By Judith Lavoie, April 2015
Critics of proposed “anti-terrorism” legislation see it as part of the Conservative’s push to quell opposition to petroleum-related projects.
Activism has been part of Ruth Miller’s life for decades, but, for the first time in her 82 years, the Victoria grandmother fears she could end up in jail.
The Conservative government’s proposed anti-terror legislation (Bill C-51), which beefs up Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) powers, hands the RCMP increased new powers of preventive arrest, and makes fundamental changes to human rights, has been loudly denounced by groups and individuals across Canada. Critics include four former prime ministers and five former Supreme Court Justices.
Miller sees the bill as part of an ongoing effort by the Harper government to demonize those who disagree with him. “I think this is an attempt to suppress dissent of all kinds and we should remember that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal. It may have been immoral, but it was legal and I am afraid we might go down the same route,” said Miller, who has been a member of the Raging Grannies for 15 years.
The group of mature women in flowery hats, with a propensity for singing, would certainly meet the criteria of trying to disrupt the economy of Canada because they actively protest against pipelines, Miller noted. “The next thing you know I will have been popped into jail,” she said.
The bill, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to see in place before the expected October federal election, is drawing widespread criticism because of its broad brush approach to terrorism as “activities that undermine the security of Canada,” as well as its lack of meaningful oversight of CSIS activities.
Although “lawful” protest is excluded from action under C-51, anything from holding a protest march without a permit to a wildcat strike is technically unlawful and therefore could become the subject of CSIS investigation and possibly even disruption.
The legislation lowers the Criminal Code threshold from permitting police to arrest someone they have good reason to believe will take part in a terrorist activity, to allowing the police to act if they think a terrorist activity may be carried out.
The bill allows 17 government departments, such as Health Canada, Canada Revenue Agency, Canada Border Services Agency or Fisheries and Oceans, to share information about individuals if the information is seen as relevant to national security. And it allows them to take actions such as blocking a citizen’s financial activity. Some opponents fear that, with phrases such as “[disclosure permitted] to any person for any purpose,” information could also be shared with foreign agencies such as the CIA.
According to Reg Whitaker, adjunct professor of political science at the University of Victoria and an expert on RCMP and privacy issues, the bill allows “drift-net fishing” for information because the standard of evidence the bill demands is so low. Speaking at a recent C-51 forum in Victoria, he said, “They have opened it up in a way that destroys basic privacy protections. They have knocked down the barriers between government departments sharing information…It is so broadly drawn it imperils freedom of expression,” he said.
The bill, Whitaker noted, would allow the government to do almost anything it wants, short of torture and rape. Clayton C. Ruby, one of Canada’s leading lawyers and an Order of Canada recipient, wrote recently, “CSIS [will have] virtually unfettered authority to conduct any operation it thinks is in the interest of Canadian security,” with “virtually no oversight.”
Discomfort with the 60-page omnibus bill was underlined by large turnouts at anti-C-51 rallies across the country in March. More than 1000 people turned out for the Victoria demonstration—many of them middle-aged and unused to taking part in demonstrations against government.
“Once this bill goes through, we could be arrested for chatting like this on the street,” said Carole Sheridan, waving a placard indignantly. “The aim is to manipulate and control. It has never been this bad in Canada,” she said. Sheridan is afraid her five grandchildren will grow up in a country where freedom is curtailed and privacy protections thrown out of the window.
There is mounting evidence that concerns such as those of Miller and Sheridan are warranted and not just paranoid imaginings.
Among recent revelations about the involvement of security agencies in protests is a document showing CSIS prepared advice and briefing materials to help senior federal officials deal with expected protests around energy developments such as Northern Gateway. One of the most startling portrayals of Conservative attitudes came in 2012 from Joe Oliver, then natural resources minister and now finance minister, who in an open letter attacked “environmental and other radical groups” which “threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.” In March this year, Oliver continued the theme by accusing those opposing federally-approved projects of abusing the concept of social licence and damaging Canada’s national interest.
That followed on the heels of an RCMP internal report describing the possibility of violent anti-pipeline extremists working with First Nations radicals to sabotage critical infrastructure. The report, which used language casting doubt on the legitimacy of climate change and its link to fossil fuels, said one of the “most urgent anti-petroleum threat of violent criminal activity is in northern BC, where there is a coalition of like-minded violent extremists who are planning criminal actions to prevent the construction of the pipeline.”
Anyone who doubts that the RCMP or CSIS already monitor those they see as possible troublemakers should take a look at Tim Takaro’s brush with the RCMP. Takaro, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University who was present during the Burnaby Mountain Kinder Morgan protests, was contacted by RCMP through his daughter’s cell phone. They asked him about photographs he took near the Burnaby Mountain tank farm and told him they knew he had been to earlier protest rallies.
“I find it really weird, kind of spooky and intimidating,” Takaro said. “I think this new bill, C-51, that the Harper government is trying to ram through, this so-called anti-terrorist bill, is very intimidating for people who are protesting these large new infrastructure projects that are destroying the planet.”
Carmen Cheung, BC Civil Liberties Association senior counsel, believes people are right to be alarmed as the bill proposes radical legal changes, jeopardizing rights and freedoms while promising little improvement to public safety. According to Cheung, the bill is not getting adequate debate in Parliament and, in addition to the chilling effect on protests, there are other problems that desperately need attention, such as expanded preventive detention and no-fly lists.
“I am really not sure that no-fly lists improve public safety. Someone is too dangerous to fly, but not dangerous enough to arrest or to stop going on a bus? It seems a very strange way to approach public safety,” said Cheung, who fears the new law will put additional pressure on Muslim communities. “People should read the bill, or at least read some of the commentary, and understand there’s a lot to be concerned about. Canadians need to understand this bill,” she said.
While Bill C-51 is the catalyst for recent protests, many see it as part of a pattern that has included firing or muzzling scientists, gutting environmental, river and fish protections, and auditing the charitable tax status of groups not aligned with Conservative policies—such as Dying with Dignity, Tides Canada, and Environmental Defence.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, leader of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, is convinced of the connection. “This is very consistent with the Harper government’s deliberate efforts to gut environmental regulatory oversight of major project development,” he said. “I think, in many ways, this country is slowly sliding into a police state,” said Phillip, surmising that it points to Harper’s obsession with becoming a petro-superpower.
Like other First Nations leaders, Phillip, who was arrested during the Burnaby Mountain protests, does not plan to change his behaviour and will jealously guard his constitutional and legal rights. “Regardless of the Harper government’s agenda, I shall continue to speak out and protect the birthright of my grandchildren. If it means I am branded as a terrorist, so be it. If I have to go to jail, so be it.”
Phillip is hoping Canadians will take action. “I think people had better wake up and smell the coffee and understand we are in desperate need of a new national vision, one that is more inclusive and willing to respect human rights,” he said.
Tzeporah Berman, coordinator of the Clayoquot logging blockades, lead negotiator of the Great Bear rainforest campaign, and ForestEthics campaign director, said Canadians should be worried about C-51. “What we are witnessing is the systemic erosion of democracy,” she said.
People’s ability to obtain information and participate in public processes, such as the National Energy Board’s pipeline hearings, is being dismantled, Berman claimed, accusing the Harper government of eliminating independent environmental assessments, weakening environmental laws, and changing the Fisheries Act at the request of oil companies, all in a quest to become an energy superpower.
“Over 2000 [federal] scientists have been let go and the ones who remain are not allowed to release information to the public. If they want to speak to the press they have to have permission from the Prime Minister’s office,” she pointed out.
Berman feels the public is waking up to the problems as they see scientists and professors take to the streets. With the federal election approaching, she hopes every Canadian is prepared to vote strategically to ensure there is not another Harper majority government.
That could pose a quandary for some voters given the federal Liberal party supports Bill C-51, although it is calling for amendments to provide greater CSIS oversight. The NDP and Greens oppose the bill.
Long-time reporter Judith Lavoie does not give credence to most conspiracy theories, but as she researched Bill C-51 she couldn’t help wondering if someone was tracking her activities.