Open letter: Four key reasons why we oppose Bill C-51

Photo: flickr/Gabriel Luneau

We are lawyers, activists, academics, and others who are gravely concerned about Bill C-51, which introduces national security-related amendments to several Canadian laws. We oppose the Bill, because it is overbroad, grants unchecked powers to government agencies, and allows for the unqualified infringements on the rights of people in Canada.

Some key deficiencies in Bill C-51 include:

1. Its overbroad definition of "threats"

Also titled the 'Anti-Terrorism Act', Bill C-51 provides for the expansion of secret state-sanctioned surveillance of any group the government deems a threat. The Bill's stated purpose is to target activities that "undermine the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity" of Canada, including acts that "interfere [...] with the economic or financial stability" of Canada. The vagueness of goal would capture Indigenous advocates, labour activists, Quebec sovereigntists, and arguably any other group with whom the government disagrees. These groups and individuals already attract disproportionate government surveillance of their activities. A recently leaked 2013 RCMP report reveals that even climate change activists have been designated a "threat" to national security because of their critiques of Canada's petroleum industry.

2. Its endorsement of unchecked information sharing

Bill C-51 provides government agencies with sweeping powers to share intelligence broadly, not only within Canadian government, but also to foreign governments and potentially to private companies. Security, counterterrorism, and intelligence experts have noted Bill C-51 fails to ensure compliance with basic constitutional and privacy rights, as the bill lacks sufficient safeguards to ensure the limited use, disclosure, and retention of information.

Moreover, the Bill does not provide sufficient mechanisms to ensure the relevance, reliability or accuracy of this information. The case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was tortured in Syria because of false information that the RCMP gave the U.S., is just one example of how the dissemination of inaccurate information can have devastating consequences. Yet the bill ignores this cautionary tale.

3. Its creation of a new propagation offence

Bill C-51's enactment of "propagation crimes" would makes it an offence to advocate and promote the commission of "terrorism offences in general." The speaker's purpose or intent does not matter, even if the communications were made in private. Existing anti-terrorism laws already criminalize incitement to terrorist acts. The new offence's vagueness and overbreadth will chill free speech, especially community and academic discussions on the roots and nature of political violence, let alone discussions about how to create or sustain meaningful peace and non-violence. Indeed, experts have noted that Conservative government's own ad promoting Bill C-51 may itself be a violation of Bill C-51.

4. Its endorsement of secret warrants

Bill C-51 allows CSIS to use secret hearings to secure warrants that would approve secret police use of Charter-infringing conduct to reduce very loosely defined "threats" to the security of Canada. The government has declined to provide examples of these measures. The only constraints appear to be that CSIS cannot cause bodily harm, obstruct justice, or violate sexual integrity. The targets of such warrants need never be notified, nor does the legislation provide for any mechanism for after-the-fact review.

The above list, which is by no means exhaustive, gives insight into just a few ways that Bill C-51 will infringe the freedoms and privacy of everyone living in Canada. We are concerned that there are many more.

Yet this government has refused to engage meaningfully with critiques of the Bill, and has restricted the parliamentary debates around it to a handful of witnesses, to be heard from over only seven days. The government appears to be fanning moral panic and manipulating the fears of Canadians to pass sweeping mechanisms for suppressing political dissent, invoking the threat of terrorism as a means of quelling all manner of dissent and passing the Bill as quickly as possible.

Ultimately, even if not one person is charged or convicted under Bill C-51, its fear-mongering purposes will have been made out. This bill perpetuates the paranoia and xenophobia that characterizes the government's current approach to such issues as national security, political violence, and terrorism -- and indeed even to something as healthy and necessary as civic dissent. In this way, Bill C-51 furthers the limitations of Canada's existing terrorism-related laws, which themselves have been subject to criticism for lack of clarity and overbreadth.

The government has failed to make a compelling case for the need for Bill C-51. We stand with experts, academics, jurists, and public interest groups from across the country to call for an end to this bill. This letter is a statement that the voices in opposition to this Bill ought not be ignored any longer. To help ensure they are heard, the undersigned wish to add our own.

For a complete list of signatories, click here.

To add your name to this open letter, click here.


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