#BreakC51 – why mass civil disobedience is logically the next step

The club is all their law – stand up now, stand up now!
The club is all their law! Stand up now!

The Diggers’ Song, 17th-century English protest ballad

As was widely expected, Bill C-51 passed its third reading in the House of Commons last night. All that remains are the largely pro forma rituals of Senate approval and royal assent, and this hideous bill will become the law of the land.

For those who have been backpacking in bush country since the winter, Bill C-51 will radically expand the legal definition of terrorism to include any activity that “undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada or the lives or the security of the people of Canada,” including: “Interference with the capability of the Government of Canada in relation to intelligence, defence, border operations, public safety, the administration of justice, diplomatic or consular relations, or the economic or financial stability of Canada.”

It also gives CSIS and the RCMP expanded police powers; this CBC article summarizes them in detail, but the new powers include lowering the threshold for arresting suspected “terrorists”, criminalizing the “promotion of terrorism”, allowing CSIS to “disrupt” suspected “terrorist” activity (without oversight), authorizing courts to remove “terrorist material” from the internet, allowing for secret court proceedings, and expanding the “no-fly” list.

Given the impossibly open-ended definition of terrorism promulgated in this bill, it’s easy to see the potential for abuse.

Although Harper & Co. have made much of the threat of Islamic jihadists to Canada’s national security, and although racialized Muslim communities across Canada are sure to be negatively impacted by C-51, the true targets of this bill are indigenous and environmentalist activists. The Harper government’s main constituency is and has always been the oil industry, which has been deeply frustrated by the lack of forward progress on its many pipeline projects.

The disruptive opposition to pipelines, led largely by indigenous communities, has been one of the great activist success stories of the century – and now the government wants to turn its police dogs on the activists. Consider this leaked report from the RCMP:

“There is a growing, highly organized and well-financed anti-Canada petroleum movement that consists of peaceful activists, militants and violent extremists who are opposed to society’s reliance on fossil fuels,” concludes the report which is stamped “protected/Canadian eyes only” and is dated Jan. 24, 2014. The report was obtained by Greenpeace.

“If violent environmental extremists engage in unlawful activity, it jeopardizes the health and safety of its participants, the general public and the natural environment.”


“This document identifies anyone who is concerned about climate change as a potential, if not actual – the lines are very blurry – ‘anti-petroleum extremist’ looking to advance their ‘anti-petroleum ideology,’” said Keith Stewart, a climate campaigner for Greenpeace.

“The parts that are genuinely alarming about this document are how it lays the groundwork for all kinds of state-sanctioned surveillance and dirty tricks should C-51 be passed,” he said.

Which is where we are now. This bill – soon to be a law – essentially criminalizes active opposition to the government’s environmentally destructive industrial policies, and would label peaceful protestors erecting barricades in the path of a pipeline, like those at the Unist’ot’en Camp in northern British Columbia, as terrorists, and prosecute them accordingly.

It’s been obvious to experienced activists from the get-go that the bill’s passage was an inevitable outcome. Harper’s commanding majority in the House and his iron grip on the Conservative caucus’ collective balls made the bill’s rejection a near-impossible dream.

Still, with the stakes being so high, a concerted campaign against the bill was mounted – and was surprisingly successful.

Let’s turn our calendars back to February:

There’s rarely been a bill before Parliament that was more popular. The public[?] Conservatives’ new anti-terror legislation is filling a public demand for tough new measures aimed at a terrorism threat that Canadians believe is serious, and close to home, according to a new poll.

More than four in five Canadians – 82 per cent – back the new legislation to expand the powers of intelligence agencies and police, according to the survey of 1,509 Canadians conducted by the Angus Reid Institute. Far from seeing it as too sweeping, they tend to want more: 36 per cent say it does not go far enough.

Support was so overwhelming that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, ever the people-pleaser, announced that while his party was opposed to large sections the bill, they would support it, just ’cause it was way more popular than, for instance, Justin Trudeau.

The party was afraid of being painted as “weak on terror”, so they mounted only the feeblest of opposition, saying they wanted stronger oversight in the bill and would fix it later when they got into power. Really they will. Trust ’em.

Meanwhile, the NDP took the calculated position of cautious opposition, and also focussed most of their opposition on the lack of oversight in the bill. Leader Thomas Mulcair at the time made much of the fact that his party was opposed in spite of the bill’s popularity.

At that point, the bill looked set to cruise to easy passage.

What happened in the interim was remarkable.

Activists mounted a many-faceted campaign which raised a remarkable amount of awareness of the problems inherent in this law. Nation-wide protests in 55 cities on March 14 marked a turning point in terms of public awareness of the bill, and by early April, new polls showed a majority of Canadians were now opposed, a remarkable turn-around.

