Canadian Politics (Federal), Published Articles

Conservatives against Bill C-51: Opposition to dangerous legislation crosses political affiliations

Jeremy Appel
Originally published at (Canadian Journalists for Free Expression)

In politics, party unity is not always as it appears. Gaps can often emerge between a party’s voting patterns in the House of Commons and the opinions of many of its members and supporters. This dilemma has been experienced by many Members of Parliament (MPs) since the Anti-Terrorism Act, better known as Bill C-51, was first introduced by the former federal government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In 2015, Conservative MPs voted to approve Bill C-51 wholesale. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party joined the Conservatives in voting for the proposed legislation but vowed to amend its problematic elements if they won the upcoming federal election—a promise they have not yet upheld. In contrast, the New Democrat caucus and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (the party’s sole MP) voted against Bill C-51, arguing that it casts too wide a net, criminalizes certain forms of speech without sufficient justification and lacks parliamentary oversight.

These many concerns are not restricted to left of centre political supporters, however, as indicated by the opposition voiced by an assortment of organizations and prominent individuals who are frequently considered natural Conservative allies.

Gun owners against Bill C-51

In June 2015, the National Firearms Association (NFA) joined a loose coalition of right-leaning groups, including both conservatives and libertarians, in signing a letter to then-Prime Minister Harper that expressed their concern with Bill C-51.

NFA Executive Vice President Blair Hagen told CJFE that his organization opposes the anti-terrorism law on many of the same grounds that it opposed the far-reaching Firearms Act (also known as Bill C-68) tabled by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government in the early 1990s.

According to Hagen, Bill C-68 was a piece of “watershed legislation, because for the first time it imposed mandatory firearms licensing (and) universal registration,” which the NFA regards as an unjust infringement on private property rights. In fact, it was the bill that inspired Hagen to get involved with the NFA.

Similar to the Firearms Act, Bill C-51 purports to protect Canadians while “imposing onerous laws that allow for the trampling of rights, confiscation of property and targeting of people who are, basically, law-abiding Canadians,” said Hagan.

Indeed, Bill C-51 gives the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) new “disruption powers” that allows the agency to confiscate or tamper with property if they suspect it could be used for terrorist purposes. Law professors Craig Forcese and Kent Roach call this the “most radical feature of the bill.”

“The right individuals have to be targeted, not entire communities, such as the firearms community, because it’s a waste of resources and lends itself to abuse,” Hagen added.

Though the NFA has its own firearms-specific perspective, Hagen explains that the organization’s opposition to Bill C-51 is based on sentiments shared by other groups protesting the anti-terrorism legislation. He emphasizes that he supports the broader goal of anti-terrorism, “but we already have laws on the books to address these issues.”

“The government, in the quest for public safety, was proposing to bring in laws and regulations that would adversely affect the rights and freedoms of Canadians,” Hagen said.

Hagen argues that the NFA is non-partisan but admits many of its members supported then-Prime Minister Harper, largely because he eliminated the long-gun registry in 2012, which was a major component of Chrétien’s firearms legislation.

Rebel rebel

M.J. Sheppard is a blogger at The Rebel, a right-wing news website established by former Sun TV host Ezra Levant. Sheppard published a piece last year entitled “Why are conservatives supporting Bill C-51?” in which he calls the legislation “the single most statist, freedom crushing piece of legislation in my lifetime.”

“Groups Left and Right can be targeted by it,” he writes, observing that the legislation broadens the definition of terrorism to such an extent that disruptions to the Canadian economy are now subject to prosecution under the Act.

Bill C-51 replaces the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Sheppard continues, with the “whims of our domestic spy agencies,” namely CSIS and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s equivalent of the National Security Agency. All they need is a judge to sign off on their spying, a procedure that was followed by RCMP officers when they obtained warrants to surveil at least ten journalists in Quebec.

The bill’s lack of parliamentary oversight is ironic, he notes, as the former federal government “spent a full decade railing against the power of the unelected bureaucracy and judiciary over the will of Parliament.” This is precisely the type of power that Bill C-51 represents.

It also creates a new category of “advocating” for terrorism, which, as Sheppard writes, is easily open to abuse. It can be used against those on the left who acknowledge Hezbollah as a legitimate Lebanese political party, which enjoys strong support in that country’s embattled Shiite community, and those on the right who support the MEK in Iran as a means of promoting regime change.

Hezbollah is currently considered a terrorist organization in Canada while the MEK was removed from the Canadian list in 2012, which some argue to be a double standard given that both organizations have been known to attack civilians. Yet Hezbollah is aligned with the Iranian regime, whereas the MEK is dedicated to its violent overthrow. By Bill C-51’s logic, pointing this out could be considered advocating for Hezbollah and thus a form of terrorism.

A Conservative leadership candidate makes his case for Bill C-51

Maxime Bernier, an MP from Beauce, Quebec, and a libertarian-leaning Conservative leadership hopeful, joined his caucus in voting for the anti-terrorism legislation in 2015. This may surprise some, given Bernier’s penchant for disagreeing with his party on other policy matters.

