VANCOUVER, BC, Canada – The right-wing Conservative Party government of Stephen Harper has introduced new legislation that if passed will further undermine Canadian privacy rights, civil liberties and freedom of speech.
On Jan. 30, Harper introduced Bill C-51 with the aim of empowering security agencies to uncover and halt terrorist attacks. Linking the Islamic State and two lone Muslim attackers who killed two Canadian soldiers in Ottawa and Saint Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, last October, he said that global jihadists are now targeting Canada.
The bill’s most worrisome aspect is its broad definition of what constitutes terrorism. This includes: “interference with the capability of the government of Canada in relation to intelligence, defense, border operations, public safety, administration of justice, diplomatic or consular relations, or the economic or financial stability of Canada; changing or unduly influencing a government in Canada by force or unlawful means; interference with critical infrastructure; interference with global information infrastructure; an activity that causes serious harm to a person or their property…; an activity that takes place in Canada and undermines the security of another state; activity that undermines the security of Canada, meaning any activity, including any of the following activities, if it undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada….”
Bill C-51 will give spy agencies new powers to, among other things, override privacy protections to increase information sharing between government and security agencies; expands the Canadian Service Intelligence Service’s (CSIS) – Canada’s version of the CIA – powers to include placing Canadians on a no fly list; criminalizes advocating, promoting or supporting terrorism on or offline – even when the person has no intention of carrying out a terrorist act – and will allow the CSIS to apply for court orders to remove websites; allows police to arrest suspects and detain them for one week without charges based on mere suspicion they might carry out a terrorist act.
“The words that are found under the definition of [terrorist] activities, which affects the security of Canadians, are so broad that it can apply to almost any activity, including peaceful non-violent disobedience. This bill could now treat peaceful protestors as potential terrorists,” according to Green Party leader Elizabeth May. “Is Stephen Harper using the imagined fear of widespread security threats to score points before the next election? Parliament must not allow the Conservatives to turn the CSIS into a secret police force,” she implored.
When she asked Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney during question period in Parliament if the Conservatives’ new anti-terrorism bill “will apply to non-violent disobedience such as against pipelines,” Blaney avoided answering her question and instead retorted: “Mr. Speaker, we live in a society of rights. Any violence is going against the Criminal Code. Terrorism, Mr. Speaker, is a criminal act and those who goes [sic] against the criminal code will meet the full force of the law.”
Last year, documents released through the Access to Information Requests indicated that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and CSIS were spying on environmental groups opposing the expansion of pipelines from the tar sands project in Alberta. Another RCMP document considered environmentalists to be more of a threat to Canadian energy infrastructure than Al Qaida. “The Canadian law enforcement and security intelligence community have noted a growing radicalized faction of environmentalists who advocate the use of criminal activity to promote the protection of the natural environment.” This information was also shared with the petroleum industry.
Open Media’s David Christopher said in an interview that “we absolutely concur with Elizabeth May who worries this will essentially usher in a secret police force for Canada. The problem with these kind of sweeping spy powers is that they certainly have a chilling effect on free expression – when people believe they are being watched, their behavior changes.” He is also concerned that Bill C-51 will allow Canadian intelligence agencies to target Canadians who support the Palestinian struggle for justice and movement to boycott Israeli products, environmentalists and the Quebec separatist movement. “Can you imagine the power this bill would give the CSIS!”
Christopher, who represents a coalition of 60 groups, from the National Firearms Association to major unions, also complained that the legislation will allow government agencies to share confidential information about Canadians with the CSIS and Canadian Security Establishment, which is currently prohibited. He also said that the existing two oversight bodies that exist meet infrequently and do not have the resources or staff to properly monitor Canadian intelligence services.
Canadian communists respond
According to Communist Party of Canada leader Miguel Figueroa, “the Harper Conservatives are providing CSIS with powers going far beyond those which were stripped from the RCMP over 30 years ago as a result of its illegal activities such as barn-burning in Quebec and spying on Canadian Union of Public Workers – and at the same time the Tories are implicitly setting the political agenda for this new secret police operation.
“CSIS agents will be allowed to break into homes and offices, seize documents, remove whatever they find, install monitoring devices, or carry out any ‘dirty tricks’ or disruptive activities which a judge agrees is ‘reasonable,'” asserted Figueroa.
“Since coming to power in 2006, the Harper government has engaged in massive surveillance against indigenous people’s movements, and has frequently used back-to-work legislation against unions under federal jurisdiction, claiming that strikes at Air Canada, Canada Post, and elsewhere constituted a threat to the economy. Now, Bill C-51 will criminalize actions which ‘interfere with the ability of the Canadian government to maintain economic or fiscal stability,’ an obvious threat against both the labor movement and the right to strike, and indeed any movement which resists the agenda of the banks and corporations. Trade unions and Aboriginal peoples will be a major focus of the beefed-up CSIS, just as the RCMP was used for decades by federal and provincial governments to break strikes and target Aboriginal activists,” predicted the Communist leader.
“Since the government has declared that Canada is at war, there is every reason to believe that any judicial limits on these police powers will be minimal at best, and that these activities will be integrated with the CIA’s ‘black operations’ around the world. Just as ominous, there will be no mechanism for Canadians to even monitor CSIS, leaving only the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] and a tiny clique of powerless and complicit government officials with knowledge of its actions.”
New Democratic and Liberal parties
The opposition New Democratic and Liberal parties want the Conservatives to introduce more parliamentary oversight to ensure that Canadian intelligence agencies do not abuse their powers. The Canadian Liberties Association and Canada’s Privacy Commissioner have criticized Bill C-51’s draconian over reach.
So far, the Conservatives have brushed aside criticism of Bill C-51, insisting that a judge will have to approve any intelligence operations and that it is urgent to pass the bill to prevent more terrorist attacks.
The Conservatives have used two attacks carried out last October to justify Bill C-51’s passage. On Oct. 20, in the small town of St.-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Martin Couture-Roleau, 24, a recent convert to Islam, drove his car into a group of three soldiers walking along the road. Police pursued the man, who crashed his car in a ditch. Police then shot him dead when he lunged at them with a hunting knife. One soldier was killed while the other two were injured.
On Oct. 22, Michael Zeha-Bibeau, who also identified as being Muslim, went on a shooting rampage in Ottawa. Armed with an old hunting rifle, he killed a soldier guarding the National War Memorial and then entered Parliament, where he was shot and killed by security guards in a gun battle. Police suggest that the two men acted in retribution for Canada’s decision to deploy warplanes to bomb Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Neither Harper nor the RCMP has presented proof that the two men belonged to terrorist groups. The man who stormed Parliament had a history of mental illness and drug abuse. Prior to the attack, Bibeau was telling people that demons were after him. Several years ago he robbed a McDonald’s restaurant in Surrey, BC, with a steel pipe, hoping that he would be arrested and given some help. Police jailed him for one day and then released him.
Bill C-51 came two days after it was revealed that a government spy program called Levitation dating back to 2012 has been monitoring tens of millions of private downloads a day in Canada. They also collected millions of IP addresses of individual users, with a number of Canadian internet addresses among the targets. The information is shared with other spy agencies allied with the Canada without users’ knowledge or consent. Canada is part of the “five eyes” network, working with the intelligence agencies of the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand.