These are anxious times. Terrorists have struck lethally in Ottawa, St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Paris and Sydney since October. They have beheaded or burned three prominent captives in the past month. They issue gruesome threats daily.
Canadians look to their government for protection at moments like this. But they also count on the opposition to safeguard their constitutionally guaranteed rights. If both sides do their jobs, Parliament can strike a reasonable balance between national security and individual freedoms.
Nine days ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced sweeping legislation to give greater power to Canada’s police and spies and loosen the legal constraints on their activities. Civil libertarians sounded the alarm, warning that Bill C-51 would criminalize speech and intent, not just action; lower the requirement to detain people without due process; and allow security agencies unrestricted access to Canadians’ tax records, online communication, and travel plans.
But neither of the main opposition parties challenged the scope or legality of the Anti-Terrorism Act. It was left to the Green Party, the privacy commissioner and U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden to register substantive objections.
The Liberals are firmly committed to supporting the bill, although their leader Justin Trudeau admits it has “gaps.” He promised last Wednesday to push for amendments, including robust oversight of Canada’s security agencies and a sunset clause giving Parliament the authority to review the legislation before it is strengthened or extended. If the government rejects these proposals, the Liberals will vote for the Anti-Terrorism Act now and improve it later, he said. “On the whole, it does include measure that will keep Canadian safe.”
His reasoning was muddled, his position disappointing.
The New Democrats, after studying the bill, have serious misgivings. They haven’t taken a final position but their leader Thomas Mulcair has expressed doubts about the reach of the legislation and the Conservatives’ motives. “This notion that somehow there has to be this massive trade-off (between security and liberty), I don’t believe that,” he said last week. “The whole purpose of fighting against terrorism is to make sure that people who want to take away our rights and freedoms aren’t the ones who wind up winning.”
The logical follow-through would be to oppose Bill C-51.
With his parliamentary majority, Harper can push the legislation through the House of Commons. But what is at stake is bigger than partisan politics. The nation needs a vigorous, informed debate.
The Anti-Terrorism Act would expand government surveillance, let the courts act on suspicion rather than conviction, open up Canadians’ confidential records in ways never been allowed before, imprison people for up to five years for “promoting” terrorism, and lock them up for crimes that “may be carried out.”
The Prime Minister says Canadians can trust their police and security agencies. “Every time we talk about security, they (the opposition parties) suggest that somehow our freedoms are threatened,” he remarked dismissively. But there are real grounds for concern. Both the RCMP and CSIS have overstepped their mandates in the past, sharing with governments that use torture; misleading courts; arriving unannounced to grill immigrants about their religion, contacts and homeland; and spying on Canadians abroad.
There are also questions about how much more power intelligence and law enforcement agencies need. They are already “disrupting” terrorist networks, monitoring online activity and charging would-be terrorists.
Bill C-51 needs to be carefully scrutinized and rigorously debated. The time to do it is now, not after the new powers are enacted. The place to do it is Parliament, not in a secretive oversight committee.
Harper may be riding a wave of popular sentiment right now. But the public mood changes. Fundamental rights, once surrendered, are hard to take back.