I’m afraid to publish this

As was widely expected, the terrifying Bill C-51 passed its third and final reading of the scandal-ridden Senate last night. The vote was down party lines, with the Conservative majority in favour and the Liberal-appointed opposition rebuking Justin Trudeau and voting against. The Bill will become law as soon as it receives royal assent, another preposterously undemocratic anachronistic formality.

The bill’s passage comes despite a firestorm of protest and opposition. I can’t recall ever seeing such widespread knowledge about or opposition to a proposed law in Canada in my lifetime. I can’t recall experts ever being so unanimous in their denunciation of a proposed law. Hell, even the National Post called the government’s behaviour anti-democratic when they shut down discussion of the bill prematurely in the House of Commons.

Despite all of the public outrage and despite the hit they were taking in the polls, the HarperCons pushed the legislation through.

Soon, we will live in a nation where our surveillance agency is empowered to break the law and violate our rights without challenge, where expressing opinions the government dislikes could land you in jail, where meaningful opposition to state policies will be stifled more than ever before.

And I’m scared.

The #RejectFear hashtag gets it exactly right, because this bill is designed to create fear, to promote it, to legislate it into existence. It’s designed to divide us against each other, designed to create suspicion, designed to inhibit our speech and thought, designed to narrow the range of acceptable opinion. Fear and control, that’s what it’s all about.

And it’s effective.

I picked a hell of a time to start a blog on Canadian politics. To be honest, Bill C-51 was a big reason why I launched this rantspace, because (and this may not surprise some people) I’ve always been a bit of a shit-disturber at heart. One of the proudest moments of my life was when I faced down the TPS sound cannon with my ukulele and would not be moved. I’ve been arrested for causes I believe in. Hell, when I was in grade school I had my friends tie me securely to a lamppost in the school’s parking lot to protest some injustice.

So now that this odious anti-democratic proto-fascist horrorshow of a bill is set to become a law, I’m obviously gonna try to break it.

I’m scared to do so, I really am. And I know that a lot of people are scared to keep doing what they’re doing – environmentalists, First Nations land defenders, devout Muslims, anarchists, anti-capitalists, activists of all stripes. But by and large, I have faith that these people will keep doing what they’re doing.

Rejecting fear doesn’t mean not feeling fear, or not acknowledging it. It’s important – it’s essential, even – to do both of those things, to feel the fear and sit with it. Rejecting fear means not letting fear rule you, to not let it dictate your decisions. Rejecting fear means not being intimidated out of doing what you know is right.

So, here we go.

Last Friday, the RCMP arrested a 23-year-old man in Winnipeg in connection with a terrorist investigation. Aaron Daniel Driver, from London, Ontario, has been held in custody without charges ever since. The Mounties are seeking a peace bond from the judge.

For those who don’t know what a peace bond is (and I for one wasn’t too sure), it’s a set of conditions laid down by a judge on somebody who hasn’t been charged with a crime, but whom police feel is likely to commit a crime.

(This FAQ is a useful primer.)

As the CBC notes, only eight peace bonds were used against terrorist suspects from 2001 up to this year, with six of those being in the Toronto 18 case. But under Bill C-51, things will be different:

The Conservative government introduced an anti-terrorism bill last month that would make it easier for the RCMP to obtain a peace bond.

Existing law requires a fear that someone “will commit” a terrorism offence before police can obtain a peace bond – a tool that can mean jail unless a suspect abides by strict conditions, for instance that they surrender their passport and regularly report to police.

A new, lower threshold would be reasonable grounds to fear a person “may commit” a terrorism offence.

If that sounds like pre-crime to you, well, you’re right.

But back to Aaron Daniel Driver, held now for nearly a week without charges. The Mounties are keeping mum about the facts of the case, as they did in a case against a Montreal man earlier this year, but a lot of information is public because Driver was quite active online. From the Star:

Over years of online postings, Driver has left a deep footprint on social media sites. Writing under the pseudonym “Harun Danyal,” a play on Driver’s first and middle names, he has referred to non-Muslims as “enemies,” posted a link to a guide for aspiring jihadists trying to get to Syria, called for Shia Muslims to be wiped out, and re-tweeted an ISIS video that called on Muslims to carry out terror attacks on Canadian soil…

Among Driver’s Twitter contacts were ISIS sympathizers from around the world as well as foreign fighters who had successfully left what they referred to as the land of the unbelievers for Syria and Iraq.

Despite Driver’s age, he often adopted the tone of an older brother and imparted wisdom about online security and reminders about surveillance from government agencies and hacker groups — lessons from a young man who had spent years playing video games meant to mimic the experience of going to war or of waging an armed insurgency.

The more sensationalistic Post headline is “Notorious Canadian ISIL cheerleader ‘Harun’ gets Winnipeg house raided by RCMP“, and the article is similarly hysterical:

The social media accounts of “Harun” have been repeatedly suspended. Each time, however, he has reappeared under a new alias and continued posting pro-ISIL propaganda — all of it apparently from his Winnipeg home.

“With the sword religion rose, without the sword there is no religion,” read one of the extremist videos he posted. Elsewhere he wrote, “Should they call us terrorists let them, for this is a confession of their fear of the armies of Allah.”

Some of the posts arguably cross into the realm of hate crimes. “Name three things that shouldn’t exist in the world: Shia, Shia and Shia,” he wrote, referring to the branch of Islam dominant in Iran. Posts on his Twitter page refer to Indians as “cow worshipers” and claim that Jews were leading a war against Islam. “They are the ones making the plans and plots against this religion.”

