As this article is being written, the federal Conservative government is rushing to pass Bill C-51, also known as the “Anti-Terrorism Act”. This bill has arrived in the wake of highly publicized attacks, both in Canada and abroad, such as the shooting on Parliament Hill in October and the more recent Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. During the unveiling of his new legislation in Richmond Hill, Prime Minister Stephen Harper proclaimed, “A great evil has been descending upon our world, an evil which has grown more and more powerful — violent Jihadism.” These are frightening words, but what will the Conservative’s fear mongering mean for our civil liberties and democratic rights?

Bill C-51 marks a major overhaul to policing and intelligence agencies, lowering the threshold for surveillance and state infiltration, broadening the definition of threats to national security, further enabling the interflow of information on Canadian citizens between governmental departments, and dramatically expanding the mandate of Canada’s domestic spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). The Harper government has assured the wider Canadian public that these unprecedented measures are necessary to combat the “great evil” of “violent jihadism”. But a quick look behind the fiery rhetoric reveals a piece of legislation that is largely aimed at threatening and silencing critics of the government and its business allies. 

With the supposed intent of thwarting terrorism and stifling radicalization, the most basic question which must be posed is this: does Bill C-51 enable measures which can hamper acts of terror which were unable to be prevented in the past? The bill itself was penned in the wake of the Parliament Hill shooting, suggesting that attacks like those which took the life of reservist Nathan Cirillo could be prevented with the empowerment of CSIS and Canadian law enforcement. The problem, though, is that the proponents of this rationale have yet to explain how police or intelligence agencies were hampered from doing so with their already existing mandates. Canadians were horrified by the killings of Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa and Patrice Vincent in Quebec by lone assailants, but as was written in a February editorial for the Globe and Mail, “There is no evidence that either attacker was connected to ISIS. The more likely theory is that they were troubled young men who self-radicalized”. As is now known, neither attacker was thought to be likely to carry out criminal acts in Canada by police. RCMP Superintendent Martine Fontaine, who oversaw the monitoring of Quebec assailant Martin Rouleau, said herself that “[the RCMP] did not have any indication, none whatsoever, of his intention to commit a crime in Canada. If we did, we would have arrested him.” Each of the assailants acted as lone operatives, and certainly not part of a larger “Jihadist” plot as vividly painted by the Conservatives. Each was purportedly suffering from mental illness, their attacks were carried out devoid of planning – rendering surveillance and disruption by intelligence and police agencies as futile now as it was then.

With a title like the “Anti-Terrorism Act”, one would be led to believe that the content of Bill C-51 was targeted at terrorism specifically. This, however, is not case. Many of the most highly touted aspects of the Bill C-51, such as making the promotion of terrorism illegal, already exist under Canadian law. Bill C-51 only serves to make the existing laws broader and vaguer. The bill also applies to:

“Any activity, if it undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada;

“Interference with the capability of the Government of Canada in relation to… the economic or financial stability of Canada;

“Changing or unduly influencing a government in Canada by force or unlawful means;

“For greater certainty, it does not include lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression.”

The bill supposedly protects lawful protest, but the operative word here is “lawful”. These definitions go far beyond terrorism and would encompass actions that have an economic impact or aim to change government policy. Civil disobedience of environmental activists is unlawful. A blockade by indigenous people is both unlawful and undermines the territorial integrity of Canada. An illegal strike, or defiance of back-to-work legislation, is an unlawful action that could interfere with the economy. Rosa Parks would find herself targeted by these laws, and anybody organizing non-terrorist direct action could find themselves infiltrated and disrupted by the security services.  

Arguably, the portions of the bill which will have the greatest impact don’t pertain to terrorism whatsoever. As the Globe and Mail notes:

“Most of [Bill C-51’s] provisions, such as a dramatically expanded mandate for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), apply to any activity that is considered a threat to the security of Canada. That doesn’t just mean the ‘jihadists’ that Mr. Harper now refers to regularly. It allows government departments to share information from various databases if it relates to ‘activities that undermine the security of Canada’ – which include things that might undermine diplomatic relations, or the country’s economic stability, or critical infrastructure.”

Civil liberties organizations and others have voiced concern that these new provisions could be used to target activists who disagree, or “interfere”, with the domestic and foreign policy of the Canadian government. These fears have only become accentuated following a January report by the RCMP which cited the “anti-petroleum” movement as a growing and violent threat to Canadian security. The report states, “There is a growing, highly organized and well-financed anti-Canada petroleum movement that consists of peaceful activists, militants and violent extremists who are opposed to society’s reliance on fossil fuels.” By this definition, provided by a federal agency itself, environmental and political activists could easily fall within the crosshairs of CSIS’ new mandate. This would not be the first that the Canadian government used security or legality as a pretext for stifling dissent, as when environmental and human rights agencies were disproportionately scrutinized by the Canada Revenue Agency during an audit last year. In reality, none of this should come as a surprise. It should not be forgotten that this is a government which has admitted to keeping tabs on almost 800 public demonstrations since 2006.

