Remember #StopC51? Anybody?

Image: a protester holds a sign with a thumbs-down symbol over the words C-51 at a large rally. (Image credit: openmedia.org)

It was the major rallying cry of activist groups across Canada this spring. Tens of thousands took to the streets in big cities and small towns in opposition to its passage. Editorial boards slammed its heavy-handed creeping totalitarianism, even at more conservative publications like the Globe and Mail:

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.

It became one of the most fiercely debated and protested government bills in recent years, and its passage was fought tooth and nail.

It’s easy to forget now, but when C-51 was first proposed, it was wildly popular. Something like 80% of Canadians were in favour of its passage, with many saying that the bill didn’t go far enough in tackling terrorism.

It was only after a fantastically organized grassroots campaign of public education against the bill and high-profile criticisms of its contents, including condemnations from the Canadian Bar Association and four former Prime Ministers, that public opinion started to turn around. And, it’s worth noting, it was only when a majority of Canadians opposed the bill that Leader of the Opposition Thomas Mulcair finally clarified that he favoured its repeal. As late as mid-May, the NDP’s opposition mainly focussed on the lack of Parliamentary oversight of intelligence agencies, and while Mulcair had indicated he would vote against the bill, some comments he had made on the issue seemed to imply that he favoured reforming it if his party won the election in October.

Meanwhile, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s inherently mockable wishy-washy position, that he was against portions of the bill but would be voting for it nonetheless, seemed to fail to capture the urgency of the issue. For many, it was nuance for the sake of nuance, when what was called for was a clear and unequivocal denunciation of the dangers of the law. Andrew Mitrovica at iPolitics was unreserving in his scorn:

Does anyone seriously believe that the flitty, Peter Pan-like leader of the Liberals has the intellectual heft and spine he’d need to resist the ferocious pressure to leave C-51 alone — pressure he undoubtedly would face from the RCMP, CSIS and all the other deeply-entrenched bureaucratic interests that make up Canada’s vast security intelligence infrastructure?

Recall that this is the same guy who either came up with — or was simply a willing mouthpiece for — the Liberal party’s incoherent position on C-51, which can be summed up like this: Hey, we don’t like the bill, but all of us support the bill because it will protect Canadians from terrorists, but we promise to take out the bits of the bill we don’t like if and when we become a government. OK? Next question.

Or, as the Globe put it in the above-linked editorial, “Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has announced his party will support the government’s new anti-terrorism bill and sort out any vexing details later on. That’s a bit like buying a bull because you hope its excrement can be sold as perfume.”

What’s important to remember, though, is that Trudeau’s position was articulated before the backlash against the law began in earnest, when C-51 was enjoying unparalleled support from Canadians across the political spectrum. My take at the time was that his position was pure opportunism: “Support was so overwhelming that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, ever the people-pleaser, announced that while his party was opposed to large sections of the bill, they would support it, just ’cause it was way more popular than, for instance, Justin Trudeau.”

But that was then, when the Liberals were running a distant third in the polls and Mulcair looked to many to be the major contender to replace Stephen Harper.

The recent election, of course, saw Trudeau improbably coast to a major victory on a campaign of positivity, sunny ways, and shockingly vague promises of “real change”. And while his government has so far succeeded in transforming the tone of Canadian politics, we’re still waiting on the substance.

Shortly after the election, I did a round-up of the latest revelations on just how bad C-51 really is. One major concern to me at that time was that the Liberals, in their efforts to “reform” C-51, wouldn’t do anything about CSIS’s new “disruptive” powers, powers which allow them to break laws in the pursuit of people who “may” pose a threat to “security”, as vaguely defined as those concepts are. And indeed, in a friendly anonymous leak to the Ottawa Citizen in early November, “a source knowledgeable with the Liberals’ thinking” indicated that the party was still undecided on this issue – a sure sign, I thought, that they weren’t going to act on it.

My fears were, if not confirmed, then strengthened by Trudeau’s recent statements on the issue during his “town hall” interview with Maclean’s. Though he didn’t mention C-51 by name, it was clear that he was referring to the bill when he answered a question about civil liberties and security, which I’ve quoted here in full:

[JUDITH] LEWIS [member of the public]: My preoccupation recently has been with civil liberties. As a citizen of Canada, I never questioned until recently whether they were 100% secure. I’m not convinced. Please give me some hope. Thanks.

TRUDEAU: Well, thank you. And, and I entirely understand that. I’ve heard from many, many Canadians who are expressing those twin concerns of wanting to be safe in a world that we see on the nightly news all too regularly is increasingly insecure in many ways. But at the same time, to know that our rights and freedoms and privacy is also being protected.

