Canada’s Conservative Harper continues to push for unlimited spying

VANCOUVER, Canada – The rightwing Conservative government of Stephen Harper is pushing hard to implement legislation that will further undermine privacy rights and give the government unlimited power to spy on people without a court warrant, using recent attacks to justify government spying.

On October 15, the Harper Conservatives used their parliamentary majority to shorten debate and pass Bill C-13, which will allow internet and cell phone companies the right to pass information on to low-, middle- and upper-level government officials without a court warrant. Such officials can include tax agents, sheriffs, reeves (presiding town council officers), justices of the peace, intelligence agents and mayors.

Under current lax rules, telecommunications companies are empowered to pass along users’ personal information to the government as long as it’s for the purpose of an investigation and no court warrant is needed. Last year, the government requested information 1.2 million times (every 27 seconds), according to Federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien.

Bill C-13 will make the situation worse because officials no longer need to conduct an investigation and will only have to be investigating a law, domestic or foreign, establish that the law relates to national security, or otherwise determine that disclosure will help in the “administering of any law of Canada.” Under Bill C-13, communication companies cannot be sued for passing confidential information to government officials, which will only increase the amount of information handed over to the government, claim critics.

The Conservatives attached the spying provisions onto a bill addressing cyber-bullying. Bill C-13 is now before the Conservative-dominated Senate, where it will be evaluated and voted on.

Open Media, a coalition of 60 groups across the spectrum, from the National Firearms Association to major unions, is leading the fight to stop Bill C-13. “This extreme legislation will give a range of government authorities the ability to monitor our private lives, often without a warrant or any judicial oversight,” charged spokesperson David Christopher. He said the bill would allow government to spy on Canadians anytime without a reason without the victims knowing their privacy had been breached. “We’ll continue working with Canadians of every shade of political opinion to overturn this reckless spy bill. The Senate prides itself on being the chamber of sober thought, and if ever a piece of legislation needed a sober rethink it’s this one.”

Critics also contend that Bill C-13 is unconstitutional because in June the Supreme Court ruled that telecommunication companies cannot hand private information to the government without a warrant. If Bill C-13 becomes law, taxpayers will have to pay for legal efforts to defend the bill in the courts, according to Christopher.

Others, such as the Canadian Bar Association, Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian, former Conservative cabinet minister Stockwell Day, the Liberals, Greens, New Democrats and Communists have criticized Bill C-13’s draconian overreach. Federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien said that the bill will violate privacy by allowing government to collect information without a warrant. Before it was passed by Parliament, the New Democratic Party – the official opposition in Parliament – called for Bill C-13 to be split into two parts, so the online spying provisions were removed from the sections dealing with cyber-bullying and dealt with separately.

Critics also complain that 60 pages of the bill were lifted from the earlier conservative spy Bill C-30 that had been withdrawn after public opposition in 2012.

The Communist Party of Canada says that Bill C-13 is part of a larger effort to criminalize and repress legitimate dissident. “Ever since taking office, the Harper Conservatives have directed state security agencies to profile and focus on those they consider ‘enemies,’ such as environmentalists opposed to the expansion of the tar sands and hydraulic fracking, aboriginal movements which resist the destruction of their traditional territories by governments and resource corporations, or groups the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (Canada’s version of the CIA) vaguely labels ‘multi-issue extremists,'” charged party leader Miguel Figueroa. “The expansion of police state powers will accelerate this drive to label Canadians as ‘potential terrorists,’ creating a basis for even more severe police spying and repression against labor and grassroots opposition forces.”

So far, the Conservatives have brushed aside criticism of Bill C-13, insisting that it is necessary to pass the bill to stop cyber-bullying and protect children.

Government officials, along with Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Bob Paulson, are already using a spate of recent attacks to justify Bill C-13’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.

However, according to the Globe and Mail newspaper, the two men were not members of 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. He was jailed one day and then released.

The Harper Conservatives have been trying since 2006 to introduce legislation that would make it easier for government to collect information on Canadians’ private Internet activities. If Bill C-13 passes, they will have succeeded.

Photo: Happily smiling rightwing Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper, center, visits a Carnival in Quebec. Harper has pushed for a package of bills designed to rollback democratic and worker rights since taking office (Flickr/CC).