Photo: flickr/ Obert Madondo

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CBC Radio news carried a report last week on the case of a six year old who was prevented from boarding an airplane because his name is on some kind of watch list.

The Liberal Minister of Public Safety, Ralph Goodale, promised to correct this anomaly.

Goodale told the media that the new government will make sure that the names of children under 18 do not, in future, appear on any such list.

The CBC reporter then concluded that, in any case, this and similar excesses will all be corrected when the Liberals, as promised, “repeal Bill C-51,” the Harper government’s so-called anti-terror legislation.

Readers of rabble will know that the Liberals never promised anything of the sort (although the CBC Radio news editor to whom this writer spoke was not so sure).

For the record, it was the NDP that promised repeal.

The Liberals only promised major changes to C-51 — while voting for it.

The new government is now starting to make those changes.

Minister Goodale has gone to the United Kingdom to see how that country manages parliamentary oversight of its security agencies.

The Harper government vigorously resisted any and all proposals to have elected members of Parliament look over the shoulder of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), or any other security agency.

The Liberals, and the NDP and the Greens, were equally adamant that such oversight was absolutely necessary, especially given the increased powers C-51 gives to CSIS.

Trudeau told Canadians how he would change C-51

Most who reported and commented on the C-51 debate said that the lack of oversight was the Liberals’ principal and almost only objection to the bill.

That is not, however, quite true.

The Trudeau Liberals had a number of serious concerns with C-51. The lack of a formal means for parliamentarians to oversee security agencies’ activities was only one of those concerns.

Last February, when he stood in the House during debate on the bill, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau outlined some of the changes he and his party sought.

First, there was the question of the new powers the Harper government’s bill gave to CSIS.

” … we are now set to imbue CSIS with broad powers to disrupt not only real or perceived terrorist threats, but also real or perceived threats to economic and financial stability, critical infrastructure, and the security of other states,” Trudeau told the House.

“The Liberal Party,” he said, “will be bringing forward amendments to narrow and clarify the overly broad scope of the new powers that have been a source of concern for many Canadians.”

Trudeau also proposed that the new measures in C-51 be subject to mandatory legislative review after three years, because they “make changes to the criminal code.”

Similar anti-terrorism legislation that was passed in 2001 was subject to exactly that sort of review, Trudeau pointed out.

Later, in response to a question from his Liberal colleague, former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, Trudeau expressed an additional concern about C-51.

” … there is some overly broad language in the bill that we will be recommending be tightened and clarified a bit so as to not paint an overly broad picture of national security risks to our country … “

A little phrase that could cause big harm

In a subsequent media interview, Cotler specified what the Liberal party objected to, and what it would do about it.

The former Liberal justice minister pointed to provisions in Bill C-51 that would apply the “terrorist” label to “interfering” with critical infrastructure and to activities that undermine the “economic and financial stability of Canada.”

Those provisions, the Liberal MP said, are contrary to basic notions of freedom of expression, and probably to the Canadian Charter of Rights.

Cotler also expressed grave concern about the new crime the bill creates of “promoting terrorism in general.”

Prior to C-51 it was a crime to promote terrorist acts, but not to promote some vaguely defined activity “in general.”  

The phrase “terrorism in general” might sound anodyne enough, at first blush.

However, during the debate on C-51 all opposition parties, including the Liberals, pointed out how dangerous it actually is.

They showed how that innocent-sounding phrase could criminalize people who merely advocate certain kinds of ideas, or those who share such advocacy on social media, without there being in any way a direct link to actual or potential acts of violence.

Selective review of security activities after the fact is not good enough 

It is true that in the House and elsewhere Trudeau and other Liberals did vigorously make the case for elected parliamentarians to exercise oversight over security agencies and their activities.

They argued that what the Harper government claimed was good enough — the Security and Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) — definitely was not.

SIRC is a small and poorly funded body that selectively reviews some of what CSIS has done, after the fact.

Trudeau told the House and Canadians, on more than one occasion, that he and his party believe elected members of Parliament should know what the security agencies might be planning, before the fact.

The Liberals are working on making that happen now.

But there are a lot of other glaring weaknesses in Bill C-51, which is now not merely a bad Harper idea.

It is the law.

Those who believe that the new government must consider a number of major changes to the Harper government’s anti-terror legislation — beyond establishing parliamentary oversight — will be keeping a close eye on the Trudeau team, and especially the public safety minister, and waiting for the next shoe to drop after Parliament reconvenes in late January. 


Photo: flickr/ Obert Madondo

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...