Now, people, quite frankly, expect that their governments be able to do both of those together. There shouldn’t be a contradiction between what it takes to keep us safe and what it takes to keep us Canadian: free and, and, and defend our rights. So a responsible government should make sure that when you’re giving more powers to police or security agencies in order to keep people safe, that at the same time, you bring in more oversight, you bring in more limits to ensure that those new powers aren’t being overused or even abused.

And that’s why we’ve committed to do what all of our Five Eyes allies, UK, US, New Zealand and Australia have done, which is bring in a committee of parliamentarians to oversee all the actions of our national security agencies so that we can have elected representatives from all parties of Canadians, to ensure not just that our investigative bodies and police agencies aren’t abusing people’s rights, but also to make sure that those agencies are doing everything they possibly can to keep Canadians safe.

That’s the balance. And the thing that sort of bugged me a little bit in the past election campaign is it was very much playing the politics of fear. On one side, we had a party saying, you know, if, if we don’t do this, then if you’re not willing to strengthen our security agencies, well then you want terrorists to win, and we should be afraid there are terrorists behind every leaf and rock. Well that obviously doesn’t apply.

But on the flip side of saying suddenly if these measures go through, Canada’s going to, all of a sudden, be a police state is also a kind of politics of fear that, quite frankly, I reject. Because again, fear doesn’t keep us safe. What keeps us safe is responsible checks and balances and a defending of our Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And that’s very much what Canadians expect us to focus on and that’s exactly what I’m going to be focused on.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Trudeau intends to implement oversight of the intelligence agencies to protect people’s rights, while simultaneously leaving in place those provisions which empower intelligence agencies to violate people’s rights.

And here’s the thing – I’ve come to believe, controversial as this may be, that Trudeau’s heart is in the right place. I think he’s an earnest and well-meaning guy who sincerely wants to hear from all sides of the issue and bring people together to find compromise solutions to difficult and intractable issues. And I think this is exactly what makes him dangerous. To make a virtue out of compromise for its own sake is to inevitably pursue nonsensical policies, like the one Trudeau has espoused since C-51 first entered the public consciousness.

So resolute, so determined is he to find the middle-of-the-road all-things-to-all-people position on C-51 that he’s actually managed to convince himself that what’s needed here is a compromise. He’s searching for a middle ground that simply doesn’t exist. Note the false equivalence he creates when juxtaposing Stephen Harper’s fear-mongering with the reasoned legal and historical arguments deployed by the bill’s opponents. The clear implication of his argument is that if Harper was wrong that there is a terrorist behind every leaf and rock, then therefore C-51’s critics must also be wrong when they warn that the bill puts us on a slippery slope to a police state.

But while Harper’s terrorist fear machine regularly had to rely on overhyped and isolated cases to create the impression of a looming menace, there actually is a coherent and well-reasoned case against empowering intelligence agencies to take any action they deem necessary (short of physical or sexual assault) to apprehend anybody who “may” pose a threat to an extremely broadly defined notion of “national security”, or to criminalize the speech of those whose statements “may” contribute to encouraging others to commit “terrorist offences”, or to intervene illegally in the affairs of foreign nations.

Adding a layer of Parliamentary oversight to CSIS and other Canadian law enforcement and intelligence agencies, while obviously a much-needed and long-overdue measure, does literally nothing to respond to or allay the entirely reasonable concerns expressed by legal experts, professors, historians, and civil liberties advocates about the sinister implications of this law. Those tens of thousands of Canadians who took noisily to the streets in opposition to C-51 weren’t there to agitate for the creation of a subcommittee of lawmakers that would hold in camera meetings to determine whether CSIS’s activities abided by the letter of the law. Trudeau’s “compromise” ultimately offers opponents of C-51 a few scraps, while retaining all the increased powers that the intelligence agencies so desperately wanted.

Trudeau has been enjoying something of a honeymoon in public opinion since his election, particularly from folks in the centre and on the left – one recent poll showed that a whopping 72% of self-declared supporters of the NDP approved of Trudeau’s performance so far. These would be the same NDP supporters for whom the repeal of C-51 was, allegedly, a major election issue.

Post-election boosts in popularity are a common thing, of course, and Trudeau’s sky-high approval rating can’t last forever. But it’s shocking to me that his numbers are as high as they are. Where did the furious coalition that assembled around C-51 disappear to? What happened to the passionate opposition to this dangerous law? Why have the many many people who took to the streets to protest its passage now lapsed into silence as a man who voted in favour of it has ascended to power and shows no signs of wanting to address its most glaring flaws?

We may see the reemergence of this sleeping beast once Parliament actually takes up the issue next year. I certainly hope so. If not, it’ll be yet another chilling confirmation that tone and perception management matter far more in contemporary politics than the actual substance of issues.


National Security Sunday is a weekly series examining Canada’s military/intelligence/law-enforcement complex. You can contact me at matt@thealfalfafield.com, or leave a comment below.

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