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Our Home and Surveilled Land

Canadian Politics

Photo by Jeremy Board

“You Should Have Stayed Home” is a play about the criminalization of protest during the G20 meeting in Toronto in 2010. Over 1100 people were arrested—the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. During the protest, detainees were shoved into makeshift cages in a huge warehouse on Eastern Avenue in Toronto. Most could not even sit down, let alone move in their cells. There was almost no water or food. Police meted out humiliating treatment to all the prisoners, including strip searching some of the women prisoners. More than 20,000 police and special forces were deployed to stop 10,000 protesters in downtown Toronto.

Tommy Taylor and his girlfriend went downtown that day to see what the protests were all about – and were jailed in separate cages for days. You Should Have Stayed Home is Taylor’s first play; it was performed to packed theatres when it toured the country. The message is stark and clear: If you are looking for civil liberties and the right to dissent, don’t look to Canada.

Five years later, the Conservative government has rushed to pass Bill C-51, the so-called Anti-Terrorism Act. Two months ago, law professors Kent Roach and Craig Forcese wrote the first critical assessment of Bill C-51; since then scores of law and social justice professors across Canada have signed an open letter condemning the bill. Amnesty International, and a range of Canadian trade unions oppose it; most journalists and some newspapers oppose it. In the House of Commons, Elizabeth May of the Green Party was first to oppose it. Tom Mulcair and the NDP have followed suit in hounding the government about it. Justin Trudeau, however, pledged the Liberal Party’s support for the bill even if the party’s proposed amendments are rejected. The BC Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association oppose the bill. Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, Daniel Therrien, said that Bill C-51 will engender a loss of privacy that is “clearly excessive” and warned that “all Canadians would be caught in this web.”

Two prominent human rights lawyers, Clayton Ruby and Nader Hasan, recently wrote: “Even if the government exercises restraint in laying charges and arresting people, the result is an inevitable chill on speech. Students will think twice before posting an article on Facebook questioning military action against insurgents overseas. Journalists will be wary of questioning government decisions to add groups to Canada’s list of terrorist entities.”

There are literally hundreds of op-eds and critical analyses of Bill C-51, but here are a few points to remember:

First: In classifying “interference with critical infrastructure” as a terrorist offence, the bill takes special aim at Indigenous and environmentalist opposition to pipelines and other extractivist projects. This is nothing short of the criminalization of civil disobedience in the service of democratic opposition. Freedom of association is in jeopardy. Freedom of a variety of forms of speech is in jeopardy. Strikes by unions may be targeted as terrorist activity by the all-encompassing net of C-51.

Second: the bill will turn CSIS into a “secret police” force with limited oversight and almost no public accountability. The bill will allow police to arrest a person without a warrant and hold them for up to seven days (up from three days) before a hearing.

Third: Bill C-51 opens the door to abuse of our Charter rights, including free speech and free expression online. CSIS will be empowered to wage cyberwar by disrupting radical websites and Twitter accounts.

Fourth: Bill C-51 will allow 17 government agencies and even foreign governments to have access to Canadians’ personal information.

In the name of deterring what it defines as “terrorism,” the Harper government is creating an unaccountable surveillance apparatus primed to infringe our civil and constitutional rights. Canadian Dimension joins with a growing chorus of angry Canadians in unequivocally rejecting C-51 as a vicious assault on civil liberties and a deliberate attempt to suppress opposition to Harper’s ongoing transformation of Canada into an authoritarian petro-state.

This article appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of Canadian Dimension (Battling Austerity).

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