Sometimes debate in the House of Commons becomes personal.
On Wednesday night, the House of Commons passed the government’s anti-terrorism law, Bill C-51, with a few small amendments.
Both the ruling Conservatives and the Liberals voted in favour, although the latter have vigorously opposed a great many of the Bill’s key provisions.
Nobody keeps this sort of record, but one could probably safely say that we have never before seen the likes of this in the Canadian Parliament: a party opposing a bill, root and branch, and then voting for it.
The Liberals say they did it because they think a small number of C-51’s provisions are salutary.
In a more candid moment, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau admitted that he did not want to leave himself open to the accusation that he is “soft on terrorism.”
That’s where the personal part comes in.
Appeal to emotion
The day before the vote, there was a final debate on C-51. The Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney led off for the government.
He started by quoting Danny Eisen, the co-founder of a group that calls itself the “Canadian Coalition Against Terror.”
Eisen is not an expert on civil liberties, human rights or security. He is someone, Blaney told the House, who “lost a relative on the American Airlines flight on 9/11.”
Opposition members did not take kindly to the Minister using this sort of emotional appeal.
The government has not been willing to hear from many who have well-documented and legitimate concerns about many of C-51’s provisions, including the Privacy Commissioner, an officer of Parliament.
Instead the Conservatives trotted out a slew of witnesses, including some Americans who betrayed scant familiarity with the contents of C-51, who may have had highly emotional stories to tell about personal experiences with terrorism, but who, for the most part, did not address any of the specific measures contemplated in the legislation.
The quote Blaney chose from Eisen is typical of that sort of, in essence, irrelevant rhetoric:
“The assaults on the World Trade Center; the slaughter in India’s business centre [in] Mumbai; the thwarted plans of the Toronto 18 (which included an attack on Toronto’s business district [here in Canada]); and the attacks on Kenyan malls, to name a few, were designed, not only to kill, but to target countries by undermining their economies.”
When Opposition members expressed their annoyance with this sort of demagoguery, the Minister shot back:
“I would invite the opposition members to listen to this important speech for the safety of our nation… and to show respect for someone who stands up for our country and who actually lost someone from an act of terrorism. I know the opposition members have a hard time calling a spade a spade, but in this very place on October 22 we were under attack by a terrorist.”
NDP MP got personal too
This time, one Opposition member decided to reply with some personal history of his own.
The NDP’s Public Safety Critic, British Columbia MP Randall Garrison, told the House:
“As one whose partner lost one of his best friends in the plane that went from Boston into the twin towers, and as one whose own mother was on a plane that day and we did not find out for many hours whether she was safe, and as one who has worked in international human rights where some of my best friends have been killed by terrorism, I resent the remarks of the Minister saying that because we disagree with him, we somehow do not take terrorism seriously.”
Garrison then got down to cases and pointed out that 45 of 48 witnesses who appeared before the House Committee that considered C-51, including government witnesses, said it was flawed in one way or another.
Garrison told the House that even two of the witnesses whom Blaney had quoted, former Supreme Court Justice John Major and Raheel Raza from a group called Muslims Facing Tomorrow, had not fully supported C-51 at Committee.
Both considered the lack of parliamentary oversight to be a serious flaw.
Garrison then went on to enumerate the many and serious concerns not only of the opposition, but of a great many who have studied C-51 carefully.
Those include an overly broad definition of “threats” to Canada, which includes “threats” to the “economy,” “critical infrastructure” and even Canada’s “diplomatic relations” with other countries.
C-51 casts an extremely broad net
Garrison and other Opposition speakers also talked about the almost frightening and unchecked new powers the Bill will give to the police and Canada’s spy agency. Those powers specifically include the right, with secretly granted judicial approval, to defy the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Canadians who could never see themselves even holding a picket sign, let alone blockading a road or rail line, might believe they have nothing to fear from C-51.
Given the broad scope of the new powers the Bill grants, that is not at all certain. Bill C-51 will allow government agencies to share and act on virtually any kind of information about anyone.
The Privacy Commissioner is no flame-throwing radical. But he has warned that these information-sharing provisions are a danger to all Canadians’ right to privacy.
Oddly, the Liberals — who often like to say they are the party of the Charter — cite the package of information-sharing provisions as one reason for which they support C-51.
Activists and dissenters have the most to fear
In the end, though, it is probably dissenters and activists of various kinds — especially First Nations activists — who have the most to fear from C-51.
Police and security agencies have already identified environmentalists’ and First Nations’ opposition to pipelines and other mega projects as “threats” to Canada’s security and national interests.
Now the authorities will have powerful tools to deal with those “threats.”
The Bill’s powers of preventive arrest and detention, for instance, could allow police to detain Aboriginal activists who they suspect might be contemplating a blockade or similar act of civil disobedience.
We will not know how the state’s security apparatus will use C-51’s new powers, in practice, until it becomes law.
That will happen very soon.
The Bill now goes to the Senate, where it will get an easy ride. There are only Conservatives, (unofficial) Liberals and a few independents in the Upper House. There are no representatives of the parties that voted against C-51, the Official Opposition NDP and the handful of Greens and Bloc Québecois MPs.
Even without Liberal support the Bill would have passed in any case. But is that a good enough reason to vote for something with which you have said you fundamentally disagree?
Photo: flickr/ Obert Madondo