Now first, to be cynical. I’ve commented before in this space on the tight ties between the Prime Minister’s Office and the RCMP, and on how they seem to coordinate their actions for mutual benefit – see here and here for examples. And now, just days before a law passes giving the RCMP greatly expanded powers, they make a high-profile arrest which conservative commentators can use to help justify the most draconian provisions of Bill C-51. As the arrest was based on years of online activity, it seems that it could have happened any time, but it just so happened to come this past week.

Convenient, eh?

But on closer examination, there doesn’t seem to be much of a case here. The Mounties feel that they have “reasonable ground to fear that (accused) will participate in or contribute to directly or indirectly, the activity of a terrorist group for the purpose of enhancing the ability of any terrorist group to facilitate or carry out a terrorist activity.”

Despite all the weasel words in that dense legalese, you’ve got to squint pretty hard to see the RCMP’s case. Sure, this guy seems pretty disagreeable – hateful, bigoted, mean-spirited. But reposting an ISIS video doesn’t amount to terrorism, nor does linking to publicly available instructions on how to travel to Syria. (As for following people who claim to have fought for ISIS in Iraq and Syria – well, I follow Jason Kenney on Twitter, and that doesn’t automatically make me an asshole too.) And you’ve got to imagine the media would pick out the most incendiary quotes they could find from the guy.

There may be a case for using hate speech legislation against him for his comments on Shiites, but that’s not the case the RCMP are making. They’re saying they have grounds to fear he’s going to enhance the ability of a terrorist group to carry out a “terrorist activity”, whatever that may be defined as.

There may very well be evidence that the public doesn’t know about in this case. But that’s one of the big advantages of open-court convictions – we’re able to see for ourselves whether or not the police are just fear-mongering and attacking somebody for his beliefs.

Because that’s what this looks like – the criminalization of certain opinions and beliefs. Driver isn’t accused of plotting to build a bomb, or to send funds to ISIS, or to poison Winnipeg’s water supply. He’s in custody and facing restrictions on his movement and speech because of his opinions – because he’s been talking a lot of shit on the internet to get attention, basically.

However odious his opinions may be, that’s terrifying. Because his opinions are so odious, and so far away from the mainstream, very few people will come to Driver’s defence. But let’s not forget that he’s really just a lonely kid:

In 2013, he posted a desolate message on Reddit after having left behind friends and family in Ontario: “How can I meet people in Winnipeg?”

He had moved to the Manitoba capital intending to finish high school, but decided to stay rather than return to London in early 2014.

Driver makes no mention of his Muslim faith, though he refers to himself as a teetotaler who prefers working out at the gym to dancing at nightclubs.

“Dating is not the problem,” he replied to a suggestion that he try a dating website. “I need friends. And wow, that feels pathetic to admit.”

Surely that’s more true now than ever. So here’s the scary part – I’ll take a deep breath and plunge in.

I support Aaron Daniel Driver, accused terrorist.

I don’t stand by his beliefs, but I stand by his right to express them.

And the fact that statements like these are explicitly illegal under Bill C-51 is all the more reason that we must make them – because our ability to freely speak our mind must be among our most cherished and fiercely defended rights. Without the freedom of speech, all other rights instantly become much more vulnerable, much harder to defend.

There’s a few big takeaways from this story that I want to highlight.

First, the law and order approach to this situation is pure stupidity. I dare you to find me one young person who doesn’t hold deluded, misguided beliefs with absolute passionate certainty, one young person who hasn’t done or said deliberately provocative things just to get a reaction. Add to that the fact that, for many young Muslims (although not for Driver), racial prejudice is a daily reality which contributes to their feeling attacked by society. How will criminalization of their beliefs contribute positively to the situation, or result in fewer violent extremists?

Where there is division, there is opposition. And when mere opposition can lead to arrest, on the grounds that a suspect “may” be a terrorism risk, the feeling of division is only exacerbated. This heavy-handed policing mentality perpetuates the problem it claims to be addressing – and the cynical-minded among us might say that that’s the point. After all, we’re fourteen years into a Global War on Terror now – and how’s that working out so far? Pretty poorly, unless you make your living as an arms dealer, or a politician, or a “terrorism expert”.

Second, Bill C-51 is pretty terrible, but it’s not the whole problem. Driver is being detained under existing laws. Activist groups have been infiltrated and destabilized by undercover cops and spies for decades. The RCMP and CSIS already had expansive and outsized powers and minimal oversight. Repealing Bill C-51 would bring us back to the present-day status quo, which in all honesty isn’t so hot. While there’s so much momentum around the issue, why not keep pushing back against the surveillance state?

Lastly, it’s important that we all do our best to reject fear and to push back against this new law. This is one of those “First they came for the Communists” moments – those with the most marginal and disagreeable beliefs are going to be attacked first under this new law, and though their beliefs may be hateful and detestable, we have to defend them, because their rights are our rights, and if we don’t speak up for them, who will speak up for us when the Mounties break down our doors?

As we move on into election season, let’s keep our eyes on this law, and keep the pressure on the politicians to get rid of it. But let’s not forget that rights which are not exercised will disappear, and that if the State tries to take them away from us, then we must defend them. We must exercise them as though the law still protects us. This is about more than an election, or a law. This is about our freedoms.

Stay strong. Reject fear. Push back.

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