It has taken a long time but U.S. President Barack Obama has finally started to roll back the security state that shell-shocked Americans began constructing soon after the Al Qaeda terror attacks 14 years ago. And the contrast to what is going on in Canada on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s fear-mongering watch could not be more striking.
The Harper government, shamelessly pandering to its base, has just passed its new anti-terror legislation Bill C-51 into law, adding bricks to the security state even as the Obama administration removes them.
With a prod from the White House the U.S. Senate has just approved the USA Freedom Act over bitter objections from Republican leaders. It’s a major course correction. The new law, passed on June 2 with moderate Republican support, strikes a healthier balance between American privacy rights and national security by curtailing Washington’s unfettered surveillance of phone records, a secret policy Edward Snowden exposed two years ago.
Going forward, the National Security Agency will no longer collect bulk records of phone calls. Phone companies will now keep those records, and the government will have to persuade the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to issue warrants to access them. The law also makes the court more publicly accountable for its decisions.
As Obama sees it, all this “will strengthen civil liberty safeguards and provide greater public confidence” in surveillance programs. The American Civil Liberties Union agrees that it is a “significant milestone,” the first step Congress has taken in 37 years to restrict rather than expand the government’s reach in this area.
Yet here in Canada, we’re moving in the other direction. Our Conservative-dominated Senate set aside its panic over the expenses scandal this week just long enough to rubber-stamp the Anti Terrorism Act 2015. It’s a pet project that Harper was determined to rush into law before Canadians go to the polls in October, to position his Conservatives as the party that’s toughest on security issues.
Bill C-51 is more than tough on the bad actors. It’s a threat to all of us, eroding civil rights. It has been roundly denounced by former prime ministers Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Joe Clark and John Turner. By a slew of former Supreme Court justices, solicitors-general, justice ministers and spy watchdogs. By the Canadian Bar Association, the New Democrats, and others.
As the Toronto Star has written before, the Harper government has failed to demonstrate the need for so hugely flawed a bill that puts so many rights at risk. Canadians are just not that threatened.
The new law unwisely criminalizes speech by 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.
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 diplomacy, territorial integrity, critical infrastructure, global information infrastructure and economic stability. The net is vast, and could scoop up all manner of activists and dissidents.
It gives the Canadian Security Intelligence Service a sweeping new mandate to actively disrupt security threats. Worse, it gives judges the power to sanction CSIS violations of fundamental Charter rights including privacy, freedom of expression and security of the person.
It lets police arrest and detain suspected terrorists on the wafer-thin grounds that they have reason to believe a crime “may” occur. Until now, they had to convince a judge that a crime “will” occur.
It lets federal departments and agencies share our personal information more readily, putting privacy and personal data at risk.
And it fails to provide for meaningful oversight by Parliament, as the Americans, British and other allies have.
Little wonder that a clear majority of Canadians, 56 per cent, disapprove of the new law, while just 33 per cent support it, according to a recent Forum Research poll. “It appears that the more Canadians learn about Bill C-51, the less they like it,” Forum Research president Lorne Bozinoff pointed out. “The need for the bill is seen to be diminishing, and voters recognize some provisions may impact their lives in ways they don’t like.” No kidding.
Already, there are calls for the new law to be repealed. That should be an election issue. Our American neighbours are rethinking; so should we. We do not have to become a draconian state in order to be a secure one.