Harper’s ‘anti-terrorism’ bill plays to Canada’s ‘terror hawk’ base

Reuters / Topher Seguin
Canada’s highly controversial anti-terrorism legislation, which activists say is even more of a threat to civil liberties than the US Patriot Act, is just one signature away from being made law.

In spite of mass protests by thousands of Canadians across the country, a huge on-line campaign and a protest cyber-attack against Canadian government websites by the hacker group Anonymous, all that remains to make the bill law is a procedural approval - "royal assent"- by the Governor General - which could happen as soon as Friday.

But the extraordinary new measures endorsed by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper will do more harm than good. His reckless conflation of last year’s attack on parliament by a mentally unstable young French-Canadian man -and the killing of a soldier by another disturbed young Quebecois man - with recent ISIS actions in the Middle East, is an election year play to his conservative “terror hawk” base at best. At worst, it’s yet another affront to Canadian democracy.
Decried by civil libertarians, and progressive Muslim and Jewish groups (already concerned about Harper’s creeping criminalization of criticism of Israel) alike, as well as hundreds of legal experts, six former Supreme Court justices, and four former prime ministers, the new law essentially gives Canada’s spy agency (CSIS) agents police-like powers.

READ MORE: Canadian MPs pass anti-terror Bill C-51 boosting spy agency powers

Similar to the American Patriot Act (which ironically resulted in legal action on the part of Canadians from the provinces of British Columbia and Nova Scotia to protect their privacy), it will allow CSIS agents to seek a warrant to break into someone’s home, seize and copy documents and “install, maintain or remove anything.”

Another disturbing aspect of the so-called “anti-terrorism act” is its criminalization of advocating or promoting terrorism “in general” anywhere in the world. How will that play out with say, Canada’s sizable Tamil population many of whom support organizations like the Tamil Tigers deemed a terrorist group by the Harper government, or those citizens who support Hamas or Hezbollah - also considered as “terrorist organizations,” although they are actual political parties in Palestine and Lebanon respectively.

“Lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression” are officially exempted as threats to Canada’s security, but the danger lies in the power of interpretation in “extraordinary” times.

In addition to allowing for increased intelligence sharing between law enforcement agencies, Bill C-51 would give CSIS the ability to expand no-fly list powers, allow police to have greater control in limiting the movement of a suspect and increase the amount of time they can be kept in preventative detention.

While it may seem slightly absurd to outsiders that such measures are being enacted in Canada, where citizens are less likely to die in a terrorist attack than they are of say, food poisoning, or a hate crime, the naked play to Harper’s base is quite obvious to Canadian observers. As the Canadian economy struggles, the dollar continues to dive, and Harper’s own government remains embroiled in a corruption scandal concerning Conservative Senator Mike Duffy, Harper’s “tough on terror” stance would seem diversionary at best.

Even more disappointing is that the Liberal opposition supports the new measures, opposed only by the left of center New Democratic Party and the Green Party. It seems that in an election year few politicians dare to appear “soft on terror” – even if the so called “terrorist” incidents that inspired the bill point to a national crisis around the treatment of the mentally ill, rather than any imminent threat to national security. And yet increasingly, the Liberals support for the bill seems to have hurt them at the polls, and helped the NDP, who have asked for the bill to be reviewed by the Supreme Court of Canada before it gets royal assent.

READ MORE: 'Freedom in jeopardy': Thousands rally across Canada against new anti-terror law


But the response from civil liberties groups like the BCCLA has been decisive. In a recent statement policy director Micheal Vonn said, “Criminalizing people’s words and thoughts is misguided and won’t make Canadians any safer. We will be less free, less democratic and less likely to know who to keep an eye on. This new law will impose a broad chill on legitimate political speech without enhancing public safety, and is likely unconstitutional.”

Even Edward Snowden, from his video pulpit, has warned of the dangers of the new law, saying “it’s a process that is easy to begin” in the midst of “fear and panic”, adding that “threats are often not as significant as they are presented…once these powers get rolling, they are hard to stop.”

Indeed, Canada lags behind intelligence sharing allies like the US and Australia when it comes to accountability mechanisms and lacks parliamentary oversight of national security measures like those enjoyed by, say, the US Senate.
While so far the only casualties of Harper’s new law would appear to be a hapless young mentally ill man of Lebanese heritage who was detained for “uttering threats” in the Montreal subway and then released once his condition was discovered, Muslim Canadian groups have expressed concern.

