This speech was given by Thomas Davies at the seminar organized by the Working Group to Stop Bill C-51 titled "Four Years in the Fight to Defend Democractic & Human Rights in Canada - Where We Are, Where We Need to Go", April 15, 2019.
Transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Working Group to Stop Bill C-51 started a little over four years ago, and we started in the context of a federal election. Since then I think it's important to note that in our 212 bi-weekly actions we've handed out over 50,000 brochures, gotten over 5,000 petition signatures, and have had a consistent presence everywhere in the Lower Mainland.
I'm proud that we've been able to keep the campaign consistent. But something I want to emphasize is that we wouldn't have been able to keep a consistent campaign going if every week we didn't see evidence that people were responding to what we were talking about - either people angry about Bill C-51 and C-59's attacks on democratic and human rights or who had a lot of questions.
So that was the context that we the Working Group started working in, and that's why we thought it was important to call this seminar - because we're going into another federal election and people are going to be talking about politics. People are going be talking about Prime Minister Trudeau's record and we think it's important to point out that he campaigned on the slogan of “Real Change Now” and promised it would be a priority to fix Bill C-51's attacks on democratic and human rights. What we've seen over the last three years is not a “failure,” because I don't think it was accidental that Prime Minister Trudeau has not “fixed” Bill C-51. We've even seen some worse proposals from Trudeau than we saw from Harper.
Crisis and Crackdown
I think it's also important to note that Bill C-51 didn't just come out of thin air. It's not something just happening in Canada. After September 11, 2001 we saw the Patriot Act in the United States and we saw every other advanced capitalist country like England, France and Germany come up with these anti-terrorism laws. In every instance they were using the excuse of protecting people to place huge limitations on democratic and human rights, on privacy, and basically to proportionally lower the accountability requirements of government, police and secret police. Also, since September 11, 2001 we've been in a period of escalating and ongoing wars and occupations, that I call the new era of war and occupation.
Since 2008 we've been in an era of economic crisis, where I think it would be really safe to ask people in this room, “Does anyone feel like their standard of living has improved in the last ten years? That healthcare or education has gotten better?” I think the truth across the world is that life is getting tougher for poor and working people. They said after the 2008 financial crisis there was a “jobless recovery”. That was the new term invented because the corporations recovered their profits, but people didn't recover their jobs or if they did they didn't recover their salaries.
So it's in that context of wars and economic crisis, where poor and working people are facing harder and harder lives, that Bill C-51 and Bill C-59 came into being. I don't think anybody here is fooled that it was just because Stephen Harper or Justin Trudeau were really all that concerned about terrorism happening in Canada. These laws were brought in to limit the ability to organize of poor and working people. It's not accidental.
History Repeating Itself
And this isn't the first time these things have happened.
We know that laws limiting freedoms usually start by using racist targeting of immigrants and then move to full scale attacks on those who are organizing to defend their rights against undemocratic attacks. During World War I, government fear campaigns and targeting of Ukrainians, Austrians, and Germans moved almost immediately to attacks on trade unions and arrests of antiwar organizers. During World War II, racist attacks on Japanese, Italians, and Germans again moved quickly to attacks on working class organizations and silencing antiwar voices. Between 30,000 to 35,000 'enemy nationals' and Canadian citizens were interned, including people of German and Japanese background. 20,000 Japanese Canadians were removed from the West Coast of Canada in 1942 alone.
All of these were justified in the name of national security and all of these were used not in the interests of protecting people but, in the interests of protecting the government's domination. And so that its narrative of justifying war and occupation remained unchallenged.
And we're seeing it played out exactly the same way today. When Harper announced Bill C-51 in his press conference he said, “Canadians are targeted by these terrorists for no other reason than that we are Canadians. They want to harm us because they hate our society and the values it represents. Because they hate pluralism, they hate tolerance, and they hate the freedom of others, the freedom we enjoy. Through their deeds, these jihadists have declared war on Canada, and with their words, they urge others to join their campaign of terror against Canadians. Ladies and gentlemen, it would be a grave mistake to ignore their threats.” If you look at the report that the Trudeau government released justifying Bill C-59, the same justification is used - manufacturing the threat of foreign terrorists from the Middle East and continuing in a different way this Islamophobic campaign.
Trudeau ran on a campaign of “Real Change Now” and prioritizing fixing Bill C-51. A lot of people had a lot of faith in what he was going to do. So a lot of the energy from that movement was sucked into the election. People were waiting after he was elected for the “real change” to come and now we're heading into the next federal election and he still has not delivered any change at all.
Trudeau also stalled. He organized a phoney public consultation on national security which was just a questionnaire on a difficult to find website, as well as hearings in five different cities across Canada. In each of these hearings the public had two hours to come and express their opinions. So 10 hours total of open public input for the 35 million people across Canada.
