Privacy is ‘essential to human dignity,’ says civil liberties group concerned about Bill C-51

Josh Paterson, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, tells Vancouver crowd the bill will not make Canada safer
Erin Seatter

Rallies in opposition to the Conservatives’ Bill C-51 were held across Canada on Mar. 14. The bill would allow massive information sharing about individuals among government agencies, criminalize speech seen to support terrorism even when there’s no terrorist intent, and give CSIS additional powers as a secret police force.

Josh Paterson, the executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, spoke to more than a thousand people at the rally in Vancouver about the dangers of C-51. Here are his remarks.

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Thanks to the Coast Salish peoples of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish nations on whose unceded lands we are gathered today. hay čxʷ q̓ə!

The BC Civil Liberties Association is a non-partisan organization, and is one of Canada's oldest and largest civil liberties and human rights organizations. Our mandate is to preserve, defend, maintain and extend civil liberties and human rights in Canada.

Bill C-51 — the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2015 — is a direct attack on those rights. It is a threat to our democracy.

And that is why we say that this bill must be stopped.

Bill C-51 will dramatically expand the powers of Canada's national security agencies and violate the rights of Canadians without making us demonstrably safer.

It constitutes a radical expansion of national security powers. It is not sound security policy and presents a real danger to Canadians.

The government has admitted that it doesn't know whether these new legal measures could have prevented the recent tragic killings in Ottawa and Québec. The Prime Minister was asked. He said that he wasn't sure. That is no surprise, as the government has presented no credible evidence that giving more power to spies is necessary as a result of those attacks.

Simply put, this bill will give even more extraordinary and draconian powers to national security agencies, without evidence that it will enhance public safety and with no appropriate accountability and review mechanisms to curb the practically inevitable abuses of these sweeping powers. Our national security agencies have shamefully inadequate oversight and are hostile to accountability.

Now to be clear, the BCCLA believes that it is a responsibility of government to protect us all against threats such as the threat of terrorism. But the government must do that, as it must conduct all of its activities, in a way that complies with Canada's constitution. It must protect us while also protecting our fundamental human rights. We cannot trade those away, because they are the very essence of our democracy.

This bill will affect all Canadians, but we think it will have a disproportionately harmful impact on people of colour, on Muslim Canadians, on Indigenous peoples and on those who organize in dissent to government policies and priorities. This is why we work so hard to hold our national security agencies to account, including with our lawsuit against Canada's electronic spy agency for its mass online espionage on Canadians and many other initiatives.

We at the BCCLA are often asked by people, "If I have nothing to hide, why should I care about my privacy rights?" I like to answer with an analogy from Cory Doctorow. It's no secret what you do when you're sitting on the toilet — we all know what you're up to when you're sitting there — but you still want to close the door. Privacy is a part of us. It's essential to human dignity. It shouldn't be us who have to prove why we need privacy. The government should have to prove why taking away our privacy rights are justified, and the government simply has not done so with C-51.

I am proud to say that people here in British Columbia are in the forefront of trying to put a stop to this harmful new law.

The first criticism of this bill came from this province. Moments after the Prime Minister finished introducing it, before the press conference was over, the BC Civil Liberties Association already had a preliminary statement in the hands of the media to ensure that the problematic ideas in the bill were immediately answered by British Columbians. Other organizations from BC and around the country have been raising their voices loudly and organizing to ensure that as many Canadians as possible understand the threats to human rights posed by Bill C-51. Scholars have pored over the bill and offered painstakingly detailed and stinging critiques.

Some of those groups and critics will have the chance to oppose the bill on the Parliamentary record. On Thursday, the BC Civil Liberties Association was the first non-government witness to testify at the hearings in Ottawa. We set out our sweeping and detailed critique of the bill and its violations of human rights: locking up people without criminal charge; threatening the ability of First nations and activists to raise their voices in dissent against government policy; criminalizing expressions of support for terrorist activities — including kids on Facebook writing silly things — even where the speaker has no intention of committing a terrorist act and has no connection whatsoever to terrorism or violence;giving new and dangerous powers to our spies without adequate accountability; and more.

What was the response? Were we listened to? Were our concerns or those of other witnesses truly taken into account?

The government's sole question to the BCCLA's senior counsel Carmen Cheung, who is a leading expert on national security and human rights, was, "Are you simply fundamentally opposed to taking terrorists off the street?"

Basically, the question implied that "you're either with us, or you're with the terrorists."

Of course, our answer is no. We and our families live here too, and we all want to be safe. But our security services and the criminal justice system already have more than enough power to do their jobs.

As Carmen reflected after her experience, the result of a question like that is to just ignore anybody with an opposing opinion and attack their credibility instead.

That wasn't all. Innuendo was cast at Greenpeace. Discredited accusations were hurled at the National Council of Canadian Muslims, suggesting that that group is connected with terrorism. Instead of being able to address the substance of their organization's concerns about the bill and its impact on the Muslim community, their representative was forced to spend his time defending against an attack.

This is disappointing coming from our Parliament, which is supposed to be the place where we have real debate on decisions that will affect the every Canadian.

Instead, we are subjected to insults.

I'll borrow the words of my friend Alex Neve, the secretary general of Amnesty International in Canada, which he wrote after his appearance at the committee: "The government is not listening. We need to be louder."

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