Although Ottawa is currently consumed with the details of Senator Mike Duffy’s trial, a far more serious legislative issue continues to work its way through Canada’s Parliament: Bill C-51, the Harper government’s antiterrorism legislation. The bill is an omnibus piece of legislation that will amend several statues and give sweeping new powers to the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) while opening the doors to information sharing in ways that are not only troubling; they will lead to significant erosion of rights and privacy of citizens.
The process by which Bill C-51 was introduced and first reviewed by a Commons committee are probably the best indicators of what is wrong with the proposed legislation. Rather than allow for meaningful public debate at the committee stage of the legislation, the Conservatives have placed tight restrictions on who can appear before the committee as witnesses. Expert testimony has been drastically reduced, all in the name of rushing the legislation through the first level of substantive review.
Even more troubling has been the aggressive tactics used by Conservative members of the committee. The executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, Ihsaan Gardee, described the questioning by Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy as “McCarthyesque” after she accused his organization of having terrorist connections.
But like all legislation, it’s the details of language, scope, and definitions where the thrust of a government’s agenda becomes clear, and in the case of Bill C-51, the Harper government is cutting a wide swath through rights, freedoms, and privacy. Although a proposed amendment to the wording on “lawful protest” removes one of the more offensive provisions of the bill, deeper concerns remain.
Our national organization, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), has noted that faculty who teach or research in controversial areas could feel the chilling effect of this legislation. So too could faculty who encourage open debate either within their classroom or as part of individual or joint research undertakings. And finally, the prospect of more wide open information sharing between government agencies or between national governments could have a wide range of unintended consequences. The case of Maher Arar and his wrongful extradition and imprisonment in Syria stands as a testament to how a government’s obsession with security can be so destructive to the rights of individual citizens.
As a federal election nears, postsecondary educators need to continue to press for a rewrite of Bill C-51. That rewrite must place hard limits on what governments can do in the name of national security and what public oversights are in place to ensure agencies like CSIS don’t trample charter rights in their pursuit of national security issues.