A lot of progressive organizations and people who had led the movement against Bill C. 51 also saw Trudeau's proposal of Bill C-59 as the lesser of two evils compared to Bill C-51. Saying things like “Bill C-51 was bad, Bill C-59 is bad...but at least we get this oversight committee at least they've tightened up some of the language. At least...at least...at least.”
Human Rights Are Non-Negotiable
The NDP and unfortunately some other civil liberties and press freedom organizations got caught up in the lesser of two evils campaign and they started bargaining and negotiating with human rights. And that's something that I think is fundamental: we can't go into the issue of human rights as if they are up for negotiation.
Your freedom of expression, your right to privacy, your right to assembly, those aren't the things that any government has the right to take away. The recognition of these rights by the government of Canada was because poor and working people fought for that recognition. So we don't bargain with those things.
So many got caught up in trying to “trade horses” with human rights in the Parliament, and they got away from what had made the movement so successful to begin with: people on the streets demanding “Repeal Bill C-51 Now!” A clear demand that everyone was uniting around. People had been mobilized, and the Harper government had been losing legitimacy - because the people were on the streets showing what their actual feelings were. So, once it was diverted from that effective strategy that was across Canada, they made it a lot more difficult to organize.
Potential Still Exists
In Vancouver we've done a really good job through our consistency and campaigning to keep it going, but it hasn't been a similar story across Canada. There is something I think we need to kind of share our example about. Why I think that this issue is still so important four years later - because we've already seen that organizing about it has potential.
Under Bill C-51 all of these human rights violations are happening in secret. They have zero accountability to tell us exactly what's going on, but inevitably we're going to find out how they're using these secret powers and what kind of abuses that they're actually carrying out.
It's also important to remember that they brought in these laws because they want to use them - because they're anticipating people organizing against the government, they're anticipating people organizing against the fact that we're spending over six hundred thousand dollars a year per person on the military but we can't fund a decent education or healthcare. We live in one of the richest countries in the world, but many people can't afford to live.
We Need to Be There
So they're going to need to use these powers that they're promising they just want to use to protect us from terrorists, and when they use them, and people realize in a greater way what they were actually intended for, we need to be there. We need to be there exposing what's going on. We need to build that, and at that time we need to have already built a relationship with people. In Vancouver people will know we've organized over 200 bi-weekly actions in four years and we are committed to this fight.
So, we need to be ready when the next flash point of human and democratic rights comes, and we need to be in a position where we can help be part of the leadership of that movement. So when some new Justin Trudeau comes up and says “You don't actually need to organize amongst yourselves if you elect me,” we are position to be able to say, “No. Our strength is in our numbers. Our strength is in our organizing, our strength is in the campaigns that we organize independently. So, we need to continue organizing on these things.”
Who “We” Are
When I say “we”, I'm talking about poor and working people. I'm talking about the majority of people in Canada. “We” who have zero interest in a government pursuing war and occupation; who have zero interest in all the backroom deals that you're seeing exposed by the SNC Lavalin scandal. Who have zero interest in having our privacy raided; zero interest in CSIS having these new disruption powers. I'm talking about environmental organizers and Indigenous nations who are standing up defending their land who under Bill C-51 and Bill C-59 could easily be unjustifiably targeted. I'm talking about social justice organizers and about labour unions. “We” is the majority of people in Canada, whose lives are not getting any better and who have an interest in defending our rights. “We” who have an interest in creating a government that actually responds to their needs.
So, we have an opportunity in the next five months leading up to the federal election. People in Canada are not always actively engaged in political discussion but leading up to an election they are. As we've seen, during elections there is an opportunity for a movement to be swallowed - or for real issues to get discussed in a real way. I think that's exactly what we need to use the next five months for. Four years ago, Trudeau ran on a campaign of a lot of promises he hasn't fulfilled and he's not going to fulfill – this time we have his record to point to.
So right now, we're doing the tough, consistent and important work of laying the foundations for those movements. I want to thank everybody who has been coming to the actions on a weekly basis. A lot of people in this room have held signs, handed out brochures and collected petition signatures.
We don't have tens of thousands of people at our actions. But even with 15 or 20 people we've been able to organize effectively. So, imagine even if that goes to 50 to 60 people every week and that happens in every city across Canada. And that grows. It doesn't take a lot of people to begin with to make a real impact and to show other people what is possible. When people realize what is possible then there's real possibility for change. That's what we hope to continue doing with the Working Group to Stop Bill C-51, and we hope you can all join us in the ongoing campaign. Thank you very much.
Follow Thomas Davies on Twitter: @thomasdavies59
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