Commentary | Who watches the watchers?

Bill C-51 is hypocritical and promotes fearmongering

In this age of information, violence is more often ideological than physical. Society’s understanding of terrorism is slowly changing. Government rhetoric often refers to the term consciously to evoke horrific imagery of bombings and unwarranted deaths – scenes that the vast majority of Canadians are wildly unlikely to experience. Almost as often, it is invoked simply to vilify Islam. In practice, terrorism involves the subversion of principles – presently, both religious extremists and their opponents have twisted Islam to their own purposes. Currently, the federal government is also moving to also undermine the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by pushing its new, highly hypocritical “Anti-terrorism Act,” Bill C-51.

At the time of publication, the bill has passed its second reading, moving into parliamentary committee hearings following a Conservative motion to limit debate after only three days. The hearings – which had initially been allotted only a meagre four meetings – were expanded to eight under pressure from the New Democratic Party (NDP), and will allow up to fifty witnesses to speak on the bill.

The hasty treatment of such an important bill certainly backs up accusations that the Conservative government is using fear as a tool for re-election and turning terrorism into a wedge issue. While an ‘anti-terror’ bill has long been on the Conservative agenda, recent events have made it a key element of their platform. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders this past January, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that “the international jihadist movement has declared war,” and noted his government’s plans for legislation that would give security agencies more power. Taking advantage of the insecurity felt in the wake of the October 22 shooting at Parliament Hill, the government has grossly exaggerated the threat. In this case, it is using a rhetoric of ‘jihad’ and ‘terror’ as a scare tactic, and a means by which to convince voters that the excessive measures of Bill C-51 are necessary to ensure ‘safety.’

Government rhetoric often refers to the term consciously to evoke horrific imagery of bombings and unwarranted deaths – scenes that the vast majority of Canadians are wildly unlikely to experience.

The bill also establishes the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act, which requires all governmental organizations to freely share information; and the Secure Air Travel Act, which allows the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness to draft a secret list, on which Canadians’ names and other private information may be collected in order to prevent ‘suspicious persons’ from travelling by air. Bill C-51 also amends extant legislation, including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act and the Criminal Code of Canada.

The Information Sharing Act, described by the first part of the bill, seeks to open communication between all federal government institutions, so that any institution can request information from another on “reasonable grounds.” It involves, among other things, amendments to the Income Tax Act and the Customs Act, such that any taxpayer information or confidential business information – or, any information obtained by any federal agency – can be disclosed and circulated upon request. This section completely disregards citizens’ expectations of privacy.

Further to the Conservative-driven Islamophobia that surrounds (and has been cited in support of) the bill, Bill C-51 has given Canadians reason to fear their own government. As some critics, including Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, have pointed out, Bill C-51 turns the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) into a ‘secret police’ that can act freely and without oversight. In fact, CSIS’ power would be limited only when its actions directly violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in which case its agents would simply require a warrant to proceed.

The possibility of prosecution under an unclear law is enough to silence voices that may have otherwise spoken out on important issues, and to limit dialogue that the federal government might find objectionable.

To justify the expansion of CSIS’ reach, there are new, broadly-defined ways in which the ‘security of Canada’ can be threatened, including communications that could potentially lead someone to commit an act of terrorism, or any proliferation of terrorist propaganda. The language is so expansive that innocent people wishing to weigh in on current events may find themselves accidentally incriminated. The possibility of prosecution under an unclear law is enough to silence voices that may have otherwise spoken out on important issues, and to limit dialogue that the federal government might find objectionable.

The very existence of Bill C-51 is an affront to the Canadian Charter, as well as to moral good sense. Criminalization of communications of any sort is contemptible; more importantly, the major breaches of privacy that Bill C-51 will allow should never be tolerated. That our elected representatives have both proposed the bill and tolerated it for so long should be a matter of national embarrassment. Further, the fact that even the Liberal party, which should be expected to contest such legislation, has expressed support for the bill (with amendments) for fear of seeming ‘soft on terror’ is a testament to the efficacy of the Conservative party’s fearmongering. In reality, Bill C-51 will be more likely to undermine Canadians’ confidence in their own government, than to deter the ‘jihadists’ with whom we are allegedly ‘at war.’

A simple definition of ‘terrorism,’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary, involves “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” But “violence” is not only physical. The legal definition, as it exists in the Criminal Code, is far more expansive, but still encompasses anything that “intimidat[es] the public […] with regard to its security.” According to the law, then, Bill C-51 could be making itself illegal.

Any suggestion that the Conservative government could be unaware of the implications of its bill is naive – Bill C-51 is a deliberate move that, through fear, allows the Conservative majority’s ideology to exert power over all the lives of people in Canada.

Terrorism implies the propagation of fear, with the aim of controlling or directing people’s thoughts. Bill C-51 has already generated national outrage – on March 14, people in cities across Canada, including Montreal, gathered to protest the bill. While these protests were ‘lawful,’ Bill C-51’s phrasing is such that it could render similar demonstrations punishable, if they were judged to interfere with ‘Canada’s interests.’ As a whole, the bill is clearly designed for control.

Even if we assume the best intentions, the bill is sloppily written, leaving significant detail open to the interpretation of the person in power; at worst, the ambiguity of its language shows that the government is not focused on ‘terrorism’ alone. In fact, despite the misleading title, measures described within the bill do not apply exclusively to ‘terrorism’ at all, but condemn anything that threatens the security of Canada, whether that be “interference with the economic and financial stability of Canada” or even “an activity that takes place in Canada and undermines the security of another state.” The Conservatives’ unwillingness to entertain any amendments betrays their true intentions.

Any suggestion that the Conservative government could be unaware of the implications of its bill is naive – Bill C-51 is a deliberate move that, through fear, allows the Conservative majority’s ideology to exert power over all the lives of people in Canada. In fact, rather than deterring terrorism, the bill’s condemnation of anything interpretable as terrorist ‘propaganda’ is likely to be counter-productive, prosecuting legitimate dissenters and making real threats much more difficult to detect. The hypocrisy and superficiality of the clause in Bill C-51’s enactment that “there is no more fundamental role for a government than protecting its country and its people” is clear – the government will not protect Canadians from itself.


Katherine Brenders is the Design & Production editor at The Daily, but the opinions expressed here are her own. To contact her, please email katherine.brenders@mail.mcgill.ca.

 


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.