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Criticism of the Harper Conservatives’ Bill C-51 — the so-called “anti-terror” legislation — was incendiary from its introduction on January 30, 2015, through its passage by the House of Commons [183 in favour (Conservatives and Liberals); 96 opposed (NDP and Greens)] on May 6, 2015, to its eventual passage by the Canadian Senate (44 in favour; 28 opposed) on June 9, 2015.

In a stunning rebuke of the legislation, no less than four former Canadian prime ministers (Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Joe Clark and John Turner), five former supreme court justices (Louise Arbour, Michel Bastarache, Ian Binnie, Claire L’Heureux and John Major), seven former Ministers of Justice (Irwin Cotler, Marc Lalonde, Anne McLellan, Warren Allmand, Jean-Jacques Blais, Wayne Easter and Lawrence MacAulay), three former members of the Canadian Security Intelligence Review Committee (Frances Lankin, Bob Rae, and Roy Romanow), two former Privacy Commissioners (Jennifer Stoddart and Chantal Bernier) and a former chair of the RCMP Complaints Commission (Shirley Heafey) all signed an open letter published in The Globe and Mail that read (in part):

Bill C-51 Demonstration

We all … share the view that the lack of a robust and integrated accountability regime for Canada’s national security agencies makes it difficult to meaningfully assess the efficacy and legality of Canada’s national security activities. This poses serious problems for public safety and for human rights.

National security agencies, like all government institutions, must be accountable to the public. Accountability engenders public confidence and trust in activities undertaken by the government, particularly where those activities might be cloaked in secrecy. Independent checks and balances ensure that national security activities are protecting the public, and not just the government in power. Oversight and review mechanisms are necessary to make sure that powers are being exercised lawfully, and that government officials are not called upon to undertake activities that might expose them or Canada to legal liability either at home or abroad.

Bill C-51 protest

Organizations such as Amnesty International, LeadNow, Anonymous, unions, and many other groups all protested and denounced the legislation. Citizens in 55 Canadian cities staged protests. Open Media reported that over 70,000 Canadians spoke out against the legislation. Over 100 law professors across the country wrote to criticize it. 

The federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien suggested that, “The scale of information-sharing between government departments and agencies proposed in this bill is unprecedented. The new powers that [are] created are excessive and the privacy safeguards proposed are seriously deficient,” and continued to argue that the legislation required significant changes.

Bill C-51 protest

In the face of this onslaught of criticism, the Harper Government… did nothing. It made no changes to the legislation and forced it through the Canadian Parliament and down the throats of Canadians.

Before Parliament recessed I had an opportunity to discuss Bill C-51 and the future plans of the NDP, with Tom Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic Party. 

Christopher Majka interviews Thomas Mulcair

Bill C-51 protestChristopher Majka: Events such as the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris and on a synagogue in Copenhagen indicate that citizens face threats from violent extremists, and it’s clear that Canada is not immune from such concerns. It’s also a fundamental obligation of governments to provide for the security of their citizens.

That said, it’s also clear that Canadians face a host of issues that threaten their domestic security — from food security and the safety of their water supply, to the transport of oil by rail across the country and the state of Canada’s crumbling infrastructure such as bridges — to say nothing of the immense security threat posed by unchecked climate change on virtually every aspect of our civilization.

Given the fact that many security experts have pointed out that the threat of violent extremism is miniscule on this spectrum — for example data from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission show that more Americans are killed annually by falling furniture or televisions than die from terrorist attacks (and I suspect the same may be true in Canada) — why do you think Stephen Harper has focused on the so-called “terrorist threat” to the seeming exclusion of many other more salient issues that concern Canadians and their security?

Thomas Mulcair: That’s a great question. If you go back [to speeches made in the House of Commons] you’ll hear me talk about rail safety and food safety, as well as the importance of protecting Canadians from a terrorist attack. Because there have been thousands of people killed around the world by terrorist attacks so we have to take the threat seriously. But we also know that we have agencies — police agencies, CSIS and others — who have the ability to do that since they’ve been able to stem other attacks.

Bill C-51 protestHere’s the thing as far as the NDP is concerned: If public safety is going to be an issue in this election campaign, then we have to talk about the fact that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has seen massive cuts to its budget and personnel. It is no accident that we have wound up with the listeriosis crisis. It’s no accident that we wound up with the largest meat recall in Canadian history at XL Foods in Brooks Alberta. It was tragedy, but it was predictable. When you cut back that much, and you no longer have the government doing inspections but you allow a private company to tell you that they’ve inspected the meat, then you’re going to wind up with this sort of tragedy. It’s only when the meat gets caught at the US border that we find out about it.

Canadian generic drugs were turned back recently at the Canadian border for being substandard — the Canadian government is not even inspecting them 

With regard to rail transit, when one of the only permissions in Canada to run trains with only a single engineer as compared to two was given to the MM&A Railway, the tragedy at Lac Megantic [occurred]. There have been several other rail tragedies across Canada, although thankfully with not as much loss of life, but it is still a very serious situation. 

