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Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces anti-terrorism measures on Jan. 30. Photo courtesy of the PMO

Security or civil rights?

The debate over anti-terrorism bill heats up

By Dennis Gruending

Today, there's an intense debate happening in Parliament — one over Bill C-51, which the Harper government says is needed to prevent terrorism on Canadian soil.

The legislation provides sweeping new powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which collects information covertly on security threats and forwards that information to the RCMP. Bill C-51 proposes that CSIS be authorized to disrupt the activities of individuals it considers a threat (This could include seizing passports and cancelling travel reservations.). It would give the RCMP added powers to make preventative arrests or detentions, and would lower the legal threshold under which they do so.

What's more, Bill C-51 would allow 17 government departments and agencies to share amongst themselves — and with security agencies — information that it collects about Canadians, including tax records and details of travel for business or pleasure. It's something Daniel Therrien, the federal Privacy Commissioner, objects to, saying “All Canadians — not only terrorism suspects — will be caught in this web.” And the bill would allow CSIS to counter any activity that “undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada.” That list includes “terrorism,” obviously, but also “interference with the capability of the government of Canada in relation to … the economic or financial stability of Canada.” So does this mean that CSIS can disrupt aboriginal protests against pipelines or mining on their lands, or target trade union members engaged in a rail or postal strike?

In defense of the legislation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that “the international jihadist movement has declared war” and Bill C-51 is needed to keep Canadians safe. The Conservatives even accuse those who question the bill as being soft on terrorism and describe those who say that the bill offends Canadians' privacy and human rights as “so-called experts."

Meanwhile, the Conservatives continue to defend the prohibition of Muslim women from wearing the niqab, a face covering, during oath-taking at citizenship ceremonies. Zunera Ishaqa, a new Canadian, had agreed to unveil in private before an official prior to taking the oath but not in the public ceremony. She fought the ban in court and won, but now, the government is appealing the ruling. The Conservative Party at one point even used Ishaqa’s case as the basis of a fundraising letter to its supporters. More recently, Harper responded to questions about the government’s appeal by asking, “Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice that … frankly is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?”

This must be seen through the prism of a coming federal election. The Conservatives laud themselves as good managers, but the economic news has been bad as of late: lacklustre job creation, an oil industry meltdown, growing inequality among Canadians and mounting consumer debt. As a result, the Conservatives' new narrative is that only Harper can keep us safe from Muslim terrorists.

So what are we to do? For one thing, we can start treating rhetoric out of Ottawa with some skepticism while reaching out to our Muslim neighbours. After all, this cannot be a pleasant time for them.             

Author's photo
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His work will appear on the second and fourth Thursday of the month. His Pulpit and Politics blog can be found at www.dennisgruending.ca.
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