As if not to be left out of the big league, the Canadian government has introduced a bill in parliament, called Bill C-36, that threatens to remove the freedoms individuals currently enjoy in the country. The bill was introduced after the events of September 11 in the US. True, they were horrific and require more vigilance to prevent them from occurring elsewhere but, as civil libertarians and human-rights activists have pointed out, the existing laws in Canada are quite adequate. There is no guarantee that the vast new powers the police and other government agencies are to be invested with would do anything to enhance security. They also point to the failure of such laws in England to deter attacks by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) until a political settlement was arrived at.
Some of the powers proposed in Bill C-36 are so intrusive that many people have dubbed them “anti-Canadian.” Unlike the US, Canada is a relaxed, casual country, with its people not much given to shooting each other or carrying guns, as the Americans are wont to do. Most Canadians do not want their country to be turned into a replica of America, with its guns-and-drugs culture. It was this attitude that forced some Canadians to ask what the purpose was of Canada’s joining the US’s war on Afghanistan, when the Canadian contribution of a few frigates would make little material difference (Afghanistan is, in any case, a landlocked country with no outlet to the sea). But living next to the American elephant has its advantages as well as drawbacks. One has to be constantly on the lookout not to get trampled.
Bill C-36 was introduced in parliament on October 15 and has already been through its second reading. Both the senate — the upper house — and the House of Commons committees have been debating it. The government appears determined to get it into law before Christmas, although some groups have called for public hearings before such drastic laws are enacted.
Some of the more intrusive provisions of the proposed bill are:
1: Vast new powers to the police to arrest without warrant, and detain for up to 72 hours, a person whom they merely suspect might carry out or be key to the commission of a terrorist act;
2: New powers to the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to monitor phone, fax and internet messages without judicial approval or oversight;
3: Suspects could be charged without knowing they have committed an offence; defendants could be sentenced without even knowing the nature of the charges, and therefore unable to defend themselves against allegations or make a case for their innocence (this is a variation of the American “secret evidence” gambit, only even worse);
4: remaining silent will become a criminal offence (until now it has been a right of suspects) if the police believe that a person might have information that incriminates someone;
5: The word “terrorism” has not been defined, but “terrorist activity” has been so broadly defined that a great many legitimate political activities will be criminalised. For instance, if nurses, whose profession is considered an essential service, were to go on an illegal strike, it could be considered a “terrorist” act. Similarly, support for legitimate freedom struggles around the world would be considered “terrorist” activity. Supporting struggling Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya and now Afghanistan would become a criminal offence.
A number of Muslim groups, such as the Muslim Lawyers Association, for instance, are campaigning to prevent some of these measures from passing into law; others are talking about a “sunset clause”, i.e. a time limit after which they automatically expire. If after that period the government feels there is still a need for such provisions, it can reintroduce them in parliament. In the US, where a similar anti-terrorism bill was enacted into law on October 27, many of the restrictive clauses will automatically lapse after four years. Not so in Canada, where the minister of justice has simply proposed a parliamentary review after three years. But Alexa McDonough, leader of the federal New Democratic Party (NDP), has pointed out that many laws are supposed to be reviewed by parliament, but not one has ever been rescinded.
The NDP, Bloc Quebecois, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Bar Association and many media commentators have said that the bill is an assault on the civil rights of Canadians. Such criticism, however, has not deterred the government from using the tyranny of its majority to proceed with the bill. Even Herb Dhaliwal, the federal fisheries minister, who is of Sikh origin, spoke out in favour of a “sunset” clause. No doubt many other parliamentarians are unhappy about some provisions, but in the present climate they are unable or unwilling to speak out.
During a meeting with community representatives, one MP was quite candid: “If you are of Middle Eastern origin, between the ages of 20 and 40, have a beard or your women wear hijab, then you can expect to be looked over more thoroughly.” Lewis McKenzie, the provincial government’s new security czar, a retired general who served in Bosnia and returned from there with his reputation somewhat sullied, said: “If a particular group is prone to violence, then we have to do an ethnic profiling of that community.” He also said that people will just have to put up with it.
Given this degree of xenophobia, the demand of some people, that passage of the bill be delayed until full public hearings across Canada have been held, will fall on deaf ears. Canada is about to become a far more oppressive society, like the tyrannies of the US, Egypt and the banana republics of Central America. That would be a great loss.