Things have not gone as planned for the Conservative government and their now infamous Bill C-51. Now known popularly as the “Secret Police Bill”, it was supposed to speed through the approval process, propelled by a fear campaign meant to silence any public input or dissent. The opposite has happened, as more people have understood the Bill C-51 and its consequences, the more active they have become in opposing it. Months after it was supposed to have been a done deal, Bill C-51 is now set for the final vote of approval by the Senate of Canada. The fate of Bill C-51 now rests in the greasy hands of this unelected, scandal-ridden institution. So it should not shock us if they pass Bill C-51 despite the obvious fact that the majority of people in Canada are opposed to it.
The possibility to defeat Bill C-51 still exists. The size and impact of the movement to defeat it has generated many surprises, and to force its defeat would be a well deserved come from behind victory for poor and working people across Canada. However, most importantly, we need to understand the fight against Bill C-51 as part of a larger historical fight to defend human and democratic rights in Canada. This fight did not start with Bill C-51, and regardless of the outcome of one Senate vote, cannot end with it either. We need to apply the lessons of past and present movements, and continue the important work of educating, organizing and mobilizing to defend our rights. The movement against Bill C-51 has given us an important glimpse into what is possible if poor and working people work together to defend our common interests!
The Fast Track to Violating Human Rights – A Step by Step Program by Bill C-51
“The scale of information sharing being proposed is unprecedented, the scope of the new powers conferred by the act is excessive, particularly as these powers affect ordinary Canadians, and the safeguards protecting against unreasonable loss of privacy are seriously deficient.”
- Daniel Therrien, Privacy Commisioner of Canada
Since Bill C-51 was introduced in January 2015, every monthly issue of the Fire This Time newspaper has carried an article explaining and denouncing it. At 62 pages long, and titled, “ An Act to enact the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act and the Secure Air Travel Act, to amend the Criminal Code, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts,” the biggest challenge has been to summarize all of the reasons Bill C-51 is the biggest threat to democratic and human rights in Canada in the last 100 years.
We have not been alone. As the Guardian Newspaper in England recently reported, “No legislation in memory has united such a diverse array of prominent opponents as the proposed legislation...The campaign to stop Bill C-51 grew to include virtually every civil-rights group, law professor, retired judge, author, editorialist and public intellectual in Canada.” More importantly, thousands upon thousands of people have become active in the movement against Bill C-51 across Canada.
Bill C-51 could be studied as a step by step guide on how to break, steal, stretch and obscure legislation and definitions until existing human rights safeguards become basically meaningless in the name of “Fighting Terrorism.” Just watch:
Step 1: Allow the government to target those accused of speech promoting and advocating “terrorism in general”, without ever defining what “advocating” or “in general” means;
Step 2: Expand the meaning of “terrorism” to include massively broad formulations like, “interference with various aspects of public life” or “the economic or financial stability of Canada”;
Step 3: Allow government agencies to arrest someone if they think a terrorist act “may” be committed instead of the current standard of “will”, thereby substituting speculation for real evidence when arresting someone;
Step 4: Allow the national spy agency, in this case the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the explicit ability to break laws and violate individual rights if they can find one judge to agree with them;
Step 5: Give the national spy agency, which is currently limited only to investigative powers, the ability to “disrupt suspected terror activity,” without defining what disruption means;
Step 6: Finally, massively violate privacy by allowing multiple (in this case, 17) federal departments and agencies the potential ability to share all personal information they may hold on any individual.
Really, what isn’t made possible by these broadly worded and unexplained changes? Also, these are not the only violations Bill C-51 would enact! These steps are reinforced by other changes which include expansion of no fly lists, secret tribunals and the specific targeting of non-citizens living in Canada. It is perfectly clear why so many are so outraged by Bill C-51.
The Past, Present and Future of the Fight to Defend Human and Democratic Rights in Canada
It is important for poor and working people in Canada to understand that many of the rights they rightly consider to be fundamental and inalienable – the right to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, right to vote, equality in public places – have not always been recognized by the government of Canada. They were won through many many years of struggle, and have had to be defended continually as well. The back and forth between the government of Canada and the people of Canada has been going on since the country was proclaimed in 1867, and the fight against Bill C-51 is part of this.
Many times during history the government of Canada has used racism and xenophobia to cut back on rights, often using the strategy of targeting a particular oppressed group but infringing on the rights of all.
The right to vote in Canada was not something immediately recognized for all. It took over 51 years after the Confederation of Canada before all white women in Canada won the right to vote in 1918. People of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian descent were outright denied or limited in their the ability to vote in federal elections until the Federal Elections Act was changed to outlaw race as a grounds for exclusion from voting in 1948. Even after that, Indigenous people did not win the right to unrestricted voting in federal elections until 1960 – almost 100 years after the founding of Canada!
The Canadian government has also shown no concern for using its participation in wars abroad to justify crackdowns on rights at home. Thousands of innocent Ukrainians, Austrians and Germans were imprisoned in interment camps during World War I as “enemy aliens”. The Canadian government also wasted no time in using the opportunity to deport many “labour radicals” who were important organizers for worker’s rights such as the right to organize unions and for an 8 hour work day.
