Although we’re still in the early innings, it’s heartening that after a three-week abdication, Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair and his New Democrats have finally rousted themselves to the task of articulating some rational criticisms of Bill C-51 – that calamitous, over-the-top hodge-podge of amendments to Canada’s national-security laws.
We should hope and expect that the New Democrats will set out clearly and plainly the many ways Bill C-51’s contents are precipitously sweeping, sloppy, unnecessary and wrong-headed. If we’re lucky, Prime Minister Stephen Harper might just get over himself for once and allow Opposition amendments to jettison the law’s nastier bits.
But three weeks is a long time in politics, and by the time Mulcair rose to the challenge Wednesday and declared that unlike Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, the NDP would be putting up some sort of a fight, Bill C-51 had already set in motion a great deal of hysterics, paranoia and wild speculation. By having copped out of their solemn duty to oppose and to hold the government side to account, the opposition – most noticeably Trudeau’s shrugging Liberals, but with the exception of the Greens’ Elizabeth May – hasn’t helped one bit.
One shudders to think where the national debate would be right now were it not for the tireless efforts of the University of Ottawa’s Craig Forcese and the University of Toronto’s Kent Roach, the two national security specialists who have produced three exhaustive analyses of Bill C-51 since it was unveiled Jan. 30. Forcese and Roach have shed enormously helpful light upon Bill C-51’s many deficiencies and dark corners.
For a glimpse of where the public critique of Bill C-51 might have gone without Forcese and Roach, we can look in on the sort of exaggeration on offer from, for instance, Pamela Palmater, the national news media’s go-to personality during the briefly-lived Idle No More eruptions of a couple years back. Palmater is a professor in law at Ryerson University, no less: “All of the rights, freedoms and liberties upon which Canadian democracy rests will be suspended with Bill C-51.”
Well, no, they won’t be, but alarums of that kind are usefully illustrative in the way they drive home the point that Forcese and Roach have been trying to make about what is perhaps the most toxic aspect of Bill C-51’s new laws and its sweeping amendments to existing statutes.
In their second assessment, released last week, Forcese and Roach put it this way: “The world is rife with misunderstandings and conspiracy theories about spy services, including CSIS.” No good can come of it if CSIS is granted even “powers in principle” that would encourage speculation to emerge from the shadows of the completely implausible, say Forcese and Roach.
“There will be a consequence in terms of social licence for a clandestine service empowered to act in violation of the law and the Charter, especially in communities that feel targeted,” Forcese and Roach warn. “In the final analysis, the increased scepticism and the new doubts about the (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) stemming from the new powers may be the most dangerous aspect of this law proposal.”
As if on cue, just this week Montreal’s La Presse obtained a 44-page internal RCMP document titled “Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Assessment: Criminal Threats to the Canadian Petroleum Industry” that does not require a particularly paranoid mind to be interpreted as evidence that the environmental movement is already being targeted as a national security threat.
The intelligence assessment employs such woefully sloppy language and engages in elisions so lazy as to leave the impression that its authors cannot properly distinguish between extremist violence directed at targets associated with Canada’s oil industry and sensible, genuine and broad-based opposition to expansion of the oil sands generally and to pipeline projects specifically.
While the assessment takes pains to distinguish between lawful protest and criminal activity, the document also confirms the folly Forcese and Roach have identified of national-security definitions so loose that they fail to properly distinguish between dangerous criminal activity on the one hand and protest that is merely unlawful on the other.
Without such clear distinctions, it is not wildly implausible that the new powers in Bill C-51 would grant CSIS the authority to carry out covert surveillance and dirty-tricks operations against groups that stage street protests without obtaining the appropriate parade permits or engage in acts of non-violent civil disobedience, like sit-ins in front of bulldozers at pipeline construction sites. There’s a difference between Raging Granny singalongs and the rampages of Black Bloc hooligans throwing garbage bins through Starbucks windows.
At the same time, it’s all good sport when environmentalists wrest banner headlines with loud proclamations that Stephen Harper’s wicked Conservatives are determined to criminalize activism in opposition to Alberta’s oilsands infrastructure, but it’s no great stretch to situate certain sorts of “environmental activism” within a national security ambit, even one that includes, God forbid, “terrorism.”
Dated Jan. 24, 2014 and stamped “Protected: Canadian Eyes Only,” the Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Assessment enumerates several cases that suggest a very real “national security” threat at the margins of environmental activism.
At Elsipogtog in New Brunswick in October, 2013, during the course of protests against a natural-gas exploration project supported by the mainline First Nations in the province but opposed by a minority of aboriginal activists and “environmentalists”, six RCMP vehicles were burned, 40 people were arrested and a variety of weapons were seized, including “improvised explosive devices.”
In Quebec, the car of the vice-president of the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute was blown up. In British Columbia, several natural gas pipelines have been bombed. The house of a former Syncrude president was firebombed in Edmonton. On it goes.
Prime Minister Harper is obviously counting on the Liberals to keep their heads down, lest Justin Trudeau say something memorably inane, and so far, the Liberals have been obliging. It’s also a fairly safe bet that the Conservatives are all depending on the New Democrats to revert to the wishy-washy inarticulacy that marked their polemics and posturings on matters related to terrorism and national security during the decade that followed the atrocities of September 11, 2001.
It needn’t be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. Thomas Mulcair has been presented with an enormous challenge here, an opportunity to show that he’s capable of statesmanship and sobriety in the face of an exceedingly complex and furiously contested arena of public policy. It’s a chance for him to shine.
He should take it.