Those who pay attention to what politicians say are familiar with the ambiguous way many of them prefer to speak on certain issues. That might be why it’s almost refreshing to hear the unrestrained racism coming out of the Harper Conservatives these days, most of which is directed at Canada’s Muslim population.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has always been part of the Conservatives’ strategy to galvanize their political base, and they’ve recently taken it up a notch in anticipation of this year’s elections. The current administration also has a vested interested in demonizing Muslims since curbing “Islamic extremism” is cited as a top reason for Bill C-51 (the Anti-terrorism Act), perhaps the Conservatives’ worst national security proposal since 9/11.
If you’re not with us, you’re a terrorist
Muslim groups speaking out against the bill and a large chorus of critics, including Canada’s Harper-appointed privacy commissioner, have been met with open slander that conjures up memories of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt of the 1950s.
When Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, gave expert testimony in Ottawa last week on C-51, he probably didn’t expect veteran Tory MP Diane Ablonczy of Calgary–Nose Hill to ask him to address “a continuing series of allegations” that the Council supports terrorism. But she did, by echoing a load of spurious allegations against the Council that originated last year from Harper’s spokesperson Jason MacDonald. Gardee pushed back, having to defend his group’s reputation at a hearing to which he was invited to speak on the bill. The Council is currently pursuing a lawsuit against Harper and MacDonald.
Yet the Conservatives seem to want to make a real habit out of this kind of politicking, and Muslims aren’t their only targets. Just ask Greenpeace Canada, whose executive director, Joanne Kerr, had to endure the following query from Conservative MP Lavar Payne. “The purpose of the act is sharing for national security threats, so it makes me wonder if your organization is a national security threat?” In other words, The bill is meant to stop terrorists, so are you opposing it because you’re a terrorist?
Payne’s questions ran out the clock on the allotted question-and-response time, leaving Kerr no time to answer. Even if she had responded, she would have had to take the time to address the insinuation that Greenpeace Canada opposes the bill because they’re a threat to national security. The BC Civil Liberties Association experienced a similar exchange with Tory MP Rick Norlock, who essentially asked the association’s senior counsel Carmen Cheung if her organization is “fundamentally opposed” to fighting terrorism, since Cheung had the gall to criticize the bill’s lack of checks and balances.
Government zealots brook no criticism
The skillful tagging of Bill C-51’s critics with unfounded and unfair accusations is the Harper Conservatives’ political bread and butter. It’s also the very definition of 21st-century McCarthyism, exercised in a way that deflects the conversation away from the matter at hand or plummeting public support for the bill. Tory MPs used the tactic to such an extent during last week’s hearings that opposition MP Megan Leslie of the NDP got up in Parliament last Friday to ask Ablonczy to apologize for her “disgraceful behaviour.” Of course, Leslie was promptly ignored.
It’s what Canadians should come to expect from the current administration, who have made it quite clear by now that political expediency trumps all else. Heading into last week’s expert testimony sessions, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney referred to those testifying against some of the bill’s provisions as “so-called experts.” These “so-called experts” just so happen to be joined in their opposition to C-51 by former officials of CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, whose powers will be expanded if the bill is passed. Also in opposition are four former prime ministers: Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark, Paul Martin, and John Turner. All fear that the bill will open doors to abuse.
The most thorough analysis of the bill, conducted by University of Toronto scholar Kent Roach and his colleague Craig Forcese at the University of Ottawa, echo these concerns. The two have put together several backgrounders that dissect the bill, concluding that many provisions are essentially anti-privacy and threaten to trample all over the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The bill will allow authorities to arrest people more easily, CSIS to morph into a secret police force (in the words of the Globe and Mail editorial board), and at least 17 federal agencies to share private citizen information with each other in unprecedented ways, all at a time when heavy-handed security laws have not been proven by anyone to prevent terrorism in a substantial way.
The Conservatives are rushing C-51 through the legislative process with little critical evaluation. Of course, this is by design. The bill’s proponents, including the Liberal Party, have already expanded a bloated security apparatus by passing bills C-13 and C-44, but C-51 may be the worst yet. The post-9/11 era has always been an era of fear — but it’s fear of overzealous governments that truly stands out.