C-51 Hearings: Government isn’t listening, we need to speak louder

by Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.

It’s worth repeating, Bill C-51 is important, very important. Rarely does legislation touch so directly on two of the most fundamental imperatives of government: to protect our security and uphold our rights. How crucial therefore to be sure that it is carefully and thoughtfully studied, with input from groups and experts who can offer analysis, highlight shortcomings and make recommendations for improvement.

Send a message to the Minister for Public Safety calling on him to withdraw Bill C-51 and ensure human rights

Instead, what I heard from government members of the Committee was troubling and disheartening. The experience fortifies my belief that it is crucial that Canadians across the country raise their voices and insist that the government withdraw this version of the Bill and proceed only with law reform that complies with international human rights obligations. The government is not listening. We need to be louder.

That, however, is precisely what is not happening with the debate about Bill C-51. I saw that first hand when I appeared before the Committee entrusted with the responsibility of giving it very careful and deliberation consideration, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, during the evening of March 12th. 

Amnesty International and many other groups and prominent Canadians have spoken out in alarm over the past several weeks, as Bill C-51 violates, undermines and ignores human rights in ways that are both brazen and insidious.  The list of concerned groups, experts and eminent Canadians is too long to recite but includes former Prime Ministers, Ministers and Supreme Court Justices; past members of various national security and police review bodies; the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations; Canada’s Privacy Commissioner; law professors from across Canada; and countless national and local human rights, civil liberties, Muslim, environmental, First Nations, labour and other organizations in every corner of the country.  Editorials and media commentary, too, have been near-universal in decrying that this is legislation that goes too far. Notably, the concerns come from across the political spectrum.  It has been an almost unprecedented outcry.

With that in mind and freshly back from a cross-country speaking tour during which people everywhere shared their bewilderment and fear about C-51, I sat down in the Committee hearing room last night with a strong sense of responsibility and with hope that there would be constructive exchange.  I shared one hour of Committee time with close colleague Ihsaan Gardee, the Executive Director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and Carleton University professor Elliot Tepper.

Instead of thoughtful debate, the hearing descended into ad hominem attacks. The NCCM had to endure stale-dated, inflammatory and discredited accusations, and little thoughtful consideration seemed to be given to Amnesty’s painstaking and credible work.  

The restrictions on hearing time remain a grave problem. It is in fact stunning to consider some of the groups and experts who are being frozen out of the process: the Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner and the expert corps of Special Advocates who work within the immigration security certificate process.

At the end of the evening I was struck above all by everything the government had completely dodged and ignored during our session, concerns that:

  • CSIS threat reduction powers violate international human rights law;
  • CSIS threat reduction powers draw judges into human rights violations;
  • CSIS threat reduction powers show contempt for foreign law;
  • exempting only “lawful” demonstrations from new definitions of threats to the security of Canada is an assault on edgy, agitated, meaningful protests by Indigenous peoples, environmental groups, the labour movement and others;
  • the new criminal offence of promoting terrorism “in general” will violate and chill free expression in ways we will likely never be able to measure;
  • the new information-sharing regime learns no lessons from the past and ignores judicial inquiries that have documented the human rights toll, including torture, of sharing irrelevant, inaccurate and inflammatory information;
  • expanded arrest powers that allow individuals to be held for up to seven days without being charged, violate international standards;
  • a new no-fly list appeal process is next to meaningless as it denies individuals access to the bulk of the information being used to keep them from boarding flights;
  • we have so obviously needed better national security review and oversight for more than a decade, a need that has now become absolutely critical;
  • these reforms have been heaped on top of serious violations from the past that are still not remedied, in such cases as Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati, Muayyed Nureddin, Abousfian Abdelrazik and Omar Khadr; and
  • it is time for a legislated human rights framework for national security in Canada.

There wasn’t a word about any of that. That is the debate we should be having. 

Please add your voice, and urge friends, neighbours, co-workers, fellow students and anyone you bump into on the street to do the same. The demand is simple: withdraw Bill C-51.