OTTAWA, Ontario — In the minds of many Americans, Canada represents a more liberal vision of a democratic society — a diverse society that hadn’t followed the United States down the path toward becoming a post-9/11 police state. But it may be following post-9/11 trends more closely than previously thought.
Indeed, American and Canadian leaders recently met to discuss deepening the integration between our countries’ respective militaries, and anti-terrorism legislation passed this year shows that Canada was taking notes from its neighbor to the south on how to use fear to justify a loss of freedoms.
C-51, the controversial anti-terrorism bill, became law in Canada in June, despite vocal opposition from civil liberties activists. It criminalizes speech which encourages terrorism, and also makes it a criminal offense to share terrorist propaganda. It also expands the government’s power to scrub information it deems to be propaganda from the Internet.
Passed in the wake of a deadly shooting carried out by a lone gunman in the nation’s capital, Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper was quick to tie the legislation to the rise of ISIS and its purported threats against Canada.
However, critics, including minority groups and a trove of high-profile Canadian artists, say C-51, which greatly expands the powers of Canadian intelligence agencies and restricts certain kinds of speech both online and in print, is rooted in fear-mongering and gives too much unchecked power to the government.
A group of prominent Canadian artists penned an open letter expressing their concerns about C-51, published on Sept. 29 by MacLean’s, a Canadian weekly news magazine. According to the artists, including the award-winning novelist Margaret Atwood and Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis, the criminal speech outlawed by the bill is so vaguely defined that they fear it could apply to documentaries about terrorist threats or even works of visual art about controversial topics. The letter states:
“Creativity, expression, opinion, and art are not the same as terrorist propaganda. Through its ‘chill’ effect, C-51 undermines one of the chief freedoms of a democratic society: the right of every Canadian to free speech and free expression, including free artistic expression.”
The law is also expected to influence the voting trends of Canadian Muslims, many of whom have voiced concerns that C-51 unfairly targets their communities.
As CBC’s Haydn Watters reported in June, the law increases cooperation between Canadian law enforcement agencies and dramatically increases the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), similar to changes made in the U.S. after 9/11.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. law enforcement agencies were encouraged to increase coordination with other agencies both regionally and at the federal level, especially through the creation of “fusion centers” designed to facilitate this communication. Fusion centers have come under fire for wasting over $1 billion without making the U.S. more secure, and the increased coordination has mostly resulted in increased surveillance of protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.
Under C-51, CSIS will have expanded powers to not only document potential terrorist activity but directly intervene in the plans of groups or individuals involved, including intervening in bank transactions and seizing online accounts. Similar expansion of powers in the U.S. led to government agencies manufacturing terrorist plots in order to show that they are focused on fighting terrorism. Meanwhile, the ability to target “dangerous” websites has been used not just against terrorists, but also on sites like RentBoy.com, a site for gay sex workers that was recently shut down by Homeland Security, a move that many argue actually endangers LGBT people.
Canada’s New Democratic Party has appealed directly to opponents of the law by promising to overturn the legislation if elected to Parliament.
The Conservative Party continues to support the C-51, even suggesting potential expansion of its powers, while the Liberal Party supports the legislation but has urged reform of some of its provisions.
The threat of C-51 against Internet freedom may motivate young voters, in particular, potentially overcoming their traditional low turnout rates, according to CBC News.
Matt Currie, the 24-year-old organizer of a September rally against the law, told the CBC: “Young people are realizing that their online home, where they do their socializing, all of their lives, is now under direct threat from the government.”
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