The Harper Government Has Killed Changes to its Anti-Terror Bill; Critics Are Still Alarmed

After adopting a few of its own tweaks, but rejecting every other proposed change, the Conservatives are set to ignore the haters and pass C-51 virtually as-is.

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Apr 1 2015, 3:28pm

Photo via Flickr user Jonathan MacIntosh

The Harper government shot down dozens of amendments to its controversial anti-terror bill during 10 hours of committee hearings on Tuesday, leaving the expansive omnibus legislation virtually unchanged.

Conservatives on the committee adopted three of their own amendments, making minor tweaks to the bill, while shooting down more than 100 other changes proposed by four opposition parties who tried to reign in the legislation.

The committee is the the last real test for the bill, as its passing is all but certain.

The bill, C-51, was introduced in January and primarily does five things: expands the no-fly list; increases police ability to preventively detain and surveil terror suspects; criminalizes propaganda calling for terrorist attacks; expands information sharing with intelligence agencies; and gives Canada's main spy agency the power to "disrupt" perceived threats.

The committee hearings, which went until 10 PM Tuesday, ranged from testy to outright hostile as the Conservative majority on the committee continued a long-standing practice of rejecting every opposition amendment introduced at committee. More than once, Conservative MPs accused opposition members of trying to leverage changes that would help terrorists.

Ultimately, the only substantive change made to the legislation was to iterate that the government shouldn't share the information of Canadians who are engaging in advocacy—the bill previously said it would only protect "lawful advocacy."

Other than that, the bill's only other changes were minute. One edit removed the ability for the government to request that airlines take extraordinary action to stop threats from boarding airplanes. Another amendment changed language saying that government agencies would have the power to share information disclosed to them with anyone else, for any purpose. The bill still, however, allows unprecedented levels of information sharing with the government.

The fourth edit made by the government members was to spell out the fact that CSIS does not have the power to detain or arrest suspects. Yet, the amendment also cemented the impression that the Conservatives members of the committee were instructed to reject all opposition amendments. Right after their change, the committee voted down several opposition changes that would have forbidden CSIS from detaining suspects abroad—not just in Canada.

Otherwise, the bill stayed the same as when it was first introduced. Conservative members of the committee read from binders of prepared statements as they verbally shredded opposition changes to the bill. Government MPs mostly switched back and forth from two arguments: the amendment is redundant, or the amendment would tie law enforcement's hands.

Some of the strangest debate came in the committee's seventh hour, when government lawyers contended that the legislation wouldn't breach the constitution, despite language in the bill saying that CSIS agents, in tackling a threat, would be allowed to ignore Canadians' rights, if they have a warrant. They argued that, by obtaining a warrant, CSIS' actions inherently could not be unconstitutional.

Yet, minutes later, when the NDP and Green Party introduced amendments to forbid CSIS from breaking Canadians' constitutional rights, the Conservatives balked.

One lawyer from the Department of Public Safety told the committee if they put such restrictions on Canada's spies, "this would have a massive operational impact," adding that if the amendments were adopted, it would render the entire bill useless.

The fact that, in the end, only a paltry few amendments were adopted means that the two weeks of committee hearings leading up to Tuesday—during which the committee heard opposition from the Canadian Bar Association, all 13 of Canada's privacy commissioners, several former prime ministers, a gaggle of former Supreme Court justices and a host of others—were ultimately an exercise in futility.

Most of the opponents, including the federal privacy commissioner, did not get to testify before the committee.

Of those who testified, roughly a third of the witnesses were supportive of C-51. Most of them were specifically supportive of the changes that allow police to go after terrorist propaganda and to use preventative detention if there is an imminent threat.

Many of the witnesses, however, were brought in to underscore the threat of terrorism and talk about anti-radicalization strategies, without addressing much in the way of specifics on the legislation.

Law professor Michael Geist broke down the numbers of how ineffective those committee hearings ended up being.

Yet the hearings likely would have made little difference, as the results of the committee study appeared to be predestined.

Critics such as law scholars Craig Forcese and Kent Roach, the Canadian Bar Association, and the BC Civil Liberties Association warned that giving CSIS too broad powers would lead to an infringement of Canadians' rights.

The Conservative MPs on the committee appeared genuinely offended when opposition MPs read quotes from those organizations.

Conservative MP Rick Norlock said he could not think of a single piece of government legislation the Bar Association supported. Roxanne James, parliamentary secretary to the minister of public safety, made a similar dig against the Civil Liberties Association.

There's some dramatic irony in their statements given that, during debate over the Liberals' 2001 anti-terror bill, it was Conservative MPs who were citing those two organizations.

"The Canadian Bar Association, the Criminal Lawyers' Association of Ontario and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have already raised concerns about what is in the bill," said Conservative MP Garry Breitkreuz during the 2001 debate on the legislation. Breitkreuz is still an MP, in the Conservative Party.

Breitkreuz worried the 2001 bill would allow arrest without a warrant (which C-51 does), it would allow information to be shared with police without charges being laid (which C-51 does) and it would make it much easier for police to get a warrant (which C-51 does.)

"The Canadian bar is concerned about compromising Canadian civil rights and numerous groups of Islamic faith share that concern," said former MP Chuck Strahl during the same debate. Strahl was later appointed by Prime Minister Harper to the Security Intelligence Review Committee, but resigned after it came out that he was also a lobbyist with a pipeline giant Enbridge.

"Now, the deputy information commissioner warns that the government's amendments threaten the rights of Canadians even more than the original flawed bill itself. Why is it, when everyone agrees this is one of the most significant bills to hit parliament in years, the government has moved to shut down debate after only three hours of time here in the House of Commons?" Strahl continued.

That legislation, in 2001, had twice as many committee hearings as C-51.

While Conservatives on the committee continued to insist that worries over Canadians' civil liberties was simply "fear mongering," it has been traditionally conservative voices that are becoming some of the strongest critics of the legislation.

The National Post published an editorial while the committee sat, concluding that "such grudging, belated concessions are not sufficient, nor do they address many of the most telling concerns about the bill."

Ironically, committee member Diane Ablonczy, who is also the Minister of State for Consular Affairs, read a copy of the National Post as the committee debated some of the amendments.

Conservative activists Connie and Mark Fournier re-opened their right-wing forum FreeDominion specifically to re-iterate their concerns with the bill.

Conservative MP Michael Chong openly criticized C-51, which is a rarity for an MP of any party.

A representative of the right-leaning think-tank the Mackenzie Institute, which studies terrorism and security threats, said the bill risked riding roughshod over Canadians' civil liberties.

The Centre for Israeli and Jewish Affairs, which is considered close to the Harper government, also heavily chastised parts of the bill. B'nai Brith similarly offered amendments that were ignored.

Conservative MPs nevertheless refused amendment after amendment that would have addressed the concerns of their conservative allies.

The legislation now goes back to the House, where the opposition has another chance to try and delete sections of the bill—efforts that are unlikely to succeed. Once it passes, it will head to the Senate, which has already begun committee study of the bill. It's unlikely that the Senate will introduce amendments on C-51 without support from the Prime Minister's Office.

That means the bill is destined to become law by early June.

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