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Bill C-51: Canada's Orwellian State Arrives

A still from the film adaptation of "1984"

“In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.”—George Orwell, Why I Write, 1946

George Orwell warned of totalitarian states in his dystopic novel ‘1984.’ (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

For the first time in my life I do not feel safe in my own country. And it’s not criminals or terrorists I fear but my own government. The Harper Conservatives’ new security initiative, Bill C-51, threatens, in the words of the Huffington Post, to remove freedoms that have existed since the Magna Carta 800 years ago. The bill would transform CSIS (Canadian Security and Intelligence Services) from an arm’s-length surveillance agency into a Secret Police force with unprecedented powers to interfere with Canadian citizens. If that bill goes through Parliament without revision, we will have crossed into a complete police state. Welcome to Orwell’s 1984.

Four former prime ministers and five former Supreme Court justices have voiced their concerns about the bill, as well as prominent law professors, Canada’s privacy commissioner and civil liberties groups. National Green Party leader Elizabeth May has issued one of the most eloquent warnings yet on the bill: “C-51, the so-called Anti-Terrorism Act, creates new powers for the CSIS. CSIS was created to keep the RCMP policing functions separate from intelligence work after the fiasco of burning down the barn in an FLQ sting operation. This bill gives CSIS the power to do anything. (Okay, not anything. It specifically says CSIS cannot directly kill or harm people or “violate the sexual integrity of an individual,” but otherwise, CSIS will have a vague set of sweeping powers).

“CSIS will be able to conduct any operation it thinks is in the interests of protecting the security of Canada. The definition of “undermining the security of Canada” is more a list of suggestions than a definition, using the word “including” before listing nine types of threats. Using “including” as the heading for its list leaves open the possibility that CSIS may think something else should have been on that list. (italics mine) Most listed activities are already illegal, such as treason, espionage, causing serious harm, etc. To this is added “interference with critical infrastructure,” raising legitimate concerns that the bill is targeted at First Nations and environmental groups opposing pipelines. There is a caveat in the act: “For greater certainty, it does not include lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression.””

This last clause should give me reassurance, if only it weren’t coming from a government that has shown little regard for civil rights of any kind. You know how it is—historically, no weapon ever forged has not been used. As May concludes, “Put simply, Canada has already significantly intruded on charter rights to give the RCMP, CSIS and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) broader powers and less oversight.” With the 2014-15 Canadian security budget mushrooming from $444 million to $829 million, our spies will have plenty of toys to play with, including spying on non-criminal Canadians (as they do already). According to a Reuters report, “Canada’s electronic spy agency has been intercepting and analyzing data on up to 15 million file downloads daily as part of a global surveillance program.”


It’s hard to know whether the Conservatives are engaging in a ‘bait and switch’ tactic here—cast the net ridiculously wide, knowing you’ll garner massive resistance, and then pull the bill back with revisions. That way, the Conservatives get to pretend they’re being “responsive to Canadians’ concerns” while still getting what they wanted in the first place, whatever that is. (And you can be sure it’s not good.) The recent decision to extend expert testimony hearings from a mere four days to eight may lend some credibility to this theory of political gamesmanship.

Every major civil rights association and most of the major NGOs across Canada have aligned against the bill. The provisions are so broad that even protest campaigns by groups like Greenpeace could fall under the bill’s draconian provisions, declaring oil pipeline protestors “terrorists” or “security threats.” No wonder environmental and social justice NGOs are raising the alarm about C-51—their very existence as functioning dissenters is threatened.

