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A campaign to repeal Bill C-51 has continued to gain support in recent weeks. Over 300,000 Canadians have signed a petition seeking the repeal of C-51 and public consultations. Bill C-51 became law in June and gives vastly expanded powers to the police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
A broad coalition of civil society groups have criticized the bill, and a campaign against it is hosted by OpenMedia.ca, Leadnow, Greenpeace Canada and the BC Civil Liberties Association. Nineteen other organizations have lent their official support. BCGEU played a key role in initiating the day of action and then working with the partners to grow and develop the campaign.
The Liberals have committed to “repeal the problematic elements” of Bill C-51 and to hold “broad public consultations” on reforms. They re-iterated their first commitment in one of the ministerial mandate letters released on Friday. On Monday, The Globe and Mail highlighted the “renewed attention” that the recent attacks in Paris would bring to the law.
Though they called for amendments, the Liberals voted in favour of Bill C-51 when it was before parliament, and have faced criticism over their support. Trudeau met with protesters, saying that he did not vote against the legislation because “there are elements in that bill that keep Canadians safe in a concrete and serious way.”
New powers, little new oversight
Opponents have asserted that Bill C-51 forces judges to authorize Charter violations; expands information-sharing between government bodies in far-reaching but ill-defined and unclear ways; creates new criminal offences using vague, overly broad wording; and fails to increase oversight. The law gives CSIS a new mandate to disrupt terror plots and critics have grave concern that it could criminalize ordinary political activity.
In writing about Bill C-51’s information sharing provisions, law professor Kent Roach said that ambiguous wording leaves protesters vulnerable to pre-emptive information sharing if their activities are deemed unlawful. Roach and others fear that the use of the word “unlawful” means that common, peaceful but technically illegal activities (e.g. protesting without a permit, distributing pamphlets on private property) could trigger the information sharing provisions.
Growing demand for public scrutiny
In a call with rabble, OpenMedia’s David Christopher described the need for public input into changes to the law:
“Right across Canada, so many different groups and individuals [were] really horrified at what was being proposed here. …But I think it’s really important that there’s some type of official way [where] just every day Canadians could give their view to the government. …It would create huge interest around the country.”
Christopher suggested that an official government web portal be created to receive public comments and emphasized the urgency of repeal.
“It is really important we get this bill fixed. It is quite urgent. Right now, it is the law of the land. People’s rights are being undermined, so we’re certainly not calling for a year-long talking shop. We want, as soon as possible, the consultation process to start.”
Growing coalition of support
The coalition of organizations demanding the repeal of C-51 continues to grow, with organizations focusing their efforts on different elements of the bill.
The new crime of “advocating or promoting commission of terrorism offences,” the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) fears, could be leveled against academics who research controversial topics.
David Robinson, the Executive Director of CAUT, spoke to rabble on his concerns regarding both the law’s possible effects on academics and its wider civil liberties implications.
Robinson cited the danger of criminalizing academics who may, for example, lead an academic discussion on whether terrorism is ever justified, or interview people in counter-radicalization research. He also wondered whether the law’s provisions are broad enough to produce new responsibilities for educators to report suspected radicalization activity.
“Professors aren’t spies,” Robinson said with a laugh. “We’re not trained to be spies.” The CAUT director alluded to concerns voiced by the British National Union of Teachers, who were told that failure to report suspected radicalization could result in government inspections. The NUT worried, also, that the net effect of the lawwould be to shut down actual discussion about radicalization.
Bilan Arte, the National Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, expressed similar concerns, calling Bill C-51 “a dangerous law that violates the rights of Canadians [and] explicit targets migrants.”
The legal counsel of the World Sikh Organization re-iterated their position on C-51 saying they “expect that Prime Minister Trudeau will bring forward the necessary amendments” to address their concerns. The Islamic Supreme Council of Canada told rabble that they “endorse [all] individuals and organizations who want to repeal C-51 and C-24.”
Safety and the campaign ahead
“I’m very concerned that they don’t seem prepared to repeal C-51. …I believe it’s absolutely critical that the whole bill should be repealed,” said Green Party leader Elizabeth May, reiterating her position that Bill C-51 in a phone call with rabble.
May called the Liberals’ support for C-51 a “horrific mistake” and said that Liberal opposition would have “created enough pressure on a number of Conservative MPs” to possibly defeat the bill. She went on to highlight her suggestion that the Liberals could compromise by repealing parts 1, 3, 4 and 5, while amending part 2 — the no fly list provision.
May, while condemning the Act’s effects on civil liberties generally, also re-stated a point made in a recent blog post, that the law also makes Canadians less safe — in part because “there is no requirement that CSIS tell the RCMP what it is up to.”
“The reality of Bill C-51 is, as Professors Roach and Forcese made so very clear, as well as former Supreme Court Justice John Major, who testified before the committee, is the bill doesn’t pay any attention to lessons learned from the Commission that John Major chaired into the Air India disaster, which was the single largest act of terrorism on Canadian soil,” she said.
A spokesperson for Daniel Therrien, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, told rabble in an email on Monday that the Office would welcome the opportunity to participate in planned consultations.
“Our Office’s position on C-51 remains the same as last spring. In particular, we continue to advocate for a narrowing of the information sharing provisions in the legislation, raising the threshold for sharing and improving oversight.”
Craig Forcese and Kent Roach, law professors at the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto who have done legal scholarship in real time on Bill C-51, have proposed a series of amendments that would “mute our chief concerns” but still “satisfy government objectives.”
“There is a lot to consult about. We never really were told precisely why CSIS wanted new powers in either the C-44 or C-51 debate. We need to have a clearer sense of what new powers they need,” he wrote. “I am anxious that the debate not simply focus on the promised Parliamentary committee. It is a good idea but far from a panacea,” wrote Roach in an email to rabble emphasizing that the terms of the debate on Bill C-51 should be expanded.
Requests for interviews or statements from the NDP and Liberal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould were acknowledged but an interview could not be arranged before publication time.
Cory Collins is a nonfiction writer, visual artist, poet and contributor to rabble.ca and other publications. His poetry, criticism and art work have appeared in the Island Review, Lemon Hound, The Telegram, Burnaby Now, Off the Coast and Cordite Poetry Review, while he has written on current events, economic news and political affairs for Aslan Media, People’s World, Bee Culture and Canadian Dimension. He lives in St. John’s and can be contacted via Twitter @coryGcollins or corycollins.ca.
Editor’s note: BCGEU was also a key player in initiating the national day of action, and developing and supporting the growth of the campaign with Leadnow and other partners. The story has been amended to reflect that fact.