Secret police bill passes in Canada
Last week, Canada’s anti-terror bill was passed by Parliament with bipartisan Conservative and Liberal support.
Bill C-51 was originally introduced at the end of January to extend Canada’s anti-terror laws. The legislation was reputedly designed by the Conservative government to protect Canadians from jihadist terrorists, but also grants greater powers to police authorities to target activities that could “undermine the security of Canada” as well as activities that the government deems detrimental to Canada’s interests.
The main provisions of Canada’s new anti-terror legislation facilitates data sharing among 17 federal agencies, gives police powers that would allow them to preventatively detain or restrict terror suspects, bans the “promotion of terrorism,” allows Canada’s public safety minister to add people to the country’s “no-fly list,” and enhances the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada’s spy agency.
Legal experts however have characterized the law as a “blunt instrument” which gives added surveillance powers to CSIS, including the power to engage in dirty tricks and disruptive activities, without a judicial check-and-balance. The legislation works to lower the threshold for detaining terror suspects and allows for the arrest of individuals who are suspected of “communicating statements” and knowingly promoting the “commission of terrorists in general.” The law also allows a person suspected of being a “terrorist” and considered at risk to break the law to be placed in jail for a year without trial.
Critics, including civil liberties groups and the labor movement generally, argue that the law is tremendously vague on who constitutes a terrorist, and many Canadians fear that activities including environmental, Indigenous and anti-Israeli activism will fall within the government’s definition. Consequently, support for the bill fell precipitously before its ratification.
In February, an Angus Reid poll found 82 percent support for the bill. This could be attributed to public sentiment in the wake of attacks on Canadian soldiers in Quebec and the nation’s parliamentary district late last year and in order to respond to the emergence of the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. However, a poll conducted by Forum Research in March found that support for the legislation fell to 45 percent, with nearly the same amount opposed to the bill. Of those who were familiar with the proposals in the bill, which constitutes nearly 70 percent of those asked, support dropped even further, with half saying they disapprove of the bill, and only 31 percent supporting it.
Support for the bill fell because citizens increasingly viewed it as reckless, dangerous and ineffective. Even a handful of former prime ministers released a joint statement calling for stronger oversight of Canada’s spy agency. Critics of the bill believes it turns CSIS into what the Global and Mail describes as a “secret police” force with little oversight or accountability. Critics also argue that the bill opens the door for constitutional violations, which includes censorship of free expression online. They claim that the bill will lead to “dragnet surveillance” and data sharing on innocent citizens.
BiometricUpdate.com in the past has outlined how governments in North America will increase their use of “Big Data” technologies to spy on their citizens. Big Data analytics are tools that give value to the massive volumes of data emanating from multiple sources. Biometrics Research Group, publisher of BiometricUpdate.com, predicted that the acceleration of “Big Data” initiatives in North America within the intelligence community would be centered on linking government databases with more innocuous information, collected from public sources, such as the Internet.
With an acceleration of such efforts, the research vendor predicted in 2012 that citizens could expect a loss of anonymity, along with being tracked at unprecedented rates by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, without warrant, and with lack of effective external legal, independent oversight.
With the advent of Bill C-51, critics believe that the Canadian government, without warrant, will now be able to obtain sensitive information that can reveal everything from a citizen’s financial status, medical history, sexual orientation, and even religious and political beliefs. While CSIS, is suppose to be subjected to “robust” independent oversight through Canada’s Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) according to the government, that body has been so starved of staff and resources in recent years, that critics believe it will not be able to provide effective oversight.
Critics also frustrated since the body does not provide judicial oversight. Since this new law constitutes a massive curb on personal liberties, it would make sense for Harper’s government to adopt substantive judicial oversight over the surveillance agencies that obtain expanded powers through the bill. However, the legislation does not include a judicial oversight mechanism, and the government has not curbed to public pressure to include one.
While the Liberal Party supported the bill, it did so with the caveat that comprehensive judicial oversight should be added to the legislation, if and when, they come to power. Liberal support of the bill has lead to some supporters publicly abandoning the party.