There have been some excellent critiques of the bill, notably by Craig Forcese, a law professor teaching national security law at the University of Ottawa, and Kent Roach, who teaches at the University of Toronto law faculty and worked with both the Maher Arar and Air India commissions. (See link below.) The latest analysis comes from renowned Canadian civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby in the March 2015 issue of the CCPA Monitor, published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), echoing many of the same concerns regarding the vast scope of discretionary powers given CSIS. These will include the right to arrest someone on the suspicion that they may commit terrorist acts. “Preventive detention—i.e., detention on the suspicion that someone may or will commit a crime at some point in the future,” write Ruby and Nader R. Hasan, “is the opposite of (Canadian) legal tradition and is inconsistent with the constitutionally protected right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

It’s not like there haven’t been adequate security measures passed since 9/11 in Canada to give law enforcement ample tools to use against potential terrorists. In fact, some civil liberties commentators argue these have already gone too far. “The current preventive detention scheme is already constitutionally suspect,” write Ruby and Hasan in the CCPA Monitor. “…the anti-terrorism Criminal Code provisions permit the arrest and detention of individuals who have not been convicted or even charged with any offence, based on what they might do.” (italics mine)

With the provisions so broad, would CSIS be in a position of neutralizing even legitimate political opposition with these new powers? And what about the chilling effect C-51 will have on journalism? Will C-51 create a means of policing “thought crimes” now (to cite Orwell’s novel again)? Professors Forcese and Roach have already postulated an example of reportage that might be misinterpreted as “encouraging or promoting terrorism” in the context of a news article that dares to ask the hard questions. Who knows how far CSIS and other Canadian security agencies will go in their expanded mandate? The “interference with critical infrastructure” clause could easily be applied by CSIS to oil pipeline protests that seek to blockade construction sites.


As American founding father Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” (Often paraphrased to read: “Those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither.”) And what exactly, are we being forced to give up these liberties for? A security threat that barely exists in Canada. Since 9/11 there have been two—count ’em, two—deaths resulting from ‘terrorists,’ and even these have only tenuous ties to any organized  terrorism. Even in the US, a 2013 report in the Washington Post noted that the incidence of terrorist attacks has actually plummeted since 1970, with 2,608 total attacks resulting in 226 deaths in the United States between 1970 and 2011. Certainly 9/11 was the largest loss of life on American soil from a single terrorist act. A November 2014 article in The Guardian reports that meanwhile, victims of terrorism globally have increased since 9/11, but most of these have occurred in politically unstable states such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Nigeria. Indeed, as a Global Research report points out, since 9/11, 180,000 Americans have been murdered for reasons totally unrelated to terrorism.

Contrast the terrorism death toll with the fatalities on North American highways. According to Wikipedia, 30,800 died in fatal crashes in just one year in the US—2012. That’s 92 people per day. Annual traffic deaths in Canada according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report from 2011 data were 2,075. The WHO report estimated “1.24 million deaths worldwide in the year 2010, slightly down from 1.26 million in 2000. That is one person is killed every 25 seconds.” Even with the global upsurge in terrorism deaths to 18,000 in 2013, clearly the greater threat to life and limb comes in the form of an automobile. Yet we don’t see states rushing to enact laws to restrict anyone’s freedom to drive, do we?

If Bill C-51 makes it through Parliament—a strong likelihood given the Conservative majority—we will have crossed the Rubicon into a total police state. On that day, I will wear black. Until then, I urge you to support the various civil liberties organizations and NGOs who are campaigning against the bill. As I wrote in a letter to the editor of the independent Rossland Telegraph and Castlegar Source, this is a NATIONAL EMERGENCY. This is not the Canada that generations of hardworking Canadians built, or that our veterans fought and died to protect.

POSTSCRIPT:I’m pleased to note that the federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair has taken an unequivocal stand against C-51 even as Liberal leader Justin Trudeau continues to insist he will support the bill now and amend it IF he is elected. This despite the fact that 66 percent of Liberal voters are against the bill. As far as I’m concerned that finishes Trudeau’s credibility as a potential Prime Minister. I can only hope enough Canadians will agree and vote instead for Mulcair.

In other good news, despite an early poll published in the Globe & Mail showing over 70 percent of Canadians supported the bill, current polls show this figure has dropped to only 38 percent. Fully 50 percent of Canadians oppose C-51 now and that number in British Columbia is 61 percent. Much of this is due to the excellent work of Professors Roach and Forcese and their thorough analysis of the bill, which has helped educate Canadians about its dangerous implications. Demonstrations in 70 cities made it abundantly clear that this is a bill opposed by many Canadians.