Randomly selected: Canada's new anti-terror bill threatens civil liberties

Randomly selected: Canada's new anti-terror bill threatens civil liberties
Blog: Hadani Ditmars notes that the United States has no monopoly on Trump-esque populist conservatism which targets minorities in a bid to bolster security agencies' power.
6 min read
08 Dec, 2016
Canada's proposed anti-terror bill means we have little grounds for smugness, writes Ditmars [Andalou]

Canadians love to be smug about Donald Trump and his legion of "alt-right" white supremacist supporters and political bedfellows - like soon-to-be-CIA head Mike Pompeo who sees the "war on terror" as a battle between Christianity and Islam.  

But the true north, strong and free, has its own fair share of Trump sympathisers, and its own issues around racism and civil liberties.  

From draconian "security certificates" - a mechanism by which the government of Canada can detain and deport foreign nationals and all other non-citizens living in Canada - to "manufactured terror" sting operations, to a proposed introduction of a UK-style internet "snooper's charter", we have little grounds for smugness.

This was brought home once again, on the very day of Trump's election, when I arrived back from a reporting trip in Tunisia, via Calgary airport. In a province known for tar sands and conservatism, I was greeted by a giant Canadian flag - a rather American display of patriotism - and then promptly detained for three hours in a room full of mainly non-white non-citizens, by enthusiastic customs police.

When I inquired about why I'd been detained and subsequently interrogated, I received a variety of answers, which changed with every official I asked.

Eventually I was told I'd been "randomly selected" (an excellent name, incidentally, for my new anti-Trump punk rock band).

While this was not the first time I'd experienced this kind of reception in my home country - although I'm more accustomed to such treatment in the likes of Ben Gurion airport - and I didn't have my computer or mobile phone taken from me, as a Canadian journalist did recently when en route to Standing Rock, the truth is that Canada's moral higher ground is a slippery slope.

In the days after my "welcome home" at the Calgary airport, a spate of racist attacks took place across Canada, and Conservative Party leadership hopeful Kelly Leitch became Canada's own Trumpette, calling for a screening process for new immigrants that would include questions on "Canadian values".

And while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was hailed as a welcome change to his Conservative predecessor Stephen Harper (think Trump minus the charisma, disguised as a mortgage broker), he has failed to rescind some of Harper's harshest measures. 

Now a wide-ranging group of activists, politicians, journalists, civil libertarians, and business leaders are concerned that Trudeau's government is fast-tracking a public consultation process on the controversial Anti Terrorism Act 2015, colloquially known as Bill C-51.

The bill passed in May 2015 by a vote of 183 to 96, amid protests across the country and objections from former prime ministers. The Liberals voted with the Conservatives. The NDP, Green Party, Bloc Quebecois and independent MPs all voted against the bill.

In September, New Democrat MP Randall Garrison introduced a private members' bill to repeal the Harper-era "secret police" legislation, saying he hoped the government would repeal "all aspects of Bill C-51, a bill in force for more than a year now, which still manages to infringe our civil liberties without making us safer".

Even Canada's privacy commissioner Daniel Thierren expressed concern

On Tuesday, with only a week left in the public consultation process being held by the federal government on national security, even Canada's privacy commissioner Daniel Thierren expressed concern.

"In my view, this is not the time to further expand state powers and reduce individual rights," he said. "Rather, it is time to enhance both legal standards and oversight to ensure we do not repeat past mistakes and that we ultimately achieve real balance between security and respect for basic individual rights."

Now activists, legal scholars and grassroots media producers have come together to launch what they call "a radical online resource to encourage informed and meaningful participation with the goal of repealing the controversial Anti Terrorism Act 2015".

The website, antiterror.ca, created by Anushka Nagji, a front lines legal advocate, and Alnoor Gova, a scholar researching the nexus of hate crimes, Islamophobia and national security laws, is meant to be "a comprehensive tool for all members of the public to utilise in order to put pressure on the government to scale back the massive assault on citizens' rights, and privacies and actively consult with the public before any further legislation on national security is passed".

Fear of terrorism, the website notes, "enables the government to implement policies and legislation that allow for mass surveillance, violations of the Charter and basic human rights, arrests and detentions without warrants and other terrifying intrusions and controls of all its citizens. In the name of national security, our human rights are in jeopardy".

The website’s audio series Unpacking Anti-Terrorism features more than two dozen interviews with leading Canadian experts on anti-terror legislation.

Co-author Nagji warns of the federal government's attempts at "radically changing definitions of what constitutes terrorism acts", including "implicating peaceful protest and dissent, conscripting judges to break the law and override the constitution".

Such actions are "not befitting of what we would and should call democracy," she writes, "in fact it's quite the opposite".

Experts on the site include Michael Vonn of the BC Civil Liberties Association who has spoken out about secret trials and no-fly lists and the chill on free speech from de-radicalisation to journalism.

Vonn says the Trudeau government's national security green paper "reads like it was drafted by a public relations firm tasked with selling the current state of extraordinary, unaccountable powers and if anything, laying the groundwork for extending those even further".

It's not just journalists CSIS has been illegally spying on

Gova adds: "Recently, we learned about a wire-tapping incident in Quebec, by the Montreal police and the Sureté du Quebec who were spying on journalists after obtaining a warrant from a judge. This has a chilling effect on journalism and undermines democracy."

He also cites an ongoing court battle between the Royal Canadian Mouted Police and VICE News over orders to hand over digital messages from a source police say was a "terror suspect".

"It's not just journalists CSIS has been illegally spying on,” says Gova. "They've been retaining ordinary people's electronic data - people who posed no threat - for over a period of ten years".

The website also contains information that Andrew Mitrovica gleaned while researching his book, Covert Entry: Spies, Lies and Crimes Inside Canada’s Secret Service, which cites gross incompetence as well as illegal harassment.

"CSIS have now been given increased power," says Gova, "through a lowered threshold of proof needed, and widened definitions of what constitutes 'terrorist acts'."

Lawyer Faisal Kutty also contributes his research on how Bill C-51 has contributed to the targeting of Muslims. 

"With a focus on an easily identifiable group, ie: Muslims, as 'the terrorists'," says Gova, "fear softens the public to more easily agree to draconian restrictions and compromises of their rights, privileges and privacy."

With not-so-distant memories of Canadian Maher Arar's 2002 extraordinary rendition to Syria - on a stopover from Tunis at JFK airport - and ongoing complicity between CSIS and US intelligence, one hopes that Trudeau's government will do the right thing and repeal Bill C-51.

I too hope that my next stopover at the Calgary airport will prove a more pleasant re-entry, and that the giant maple leaf flag so prominently displayed, will be slightly less concerned with its own "greatness".

The Airport Authority might be well advised to replace it with a quote from Justin's father, Pierre Trudeau, who famously said: "There is no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian. What could be more absurd than the concept of an 'all-Canadian' boy or girl? A society which emphasises uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate."

Follow Hadani Ditmars on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars