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Bill C-51: Labour must confront radical legislation with radical action

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Image: U Manitoba Libraries

In 2002, Canadian citizen Maher Arar was deported to Syria. He was held until October 2003 and was tortured. An inquiry later found that information shared by the RCMP was used to enable his deportation and detention.

When Université Laval student Ahmed Abassi was celebrating his marriage in Tunisia in 2013, his student visa was cancelled abruptly and without explanation. He was then entrapped by an undercover FBI agent, arrested on suspicion of terrorism and detained in the U.S. for nearly a year. Abassi charges that this could have only happened if Canadian officials shared information with American officials. Abassi can't return to Canada to finish his studies even though all terror-related charges have been dropped.

Thanks to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, we know that Canadians are under mass surveillance by state officials. Enter Bill C-51, the Conservatives' so-called anti-terror legislation. Many of the changes proposed by the anti-terror Bill C-51 seem to legalize what is very probably already happening.

Bill C-51 will lead to more cases like Arar's and Abassi's.

For Indigenous people and communities, Bill C-51 represents nothing new. As the most criminalized and policed people in Canada, the anti-terrorism legislation simply looks like another attack following the traditions of: forced starvation, the pass system on reserve, residential schools, forced placement of children into child assistance services and the prison system.

Communities or activists who question the very legitimacy of Canada or actively disrespect the tenuous sovereignty on which Canada is built, are the enemies of this legislation. The very existence of people who do not accept the legitimacy of Canadian sovereignty is a threat to Canadian sovereignty.

How this legislation will be enforced is still an open question, but it's false to say that the only problem with the legislation is oversight, as many have argued. Instead, the path that Bill C-51 sets forth is dangerous and, if the Conservatives are re-elected, will allow for more extreme forms of repression.

The legislation defines an activity that undermines the security of Canada as one that "undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada or the lives or the security of the people of Canada" and offers examples of what the act considers these activities to be. Most relevant for activists are:

(b) changing or unduly influencing a government in Canada by force or unlawful means...
(f) interference with critical infrastructure;...
(h) an activity that causes serious harm to a person or their property because of that person's association with Canada;

The section adds: "For greater certainty, it does not include lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression." Considering how often protests are deemed to be "unlawful," this doesn't fill me with confidence.

The legislation also adds extremely broad allowances for people to be detained or otherwise harassed:

"12.1 (1) If there are reasonable grounds to believe that a particular activity constitutes a threat to the security of Canada, the Service may take measures, within or outside Canada, to reduce the threat."

So, if a government official thinks that you're participating in an activity that poses a threat to Canada, they can "reduce" the threat. Use your imagination.

To not appear as offering a carte blanche to disappear people, the act does say that threat reduction cannot include intentionally or through criminal negligence hurting or killing someone, willfully obstructing justice, or sexually assaulting them. And reducing a threat can only violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms if there exists a warrant to allow for that.

This might be enough to satisfy Harper's supporters, but it should alarm everyone who believes that our rights to dissent and protest are critical within a democratic state.

This legislation needs to be resisted, and it will be resisted, and people will be detained, their rights violated and their lives, ruined. How can someone fight for Indigenous sovereignty and not undermine the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Canada? How can a sovereignist in Québec call for borders to be redrawn without undermining Canadian sovereignty?

If actions are carried out that threaten critical infrastructure (rail, pipelines, power stations etc.), or that damage property but that don't hurt anyone, a person will feel the full force of this new anti-terror legislation, improved oversight or not.

In From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement, I argue that the labour movement needs to start acting like the official opposition in Canada and confront Stephen Harper. Opposing Bill C-51 would be a good start; the Canadian Labour Congress hasn't yet commented publicly. But labour leaders need to go beyond statements and actively resist the government to make it impossible for them to enact the bill.

Labour unions are in a privileged position on the Canadian left. Their resources and labour can grind the economy to a halt; a feat that is impossible for any other civil society organization. And while showing solidarity with the people who will be most targeted under this legislation is important, opposing Bill C-51 would also demonstrate their opposition to the legislation for the threats it poses against labour too.

In an alternative universe, it could be argued that striking workers are a threat to the security of Canada. Conservative MPs made these kinds of arguments during the dispute between Canada Post and CUPW in 2011. An illegal strike plus interference with critical infrastructure (which could be as simple as workers ceasing operations on Canadian railways) could result in the detention of union leaders and members alike under Bill C-51.

Unions often remind people that they stand between democracy and totalitarianism. That, when they defend the right to free association and collective bargaining, they help to balance the totalitarian desires of extremist governments.

And it's true, but these kinds of reminders have to be followed by action.

Image: U Manitoba Libraries

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