Public safety is one of the basic obligations of any government and the Conservatives are simply falling down on the job with regard to getting that done.

Christopher Majka: In her book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein pointed out that fear trumps all emotions. Scare people sufficiently and you can predispose them to accepting what would otherwise by patently intrusive, erosive and unacceptable measures. In this light, is legislation like Bill C-51 fear mongering? A way of distracting citizens from many more pressing — and probable — concerns?

Christopher Majka interviews Thomas Mulcair.

Bill C-51 protestThomas Mulcair: Well, let’s go back to the October crisis of 1970. Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals were spinning a tale of ten thousand terrorists in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal. The only problem was that it was complete hokum. They never existed. But what was very real was that the government arrested almost 500 Canadians, put them in jail without trail and with no accusation whatsoever. Now, if you asked anyone across Canada at the time, I think that the polls showed that it was popular with 87 per cent of the population. So, you can do things that are popular, but whether people will agree with that several years later is another thing.

Christopher Majka: Concern has been expressed that this proposed legislation gives powers to CSIS to surveil Canadians and take actions domestically that change the nature of the agency in ways that were not envisioned in its creation; that it would in effect allow CSIS to become a domestic spy agency. Does CSIS require such powers? Is this a direction we should be going in?

Bill C-51 protestThomas Mulcair: We’ve taken on Bill C-51 straight on. We’re opposed to it and we voted against it, as opposed to the Liberals who said they were against it but voted for it. We haven’t figured out that calculus.

We’re opposed to it, we voted against it, and we fought it every step of the way because [Bill C-51] goes against Canadian rights and freedoms needlessly. The onus is on the federal government to explain why they have to invade our rights and freedoms this way. They haven’t been able to make that case. During one week I asked Mr. Harper eight times in the House and he couldn’t give me a single example of what is missing from existing legislation and why he needed Bill C-51.

Mr. MacKay, the Justice Minister, wasn’t able to give me a single example of what they meant in Bill C-51 by saying they are going to be going after groups to disrupt them. What does that mean concretely? He wasn’t able to give me an answer. 

Bill C-51 protestFirst Nations and environmental groups are very correct to be concerned about how this could effect their ability to do the sorts of things that they have done in the past. For example, to oppose energy infrastructure [projects] like a pipeline, because infrastructure is specifically mentioned [in the legislation]. Or opposing an economic policy of this government, because economic harm is specifically mentioned [in the legislation]. So if you oppose the economic or environmental agenda of the government, or frankly their social agenda, you could wind up in the cross hairs of some of these agencies who are firmly opposed to [such activities].

The very wide language and the very wide scope of this bill is such that when [it can be directed at] anyone who goes about protesting infrastructure or economic policies — you’re throwing the net very wide.

Christopher Majka: Is there any aspect of the security of Canadians that will be improved by Bill C-51?

Thomas Mulcair: We know that the police are able to do their work now, that they have the tools to do it. What else is being added? The Conservatives are not coming clean with Canadians.

It’s useless to be able to talk about police forces and CSIS being able to do even more if we don’t give them the resources they require and they have been the objects of across-the-boards cuts by the Conservatives since the beginning. We are saying that you have to give them the financial resources that are required. They have the ability to do what they need to; they just require the financial resources to continue doing it.

Robert Chisholm, Thomas Mulcair, & Megan Leslie

Christopher Majka: What is the NDP planning to do in response to this legislation?

Thomas Mulcair: We’ll standup to Stephen Harper’s so-called law and order agenda; an agenda that applies to everyone except him. He keeps breaking the law.

Now is the time to reach out beyond our traditional base, talk to other progressives in other parties; tell them that there is only one party that’s the real deal. A party that’s not going to talk about progressive ideas and then forget them once elected. A party that’s going to say exactly what it’s going to do, and then once elected we’ll go ahead and do it. This time, Canadians will be able to vote for the change they want, and actually get it.

Bill C-51 protest

Know that we’re there to bring a message of hope; a positive message like Jack always taught us to do. To talk to Canadians differently because they are seeing us differently. They want us to be able to succeed. Now we have to convince them, one vote at a time, with a good, strong, positive message, that we can affect change in their lives that will — for the first time in 35 years — start seeing things get better for the middle class. 

For the first time in our history, the current generation is going to have less than their parents and their grandparents. That’s never happened before in the history of Canada. We’re far too wealthy to just stand by and watch that happen — there’s no reason for it. There’s no reason for having 800,000 kids going to school hungry in the morning in Canada. That’s a shame that we don’t have to put up with. There’s no way we have to put up with third world conditions on Canada’s First Nations reserves. And I for one do not consider it inevitable that the seniors who built this country should wind up living in deep poverty. We’re going to change that. My job, as a social democrat, has always been to decrease inequality in our society. That’s our priority.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka studied oceanography, biology, mathematics, philosophy, and Russian studies at Mount Alison and Dalhousie Universities and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, and was a guest researcher...