No to surveillance: Unions push Liberals to repeal Bill C-51

| December 17, 2015
Photo: flickr/Jeremy Board

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Labour groups continue to urge the federal government to take action on Bill C-51, which was passed in June and remains in place. The law vastly expands government surveillance, provides new powers to the police and CSIS and may criminalize ordinary political activity.

The Liberals initially supported the legislation, but have promised to repeal unspecified "problematic elements" and undertake public consultations. However, any mention of Bill C-51 was notably absent from the Justin Trudeau's Throne Speech on Dec. 4.

Daniel Therrien, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, expressed grave concern about the bill in March, particularly its information sharing provisions.

"The scale of information sharing being proposed is unprecedented, the scope of the new powers conferred by the Act is excessive, particularly as these powers affect ordinary Canadians, and the safeguards protecting against unreasonable loss of privacy are seriously deficient," he said in a submission to the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security.

On Thursday Dec. 10, Therrien expressed hope that the new Liberal government would follow-through on its commitments and engage in an open debate.

On the same day, Paul Finch, the treasurer of BCGEU, reiterated his opposition to the legislation to rabble and described past elements of the campaign against it.

"We launched a National Day of Action, we were able to organize over 70 demonstrations in conjunction with Leadnow. ...The reason we did it is because we felt that this is the most important issue for labour right now in terms of civil rights and civil liberties."

Finch also called for a Royal Commission and criticized the manner in which the legislation was introduced.

"I actually think there needs to be a Royal Commission on it. [It] needs to drive and specifically deal with issues of intelligence oversight. ...If you look at Bill C-51 right now, it was something that was put forward without any kind of broad consultation, without a Royal Commission being conducted," he said, comparing it to the process of introduction that saw the creation of CSIS in 1984.

"The modern intelligence framework [was] based on the work of two prior Royal Commissions -- the most recent was the McDonald Commission, which laid out why there needed to be a separation of powers between a policing agency and an intelligence agency. Before that, it was the RCMP that had an intelligence division that was basically rampantly violating civil liberties on a very political basis. And a lot of that was aimed at labour unions, so that's kind of where our interest came from."

Claims of surveillance

In their statement opposing Bill C-51, the CUPW cited a "lengthy history of CUPW being spied upon by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the RCMP." Union activist Evert Hoogers, in a volume edited by historians and sociologists affiliated with Laurentian University, has examined what he found to be labour's history of being "spied upon, infiltrated and harassed by national security agencies[.]"

In 1994, the agency denied allegations that it was spying on CUPW and also denied spying on the CBC and political parties.

More recently, claims of spying on postal union activists were made in 2000 by ex-agent John Farrell. The Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), the oversight body for CSIS, subsequently launched a probe over Farrell's investigations. Reports on Farrell's claims were made by Andrew Mitrovica, who would write a book centred on Farrell, who alleged that he was ordered to search through CUPW leaders' garbage.

In April, before C-51 was passed, Mitrovica warned the public to "remember [Farrell's story] when the Bill C-51 apologists in the media and academia... insist that since CSIS always plays by the rules, we don’t have to be alarmed by all those new powers they’re getting in Bill C-51 -- powers that effectively make legal what under current law is very illegal."

Hayden B. Peake, curator of the CIA's Historical Intelligence Collection, in a review of Mitrovica's work said that "[he and Farrell's] allegations remain in doubt because there is no documentation" except irrelevant contract copies.

Looking ahead

Paul Finch told rabble that the BCGEU's campaign going forward, launched with a broad privacy coalition, is going to call on the government to repeal key parts of the law.

"What's happened is that the Liberals have made some vague promises about fixing the legislation but they haven't specifically said what they're going to fix. So it's very unclear to everyone what they're going to fix. ...Our concern is that if we don't have broad public pressure to repeal the worst parts of this bill, the changes will be cosmetic."

While Finch pointed out that he would like to see the entire law repealed, he highlighted in particular its information-sharing provisions, alluding to the Edward Snowden revelations.

"Really, the linchpin of our concern is the provisions allowing, basically, normalized and legalized warrantless mass surveillance. That's really the problem for us," he said.

Finch also emphasized that the lack of response to the Snowden leaks is unwise, comparing its absence unfavourably to the McDonald Commission.

"In the wake of the Snowden revelations, [there] was no ensuing equivalent response or investigation that occurred. There was no Royal Commission struck, there was no equivalent response from government. In fact, the prior Conservative government basically said 'business as usual.' ...The idea that people here should sacrifice their civil liberties to protect themselves from something that is statistically not a threat is absurd."

Finch said that the next phases of their activism remain undetermined.

"There's so many groups and individuals that have stepped forward and contributed to this campaign, that have led vast parts of it, that it's hard to say what direction it'll take. I assume there'll be a multitude of different approaches taken, which I think is good. And the question will be, 'what's the most effective?'"


Cory Collins is a writer and visual artist living in St. John's. He can be contacted via Twitter @coryGcollins or

Correction: This article initially used "she" to refer to Evert Hoogers, who is a man. We apologize for the oversight.

Photo: flickr/Jeremy Board



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