A flood of concerns over a federal bill that aims to redefine the role of Canada’s intelligence agencies prompted local MPs to organize a town hall-style meeting in Victoria last Friday.
NDP MPs Randall Garrison and Murray Rankin hosted the Feb. 27 event to discuss Bill C-51, an omnibus privacy bill drafted by the Harper government that has been criticized by a steady stream of academics, lawyers and former politicians as being overly broad and lacking proper parliamentary oversight while giving the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) expanded intelligence-gathering and disruption powers.
“This bill offers a false choice between our values and our security and it fails on both counts,” Rankin told a crowd of about 500 people at the First Metropolitan United Church. The discussion panel included Reg Whitaker – an expert in constitutional law and privacy issues who served on the advisory panel for the Commission of Inquiry into the Maher Arar affair – as well as Laurel Collins, a sociology instructor at the University of Victoria who studies social movements and collective action.
One problem with the bill includes targeting the promotion of terrorism “in general,” said Garrison, a former criminal justice instructor and current vice chair of the House of Commons’ Committee on Public Safety and National Security. Existing hate-speech and other laws already make it illegal to counsel or actively encourage someone to commit a specific terrorism offence.
“(This bill) is dangerously vague and invents words that don’t exist in law,” Garrison said. “I believe the threat of terrorism is real … but to cast such a wide net that draws in all kinds of people … not only does it threaten our civil liberties, it threatens the real struggle against terrorism.”
Whitaker lambasted the bill as being “vastly overbroad,” as a terrorist threat could be defined as any unlawful activity that interferes with the Canadian economy or critical infrastructure. That sort of language could allow CSIS operatives to “disrupt” environmental activists or First Nations groups opposing pipeline expansion, for example, Collins added.
“Unlawful dissent includes sit-ins, unlawful marches,” she said. “All of these things paint a really scary picture for dissent in Canada. … Who will want to be involved in collective action? All of a sudden, you could be detained, you could be spied upon.”
Whitaker said CSIS should remain in its role of strictly gathering intelligence rather than enforcing the law.
“(CSIS) will go in secret to a judge, present the case in secret, and if the judge agrees to provide them with a disruption warrant, they can do basically anything they want apart from torture, murder, rape,” Whitaker said. “Short of that, they can break the law, violate charter rights and they already have a get out of jail free card from a judge to do this with impunity and in secret.”
During a question and answer period, one speaker identified herself as a Raging Granny who had been involved in activist movements for more than 50 years.
“I think I’m a terrorist,” she said.
Garrison warned the bill does not address the criminal act of terrorism, but instead allows the government to disrupt any activity it perceives as a threat to Canada.
“The difference here being an RCMP warrant ends up back at court, where it can be reviewed,” he said.
With CSIS, the disruption warrant never comes back to a court after being issued, he said.
“No judge will ever see what happens.”
The bill has also been criticized for lacking measures to address the radicalization of youth; lowering the threshold for preventive detention; expanding the no-‐fly list; interfering with the RCMP’s law enforcement role by causing potential “turf wars” with CSIS; and for creating anti-terrorism laws that overlap with existing laws.
After an NDP filibuster last week, the Harper government agreed to expand its initial three days of committee hearings on C-51 to eight days to allow for more expert input. Once the bill passes committee level, it will be voted on in the House of Commons.