Our own society is still, broadly speaking, liberal. To exercise your right of free speech you have to fight against economic pressure and against strong sections of public opinion, but not, as yet, against a secret police force. – George Orwell, The Prevention of Literature, 1946.
It’s a bit of a stretch to say, as some are saying, that Canada is on the cusp of establishing a “secret police force” to engage in surveillance, preemptive arrest and other such dirty work in flagrant trespass upon the rights of the people to freedom of speech.
But perhaps only a bit.
Ordinarily I prefer that Orwell is left out of these kinds of debates because his insights and arguments tend to get so badly abused, but in the public conversation about Bill C-51, his name keeps coming up. And it so happens that just the other day I hiked the wind-shredded eight kilometres of rutted track on the Hebridean island of Jura that leads to the remote deer-stalker’s redoubt where Orwell wrote his dystopian classic, 1984, while he was dying of tuberculosis.
So he’s been on my mind, and so has the clarity of the ideas that drew Orwell to enlist on the republican side in the gallant struggle that came to be called the Spanish Civil War. For his trouble in Spain, Orwell took a fascist bullet to the throat. He was also obliged to endure the enmity of a liberal intelligentsia that spent the following decades exerting its energies in denial of the intricate complicities between Stalinism and Naziism. This continues in the commonplace denial of the many ways Islamist despotism and jihadist terror are of a piece with the totalitarian barbarisms of Orwell’s time.
But the first thing to get out of the way about Bill C-51 is that the proposed law is not just about terrorism. It’s also about securing to the government a fairly sweeping range of national-security and police powers to target activity that “undermines the security of Canada” by interfering with federal capabilities in relation to the country’s “economic or financial stability.” This doesn’t make things any more reassuring, mind you. The government’s recent record on that front isn’t exactly unblemished.
In 2009, Ottawa hollowed out the national-security defences in the Investment Canada Act and it took nearly five years and a national hullabaloo about Beijing-orchestrated takeovers in Alberta’s oilpatch to deal with the mess. The remedy: an oversight panel made up of the prime minister’s national security adviser, the Public Safety minister, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC).
The panel, which subjects foreign takeovers to national-security reviews, is unhelpfully super-secret. On the other hand, at least it’s something.
But when you look at Bill C-51 in light of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s rote characterization of oilsands infrastructure as vital to Canada’s national and economic security, it’s easy to sympathize with the hyper-jittery Green party leader Elizabeth May. It doesn’t require a too-vivid imagination to foresee Bill C-51’s police powers being marshalled willy-nilly against the Green party’s anti-pipeline activist base.
Neither does it exactly put the mind at ease to consider how our newly-promoted Employment, Social Development and Democratic Reform czar might want to deploy powers to police and surveil activity that he might construe as undermining the “economic or financial stability of Canada.” The 35-year-old Pierre Poilievre is an enthusiast of the union-busting “right to work” laws that keep workers hopelessly disorganized in such places as Alabama and Mississippi.
So there’s all that.
Turning to Bill C-51’s anti-terror powers, it’s worth remembering that 1984’s totalitarian Airstrip One was not brought about by men in boots with truncheons at the service of an all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother. Orwell always insisted that democracy’s undoing begins with the casual debasement of political language, which inexorably compounds the diffusion of slovenliness in thinking, and round it goes.
The big problem with Bill C-51 comes down to a single page of the 62-page document. It involves language that’s been there all along: the criminal code’s absurdly broad definition of terrorism. Along with airline hijacking, hostage-taking, throwing bombs at schoolhouses and so on, the criminal code’s terrorism definition draws in any act committed for a political purpose that is intended to compel “a government,” any government, to do or refrain from doing something.
This situates acts of unambiguous terror, like strapping a suicide-bomb to a mentally handicapped child and pointing him in the direction of a crowded market, in the same category as legitimate acts of revolutionary violence against police states. Bill C-51 would compound the idiocy by criminalizing not only acts of legitimately necessary revolutionary violence, but the advocacy of such acts “in general.”
The law professors Craig Forcese and Kent Roach, who have emerged as Bill C-51’s most astute critics, point out that hypothetically, a Canadian newspaper columnist would risk a five-year jail term for, say, advocating aid to Ukrainian fighters intent upon destroying Russian oil-industry infrastructure in order to exact a proper cost from Moscow for invading their country.
So, before Bill C-51 becomes law, let me take this opportunity to advocate a couple things.
The Tibetans should leave off with the Dalai Lama and mount an armed resistance to the Han Chinese occupation of their country. We should all get behind that. While I’m at it, here’s another good idea: Canadians should take it upon themselves to fund, train and arm a revolutionary insurgency in North Korea to decapitate Kim Jong Un’s decrepit regime in Pyongyang.
I could go on.
If Bill C-51’s various amendments are carried as written and I persisted in banging on like that, I shouldn’t expect to remain at large for very long. The good news is that if the law is the disgraceful fiasco that Forcese and Roach suggest, it’s certain that it will soon enough end up before the Supreme Court of Canada, where it wouldn’t withstand the slightest Charter scrutiny.
This country is not about to be subsumed into one of the imperial provinces of Oceania from out of the pages of 1984. “But to be corrupted by totalitarianism,” Orwell wrote, “one does not have to live in a totalitarian country.”
Indeed. All that’s required is the enactment in the first place of stupid, atrocious laws of precisely the kind proposed in Bill C-51.