This is the first time since CSIS’s creation in 1984 that the formerly intelligence-only agency has been given powers akin to that of a police force. Bill C-51 enables CSIS to “disrupt” vaguely defined “threats to national security” with whatever measures necessary, short of “bodily harm” and “violation of sexual integrity”. Should CSIS operatives wish to violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they would be allowed to do so provided that they are granted a warrant from a federal judge. Unlike for the RCMP, these courts would be held in secret, meaning that CSIS would be permitted to contravene existing laws unbeknownst to the wider public. As though these unprecedented powers were not enough, current oversight of CSIS is almost non-existent. Stephen Harper’s government abolished the inspector-general, the internal watchdog for CSIS, in 2012 and left it to an overstretched and underfunded committee of five political appointees. In addition to this, there exists no parliamentary oversight towards intelligence agencies, which is something that even the United States and Britain possesses. All things considered, it is no wonder why many have took to labelling CSIS as Canada’s “secret police force”. 

With acts of terrorism already clearly handled by existing intelligence and police agencies, it is yet to be seen to whom and what these new secretive agents of the Canadian state will be directed against.

Although the Conservative government will claim that the role of the Canadian police and surveillance agencies is to provide us with security and protect our rights and freedoms, the truth is far less noble.  The role of the state under capitalism is to defend private property and the privileges of the ruling class; it is not a neutral body. This fact is starting to become more explicitly clear as the state hands out trillions of dollars to the rich and big business in the form of bail-outs, tax-cuts, subsidies and the like; meanwhile, it is expecting workers to pay for the capitalist crisis through cuts and austerity. Those who dare to protest this unjust state of affairs often end up rounded up, or at the end of a police baton.

The history of these same agencies which Harper now looks to embolden reads like a textbook example of the Marxist theory of the state. Indeed, the RCMP and CSIS, as well as Canada’s spy agency, the much-maligned Communications Security Establishment, all have a thoroughly documented track record of aiding corporate Canada. The RCMP has, in the past, utilized informants and agent-provocateurs in the labour movement. For example, in 1987 the CBC released evidence that the RCMP and CSIS had infiltrated four unions, the B.C. Federation of Labour, CUPE, CAW, and the QEC. The RCMP also has a long history of surveillance of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). The president of CUPW, Denis Lemlin, recalled the RCMP surveillance they experienced: 

“We know that the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) spied on CUPW and CUPW activists for many years. The Vancouver Local of CUPW was under constant surveillance by the RCMP from 1965-1984. In 1987, CSIS bugged the telephone system at the CUPW National Office. There is documented evidence that CSIS agent John Farrell looked into the banking records of union activists, illegally broke into cars of CUPW activists in Toronto and was authorized to intercept every piece of mail delivered to the homes of targeted union leaders.”

More recently, documents released after the G20 protests in Toronto revealed that the RCMP had engaged in one of the largest spy operations in Canadian history during the protests. An RCMP document was released that read, “The 2010 G8 summit in Huntsville … will likely be subject to actions taken by criminal extremists motivated by a variety of radical ideologies…The important commonality is that these ideologies … place these individuals and/or organizations at odds with the status quo and the current distribution of power in society.” This begs the question of who Bill C-51 is truly targeting: fringe terrorist groups or organized workers and youth fighting for a better future?

Revealing their complete bankruptcy, the Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have not hesitated to proclaim their support of Bill C-51. (This should serve as a warning note to those leaders in the labour movement who would call for a vote for the Liberals in order to “Stop Harper”.) The NDP stands in opposition to the bill, but the most recent proclamations from the party leadership have stopped short of promising to eliminate the legislation if it is passed. When asked by Global News’ Tom Clarke whether an NDP government would scrap Bill C-51, NDP leader Tom Mulcair responded, “We would change it for sure.” Mulcair went on to say, “First I’m going to … try to get changes through. We’re going to push those every step of the way, in every committee hearing and in every different reading in the House. But if it doesn’t get changed of course we will go back…” Aside from the fact that this sort of equivocation and waffling does nothing to defend working-class people and youth from the government’s attack, it is also bad politics. More than ever, workers and young people are worried about assaults on their personal rights and liberties, especially as they dare confront the agenda of the bosses and their allies in government. A clear stand by the NDP in opposition to Bill C-51 would greatly benefit the party’s fortunes with this year’s federal election looming.

In the last period we have seen governments repeatedly try to increase the size of their surveillance capabilities, broaden the powers of the police, and foment ethnic and religious hatred to divide workers. We have also seen governments stress “national unity” and defence of the “national good”, while creating an atmosphere of fear in the face of Islamic extremism in order to distract the working class from focusing their attention on capitalism and its ills. Bill C-51 is not a tool that will allow the state to protect us more effectively from terrorism; it is a tool meant to frighten workers and youth from fighting back against the ruling class’ own economic terrorism — the capitalist austerity agenda. The fight for democracy and civil liberties must be connected to the struggle for socialism, which will not place the interest of the bankers, bosses, and allies in government ahead of the rest of us.