Today in Parliament, the governing Conservatives hope to pass Bill S-7, a set of so called “anti-terror” provisions. Bill S-7 allows the police to:
- arrest Canadians suspected of terrorist activities without a warrant;
- summon citizens deemed to have information on terrorism before a judge (also called “investigative hearing”);
- imprison Canadians without charges for up to a year on suspicion of future terrorist activity (also called “preventative detention”).
Conservatives prioritized this legislation after last week’s bombings at the Boston Marathon, and have used the renewed “war on terror” media fixation to justify a swift hearing of the bill. It is not clear exactly how the proposed measures will protect Canadians, or why we need them now. The Canadian Civil Liberties Union warns that S-7 “seeks to normalize exceptional powers, inconsistent with established democratic principles, and which threaten hard-won civil liberties.”
The Conservative majority government doesn’t need votes from other parties to pass the measure, but federal Liberals have pledged their support for S-7 without proposing a single amendment to it. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s wholesale acceptance of S-7 fits with the party’s disturbing retreat on civil rights since the attacks in the United States on September 11 2001. Liberals originally introduced, then struck down, the measures S-7 seeks to restore today. The party’s tendency to condone the suspension of our freedoms in the name of “public safety” is shocking and unacceptable.
Three months after the 9/11 attacks, Jean Chretien and the majority Liberal government passed the Anti-Terrorism Act, which included the police powers Conservatives have revived with bill S-7. Representatives from Canada’s legal associations, immigrant and refugee groups, and civil rights organizations said the legislation was excessive, discriminatory, and in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In response, Liberals included a “sunset clause” in the legislation that would allow the most controversial police powers to expire after five years. In 2007, opposition Liberals joined with federal New Democrats (who had opposed the act from the start) to get rid of the preventative detention and investigative hearing provisions.
Conservatives have been trying to restore these measures ever since – they have tried and failed four times since they first formed government in 2006. So yes, the government is using the Boston attacks, and the recent arrest of two Canadian residents who allegedly planned to attack a VIA passenger train, to bolster its case. But Conservatives simply never wanted the police powers to expire in the first place.
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in 2011 that his majority government would table bill S-7, then Liberal leader Bob Rae said, “the prime minister has to explain to us why, if these measures are so important and so necessary, they were not in place for four years. Is the prime minister saying that for the last four, five years, we’ve been at risk?”
Yet today, in the shadow of last week’s Boston attacks, Trudeau is quietly supporting S-7, minus the curiosity about how necessary the measures are. As they did after 9/11, the Liberals are responding to an attack on American soil with a restriction of civil liberties in Canada. They are prepared to restore the police powers in S-7 for another five years, and they do not even have the heart to tell Canadians why.
The official opposition under NDP leader Tom Mulcair has dared to suggest that we do not need new anti-terror legislation, and that Bill S-7 will diminish rights for all Canadians, particularly Canada’s Muslim population. But yesterday during question period, Mulcair himself made no mention of his party’s steadfast opposition to S-7. Instead he joined with Harper to congratulate the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Muslim community for apprehending the two VIA suspects.
It is scary to stand up to a bully, especially on his own turf. Thankfully, the NDP caucus members challenging S-7 have had the courage to reference Maher Arar, the G20 summit, and the increasingly McCarthyist climate in Canada and the U.S. where Muslims are denied the presumption of innocence. Liberals know these things, but would rather not talk about them. Despite numerous cases of police and RCMP abuses in recent memory, Liberals still fetishize the myth of inerrant state power.
Much has been made of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s “root causes” comments on terrorism, in apparent contrast to Stephen Harper’s emphasis on condemning terrorists. Those who applauded Trudeau’s “wisdom” probably didn’t realize that more warrantless arrests, interrogations, and detentions are also part of his preventative terror toolkit. Trudeau’s failing is not an unwillingness to condemn terror – it is an unwillingness to defend our civil liberties in the face of terror, intimidation, and the Prime Minister’s political opportunism.