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What do you know about Bill C-51?

In depth analysis of controversial legislation

Author: Brandon Harder – Contributor

Liberals and Tories agree, your civil liberties mean nothing to them! / Brett Nielsen
Liberals and Tories agree, your civil liberties mean nothing to them! / Brett Nielsen

In the wake of the appalling murder of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, which carried undeniable political connotations, the Conservative government formulated Bill C-51.

Drafted during a period of national mourning, amidst growing fear of what most deem to be terrorism abroad, the bill, as it is portrayed by the current Conservative majority, seeks to increase the flow of information between federal institutions. Additionally, and perhaps more precariously, it will expand the powers of law enforcement and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS)

CSIS deals in the acquisition and interpretation of information relating to Canada’s national security. Bill C-51 aims to grant them a greater ability to act in intervention of suspected “terrorist” activity.

The bill, in a poll conducted by Angus Reid in February 2015, enjoyed the support of 82 per cent of those polled. However, the bill’s popularity looks to have been deflating since then, given that a more recent poll conducted in Mar. 2015 by Forum Research shows a significant exodus of support, with only 45 per cent approval.

The bill has churned up serious controversy, and public scrutiny is becoming prevalent. Thousands of Canadians who felt compelled to take an active stance against the bill took to the streets in protest on March 14, 2015, in what they referred to as a “national day of action.”

The current state of global affairs has given rise to significant, and perhaps warranted, public fear of security threats both at home and abroad. However, cooler heads have been combing the controversial bill, and they have concerns.

Among them is Jim Farney, a University of Regina professor in the department of politics and international studies. Farney, who researches Canadian party politics, helped shed some light on the bill.

“Substantively, people have called it an omnibus bill with regards to national security. There’s a lot of moving parts in it, and there’s some question as to whether or not they ought to all be debated at the same time or not,” said Farney.

The bill has passed its second reading, and it is expected that the Conservatives will present the bill for a third and final reading before the end of the current parliamentary session.

“One part of it is how quick should the debate happen, so that’s been controversial … the bigger, broader debate has been that there are some pretty substantive changes to the bill ­­- to how things operate embedded in the bill. Especially around the powers of CSIS, with regard to domestic security – the judicial oversight of it,” said Farney.

As advertised, the bill seeks to expand federally regulated powers of intervention against threats to the security of Canada. What it constitutes as a threat is where the bill begins to get murky. On this point, Farney stated that there is concern as to,“whether the language of anti-terrorism would include protest groups of the environment or First Nations.”

The Canadian department of justice website defines terrorism, in reference to the criminal code, as an act committed, “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” with the intention of intimidating the public “… with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act.” Using broad terminology to describe security threats, the bill lists, “interference with critical infrastructure,” as well as, “interference with the capability of the Government of Canada in relation to intelligence, defense, border operations, public safety, the administration of justice, diplomatic or consular relations, or the economic or financial stability of Canada.”

As mentioned in our photo the liberal party will support Bill C-51, we spoke with MP Ralph Goodale to see why

Far from nailing down specifics, the bill’s phrasing would leave situational discretion open to federal interpretation with a long leash. This hardly strays from the beaten path of legislative ambiguity, but where the rabbit hole of practical implications becomes much deeper and more daunting is when the bill outlines the scope of expansive power that it will grant to CSIS.

When asked whether or not the public’s rising concern toward the bill was warranted, Professor Farney said, “It gives CSIS a bunch more powers and a somewhat changed role. I’d be more comfortable with the extended powers if they came with more oversight, so there’s an absence of oversight there. I agree with people that have been worried about it there.”

In Part 4 –Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, the bill states that the “Service” may take measures within or outside of Canada to reduce the “threat.” By obtaining a warrant, through proceedings undergone without representation present for the parties under investigation, CSIS may be authorized to violate existing Canadian laws, as well as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Precisely which laws and Charter rights may be violated are not specified, which is an important point that carries a vast array of potential implications. In discussing the bill’s embedded mechanisms to restrict abuse of its extended power, Farney reaffirmed, “A number of the powers require judicial approval. The question there is that judicial approval is usually not public and it’s not terribly transparent, so we wouldn’t always know when it’s been given, and we wouldn’t know why.”

The judiciary, topped by Canada’s Supreme Court, has enjoyed generally favorable public opinion and trust due to theirnon-partisan, objective rulings. If Bill C-51 is passed, it is hard to imagine that its contents will avoid legal challenge. The question is, given that government sanctioned violations of Canadian laws and the entrenched Charter will require pre-authorized consent via a warrant granted by a judge, will the Canadian judiciary be able to objectively hear cases that arise from violations made under the bill?

Farney admitted that this is difficult to answer. He said, “The oversight clause for the judiciary in this bill parallels clauses that have been developed for undercover police investigations, and we kind of know how those work. The oversight works pretty well there.” He then added, “We don’t know, in the realm of national security, if it’s going to work as well. It is a question we just don’t know the answer to.”

The bill goes on to dictate the absolute limitations it would place on CSIS. The bill reads, “In taking measures to reduce a threat to the security of Canada, the Service shall not: (a) cause, intentionally, or by criminal negligence, death or bodily harm to an individual; (b) willfully attempt in any manner to obstruct, pervert or defeat the course of justice; or (c) violate the sexual integrity of an individ- ual [sic].”

As to the effects the bill would have on the everyday lives of most Canadians, Farney said, “None. With regards to political activity for folks involved in, for lack of a better word, more radical organizations, there probably will be increased surveillance. With regards to certain ethnic communities there will be increased surveillance. Is it going to be noticeable outside those kind of targets? Probably not.”

To get involved, citizens should sign petitions, do research, as well as reach out to their MPs.

Additionally, Farney said that the Opposition will be asking questions about the bill in the house, but “Fundamentally, the bill is going to pass, it’s just whether or not it’s going to be passed with modest revisions or as it stands now. That’s really the political question at this point.”

With public opposition to the bill increasing, debate will be heating up. Canadians await the result of the committee tasked with studying the bill. Although the current Conservative majority wields the party discipline required to push the bill through, Canadians will soon have a chance to respond by casting their ballots.

The next federal election is scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015.

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