Like millions of people across Canada, I was shocked by the news that the House of Commons passed Bill C-51 this Wednesday (May 6). The authorities this proposed law gives to Canada’s spy agency, without any checks and balances, are only comparable to those found in the most horrific of dictatorships in Third World countries. The bill, as it stands today, is a tool that allows the government to act away from any legal scrutiny, and takes the Canadian justice system and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms out of reach of Canadian citizens.
As a Muslim blogger, the part about encouraging terrorism “in general” is particularly disturbing for me. Let’s say I write a blog post expressing my views as a Muslim on any current world event, and someone in CSIS finds that my opinion is “in general” supporting or encouraging terrorism, what then? How can I be absolutely sure no one at CSIS will have an interpretation that my text is “in general” supportive of terrorism? What if I disagree with the interpretation of the CSIS agent about what exactly any text I wrote is supposed to mean, how are we going to resolve this conflict? Will the spy agency present their point of view in front of a judge, in an open court, where I will be able to present my own interpretation of what I meant with what I said?
For all I know, I might be violating this proposed law right now, by simply expressing my opposition to it!
Without a clear definition of what “supporting terrorism in general” means, I can’t see how I can be sure to avoid violating this law by accident, whenever I express my views as a Muslim. If I am expected to not violate a law, it should be at least possible for me to understand it. If the law says that the government decides when the law was violated, then for me to make sure I don’t violate the law, I have to either check with the government about every sentence I want to write, or wait for the government to come and arrest me after I write anything, and if they don’t show up, I will know I didn’t violate the law this time!
The vagueness in this core part of Bill C-51 is far reaching, and it renders many other aspects of it vague and even counter-productive.
As an example, the bill gives spy agencies the power to take down online content that it deems to be encouraging terrorism “in general”. As a blogger, I think of what I write as my proof of innocence. I believe that, if presented in a fair court of law and an impartial judge takes a comprehensive look at what I write, they can clearly see that I am against terrorist groups, and terrorism in general. Allowing CSIS to take down content from the Internet, after accusing someone of being supportive of terrorism, gives them the power to destroy any evidence that person might have to prove their writing was not supportive of terrorism in the first place.
In addition to not providing any clear idea of how to not support terrorism and where to dispute any disagreement over whether support of terrorism “in general” took place, and not allowing the accused to retain the disputed material as evidence to be reviewed by any judicial process, the bill also limits access to the justice system to review such disputes in the first place.
The same goes for all the other powers this bill gives the spy agency to deal with those they deem supportive of terrorism “in general”. A citizen can be added to the no-fly list, have his movement restricted, have his financial transactions disrupted, or be detained, based on a perceived threat by a CSIS agent, that never went through a judicial process in an open court.
It will mean, as a Muslim in Canada, I have to live under constant fear of being arrested if someone in CSIS thinks something I wrote might be “in general” supportive of terrorism.
In short, this bill, if passed by the Senate, risks making Canadian citizens in general, and Canada’s Muslims in particular, live as second-class citizens, and puts them under the mercy of security agencies’ agents. It gives McCarthyesque and arbitrary powers to those agencies, and their executives, to become super citizens, and decide which citizens deserve to have rights, and which ones don’t.
The only possible consequence of this “anti-terrorism bill” will be to manufacture more lone-wolf incidents, because it will make Muslim youth less likely to share their views, out of fear of prosecution. It ties the hands of writers, bloggers, and activists in speaking about controversial issues, and limits the abilities of religious communities to detect and interfere to prevent endangered youth from being radicalized, by forcing them to keep their views away from public eyes. And it almost definitely reduces the ability of society as a whole to interfere to stop terrorist attacks until the moment they take place, making us all less safe and more vulnerable.
In other words, the law is not only useless, in that it doesn’t achieve its objective, it is actually counter-productive to existing anti-terrorism efforts. It violates a whole range of basic rights and freedoms to achieve more insecurity for everyone.
Lastly, I hope the Senate will think about the following question, before voting on this bill: When a CSIS agent goes to the court to ask for permission to violate a citizen’s charter rights, what document will the judge base their decision upon, to decide whether to allow the security officer to violate the citizen’s rights? And how can that document have the legal power to override the charter of rights and freedoms?