Published in the Toronto Star, February 2, 2015
When a prime minister announces one of the most draconian anti-terrorism bills in his nation’s history — and does this not in the national legislature, but at an election-type campaign stop in a riding his party hopes to hold in a looming election — Canadians should be worried about the democratic stability of the country.
In introducing this new legislation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper again said that “we are at war with the Islamic State” — language U.S. President Barack Obama has explicitly warned against on the grounds that it will likely lead to overreaction. But overreaction, it seems, is exactly what Harper is hoping for. He appears to be trying to raise the level of fear in order to railroad through measures that will violate the very democratic values they are purportedly meant to protect.
This law is so bad one has to wonder about the true motives behind it.
There are many troubling aspects of the Tories’ anti-terror bill, but perhaps none more so than the undoing of the essential separation between intelligence gathering and police investigation. The law would effectively turn CSIS into a police force that can engage in acts that would otherwise be a violation of the Charter and the Canadian Constitution. All CSIS need do to use these new powers is secure a “disrupt threat” warrant from a judge, which would allow the agency to take a broad variety of actions to reduce any real or perceived threat to the security of Canada. And that doesn’t just include traditional ideas of terrorism. It also means perceived threats to economic or fiscal stability, critical infrastructure or the security of other states. These broad new powers evoke the latitude one finds in a war measures law.
While lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression are excluded, how will we know the extent to which these fundamental Canadian democratic rights will be protected? After all, the bill contains no guarantee of Parliamentary oversight of these new powers.
It is well documented that CSIS watchdog SIRC, with its limited reporting function, has not been able to provide effective oversight of the powers that CSIS currently has, let alone the vastly expanded proposed powers. Add to that the additional reach the bill would give to other organizations such as the Canadian Border Security Agency, and the need for an overarching Parliamentary oversight body could hardly be starker. The UK, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, all “Five Eyes” allies have such a body to watch over and rein in their respective security apparatuses.
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There is also little in the proposed law that indicates on what evidentiary basis the courts can be made to violate the very Constitution they are charged with upholding. The whole structure of the judicial oversight of CSIS “disrupt threat” requests may itself be deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. While CSIS will not be able to make arrests or detain individuals, there is now virtually no separation between intelligence gathering and police investigation. Canada’s spy agency is about to be given powers to intervene in a range of quite possibly unconstitutional ways, which is ironic given that CSIS was created in part to prevent the reoccurrence of similar abuses by the RCMP.
This law is so bad one has to wonder about the true motives behind it. The fact that the prime minister and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney have repeatedly (and bewilderingly) rejected calls to introduce an obviously needed guarantee of Parliamentary oversight of these new powers suggests a potential profoundly immoral political strategy. Did the government deliberately structure the proposed law to be unpalatable even to a largely sympathetic opposition? After all, that would allow the Tories to label their opponents “soft on terror” in the run-up to an election.
Playing such unseemly politics with the safety and civil liberties of Canadians deserves to be harshly repudiated.