NDP Vows to Fight Anti-Terror Bill as Conservatives Limit Debate

While Thomas Mulcair promises to go to the mat, Justin Trudeau sits on the sidelines.

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Feb 19 2015, 6:19pm

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has vowed to oppose sweeping new powers for law enforcement. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The opposition New Democrats are gearing up for a bare-knuckle fight on the Conservatives' new anti-terrorism bill, as Justin Trudeau's Liberals opt to forgo the battle.

Bill C-51 has been decried as a massive increase in power for Canada's main spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), without any corresponding oversight. It, along with a slew of other changes pushed by the Harper government, promises to revolutionize how Canada's law enforcement agencies investigate threats, stop plots, and, perhaps most worryingly, how they surveil and deal with protesters and activist groups.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair told reporters on Wednesday that his party is willing to pull out all the stops to prevent the bill from becoming law unless it undergoes some serious changes. In the House of Commons later that day, he offered a fiery salvo against the new legislation.

"The Conservatives have proposed legislation that goes too far," Mulcair said. "We, the NDP, are going to fight it.

The Conservative Government introduced time allocation on the bill to speed up the parliamentary consideration of the legislation, after just two hours of debate. That means the bill could fly through in the House of Commons in a matter of just weeks.

"We're going to do everything that we can to make sure that the bill is studied properly," Mulcair promised. "We're going to bring in amendments that we hope the government is going to listen to. And if they're not willing to listen to that, we are going to use any techniques at our disposal to ensure that it doesn't get rammed through."

The motion to limit debate passed in the House on Thursday afternoon, with the NDP voting as slowly as humanly possible to stall the process.

Mulcair left the door open to pulling similar parliamentary tricks as NDP's ill-fated attempt to stop back-to-work legislation that forced Canada Post workers back on the job. He did note that their lobbying efforts on the Conservatives' changes to the Election Act actually ensured that the bill was completely re-written.

The NDP leader chastised the Prime Minister for introducing this new legislation, but also took aim at Trudeau, saying he had been "intimidated" into supporting the bill.

Trudeau took exception to that remark, saying that although he supports the bill, the endorsement isn't unqualified. He lamented that the NDP never supports anti-terror legislation, and that this bill obviously isn't any different.

"We welcome the measures in Bill C-51 that build on the powers of preventative arrest, make better use of no-fly lists, and allow for more coordinated information sharing by government departments and agencies," Trudeau told the House of Commons on Wednesday. However, he added, the Liberals would be introducing amendments to create a parliamentary oversight committee and to tighten the definition of what constitutes a "threat" that can be investigated by CSIS.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney rejected NDP criticism and appeared to wave-away the suggested Liberal amendments, telling journalists outside the House of Commons that the NDP don't understand the bill and that "they are taking an ideological stance." He added that while they're open to changes, they think the bill is good as-is.

Indeed, public support for the bill appears to be quite high: an Angus Reid survey found that 82 percent of Canadians support the bill.

However, that poll has obvious limitations. The survey was not conducted over the phone—it was done by asking over 1,500 online panelists who had signed up to do Angus Reid polls. As such, the firm can't offer a margin of error on the poll.

And while the polling firm asked about some measures contained in the bill, they did not ask any questions about CSIS' broad new powers to investigate "threats" or raise any of the concerns about the ill-defined nature of what that could entail. Indeed, the poll also found that 20 percent of those asked had not read or seen anything about the bill at all, while another 36 percent just scanned headlines about the legislation.

But opposition to increased powers is mounting. The NDP says more than 20,000 Canadians have signed their petition to fix the bill, while four former prime ministers and a litany of former ministers and Supreme Court judges penned a letter calling for increased intelligence oversight.

Indeed, critics have begun singling out changes made by the bill that could see CSIS getting new powers the Conservatives have loudly said the agency won't have.

The Conservative Party contends that the bill won't catch lawful protesters—indeed, the bill reads that "it does not include lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression"—yet the NDP see it differently.

"It's evident for us, with its large definition, could catch individuals who are protesting in a lawful manner," Mulcair said.

The bill gives broad power to CSIS if the agency believes anyone is limiting the government's ability to collect intelligence or enforce the law, or if it infringes on "diplomatic or consular relations," and, even more broadly, if it impacts "the economic or financial stability of Canada." The section that has worried many, especially anti-pipeline protesters, is language that gives CSIS power to investigate anyone believed to be interfering with "critical infrastructure," which hasn't been defined in the Criminal Code yet.

And, of course, CSIS is already spying on lawful protesters.

A litany of theories have cropped up about who could be caught by this bill. For one: could encrypting your emails be considered "interference with the capability of the Government of Canada in relation to intelligence"?

The Conservatives have tried to assuage fears over the bill, explaining that all of CSIS' powers would be subject to review and approval by judges.

"It doesn't give new powers to police or intelligence agencies, but rather to judges, to courts," Defence Minister Jason Kenney told reporters on Thursday.

VICE originally reported that these so-called "disruption warrants," which would allow CSIS to do anything short of murder and sexual assault, would required a judge's signature in every case. That may not be the case.

"There is nothing in the Act that says 'warrants all the time,'" says Craig Forcese, a University of Ottawa law professor who has launched a campaign to study and analyze the legislation.

He, and others, contend that the bill is actually quite explicit—a warrant is only required if CSIS has "reasonable grounds to believe" that it's required. Specifically: if they believe that the agency's actions will infringe Canadians' constitutional rights. Otherwise, they may engage in activities without ever consulting a judge or court.

"If the government wishes a warrant to be required for every measure [created in the bill], it will need to modify its language to ensure make this intent very clear," Forcese says.

When asked by VICE, Blaney's office simply pointed to the section in the bill that details when a warrant is required. It reads: "If there are reasonable grounds to believe that a particular activity constitutes a threat to the security of Canada, the Service may take measures, within or outside Canada, to reduce the threat." It goes on to say that CSIS can't infringe Canadians Charter rights "unless the Service is authorized to take them by a warrant."

There are other parts of the bill that could draw fire as the bill receives greater scrutiny. C-51, for example, gives the government the power to introduce illegally obtained evidence for the sake of keeping someone on the no-fly list. It also codifies new powers for Canadian Air Transport Security Authority officials to search anything in an airport or on an airplane. Airport security officials have wanted the power to break the locks on air travellers' luggage for some time and this legislation might allow them to do just that.

Parliament spent Thursday morning debating a motion that would fast-track the anti-terror bill—Mulcair called it "railroading"—after the government allowed just 120 minutes of debate on the highly technical omnibus legislation.

That debate turned quite heated after one backbench Conservative launched a truly weird attack on the NDP. Rob Clark, Member of Parliament for Northern Manitoba, rose in the House to suggest that the opposition's objections to the bill are tantamount to a pro-terrorist, anti-cop mentality.

"Their position is hug-a-thug," Clark began, to a chorus of boos from the opposition benches.

Clark then invoked the memory of his former colleagues who lost their lives on the job—Clark is a former RCMP officer—and began citing a mishap that occurred with the NDP leader, when Mulcair quite seriously asked an RCMP officer on Parliament Hill: "Don't you know who I am?" when they stopped his car.

Clark went on to accuse the NDP of tacitly supporting terrorism by opposing the government's legislation. Eventually he was cut off by a sea of angry New Democrats. Once he sat down, he began loudly yelling "Don't you know who I am?" and "You have no respect for the police!"

"No doubt unwittingly, the member has just done us all a service," Mulcair responded. "If there was any lingering doubt in anyone's mind that this is simply a political ploy, he has removed all doubt."

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