Meanwhile, experts of all stripes weighed in heavily against the bill, including the Canadian Bar Association and four former Prime Ministers, Even more remarkably, the mainstream media weighed in heavily against the bill. I mean, just look at this op-ed from the Globe and Mail, of all papers:

So what is this other class of security-underminer the bill refers to? A political party that advocates Quebec independence (there goes our “territorial integrity”)? Indian activists who disrupt a train line? Environmental activists denounced as radicals by a cabinet minister?

These things are on a par with terrorism now?

If that is what the government is saying, will CSIS – which can already investigate very broadly defined “threats to the security of Canada” – be allowed to spy on and interfere with Canadians suspected of being involved in such activities? Against whom will CSIS be given the power to seek warrants to install wiretaps?

On close inspection, Bill C-51 is not an anti-terrorism bill. Fighting terrorism is its pretext; its language reveals a broader goal of allowing government departments, as well as CSIS, to act whenever they believe limply defined security threats “may” – not “will” – occur.

When you’ve lost the Globe…I mean, this is the paper that actually endorsed Stephen Harper in the final week of the 2011 federal election!

Thanks to the tireless work of activists both grassroots and professional, many Canadians are now aware of the threat that this bill poses to their freedoms and their way of life. But it’s difficult not to feel a sense of disillusionment now that the bill is all but assured of becoming law.

So what do we do? How do we move forward?

I see two important avenues for action. First, and less important, is working to get C-51 repealed.

It’s critical for people opposed to this train wreck of a law to remember that no major party, including the NDP, has been willing to pledge to repeal this bill. The best Mulcair has been willing to offer is “reform”, focussed on inserting more “oversight” into the law – as though that would do anything to counteract the criminalization of dissent this law allows for. Per this CBC article in March, the party’s proposed amendments include:

  • Restoring the position of CSIS inspector general, which was abolished in 2012.
  • Regular reports to the House by the Security Intelligence Review Committee.
  • Stricter limits on information-sharing provisions to cover only terrorism.
  • Stronger privacy protections throughout the bill.
  • Sunset clauses and mandatory review requirements.

Clearly none of this cuts to the heart of the problems.

There is hope for the NDP, though. They adopted this position when C-51 was riding high in the polls. Now that the true extent of the proposed law has been made clear to people, it’s become politically toxic – I couldn’t even guess how many times I’ve seen people write on Twitter and in blog comments that they’re never voting for the Liberals again after they stuck by their wishy-washiness and voted with the HarperCons.

If you live in a district with an NDP MP, or a district which the NDP might plausibly win this fall, start pressuring your representative/candidate right now to come out in favour of a clean repeal of the bill. No messing around with amendments. Scrap the whole thing.

If you’re on Twitter, start hassling Thomas Mulcair. Let him know how you really feel.

Granted, the NDP only has a long-shot chance of winning the election this fall. And, Alberta notwithstanding, we can’t rely on them gaining power to negate the power of this law.

So the second approach is, I think, the more important one.

We need to break the law.

We need to make this law unenforceable through a widespread campaign of civil disobedience against it.

Now, obviously not everybody can drop everything and, for instance, barricade themselves into an Enbridge pumping station – although if you can, please consider doing so!

But what most people can do is support such action financially (even with tiny donations). This constitutes material support for terrorism under the new law.

So for myself personally, I’m going to be making donations to the Unist’ot’en encampment and other worthy causes determined to disrupt the construction of ecocidal tar sands pipelines.

As well, I’m going to be encouraging people publicly to break C-51 – which is itself against the law under C-51. The CBC notes:

Right now, it’s illegal to counsel or actively encourage someone to commit a specific terrorism offence. Bill C-51 would broaden that to ban the promotion of terrorism or intentional advocacy of it. The bill threatens a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

“Terrorism” in the terms of this law being a very flexible term.

So I’d like to encourage everybody who reads this blog to commit acts of “terrorism”, as Bill C-51 defines it. I’d like to encourage each and every one of you to support efforts to economically disrupt pipeline and tar sands projects.

And I’d like to encourage you to do as I do, to break the provision of C-51 which prohibits the promotion of “terrorism”. Encourage your friends and family to commit acts of “terrorism”. Tweet your support of “terrorism”, share it on Facebook, email it to Stephen Harper if you feel like it.

Mass civil disobedience will make clear to the world that we do not consent to this law. Mass civil disobedience will reveal this law as the draconian repressive measure it truly is, and any government which tries to apply it will look impossibly weak and foolish. Mass civil disobedience will make this law unenforceable.

With this two-pronged strategy, we can overcome this travesty of a law – but it will truly take a mass movement. The government has been indifferent to the popular disapproval of Bill C-51. It’s time for its critics to take their opposition to the next level.


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I just shared this post on Facebook, actively participating in encouraging “terrorism”. Isn’t it fun living in Harper’s Canada?

Is there a Coles’ Notes-like version of this somewhere?

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