Anti-terrorism Bill, 2015—Third Reading

Thank you, Your Honour. My dissertation tonight is about Bill C-51 casting a shadow on the work of journalism in this country, and I’ll get to that a little later in my speech.

The best possible protection against terrorists — anyone who values life wants assurance of this. Most of us likely still feel the impact of the violent events last October, when a gunman shot and killed a Canadian soldier and then stormed into Parliament to continue his rampage. We all felt the horrific presence of terrorism that day. When the violence stopped, we along with millions of Canadians became a single population united in the pledge that “this can never happen again.”

Bill C-51’s stated purpose is to deliver better protection against terrorism to Canadians. All of us would support this intention, but stating an intention is not the same as fulfilling one.

Since Bill C-51 was introduced in January, public outcry about its vague language, content and the expected outcomes of its application has spread. In April, more than 100 individuals and interest groups signed a letter urging Prime Minister Harper to scrap the bill. From its failure to strike a balance between “protecting Canadians and safeguarding our cherished rights and freedoms” to the incredibly hasty consultations preceding its drafting, the letter hits all the points that we, as parliamentarians, have to reflect on in the interests of those we serve.

From journalists, lawyers, environmentalists, human rights advocates and social policy experts to civilian libertarians, artists and youth, the signatories represent a range of interests and values. They are united around the conviction that Bill C-51 is dangerous.

Debates are covered in the news. Protests are on the streets. Messages are constantly popping up on social media. Public response to and questions about this bill are contributions to the legislative process.

There is value in every perspective, and we have a responsibility, senators, to respect the messages and the messengers. Having been a reporter for most of my working life, I can easily identify with the concerns of those engaged in bringing the news to Canadians. As they gather with other protesters seeking to stop this bill’s passage, they have to feel the threat to their journalistic standards if Bill C-51 becomes law.

Three years ago I joined others here in participating in an inquiry launched by Senator Cowan. The inquiry was to draw attention to the thirtieth anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The topic I chose to talk about was freedom of expression — its importance to journalists, its importance to people around the world and its importance to democracy.

Having covered stories in countries where freedom of expression is not a value but, rather, grounds for imprisonment, I take to heart the difference between an informed population and a population that is kept in the dark regarding the workings of their governments. You have no doubt heard me describe those tense and terrible and horrible days surrounding the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square. Today, June 4, 26 years later, it is the anniversary of that tragedy.

Civil liberties didn’t exist then, don’t exist today in that country. Authoritarianism is the order of the day. I think the Beijing government would rather love this bill, but they don’t need one in China. They don’t need one because Big Brother is always listening; and with this bill, Bill C-51, everybody will be listening.

In undemocratic, corrupt countries throughout the world, journalists are killed and made to suffer for seeking and exposing truths about their leaders and governments. A precursor to democracy and the end of the status quo, freedom of expression is a threat to the rulers of these countries. For citizens who are poor and lacking a voice in how their countries are run, it is an aspiration.

In Canada, we take freedom of expression for granted. We shouldn’t. The history of other countries — and indeed our own history — tells us that it has been a difficult struggle, with lives ruined along the way. As citizens of a country where human rights and fundamental freedoms are guaranteed, Canadian journalists are protected. They can be confident and passionately investigative.

If Bill C-51 becomes law, journalists will no longer operate under the same assumptions. None of us will be able to count on guarantees for rights and freedoms as we do today.

Section 16 of the bill includes amendments to the Criminal Code regarding the promotion of terrorism and terrorist propaganda. As the Canadian Bar Association points out in its submission on Bill C-51, references such as “terrorism offences in general” cast the net too broadly. With language such as this setting the parameters of what is and isn’t a crime, Canadians will certainly be at a loss.

It is so unclear, that it could well capture innocent speech made for innocent purposes. The line between lawful and unlawful is unclear.

Honourable senators, advocacy, protests and public debate on issues need to happen in a democratic society. Often rules and bylaws alone determine whether such activities are lawful. When those rules and bylaws are ill-defined, this prediction from the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression could prove to be accurate:

Some political legitimate discussion, whether in newspapers, on social media sites, or in the privacy of your email inbox, could be criminalized.

