Anti-terror bill needs rigid safeguards
Conservative leader and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper pauses during a campaign rally in Beaumont, Alberta March 28, 2011. Canadians will head to the polls in a federal election May 2. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
When I first visited Beaumont, Alberta, on the southeastern outskirts of Edmonton, it had a population of just over 2,000 and a distinctly Franco-Albertan character. The beautiful brick Catholic church of St. Vital (now close to 100 years old) kept watch over the surrounding prairie from its perch atop the “beautiful hill.”
Twenty-five years later, the formerly quaint French farming town is a booming bedroom community of nearly 16,000. But as vanilla and suburban as Beaumont might seem, it is also on the frontlines of the war on terror. A week ago, the RCMP’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Team arrested a 17-year-old resident and charged him with trying to leave the country to join ISIS and plotting to commit “murder in circumstances that constitute terrorist activity.”
If the threat of terrorism in Canada has spread as far as Beaumont, then the threat literally is everywhere.
The ramming death of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, last October, the deadly shootings at the National War Memorial and Parliament Hill just days later, the arrests of six young men in Ottawa since Christmas for attempting to recruit fighters and raise funds for ISIS, the threats to West Edmonton Mall and the conviction of the two suspects in a plot to derail a Via Rail train all show that the terror war is beginning to reach our shores.
The threat might not yet be substantial, but it is real and it is growing.
So it’s a good thing the Harper government is updating Canada’s anti-terror laws, which were first introduced after the 9/11 attacks.
But whenever a government promises to tighten security, there is always a chance – a good chance – that individual freedoms and privacy will be compromised. Then the question becomes, can the two be properly balanced?
As the American founder Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
It makes no sense to end freedom in the name of preserving it.
So how well does the Harper government’s new Bill C-51 achieve the necessary balance between keeping Canadians safe while also preserving their freedoms?
It does reasonably well, but not well enough.
The Anti-terrorism Act is not as bad as its most hysterical critics claim. It does not, for instance, “permit Stephen Harper to turn Canada into a police state.” It does not, as NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair claimed, force Canadians “to choose between security and their rights.”
Still, some of the bill’s critics make valid points.
The bill lacks clear definitions of what is and what is not an offence under its provisions. Its wording gives governments and police agencies too much wiggle room. And there is insufficient judicial and parliamentary oversight planned.
It’s easy to see where that leads. Over time, the applications for the new bill will expand. The law will experience what is known as “mission creep.”
More groups and more activities – groups and activities that we would now never think of labelling “terrorist” – will be brought under the bill’s overbroad umbrella.
Can’t stop First Nations’ radicals from blockading rail lines and highways? Call them terrorists and use the wider investigative powers of C-51 to control them.
Want a quicker, easier way to stop abortion doctor murderers or anti-registration gun owners or politically incorrect groups with unpopular views? Label their activities a threat to national security and government agencies can eavesdrop on their phone calls and intercept their e-mails and texts.
I don’t want to see CSIS, the RCMP, provincial or local police hamstrung by ridiculous bureaucracy and deference to the civil rights of criminals and terrorists. But guaranteed, if Bill C-51 is not written with rigid safeguards for Canadians (including those with unpleasant views), then gradually its enhanced powers will be turned on people with ideas that are distasteful rather than those that are truly dangerous.
For instance, amendments to the Criminal Code that make it a crime to express “ideas related to terrorism” are too broad and vague. Who gets to decide what limits on free speech are warranted in the name of Canadian safety?
Such a decision is too important to freedom to be made by the bureaucrats, politicians or police officers enforcing the limits. Yet currently, those who enforce the law will also be in charge of setting the definitions.
The bill is a decent attempt at making us safer. However it would be better at preserving our freedom if it contained more judicial and parliamentary oversight.