It was about this month in 2015 when former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper must have been starting to get worried. On the heels of a lone-wolf terrorist attack on the Parliament Building in Ottawa, his government had swiftly introduced the far-reaching “Anti-Terrorism Law” Bill C-51. The Bill's massive empowerment of police, spy and government agencies at the expense of human and democratic rights was backfiring, and public outcry and mobilization were growing daily.
In the end, Harper was able to pass Bill C-51 but lost the Federal election soon after. The main beneficiary was the Liberal Party and its leader Justin Trudeau. Despite voting in favour of Bill C-51, they still campaigned on the slogan of “Real Change Now” and promised “swift changes” to protect democratic and human rights in Canada if elected.
Four years later and it's important to look at the state of human and democratic rights in Canada, and what lessons can be learned from the ebbs and flows of the movement which was decisive in the downfall of one political leader but has not yet been able to accomplish its original objective of repealing Bill C-51. Especially as candidates are already being chosen for the upcoming 2019 Federal Election, and PM Trudeau has totally failed in his promise of “Real Change Now,” we need to learn the lessons to move forward in the ongoing fight to defend and extend human and democratic rights in Canada.
Action and Reaction
“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.”
- Then Prime Minister Stephen Harper. January 30, 2015, in one of his first speeches on Bill C-51
“Three people have died in Canada from domestic terrorist attacks in the last twenty years. Almost that many people die every day at work, mostly from unsafe working conditions. A woman is killed on average every six days in Canada by a current or former spouse or boyfriend. Ten people die from suicide in Canada every single day. Yet the Conservative government has cut funding from women’s and mental health programs and made it easier for employers to get away with unsafe working conditions. If they were so concerned about protecting people, why are the blowing up the threat of terrorism and ignoring real problems which can actually be addressed?”
- Fire This Time Article, 2015
One of the initial challenges of confronting Bill C-51 was summarizing its massive attacks. At 62 pages, its full name was “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.”
A good summary of the most offensive aspects was provided by the BC Civil Liberties Association in a statement regarding their ongoing opposition to Bill C-51,
“We argued that privacy rights would be threatened by an exponential increase in personal information sharing across government agencies and foreign actors, without safeguards or accountability mechanisms.
We questioned CSIS’s [Canada's secret police] extraordinary new powers to take covert action, and, incredibly, to seek judicial warrants pre-authorizing its agents to violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
We warned that the new criminal offences of promoting and advocating terror would chill legitimate dissent; that lower thresholds on already exceptionally broad powers, such as preventive arrest, would further undermine due process rights; and that the procedural flaws in the new Secure Air Travel Act would unfairly restrict Canadians’ mobility rights.
In our view, all of this amounted to overboard, unnecessary, dangerous, and unconstitutional legislation. Although we asked the government repeatedly, not once did we receive specifics on how any part of C-51 could have prevented the attacks of 2014, or on why pre-existing legislation was insufficient to protect us.”
Real Movement Possibility
While the Harper government had hoped to stoke the fires of Islamophobia and fear, Bill C-51 was such a blatant attack on human rights that they were faced with growing protests across Canada, including a National Day of Action on March 14 which included 68 coordinated protests. The Guardian newspaper noted, “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.”
It was during this upswing that the Working Group to Stop Bill C-51 based in Vancouver began organizing well attended weekly picket and petition drive actions in the Lower Mainland. Four years later and the Committee is at well over 200 consecutive actions.
As we now come into the 2019 Federal Election with Bill C-51 still firmly in place and nothing to show for in terms of Liberal government gains for human rights, we are justified in saying that this hope was understandable but misguided. Trudeau is a fraud, and if we don't learn the hard lessons of the last four years, it's going to be impossible to move forward.
Trudeau's Tactic- Delay, Delay, Delay
Newly elected Trudeau and the Liberal Party had promised that Bill C-51 would be “overhauled without delay” despite the fact that all major polls showed that a clear majority wanted a simple repeal of the law. Masters of delay, their new tactic was to promise a “public consultation” on Bill C-51 and matters of national security. One letter writer to the Toronto Star summarized why this was a trick, “Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says he wants our input regarding changes to the national security framework so the government can “get it right.” It all sounds terribly democratic and inclusive but just why does he need to consult us to learn that we want our democratic rights, privileges, privacy, representation, and our will to be respected and protected? We remain innocent until proven guilty. No need for further investigation.”
