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Rushed passage of Bill C-70: an urgent wake-up call

Critics say new legislation could well be used to profile Canadians on political, racial, religious, or nationality grounds

Canadian PoliticsHuman Rights

Senate of Canada Building. Photo by Jonathon Harrington/Flickr.

“In the context of ever-increasing police budgets and weak oversight agencies, the public should be very alarmed about the further erosion of our civil liberties and human rights through the passage of C-70,” warns Meghan McDermott, policy director of the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA).

“The rapid enactment of these new laws without any kind of scrutiny is devastating for social movements in BC and across Canada,” she said in an exclusive interview this week.

The Countering Foreign Interference Act (Bill C-70) received royal assent on June 20 after being rushed through the House of Commons and then stampeded through the Senate in three days. Now that it is the law of the land, the government must bring down specific regulations and appoint a Foreign Influence Transparency Commissioner.

The mad dash to pass the legislation is alarming given that C-70 is in many ways an omnibus bill, amending the Canadian Security Intelligence Act, the Security of Information Act, the Criminal Code, the Canadian Evidence Act, and introducing a new act, the Foreign Influence Transparency and Accountability Act.

Realizing the gravity of criticism directed at Bill C-70, Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands and Green Party leader, said last week in Parliament, “I think we’ve made a mistake in not allowing the bill to be properly studied. There are a lot of concerns being raised now.”

Among those criticizing the new law are the BC and Canadian Civil Liberties Associations, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, Amnesty International, the Canadian Muslim Public Affairs Council and Independent Jewish Voices Canada. In a joint statement, they say C-70 “will likely have significant impacts—both directly and in the form of a chilling effect—on freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and on privacy, and it could well be used to profile people on political, racial, religious, or nationality grounds. The law will allow the undermining of academic freedom, freedom of the press, the right to protest and engage in dissent, and efforts at international cooperation and solidarity.”

Among the controversial provisions are section 20 (1): “Every person commits an offence who, at the direction of, for the benefit of or in association with, a foreign entity or a terrorist group, induces or attempts to induce, by intimidation, threat or violence, any person to do anything or to cause anything to be done (a) that is for the purpose of increasing the capacity of a foreign entity or a terrorist group to harm Canadian interests; or (b) that is reasonably likely to harm Canadian interests.”

The Canadian Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section advised the Senate that equating “a foreign entity” with a terrorist group when there was “nothing inherently criminal about a foreign entity” raised concerns about the “potentially overbroad and vague nature of the new criminal offences created in Bill C-70.”

“This is particularly worrisome given the potential life sentences that attach to these offences and the statutory bar against multiple sentences running concurrently,” stated Kyla Lee in the CBA’s submission to the Senate.

Asked to comment on the new law, Independent Jewish Voices of Vancouver spokesperson Neil Naiman stated, “the hastily crafted and dangerous Bill C-70 raises serious concerns about freedom of expression and the silencing of legitimate dissent.”

Pointing to the BCCLA’s work to defend peaceful protesters who were violently attacked by police last month, Meghan McDermott emphasized that “social and political dissidents across Canada will bear the costs of the hasty and irresponsible enactment of these heavy-handed new laws,” adding, “we are very concerned that communities across Canada already facing discrimination will be further silenced and criminalized by the new foreign interference laws.” BC Senator Yuen Paul Woo’s amendment to remove some of the vagueness of the legislation was defeated in the senate, 54-17.

Tim McSorley of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group has said his group and the Centre for Free Expression will set up a “web portal where individuals can report instances where they believe their rights to privacy and their internationally-protected and Charter rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, or freedom of association have been violated.”

Further countermeasures may also be necessary as conservative forces gather behind the new legislation. CSIS itself has been lobbying for increased powers for a decade, and last November the government signalled it was listening, publishing a public consultation paper to give CSIS greater authority.

CSIS has parroted allegations made by US intelligence agencies regarding China for the past five years, refusing to heed warnings about threat exaggeration from US Senator Bernie Sanders, economist Jeffrey Sachs, and Congresswoman Judy Chu, among others.

Unfortunately, mainstream media is hammering the theme of foreign interference. For example, the Globe and Mail has been campaigning for a foreign influence registry for over a year. Likewise, its reporters have unabashedly used CSIS leaks to engage in sensationalist reporting, failing to verify CSIS information. This has created a political maelstrom to the benefit of Canada’s spy agency.

The mood has turned ugly in what academics call a discursive crisis, allowing C-70 to pass without serious scrutiny. CSIS’s long history of spying on social movements, its sexism and racism, and its targeting of racialized communities have all been swept aside as a perilous McCarthy-esque tide takes hold.

Behind the scenes, the Five Eyes spy network (Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the UK, and the US) has pressured Canada to harmonize with their members’ foreign influence registries, yet those who have lobbied for this in Canada fail to mention that Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have exposed the Five Eyes as a dangerous espionage network. In a widely-cited interview, Snowden described it as “a supra-national intelligence organization that doesn’t answer to the laws of its own countries.”

Also pushing for the new legislation has been the Business Council of Canada. Last fall they published a major report calling for an expansion of CSIS powers, increasing CSIS resources to train “private sector entities,” developing a foreign influence registry, joining AUKUS—the trilateral nuclear alliance of the US, the UK, and Australia—and developing a “NATO for trade.”

The passing of C-70, major increases in military spending, involvement in the war in Ukraine, continuing support for Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza, and an increasingly aggressive stance towards China suggest that Canada is developing both the structures and ideology of a “national security state” that generates perpetual enemies and permanent preparedness for war.

Bill C-70 may be the wake-up call necessary to bring social movements together to counter this shift towards authoritarianism and build the alliances necessary for justice, peace and planetary survival.

John Price is emeritus professor of history at the University of Victoria and author of Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific (UBC Press)

Midori Ogasawara is a specialist in surveillance studies and teaches sociology at the University of Victoria. She was an investigative journalist with Japan’s Asahi Shimbun for ten years.

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