Harper's scary new terror bill needs oversight

In this opinion piece, the author argues that the extended powers Harper seeks through Bill C-51 are ripe for abuse.

Bill C-51, CSIS, Stephen Harper's terror bill

The Canadian government rushed its new anti-terror bill through parliament this past week. Bill C-51 allows the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to intervene in any activity it deems to undermine the security of Canadians.

The new bill will better "protect Canadians," according to Justice Minister Peter Mackay. What MacKay can't clearly articulate is what the bill will protect Canada from: when pressed by a CBC reporter how the federal government defines terrorism (MacKay had recently said a Halifax mass-shooting plot wasn't terrorism because it wasn't "culturally motivated"), he simply shot back: "look it up."

Critics, however, argue that the extended powers are ripe for abuse.

The proposed legislation even prompted American civil rights activist and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader to draw comparisons between the Harper government and the actions of the Bush regime following 9/11.

Nevertheless, the Canadian public overwhelmingly supports these extended measures to combat terrorism. In a recent Angus Reid poll, 82 percent of Canadians supported the new bill while a significant minority—36 percent—believed it does not go far enough.

A strong caveat here is that 69 percent of respondents also felt that more oversight should be coupled with increased power granted to the state security apparatus.

Indeed, this public view was supported by recommendations from the inquiry investigating the heinous detention of Maher Arar back in 2006.

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, those recommendations were not adopted. In fact, in 2012 the federal government eliminated a key CSIS watchdog as an austerity measure.

This past week, four former prime ministers and 18 others—including among them former Supreme Court justices and previous ministers of justice and public safety—penned an open letter to the government expressing apprehension over the new bill and the need to balance security with oversight and checks in the system.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Union echoes these concerns. "New laws and new powers don’t necessarily guarantee security,” the organization said in a statement.  

Meanwhile, while there is no evidence that these measures will confer greater public safety, experience abroad indicates that individual rights and freedoms are at risk when more power is handed to the state.

Concerns about civil liberties aside, there is little doubt that Canadians—like our neighbours to the south and our allies in Europe—are afraid. Polls indicate as much. And, as our American counterparts have shown time and again since 9/11, a fearful populace is a malleable one. It is this fear that appears to drive support for legislation which directly challenges the freedoms we so cherish.

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