Thanks to leaks by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, we now know that the modern U.S. security state makes Big Brother from George Orwell’s “1984” look quaint. Thanks to the Conservative administration of Stephen Harper, Canada is heading quickly in the same direction. Bill C-51, currently under debate in Parliament, represents the most sweeping threat to Canadian civil liberties yet.
The Tories have long emphasized the danger of domestic terrorism, but there is little evidence that Canada faces an imminent threat. And only six Muslims were involved in planning terrorism on U.S. soil in 2014, the fewest since 2008. The exact figures for Canada are unknown, but they are almost certainly even lower.
The government’s actual motivation appears to be political opportunism. Last fall, polls showed Harper and the Conservatives badly trailing Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party. Then in October, Martin Rouleau killed a soldier in Quebec, and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a troubled Quebec Muslim man, killed a soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Harper wasted no time in announcing that his administration would quickly pass laws to bolster public safety. Since then, his position in the polls has improved steadily.
C-51 is only the latest step in the expansion of Canada’s security state. In 2011 alone, federal agencies made more than 1 million requests to acquire private user data from Canadian telecommunication companies. The Snowden archive shows that Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) has been spying on people in Canada through airport Wi-Fi. In December, Bill C-13 became law, allowing police easier access to private transmission data and tracking data. Though it is known popularly as the cyberbullying bill, only a negligible fraction of C-13 refers to the issue; the bulk of it has to do with lawful access. Another piece of legislation now making its way through the legislative process proposes that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) be allowed to operate beyond Canada’s borders.
Bill C-51 seeks to expand state power even further. It would criminalize online speech that “promotes” terrorism, lower the threshold for making preventive arrests and expand the CSIS from an intelligence-gathering entity into what The Globe and Mail calls a “secret police force.” The language around these newly proposed powers for CSIS is quite vague, centering on allowing the agency to “disrupt” operations it finds problematic. The bill also includes the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act, which would enable at least 17 government agencies to share information for an incredibly broad range of reasons, most of which have little to do with terrorism.
Current safeguards against invasion of privacy (which date to the 1983 Privacy Act) are no match for such a rapidly expanding surveillance state. Even critics in the government have recognized the need for more oversight. Four former prime ministers, in addition to numerous civil society groups, have warned against the passage of Bill C-51. Even former CSIS Chief Geoffrey O’Brian has voiced his concerns. But the Conservatives put an end to the first round of debate regarding the bill after only a few hours. With a majority in Parliament, they are poised to pass the act in the coming months.
The problem of terrorism deserves attention. But there is little evidence that drastic expansion of police and spying powers would make Canada more secure. After the Snowden leaks in 2013, a New America Foundation study found that bulk collection of metadata contributed to just four of the 225 post-9/11 terrorism cases that ended in arrest or conviction. The study concludes that the U.S. government’s claim that such surveillance is necessary is “overblown and even misleading.”
If given new powers, security forces will likely alienate Muslim communities by encroaching on their civil liberties. This would play into the hands of violent extremists who propagate the narrative that Canada and the rest of the West are obsessed with destroying Islam. It would also make work harder for law enforcement, which relies on cooperation with community members and leaders to identify terrorist threats. The Harper administration’s extreme anti-terrorism policies threaten both privacy and safety. Canada needs a robust public debate to challenge the unexamined ideology of the security state.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article got the chronology of attacks by Martin Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau wrong. We regret the error.