Canada Votes 2015

Artists agree: kill Bill C-51

Why Margaret Atwood and over 200 other artists think C-51 is a threat to our freedoms
Photo: Laurel L. Russwurm

Years of irresponsible government policies and message control have left a serious chill on free expression in Canada. From a crippled access to information system, to the muzzling of privacy experts and federal scientists, the Harper government has been operating under extreme secrecy, while placing innocent Canadians under the microscope with mass surveillance.

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But thanks to Bill C-51, the secret police bill, the chill on expression now expands far beyond public servants afraid to speak out. This chill has now reached those who perhaps value their creativity and freedoms the most: Canadian writers and artists.

C-51 has been rightly criticized for its undermining of our privacy rights. But in an open letter published this morning by a group of over 200 Canadian artists led by renowned author Margaret Atwood, it’s clear that creativity and the arts are now also under attack.

Atwood and her co-signatories explain:

Bill C-51 directly attacks the creative arts and free expression in this country. This bill was rammed through Parliament by the Harper Conservative government, despite a huge public outcry and without due consultation. As many experts have pointed out, this bill allows the government to silence dissenting voices without oversight or accountability.

The bill earned its nickname because of how dramatically it expands the powers of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) and uses vague wording to cast a broad net over Canadians who speak out with dissenting voices. The end result? An extreme chill on free expression, and innocent Canadians put in the government's crosshairs.

The bill even contains new powers for CSIS to break the law, violate the constitution, and override our fundamental Charter rights.

Notably, C-51’s attack on our rights sparked strong opposition from gun rights enthusiasts, who in the past have been a reliable source of support for the Conservatives.

In addition to Atwood, the lengthy list of artists speaking out today includes many prominent names, including two-time Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis; musician Dan Mangan; writers Cory Doctorow, Antonia Zerbisias and Judy Rebick; author Franke James; and John Dunsworth, the actor best known for playing Mr. Lahey on the Trailer Park Boys. Together they promise that they “will be voting for the repeal of C-51.”

This high-powered intervention focuses the election spotlight back on the unpopular legislation, which has already played a big role in the campaign to date. Almost 300,000 Canadians have signed a petition opposing the bill, and both the Conservatives and Liberals have faced a notable backlash from their own supporters for backing it.

Notably, C-51’s attack on our rights sparked strong opposition from gun rights enthusiasts, who in the past have been a reliable source of support for the Conservatives. Last week it was revealed that the government went to remarkable lengths to silence the National Firearms Association, striking a backroom deal that they later reneged on in order to prevent the group from testifying against the bill.

This development certainly raised eyebrows among OpenMedia’s online community, with one observer commenting, You know it’s bad when the National Firearms Association is speaking out against the conservative government.”

The Liberals have also faced major problems with their base over the legislation. Social media was awash with images of unhappy Liberals cutting up their membership cards after Justin Trudeau led his MPs to vote for the bill back in May. Analysts have also described C-51 as a key factor behind a significant drop in support for the Liberals.

Only a complete repeal of this irresponsible bill can safeguard our rights and freedoms.

Given the intense public opposition, it’s little wonder that leaders including the NDP’s Tom Mulcair and the Green Party’s Elizabeth May are taking every opportunity to remind voters of their promise to repeal the legislation if elected.

This morning’s open letter from such well-known and respected Canadian artists is sure to remind voters of just what’s at stake over the coming weeks. Our core democratic principles are under threat, and only a complete repeal of this irresponsible bill can safeguard our rights and freedoms.

When Bill C-51 was first announced in January, few would have imagined the size of the campaign that would grow to oppose the bill. But the artistic community is far from the only one speaking out — we’ve also seen joint letters from principled Conservatives, and from business leaders including the CEOs of Slack, Hootsuite, and Shopify.

Clearly, few things bring Canadians together like protecting our basic rights! Tens of thousands have taken part in nationwide rallies, with thousands more writing to their MPs, senators, and local newspapers. Months after C-51 was forced through Parliament, it’s now become a major election issue. Finally, on Oct. 19, every Canadian voter will now have a chance to deliver a decisive verdict on the bill.

My organization, OpenMedia, is working hard to get C-51 repealed and to safeguard the digital rights of all Canadians this election. You can learn more about our plan at OurDigitalFuture.ca

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