The Terrorist Among Us

It seems Canadians have something to fear- terror. More specifically we need to fear the terrorists who live among us. This is what the previous Conservative Federal Government believed and acted to change. This is why Bill C-51 was created and acted into law as the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015. However, as skeptical and intelligent Canadians we need to ask why and read carefully into what this Act really means for our “protection”. This is exactly what I did at the most recent discussion hosted by Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression. James Turk, the director of the centre, invited John Ralston Saul and Monia Mazigh to discuss what Bill C-51 means for our freedom of expression and civilities. John Ralston Saul is an award winning essayist and novelist and the President Emeritus of PEN International, which is a non-political organization that promotes literature and freedom of expression. Monia Mazigh is a novelist and activist who campaigned for her husband’s, Maher Arar, release from unlawful captivity and torture in Syria. Mazigh is the National Coordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG), which is a national coalition of Canadian civil society organizations that was established in the aftermath of the September, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. ICLMG works to defend the civil liberties and human rights set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, federal and provincial laws, and international human rights instruments.

Bill C-51 is a complex and long bill to digest. It is a worrisome Act and based on the discussion I heard will affect how we act within Canadian society. There have been many problems cited about this Act, mostly the lack of clarity in its definitions of what terrorism is and its vague wording in general. This may lead to wrongful interpretations of the law and dangerous and unlawful measures. Beyond that there are specific problems that have been brought up about the Act and its implications on Canadians’ freedoms.

John Ralston Saul spoke on the idea that this Act will affect our freedom of expression. The Act states that promoting or encouraging others to carry out terrorist acts is a criminal offense. Even if the terrorist act never happens the person who is thought to be promoting it will be arrested and charged as a terrorist. The definition of what a terrorist act is is not given, it is simply stated as “terrorism offences in general” which is far from clear and will lead to differing and wrongful interpretations of the law. This affects our freedom of speech because the way we share our opinion is now regulated. I can no longer go on my Facebook account and say that “I think the Indigenous people of Canada should set up a highway blockade to stop logging companies from destroying their land” because what if that is a terrorist act, am I encouraging violence? Ralston Saul felt that one of the main purposes of this part of the Act was to get Canadians to self-censor. To make us reconsider what we say and how we say it because we do not know what an act of terrorism is and considering the punishment is 5 years in jail it probably isn’t worth pushing the envelope.

Continuing with the idea of censorship, the Act now allows for the destruction of terrorist propaganda and the arrest of the producer. Again the definition of terrorist propaganda is vague and unclear, “the writing, sign, visible representation or audio recording that advocates or promotes the commission of terrorism offences in general”. This is censorship and an attack on freedom of speech for the same reason given above. We do not really know what qualifies as a terrorist act and therefore terrorist propaganda.

Mazigh spoke about the three major problems she has found within the Act. Firstly, like Ralston Saul, Mazigh believes that this Act is altering our freedom of expression and that the wording is unclear and broad on purpose. Mazigh thinks that the Act is going after more than just terrorism because we already have laws that make terrorism illegal, so why do we need a new act? Mazigh feels that this Act will stop people from becoming activists and advocates because everything is very fuzzy, we could be branded a terrorist so we shouldn’t speak out against social and political issues.

Secondly, under this new Act the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) is granted new powers. CSIS was created to collect information and monitor the population for suspected criminal activity. CSIS is not a police force, they are not allowed to arrest or lay charges, they merely investigate and collect information. Now CSIS is allowed to disrupt terrorist activity, which means they can interfere with travel plans, bank transactions, and go into your home among other things on the suspicion of terrorism. They are also allowed to take measures that breach your rights and freedoms if given permission by a judge. These powers could easily be abused given the lack of sufficient oversight of CSIS. CSIS is being allowed to step into the boots of the police force when their original intention was never such. CSIS also has the ability to disrupt websites and social media accounts that they suspect to be promoting terrorism, again touching on our freedom of expression.

Lastly, Mazigh commented on the changes to the no-fly list in Canada. The Act reinforces and strengthens the Passenger Protection Program by updating the no-fly list. This is a list of people who are not allowed to board planes within Canada. Being on the list means that not only can you not fly but also you are arrested at the airport, you are not informed as to why or when you are put on the list and you are never removed from it nor can you fight it. A reason for the no-fly list has yet to be stated by the government and the new Act makes it easier for people to be put on to it. This idea was originally taken from the United States, however in the United States you can be removed from the no-fly list. The level of secrecy regarding this list is worrisome, why are we not allowed to know the reason we were put on the list and why are we not allowed to defend ourselves and be removed? What happened to innocent until proven guilty?

The Anti-Terrorism Act 2015 also has some other little bits of terror built into it that were not discussed fully. One being that now our information will be shared among government departments if we are deemed to be a threat to national security. This means that Health Canada will share our personal health information with Canada Revenue and Border Services if we are deemed a threat, why is this necessary? There are 17 government departments that will now share our personal information among each other, not to mention CSIS and the police. These agencies do not all have watchdogs to make sure their powers are not being abused and on top of that the examples that are given for “threat to national security” are vague. This means that this law can target a broad selection of people, not just the terrorists who walk among us.

Another part of the Act is that police have the power to preventatively arrest more people without a warrant. Police are now allowed to arrest people without a warrant on the suspicion that they may commit a terrorist act, before the wording of the criminal code was that the person will commit an act of terrorism. Additionally, the police can arrest someone without a warrant if it is likely to prevent a terrorist act instead of necessary to prevent a terrorist act. These simple word changes make a big difference regarding police power and the interpretation of the law.

Terrorism is a scary thing. I think that we are all afraid of the idea of terrorists here in our own city, in the place we call home. However, we cannot brand everyone a terrorist. The Anti-Terrorism Act 2015 is written as though we are all criminals that need to be controlled, instead of everyone is generally a law-abiding citizen and about 5% of them are criminals. This Act is about fear and control. Do we all really need this level of control and suspicion? Additionally, this Act may hurt Canada’s activists and advocates in its pursuit of terror. There are issues that still need to be protested and advocated for, are all those people terrorists now? Am I a terrorist because I do not agree with everything that is written in this Act and I suggest people go to the street to protest it? Maybe I am.