Again, during World War II, the government proclaimed that the Minister of Justice could detain anyone acting “in any manner prejudicial to the public safety or the safety of the state.” 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. Labour organizers were again also targeted and imprisoned en mas.
At the end of World War II, the defection of Igor Gouzenko from the Soviet Union to Canada brought allegations of a Soviet spy ring operating in Canada. This gave the government another opportunity to clamp down on the rights of labour and social justice organizers. They invoked the War Measure Act, which gives the government unlimited power to use, “censorship and the control and suppression of publications, writings, maps, plans, photographs, communications and means of communication”, “arrest, detention, exclusion and deportation;” and “appropriation, control, forfeiture and disposition of property and of the use thereof.”
“The federal government invoked wartime powers to detain, interrogate, and prosecute several suspected communist spies. Habeas corpus was suspended, and people were arrested and questioned by the police for weeks. Denied access to legal counsel, they were held in tiny cells, kept under suicide watch, and guarded at all times. Even those who were acquitted at trial lost their reputations due to the stigma of being associated with treason. The proceedings of the espionage commission that was established to investigate the suspects rank alongside the October Crisis of 1970 as the most extensive abuse of individual rights in Canadian history during peacetime. The controversy surrounding the Gouzenko Affair ultimately led to the formation of several civil liberties organizations.” - Canada’s Human Rights History, Department of Sociology, University of Alberta
In 1970, the government of Canada again suspended civil liberties during peacetime to respond to the growing movement for independence in Quebec. The flashpoint occurred when members of the Front de Liberation de Quebec (FLQ) kidnapped a British diplomat named James Cross and Quebec minister of labour minister Pierre Laporte. The government responded by imposing the War Measures Act and lining the streets with over 6000 soldiers. The next day, Pierre Laport was found dead, killed by the FLQ.
“Under the powers of the War Measures Act, the police conducted over three thousand searches and detained 497 people. Their actions were guided by a clear bias against nationalists and the political left in general, including many activists....The average detainee spent a week in jail, and the vast majority (87 percent) were never charged with a crime. By January 1971, only sixty-two had been charged. Within a month, half of them were released and the charges were dropped. In the end, only eighteen people were convicted of a crime arising from the crisis.
The use of the emergency powers resulted in extensive human rights abuses. Media censorship was rampant, especially for student newspapers. Several prominent media personalities were arrested and interrogated....” -Canada’s Human Rights History, Department of Sociology, University of Alberta
During this time, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously responded to a CBC interviewer expressing his concern regarding the heavy military presence:
“Trudeau: Yes, well there are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it is more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of a soldier’s helmet.
CBC : At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?
Trudeau: Well, just watch me.”
The most blatant human rights offence in Canada has been against indigenous nations. The government of Canada has continually attacked and denied their inherent right to self determination, and responded with extreme force whenever they attempt to affirm it. It would take an entire library to document the abuses, but the example of the Oka Standoff in 1990 is a good example. 2000 police, later replaced by 4500 soldiers with tanks, naval and air support were used against a blockade set up by a Mohawk community trying to defend a sacred burial ground from a luxury golf course and condominium expansion. The extreme use of firepower was used to make only 50 arrests of Mohawks and their allies. All of which were eventually acquitted.
These are just a tiny few examples of the continual back and forth democratic and human rights tug of war that has been going on in Canada for decades. Another good indication is that it wasn’t until 1982, 115 years after the founding of Canada, that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms became entrenched in the Constitution of Canada! More recently, in 2012 three United Nations expert committees gave Canada a failing grade on meeting human rights commitments.
Which Way Forward?
In this history emerges Bill C-51, during a time when the Canadian government is once again basing itself around war, occupations and foreign interventions in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali and Ukraine. Given their history, it should come as no surprise that these wars abroad are accompanied by a crackdown on dissent and a limiting of rights at home. They may have changed the names of those we should fear, but the tactic of divide and rule remains the same. Islamophobia has become the thin edge of the wedge the government uses to pry open the door to increased attacks on everyone’s rights and freedoms.
Fortunately, the fightback by people living in Canada has been strong and encouraging. Human rights, religious, media, community organizations, and everyone in between, have joined in denouncing Bill C-51 and made it much more difficult to push through. Three National Days of Action have been organized by new networks and coalitions, which for many of those involved has been the first protests they have attended, let alone helped organize.
The dynamism is obvious to anyone who has participated in any of these actions. Five months later and there continues to be a growing and real dissatisfaction with Bill C-51. This dissatisfaction extends further into the way the Canadian government is making decisions which so obviously have nothing to do with the interests of the majority of poor and working people in Canada.
If we take a broader view of the struggle for human rights in Canada, the fight against Bill C-51 has already been an important step forward in the essential tasks of educating, organizing and mobilizing people to fortify and create organizations which can defend our rights. If Bill C-51 passes, it’s a reconfirmation of what many of us have come to understand: When the government refuses to recognize our rights, we must unite to become a force to be reckoned with. The fight against Bill C-51 has put us all in a better position to continue the important fight to make sure the democratic and human rights of all people in Canada and around the world are defended and extended!
No to Bill C-51!
No to Islamophobia!
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