Bill C-59: Same Same But Different
So Trudeau's long awaited solution to Bill C-51 became a new law titled Bill C-59. It tightened some of Bill C-51's language and created some new oversight mechanisms, but maintained many of the worst aspects of Bill C-51. Our initial response in Fire This Time was was this:
“Most importantly, if all of Bill C-59 is passed our human rights are still overall much behind where we were when it's predecessor Bill C-51 was first passed. Taking one step forward after taking 12 steps back is not a victory. Especially when we didn't need to step backward in the first place.
Crucially, CSIS still has powers of “disruption” which include “limiting” the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Under Bill C-59 they would have also have broad new immunity from prosecution for breaking laws!
Seventeen different government agencies will still be sharing your personal information without a warrant.
Police will still be able to detain us without charges for a week preventatively. They can continue to intimidate people into signing “peace bonds” limiting their freedoms.”
The Liberals railroaded the Bill through parliament, refused amendments, and used their majority to pass the Bill and send it to the Senate. In the Senate is where it has sat, moving along at a snail's pace and now in danger of not being passed before the next election while the Liberals deal with crisis after the crisis. This Bill would ensure a status quo under Bill C-51 the Liberals are more than comfortable with.
The Campaign Has Continued
Through all the maneuverings of the past four years, the Working Group to Stop Bill C-51 continued its weekly action campaign – adding “Scrap Bill C-59!” to its demands and alternating between pickets at busy transit points and banner drops over rush hour highway overpasses. That's over 200 actions, and while it has been a core of organizers who have committed to making sure their Monday afternoons are free, the public response has always justified continued engagement. In over 200 actions there have been over 50,000 information brochures distributed and 4,000 petition signatures collected. Without exaggeration, less than 25 people have ever actually expressed support for either Bill C-51 or C-59 during thousands of conversations. There has never been anything resembling a movement or independent public action demanding limitations on democratic and human rights. Despite this obvious contradiction, both Conservative and Liberal governments have been committed to undermining both.
Where We Go From Here?
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.
If you think this is all in the distant past, remember that not so long ago 1,105 people were arrested in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history during the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto. The vast majority were taking part in peaceful protests and were later released without charges.
Preparing for a Crisis
We've been saying for the past four years that Bill C-51 and C-59 have absolutely nothing to do with preventing terrorism, and absolutely everything to do with giving the government and police broad new powers to crack down on dissent. Poor and working peoples' lives are getting harder. Income inequality is growing. You would be hard pressed to find someone who would say that healthcare, education or their quality of life has improved in the past ten years.
According to credit bureau information agency Equifax, the debt-to-income ratio in Canada (how much total debt you have relative to your annual income) climbed to 173.8% in the third quarter of 2018. That's more than 20% higher than in 2008. Consumer debt including mortgages increased to nearly $1.91 trillion, up from $1.82 trillion in 2017. With the cost of living increases, while wages stagnate, people borrow money they will never be able to repay. Bankruptcies were also up 15 percent in the last half of 2018.
Does that look sustainable? The government of Canada knows it's only a matter of time before people react to their worsening conditions.
Use It or Lose It
Poor and working people demonstrated they are willing to mobilize to defend our democratic and human rights, but need organization and leadership as well as support from different organizations representing our interests.
The government of Canada wouldn't be trying to limit our ability to organize if they weren't afraid of the possibilities if we united and mobilized based on our common interests. As the capitalist economic crisis deepens, they will continue trying to transfer all of the burdens onto the shoulders of poor and working people, and prevent us from organizing to defend their rights and livelihoods. The struggle to defend and extend our democratic and human rights will only get more important in the years to come. We need to do everything we can to educate, organize and mobilize to “Repeal Bill C-51 and Scrap Bill C-59!”
Follow Thomas on Twitter: @thomasdavies59
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