At a recent rally protesting extremism, immigration lawyer and progressive Muslim activist El Farouk Khaki said, "It seems like everything that happens becomes an excuse for increased limitations on our human rights and our civil liberties and increasing surveillance on a small community in Canada."

Now with the addition of Bill C-24 – the so-called “second-class citizenship law”- that could lead to revoking citizenship of naturalized immigrants not born in Canada whose views might upset the government or fall into their increasingly draconian interpretation of “hate speech” – there is even more cause for alarm.

Following the lead of Israel, where a law criminalizing participation or encouragement of BDS was recently upheld by a justice in the Israeli high court who equated boycotts with “political terror”, the Canadian Conservatives are now conflating the advocacy of BDS with “hate speech.”

While the government changed the Criminal Code definition of hate speech last year, adding the criterion of "national origin" to race and religion, and the former foreign affairs minister John Baird signed a “memorandum of understanding” with Israel in January of this year vowing to fight BDS; it was Canadian Public Security Minister Steven Blaney who made the link explicit.

In a speech at the UN a few days after the MOU was signed, Blaney linked BDS with anti-Semitic hate speech and even the attack on Charlie Hebdo – which the Conservatives claimed was an attack against free speech. The Canadian government, added Blaney, now had “zero tolerance” for BDS.

But they may have been tripped up by their own rhetoric – you can’t advocate “free speech” and criminalize dissent at the same time.

Bill C-24, which went into effect last week, has raised further alarm for both immigrants and civil libertarians who say it effectively creates a two-tier citizenship system. Once again, the Harper government, in an official press release defending the bill, raised the specter of “jihadi terrorism.”

The bill, says the BCCLA, “could easily be used against non-terrorists—for example, a journalist who is convicted of a ‘terrorism offence’ in another country for reporting on human rights violations by the government.”

“Under this law,” they add, “the only Canadians who can never lose their citizenship are those born in Canada who do not have another nationality (and are not eligible to apply for another nationality). No matter what crimes they may be accused of, these first-class citizens can never have their citizenship taken away.”

They also note that, “Canadians with another nationality (and those who are eligible to obtain another nationality) now have second-class status, even if they were born in Canada: under Bill C-24, their citizenship can be stripped.”

Equally alarming is the fact that the government wants to remove the judiciary from the citizen stripping process to “simplify” it.

While at present “citizenship stripping” crimes remain ones considered threats to Canada’s national security - like terrorism, espionage, and treason- legal experts warn the list may well expand with the new law. Bizarrely, the new law has revived exile – an archaic practice from several centuries ago – as a punishment for “criminal activity.”
With precedents like the extraordinary rendition of Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria where he faced torture and imprisonment, as well as the 2006 “Toronto 18” case, where young Muslim would be “jihadists” were entrapped, say their lawyers, by undercover CSIS agent Mubin Shaikh, - not to mention the ongoing issue of “security certificates that has seen indefinite detentions of “terror suspects” without trial-Muslim Canadians certainly have cause for concern.

But so do we all.

In a recent interview with national Canadian broadcaster CTV, Lorena Sheply, an organizer for the Native rights group Idle No More, expressed concern that Bill C-51 will also be used to target First Nations and environmental groups.

"Anybody who is interfering with the economic infrastructure of Canada -- meaning tar sands pipelines and fracking -- if you're involved protesting or demonstrating those things you can be labeled as a terrorist," Sheply said.

Harper’s actions add to his ongoing erosion of Canadian values, both at home and on the world stage. To his promotion of Canada’s international image as a place that disregards the environment, women’s rights and offers unmitigated support for right wing Israeli policies, one can now add “creeping surveillance state” to the list.

Ironically, as plans unfold for Harper’s $5 million dollar pet project – a memorial to the “victims of Communism”- his draconian “anti-terror” measures recall the tactics of the very police states he purports to protest.

Hadani Ditmars for RT

Hadani Ditmars has been reporting from Iraq since 1997 and is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone. Her next book Ancient Heart is a political travelogue of historical sites in Iraq.www.hadaniditmars.com

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.