Back in 2001 Parliament took the time it needed to give Canada’s first anti-terror legislation after the Al Qaeda attacks a thorough vetting. Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government heard from some 80 expert witnesses, many of them critical, at 19 committee hearings before voting an amended version into law.
But that was then. Today Prime Minister Stephen Harper is moving with unholy haste to ram Terror 2.0, the new Anti-Terrorism Act 2015, on to the books with scant oversight and no changes. He has urged MPs to pass the hugely flawed Bill C-51 “as quickly as possible.” Sober second thought has no place on his agenda.
His Conservative government has cut short initial debate in the Commons. And as the Toronto Star’s Alex Boutilier reports, it is now trying to do the same in committee.
The Tory-dominated Public Safety and National Security panel wants to give Public Safety Minister Stephen Blaney and Justice Minister Peter MacKay a hearing to extol the bill. The panel then proposes to hold just three additional meetings to solicit opinion from expert witnesses. That could mean as few as 18 experts get to testify.
That’s not nearly enough scrutiny for legislation that has been criticized, rightly, by New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair as “sweeping, dangerously vague and ineffective.” Legislation that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wants to see amended. And that has sparked concern from Chrétien and three other former prime ministers, five former Supreme Court justices and many security experts, as well as civil libertarians.
Collectively the opposition wants to hear from 80 witnesses or more. Given the flaws in the bill, that’s not a wild demand. But the Tories clearly fear that broad public support may bleed away once people have a clearer idea of the risks it poses to civil rights. That would be inconvenient as Canadians prepare to go to the polls on Oct. 19. So they are prepared to abuse their majority to prevent critics from being heard.
This is contemptuous both of Parliament and the public. It stands in sharp contrast to Harper’s foot-dragging on another important issue: Crafting a new law on physician-assisted suicide.
As the Star has written before, constitutional and legal experts have raised serious concerns about the anti-terror bill.
• It redefines threats to “the security of Canada” in the broadest possible way to include any “interference with the capability of the Government of Canada” in relation to diplomatic relations, territorial integrity, critical infrastructure, “global information infrastructure” and economic stability. Experts fear that could be invoked to justify unleashing the security forces on critics of Ottawa’s foreign policy, First Nations, sovereigntists, hacktivists, environmentalists and political adversaries. That’s potentially a vast net.
• It lets 17 federal agencies share information about anyone in the above category. Critics say that could include protesters who may be engaged in actions that may be deemed unlawful but have nothing to do with terrorism.
• It criminalizes speech, making it an offence to “advocate or promote” terrorism “in general” (whatever that means) even when there is no intent to commit a violent act. Critics wonder whether cheering on rebels in a foreign conflict could be seen as promoting terror. The potential chill on free speech is troubling.
• It expands the powers of Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, to actively disrupt threats to security. Critics point out that CSIS lacks credible, active oversight, and the bill offers scant guidance as to what measures it can take. That invites abuse.
• It lets police arrest and detain suspected terrorists on the thin grounds that they believe a crime “may occur.” Until now they had to convince a judge they had reason to believe a crime “will” take place. This lowers the bar, dangerously.
This bill, as drafted, is overly broad and overly subjective. That makes it a threat to civil rights, including freedom of speech and security of the person. It needs to be carefully scrutinized, and pared back, to strike a better balance between keeping Canadians safe and protecting their rights. That can’t happen in a rush.