ELECTION FEATURE by Gregory Beatty

Of every malice that wins hate in Heaven, Injury is the end; and all such end Either by force or fraud afflicteth others. ― Dante Alighieri, Inferno

“Freedom” is an important word in the Harper Conservatives’ vocabulary. Market freedom is numero uno, of course. Religious freedom is another biggie.

Civil liberties, though, are another matter. There, the government has consistently narrowed the scope of democratic debate in the country to weaken political opposition to its agenda.

Bill C-51 is the most recent (and egregious) example. Passed this spring in the wake of two fatal attacks by self-styled “terrorists” last fall, the Anti-Terrorism Act was severely criticized for the scope it gave the RCMP, CSIS and CSEC (Communications Security Establishment Canada) to spy on Canadians and limit their civil liberties.

“Legal experts have said Bill C-51 is a solution without a problem,” says University of Saskatchewan political scientist Colleen Bell. “There’s plenty of provisions in the criminal code that can address these problems, and what this legislation does is loosen the standards of jurisprudence that are normally required in criminal law. In the process, it potentially casts a sweeping net over speech and information sharing.”

Security forces used to need strong evidence that a terrorist act was imminent to pre-emptively arrest someone to prevent it from happening.

“Now, the burden of proof is they can arrest someone who ‘may’ carry out a terrorist attack,” says Bell.

Bill C-51 also broadened the definition of “national security” to include critical infrastructure and economic stability.

“What is critical infrastructure?” Bell asks. “Is a road critical infrastructure? We know lots of indigenous protests involve blocking a road or [bridge]. You have to wonder if that can be captured under this umbrella.”

Sound farfetched? Well, when the government was ramming Bill C-51 through Parliament a leaked RCMP report surfaced that described in breathless terms a “growing, highly organized and well-financed anti-Canada petroleum movement.” Greenpeace was one of the organization’s cited. Tides Canada and Sierra Club Canada were two others.

The report fueled critics worst fears about the heavy-handed nature of Bill C-51 as part of the broader Conservative agenda. “The government has shown itself to be invested in incredibly divisive tactics that undermine people’s democratic right to voice concerns about its policies,” says Bell.

“One strategy has been to cast environmental groups who oppose pipelines and oilsands projects as being funded by foreign interests. That, unfortunately, feeds into the national security paradigm because it allows people to think it’s not legitimate democratic interests at home, it’s external groups with ulterior motives. They might not be terrorist in a real sense, but they do pose an economic threat to Canada.”

Lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression are supposedly protected under Bill C-51. But, again, given the Harper government’s reputation for ruthlessly squelching opposing viewpoints that “guarantee” is hardly comforting.

Since they won the 2006 election the Conservatives have systematically defunded advocacy groups that promote balance and fairness in Canadian society, enacted numerous election measures to boost the power of money in politics, and even given $13 million to Canada Revenue Agency to target progressive charities and ensure they’re not violating tax law by devoting more than 10 per cent of their resources to “political activities.”

PEN Canada, Amnesty International, the United Church of Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, Canada Without Poverty and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives are some of the over 1000 charities that have undergone costly and stressful audits.

“Even with the Syrian refugee crisis, we’ve seen this really bombastic rhetoric from the Conservatives about Jihadi terrorism being this really significant threat that needs to be countered both on the home front and then abroad through military operations,” says Bell.

At the same, she adds, the government risks fueling terrorism with some of its domestic and international policies.

“Why someone would commit a terrorist act, whether it’s homegrown or not, is itself a question of social policy.

“There’s obviously a deep sense of marginalization, or alienation, or opposition to imperialist activities by their government in other countries. Those are broader, longer term questions to think about in how we could create a more inclusive and supportive society that would make it less likely that people would want to undertake violent acts.”

Both the Greens and NDP voted against Bill C-51 and are committed to repealing it. The Liberals voted in favour, although they have promised to strengthen the Security Intelligence Review Committee which oversees national security operations.

“That’s something for people to keep in mind when they go to the polls,” says Bell. “As much as electoral politics is fraught with more of the same no matter where you turn, there would be change on the horizon in this area in the event of an NDP majority, or even a minority if the Liberals agreed to work with them.”