Proposed antiterrorism legislation will bound any activist group deemed ‘multi-issue extremists’ and may prohibit other from talking about or reporting on activist activity.

What does it matter if a few activist groups are silenced because of a bill if it means better security for Canada?

Surely, Canadian security needs beefing up, as evidenced by the disturbing events this past fall. On Oct. 22, Parliament Hill was subject to the most serious security breach since the 1966 Parliament bombing. After Micheal Zehaf-Bibeau fatally shot Corp. Nathan Cirillo, the incident was classified by RCMP as a terrorist act under the Criminal Code of Canada. The incident took place just two days after a man used his car to run down two Canadian soldiers in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., killing one.

 How will we give to causes without being considered a promoter of terrorism?

Amy Tucker

The double-whammy incidents gained national attention and raised concern over existing laws on both the provincial and federal levels regarding the security and preventive measures in place against terrorist acts and radicals. While the Canadian government had already prepared a bill to increase the surveillance of the Canadian Security Intelligent Service (CSIS), the legislation proposed after the Parliament Hill shooting – Bill C-51 or the “Antiterrorism Act” – has attracted more scrutiny than support, and the bill  has threatened the rights of both activists and those reporting on activists activity.

The “flawed” bill, as it was termed by the National Post, has some trouble spots, one of the more serious ones includes judges being “tasked with authorizing violations of any section of the Charter.” This is because the act states that CSIS will be enabled to “contravene a right or freedom guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” or “be contrary to other Canadian law,” if they have a warrant.

The intended effect? CSIS would be able to infringe on any right – even the “fundamental freedoms” such as freedom of thought, opinion, and association that are guaranteed by the Charter – so long as it does not “cause…death or bodily harm”; “obstruct, pervert or defeat the course of justice”; or “violate the sexual integrity of an individual.”

If C-51 goes through, journalists reporting on activism could face legal consequences.

Photo by Amy TuckerIn other words, CSIS can take away a person’s or group’s rights if they feel they have reason to, or if the measure is deemed to be “reasonable and proportional in the circumstances.”

So what does this mean for journalists and activist groups? Afterall, freedom of the press is an explicit right guaranteed to Canadians under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and it’s one of the most crucial elements to a democratic society – giving citizens the information they need to exercise their citizenship while keeping an eye on the activity of the government.

William Ray, writing for Global Research website says: “The Conservatives are counting on Canadians’ ignorance of the fact that if you attend a rally to save your local forest you have likely [been] observed, identified and added to the list of ‘multi-issue extremists.’” Meaning that those who engage in any form of protests geared to protect the rights of future generations to have clean air may be considered a threat to the government and out of line with C-51.

The bill also uses vague terminology such as “advocate,” “promote,” and “terrorism in general.” There is no definition or context given for the meaning of these terms, which seems to be a potential strategy to easily target activist groups and those reporting on them.

Under this rubric, it remains unclear how journalists can give a voice to social or environmental causes without potentially being considered a “promoter” of terrorism?

While the terminology in the bill, in theory, could have been useful and might have allowed police to keep closer watch on Zehaf-Bibeau prior to the Parliament Hill attack, in practice it does not serve Canadians.

The bill is too broad and thus does not just target potential terrorists, it simply targets those that may be in the way of the federal government.

During a hearing on March 24, for the bill before the House public safety committee, Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer voiced her concerns that the proposed anti-terror law would “criminalize” the “private thoughts” of First Nations people. Palmater says that the bill, as it is currently written, would “capture everything under the Idle No More” effort as defiance to the government and thus a be considered a form of terrorism. 

Palmater doesn’t stand alone on this opinion. Russell Diabo, a First Nations policy consultant, writes on the “Idle No More” campaign website, “As a policy practitioner, I view Bill C-51 as a direct threat to First Nations’ pre-existing sovereignty and Aboriginal & Treaty rights.” 

First Nation groups and environmentalists have been actively trying to protect our environment from threats to it, including pipeline projects. And I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that Bill C-51 is an attempt to stifle activists, reporters, and citizens alike.

The overarching issue here is not whether Canada should invoke a new legislation to outlaw purported terrorists by increasing surveillance of Canadians. The issue, rather, is how the federal government is attempting to pass legislation that will undermine the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

If Bill C-51 goes through, the definition of what is considered “activism” would soon become synonymous for “illegal.”

And what are we journalists – the democracy safe-keepers – left to do? Will we no longer be legally permitted to allow those without formalized power to have their voices heard? Will we be arrested for watching over those in authority as if that were a terrorist act?

It seems the federal government is gearing itself and its arms with tools to infringe the rights of Canadians to serve the politicians’ own motives.

What these motives are, we can only speculate.

But, with the pipeline-driven Harper reign in force, both Canadian citizens and journalists really need to stop and wonder about the proposed Bill C-51… Is it about antiterrorism at all?

atucker@cjournal.ca

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Leon Rodriguez at drodriguez@cjournal.ca

Thumbnail courtesy of Tsai Project/Flickr. Under Creative Common Licence