Next Steps on Bill C-51: Will the government listen to Canadians’ concerns?

By Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AlexNeveAmnesty

How best to describe the rushed hearings the House of Commons’ Public Safety Committee held over the past few weeks examining Bill C-51, the government’s anti-terrorism law reforms?  Circus, farce and disgrace all come to mind.  I know, I was there on Amnesty International’s behalf earlier this month.

Having “heard” from the experts, today the Committee turns its attention to the text of the Bill itself.  Indications are that the government is only open to a handful of tweaking amendments, so expectations are low.

Concern about these sweeping reforms grows daily. Experts representing the perspectives of Indigenous peoples, human rights and civil liberties groups, Muslim Canadians, environmental organizations, the legal community, the country’s privacy watchdog, immigrants and refugees, the labour movement, former judges and politicians and others have enumerated numerous shortcomings. 

As awareness has spread, there has been a noticeable shift in the attitudes of Canadians from initial support for the Bill to growing disquiet.  That has been apparent in polling numbers, turnout for demonstrations and uptake of petitions.

The list of what needs to be added, rewritten or jettisoned is long.  For that reason Amnesty International and many others have said the Bill should simply be withdrawn.  Any further national security law reform should go forward on the basis of a clear assessment of current laws, and with human rights compliance as an overarching imperative.

There is no sign that the government is prepared to start again.  Will they, at least, be responsive to the pleas for improvement?  Here are ten for a start.

First, the resounding call that this Bill be accompanied by effective expert review and robust parliamentary oversight of the entirety of Canada’s national security agencies and departments must be answered.

Next, the stunning proposition that CSIS agents can violate the Charter when acting to reduce security threats, on the basis of secretive Federal Court warrants expressly authorizing those breaches, has to be abandoned.  Judges are there to uphold, not undermine, the Charter.  We expect the same of CSIS.   The government says it will now specify that CSIS’ new powers don’t include arresting people.  Concerns here go far beyond that possibility.

Related to that concern, exempting CSIS agents from the laws, particularly the human rights laws, of foreign countries in which they operate is not on.  That provision must be removed.

Fourth, criminalizing promoting and advocating the commission of terrorism offences ‘in general’ is both vague and broad. It will violate and, more insidiously, chill free expression in many ways.  It adds nothing to existing offences dealing with inciting, threatening and counselling terrorism. It should be pulled.

Fifth, Canadian law is already on tenuous ground in allowing detention without charge in terrorism cases. Presently it is limited to three days and requires a reasonable belief that terrorist activity will be carried out.  Extending that to seven days detention without charge, at the lower threshold of believing that terrorist activity may be carried out, undercuts the fundamental principle that a loss of liberty be tied to lawful arrest, a recognized charge and a fair trial.

Then there is the fact that the Bill’s new threat reduction powers and expanded information sharing regime only protect demonstrations considered to be ‘lawful’.  Lawfulness is not defined.  The government says it will clarify that this does not apply to Indigenous, environmental, labour and other protesters. We will be watching. 

Seventh, the secrecy and arbitrariness of no-fly lists has been hugely problematic since September 11th. It is at least positive that the Bill brings that fraught process into a legal framework.   But it does not offer a fair appeal process for people challenging decisions to bar them from flying.  That has to be improved.

There has been much talk about the expansive information sharing provisions in Bill C-51.  Where are the lessons from cases like Maher Arar, Abdullah  Almalki, Ahmad Elmaati and Muayyed Nurreddin?  Sharing irrelevant, inflammatory or inaccurate information causes terrible abuses, including torture.  This limitless approach to information sharing needs to be reined in with human rights safeguards.  The government promises some tightening up.  But serious concerns remain.

Ninth, Bill C-51 takes a swipe at immigrants and refugees, increasing secrecy and further restricting the quality of justice they are afforded in security cases.  This area needs improvement not retrenchment.   These provisions need to go.

Finally, given the Bill’s blatant disregard – even contempt – for human rights obligations, there needs to be specific incorporation of the Charter of Rights and international human rights treaties.

The best news from the government would be that they are abandoning C-51.  At a minimum Canadians deserve changes that put human rights at the heart of the country’s approach to addressing terrorism.  That is a far better guarantor of our collective security.

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This blog was also published as an op-ed in the Huffington Post on 1 April 2015.