In spite of numerous and substantive reservations, Justin Trudeau has agreed to the passage of a flawed Bill C-51, the so-called anti-terrorism bill, as a way to assure Canadians that the government is responsible for protecting national security and opposing threats of domestic terrorism.
He holds that government is obliged to make sure law enforcement and intelligence agencies have the tools needed to keep Canadians safe – tools that they must always use responsibly.
At the same time, he asserts that the bill contains serious deficiencies due to the speed with which the Conservative government is moving to exploit the concerns of Canadians. This cavalier approach to law-making has led to a bill that was badly conceived and hastily drafted. Worse than the haste is the resolve of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to pass the legislation with limited debate in spite of the stated concerns of opposition parties, former Prime Ministers and Supreme Court Justices, academics and journalists.
Informed commentators and analysts judge Bill C-51 to confer on Canada’s security agencies new powers that have the potential for abuse if exercised behind a cloak of secrecy. They argue, as the Liberal Party argues, that such powers must be made subject to civilian oversight through parliamentary review in order to protect the rights of Canadians to personal privacy, free speech and assembly.
Given Stephen Harper’s inclination to rule with an iron fist, there is a real worry that the new laws will be used to stifle lawful political dissent by anyone who opposes the Conservatives’ social, economic or environmental policies. The law aims to curtail interference with infrastructure or economic stability which gives rise to concern that it may be used, for example, to apprehend peaceful pipeline or G20 protesters in the future. The bill gives rise to a reasonable fear that Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Communications Security Establishment (CSE) will have the authority to stifle dissent, remove due process and serve the state as a secret police force. As it is, the CSE presently monitors millions of e-mails and Internet downloads of ordinary Canadian citizens each day. Big brother is already watching.
Stephen Harper and the Conservatives argue that it’s ok for big brother to watch because current oversight mechanisms provide adequate protection to the Canadian public. Thai is just not true. At the present time, oversight of security agency activities is in the hands of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), a body that is made up mostly of former Conservative politicians and other patronage appointments who complain that they do not have the authority to compel CSIS and CSE to fully disclose documents and present the testimony of agency officials.
Justin Trudeau is committed to fair and effective protection of the public from terrorist threat; protection that is free from state sponsored abuse. The Liberals will propose amendments to Bill C-51 to clarify the new powers in order to better protect the rights of Canadians, improve oversight and require a mandatory review of the legislation after three years. Mr Trudeau challenges the Conservatives to abandon their plan to limit debate and permit a full national discussion of the legislation. If they persist on passing the imperfect bill that’s now before Parliament, the Liberals vow on election to open up the legislation and perfect its flaws so as to eliminate any possibility of an assault on the rights of Canadians by security agencies.
Peter Schwarzhoff is the Liberal Party of Canada candidate for North Island – Powell River.