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Are Trudeau's promised reforms to Bill C-51 ever coming?

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One of the few issues in the 2015 election that lined up along the comfortable left-right-centre dynamic of Canadian politics as traditionally defined was that of Bill C-51. Passed by the Conservatives with Liberal support in the wake of the 2014 Parliament Hill shooting (though resurrecting shelved elements of a series of surveillance-related bills that the government had previously been unable to pass), it generated due controversy and strong public pushback.

Organizations and individuals from Amnesty International to the federal Privacy Commissioner voiced significant concerns with the bill's implications for privacy and speech rights, as did large protests against the bill in the time leading up to its passage in June 2015.

This controversy continued into the election, where, true to expectation, the Tories stood firmly by the legislation as it stood, with the NDP pledging to repeal it in its entirety, while the Liberals promised a fuzzy compromise. Indicating that they agreed with the main intent of the bill while having concerns about certain elements in relation to privacy and peaceful protest, the Liberals pledged to pass a series of amendments to limit the legislation's scope and, they said, prevent abuse.

They reaffirmed this commitment in the days following their electoral victory, stating that the promised overhaul would be "swift." With it now having passed six months since this pledge, and no set of reforms tabled or even seemingly on the horizon, one must ask, where has that initial pledge gone and will these amendments ever see the light of day?


Liberals' checkered history of civil liberties

It is worth remembering when discussing these issues that the historical record of the Liberal Party in relation to matters of civil liberties and surveillance is, to say the least, checkered. One could, of course, point to the October Crisis and the use of the War Measures Act under Pierre Trudeau for the clearest proof of this, but reaching so far back is not even necessary.

In the time following September 11, 2001, the Chretien government passed a number of acts, beginning with the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act, which mirrored the United States' infamous Patriot Act in expanding surveillance powers and eroding judicial oversight. The Liberals also embraced the use of "security certificate" regime to indefinitely detain non-citizens, until this was partly struck down by the Supreme Court in 2007.

In fairness, it should be noted that some provisions in the Anti-Terrorism Act dealing preventative detention and investigation did include sunset clauses which meant these provisions expired in 2007. However, after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, these provisions were later returned in slightly modified with Liberal support as part of a fast-track bill introduced by the Harper Government.

In short, those looking for evidence that the Liberals are less than sincere when it comes to their opposition to the provisions of C-51 would not have to go to far afield to do so. Though one can object to certain provisions of the bill in specific while still supporting these other pieces of legislation, it remains the case that their inaction on this issue seems to speak to a wider pattern.


Cops, spies <3 C-51

In the meantime, CSIS, RCMP and other federal agencies have been clear that they are, indeed, using powers granted to them by C-51 to bypass judicial review in their activities. Though department spokespersons have indicated that these powers have been used to "disrupt" terrorist networks, it is acutely impossible to know exactly how and for what purposes the legislation is being applied and interpreted by the government.

The public safety minister has not been forthcoming with details on the cases in which the new powers have been used, leaving a kind of informational black hole as to how, if it all, the Liberals are differing from the Tories in their agency directives related to the legislation. It is true that any process of legislative reform takes time, but, if the current government were serious about reforming the bill they could, at the very least, make clear how its powers are being used at present and lay out a timeline to when new legislative changes will take effect. Their silence on both parts of this issue are deafening.

In staking out a middle position on C-51, the Liberals were able to have their political cake and eat it too, appearing in sympathy with the concerns of NGOs and protestors while not allowing themselves to be cast as "soft" on issues of terrorism and crime. Though a clever, and it would seem successful, political gambit, this promise has appeared to mean quite little concretely thus far.

Journalists and the organizations that originally opposed C-51 deserve some share of blame for not pressing the Trudeau government harder on this issue, but, ultimately, the government itself is responsible here. They ran a campaign pledging to address the concerns that many Canadians had around C-51 and, though there could be variety of reasons for their cold feet in getting down to the business of the amendments, it is to these pledges they should be held accountable.

On this issue, as with many others, getting rid of Harper's Conservatives was the relatively easy part. The harder point comes in holding those who say more of the right things and project a sunnier public image to account. Though there are many pressing issues which this government should be forced into answering for itself and its notional commitments, none have seemed to have slipped off the agenda as quickly as protection of privacy and civil liberties.

For this reason, activists and citizens concerned about these issues must be ready to rally and to organize to ask the fundamental question of where the Liberals will ultimately stand when it comes these most essential of freedoms enshrined in Charter with whom they so often claim allegiance.

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