Others are watching us, honourable senators; other countries and especially European countries are watching us. I think this is important as part of this debate.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the OSCE, is the largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization in the world. It has compared Bill C-51 unfavourably with international standards for restricting freedom of expression. Unlike what this bill proposes, only direct and intentional incitement of terrorism should lead to restrictions on freedom of expression.

People can be reckless. People can inadvertently promote threats to security. What should matter are intentions. In other countries, intent matters. If Bill C-51 is passed, reasonable grounds for restricting freedom of expression and seizing material will plummet to a dangerously low standard. It is not an exaggeration to expect the moral integrity of our citizens on terrorism to become undervalued and the discretion of the administrators and the enforcers our laws to achieve greater clout.

Among several warnings, the OSCE states the following:

This is potentially of particular concern to the media, which has a professional responsibility to report on terrorism and to ensure that the public are informed about terrorist threats and activities.

Another component of Bill C-51 that is problematic for Canada, generally, and for journalists in particular, is its provision for the creation of the security of Canada information sharing act. Craig Forcese and Kent Roach are experts in national security and the law. Since the introduction of this bill, they have been publishing a series of opinion pieces for national and international news sources.

In a piece published March 11 in The New York Times, they identify one of the key hazards associated with Bill C-51 and its proposals for information sharing. Here is what they say:

Taking a breathtakingly broad view of national security —

— the bill —

— facilitates information-sharing among federal institutions, with no robust limits on how the information may then be used (or misused).

The changes proposed in Bill C-51 represent a drastic departure from Canada’s long held respect for privacy issues and other important concerns. The writers acknowledge this and effectively illustrate how out of national character this plan for sharing is. They say:

This is a remarkable development for a country that in 2007 agreed —

— we forget our own history —

— to pay millions to compensate a Canadian citizen who suffered foreign torture as a result of inaccurate intelligence-sharing.

Maher Arar.

Somehow we have forgotten that, Madam Speaker. This should be part of our DNA now. It should be part of the way that we’re thinking. This is just simply not right.

There are already significant amounts of sensitive health, tax, financial and other information circulating among government departments as it is. Privacy breaches occur all too often.

With the passage of Bill C-51, the government will be circulating more information, more frequently, in the name of national security. The Canadian public might never know when or why they are being investigated. There will certainly be an impact from treating privacy as secondary to security. Undermining the country’s privacy laws will weaken them. There will also be more wrongful accusations involving terror threats. With reason, people will lose confidence in the government and become distrustful and suspicious.

For journalists who depend on speaking with sources to develop their stories, these and other outcomes will make their work more difficult. It is not only journalists who will find themselves at a disadvantage. Those of us who turn to the news media for information about our world, including risks and incidents of terrorism, will as well.

Whenever freedom of expression and privacy are in jeopardy, the capacity of journalists to fulfill their responsibility to their audiences and readers is likewise in jeopardy. In addition to the particular sections I have mentioned, there are several others in the bill that undermine tenets of our federal laws.

If they are worrisome to journalists, then they should be worrisome to us all. The work of journalists, after all, is for everyone. In principle, journalism is about bringing issues to light, striving to uncover the truth and bring about solutions. These are the individuals that are holding the pen. Differences of opinion and beliefs abound within the field of journalism. That is good. We benefit from learning different sides of the same issues.

Honourable senators, as the Canadian Bar Association concludes:

For Bill C-51 to be a meaningful success, Canadians must not only feel safer, but must in fact be safer — and this reality must be accompanied by the well founded and secure belief that Canada remains a democracy that leads the way internationally in scrupulously protecting privacy rights and civil liberties.

Honourable senators, I oppose this bill. What sets me apart from the thousands of Canadians urging us to scrap this bill is that I’m standing in this room, where the fate of this bill will be decided soon. I’m speaking with colleagues with the hope that my words will help tip the balance of the vote we must make in favour of recognizing Bill C-51 as a mistake.

We can go back to the drawing boards and draft a new piece of legislation with the same important purpose, reducing the threat of terrorist acts in Canada. Honourable senators, please — please join me in listening to what Canadians are saying and conclude that we cannot possibly realize this purpose at the expense of our rights and fundamental freedoms.

Honourable senators, at the end of the day, this bill contravenes our cherished Charter of Rights and Freedoms.