper of stoking fear and paranoia.
The concern is not only about the broad sweep of the law but also lack of oversight. For instance, the bill would allow a judge to put a person under house arrest for one year without him being convicted or charged with any crime. All that the police need do is produce “satisfactory evidence” that this person “may” commit a terrorist offence. Satisfactory to whom, remains unclear. This could be based on a person visiting certain websites, or having raised the flag of an organization the government has branded as terrorist. Given the tendency of security agencies to create crisis scenarios, luring people into a trap (the Toronto-18 is a clear example of this scenario), the potential for abuse is huge.
At present, the Security Intelligence Review Committee oversees CSIS, each year reporting to Parliament after it conducts studies, but critics argue the review committee is just that, a review body. It is not an oversight agency. Following Maher Arar’s horrific experience — Canadian citizen of Syrian origin, Arar was arrested in New York in August 2002 and shipped to Syria through wrongful information provided by the RCMP, where he spent 14 months under torture — an inquiry commission was established. The detailed recommendations for a new intelligence watchdog committee proposed in 2006 by the federal inquiry have not been implemented so far.
The terror threat that Harper is talking up — he actually calls it “jihadi extremism” — is not real. It is blown grossly out of proportion. True, no government should take any threats lightly but the alleged terror threat is marginal. Some facts would help. Dozens of people are killed each year in drug-related gang violence. Several thousand people are killed each year (more than 2,000 in 2011) in traffic accidents with thousands of others suffering serious injuries. Then there is the case of the 1,200 missing and presumed murdered aboriginal women across the country.
When the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge asked Harper during an interview last year as to why the federal government had not established an inquiry into the case of missing women, Harper stated, “…t isn’t really high on our radar.” The prime minister of the country does not care about the plight of 1,200 missing Aboriginal women. This is not only wrong, it is outright racist and many people have said so calling Harper a racist and a bigot.
If the terror threat is not real, why is Harper talking about it? Some commentators have suggested Harper wants to make this an election issue. There is much truth in this; fear sells. Any violent act involving Muslims is immediately branded a terrorist act; if others perpetrate such acts, they are called misfits. Thus the two individuals involved in the Montreal and Ottawa killings last October — both mental cases and known to the police — were called terrorists linked to violent jihadis (not true), but Chris Philip, a chemist who planned to carry out a chemical weapons attack in Ottawa, a war veteran who planned to blow up several federal buildings with explosives in Alberta or four people planning to carry out a massacre in a shopping mall in Halifax on February 14 were only “nutcases.” So what gives?
This is election year in Canada. Under Harper’s watch, the economy has tanked; the Canadian dollar has gone south together with the price of oil. True, a lower loonie would help boost exports but their effect will take time. For Harper, the J-word does not stand for jobs anymore but “jihadis” even though they may be thousands of miles away. The few dozen individuals who may be infected by the takfiri-ISIS ideology in Canada are all known to the security agencies.
On January 30 when Harper announced his new tough anti-terror law against “jihadi extremists” that according to him threaten not only Canada but all Westerners, he did it against the backdrop of a huge Canadian flag. He chose Richmond Hill, an upscale suburban town outside Toronto for his war declaration. He said the new law would make no distinction about whether someone was influenced in a basement or a masjid.
He was only a couple of kilometres away from one of the most vibrant Islamic Centres in Canada — the Islamic Society of York Region — where several hundred Muslims were gathered for Jumu‘ah (Friday) prayers. If he was interested in truth, he should have dropped by to see whether the imam was advocating “jihadi extremism” or talking about issues that affect not only Muslims but all Canadians on a daily basis — issues of social, economic and political justice. Harper is not interested in the truth; he knows what it is. He wants to ramp up fear and stoke paranoia for his election campaign.
Would he succeed? It depends on how well informed Canadians are about the real issues. Of the two main opposition parties, the NDP has come out openly against the bill while the Liberals are playing it both ways: supporting the bill but calling for greater oversight. In the final analysis, they will go with the bill that will become law!