“Jihadist terrorists have declared war on the West, including Canada,” said Bernier in an emailed statement to CJFE.

He specifically cites the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa attacks in October 2014 that resulted in the deaths of two Canadian soldiers as evidence of the need for a tougher approach to national security.

Further, Bernier defends the controversial law as a “balanced legislative response to gaps in our national security legislation” that will help deter future attacks. The MP’s newfound passion for national security is particularly notable, given that he was forced to resign as Prime Minister Harper’s foreign affairs minister in 2008 after he left classified documents at the house of his then-girlfriend, who allegedly had ties to organized crime.

On the question of why Bernier, a professed libertarian, voted for a bill that has been derided by many as an assault on civil liberties, he states: “Without security, there can be no liberty.”

Although the federal government has not yet repealed any elements of Bill C-51, it is currently conducting public consultations on Canada’s national security framework. The Liberal Party has also introduced Bill C-22, which would create a National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians with the capacity to monitor classified security and intelligence activities and report findings to the prime minister. The proposed legislation has passed second reading in the House of Commons and is currently with the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security for review.

In the meantime, CJFE’s Charter challenge against Bill C-51 (in partnership with CCLA) is before the Ontario Superior Court, and Canadians across the country—from all political affiliations—continue to mobilize against the dangerous anti-terrorism legislation.

Environment, Global Affairs, U.S. Politics

Last thoughts on Election 2016

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

The political neophyte businessman Donald Trump, who kicked off his campaign by descending from a golden escalator at one of his luxury hotels to call illegal Mexican immigrants “rapists” and criminals has defeated former secretary of state, New York senator and first lady Hillary Clinton to become the 45th U.S. president.

Though Clinton won the popular vote 60,828,358 to 60,261,924, which comes to half a percentage point, it was not spread evenly enough amongst the states to give her an advantage in the Electoral College, which Trump won handily with 290 votes to Clinton’s 232. 

Clinton had a compelling narrative set up for her victory: the first female president who set herself apart from her ex-president husband, who she stood behind through all his sex scandals, by starting her own career in politics. But it was all for naught.

What the hell happened?

As has been written many times by now, Trump successfully tapped into the anger and resentment of the rural white working class who felt the benefits of the economic globalization championed by Hillary’s husband during his presidency had passed them by.

Trump gave outlet to their frustrations, blaming their woes not only on unfair trade deals, which is quite reasonable, but fear of the Other – illegal immigrants, Muslims, the Chinese and a “global economic elite” that often sounded like a metonym for “Jews.”

By contrast, Clinton didn’t inspire enough enthusiasm to motivate the Latinos and African-Americans who voted in droves for Obama to come out for her on Election Day. Their lot hadn’t improved significantly under the first black president, so, many of them reasoned, what would another Clinton do for them?

In swings states that Trump won– Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, for example – Clinton won drastically in the cities but was shellacked, or “shlonged” as Trump would say, in rural areas.

It’s worth noting that Trump actually increased his share of the black and Latino vote about two percentage points each compared to Mitt Romney in 2012.

Trump won outright amongst white men and women. The latter is considerably shocking, given the multiple allegations of sexual harassment against him and the “grab ’em by the pussy” recording that came out prior to them.

Like Rob Ford in Toronto’s 2010 election and the Brexiters in this year’s referendum in the U.K., Trump seized upon the chasm that opened between a core of city-dwelling “elites” and the peripheral rest of the country, motivating many disenchanted people to go out and vote for a brash outsider who promised to improve their lot, defying pollsters in the process.

Clinton came to embody everything that Trump said he opposed – a corrupt elite so entrenched in its own sense of entitlement that it was blind to the plight of the country’s downtrodden, those left behind by the closure of factories and mines.

In this regard, it didn’t matter that Trump is an elite by any measurement. After all, he started his business career with a “small loan of a million dollars” from his millionaire father.

While Clinton spoke of specific policy proposals tailor-made to appeal to a large cross section of the educated public, Trump spoke in platitudes that appealed to rural America, who were dismissed by Clinton as a “basket of deplorables.”

True, few if any Trump supporters would have voted for her in any event, but it’s generally a bad idea to insult your opponent’s supporters, as Romney learned in 2012.

When faced with a choice between the status quo that Clinton represented and “making America great again,” many Americans opted for the latter. One can strongly disagree with this decision, as I do, but it’s perfectly understandable, especially for those who feel excluded from the modern political economy.

Wikileaks and the FBI

At times, it seemed like Wikileaks and its leader Julian Assange was in the tank for Trump, leaking speeches, documents and private e-mails that cast the Democratic nominee and her inner circle in a negative light. Assange strongly denies that this was intended to help Trump, insisting that he simply publishes whatever secret documents are given to him in the name of radical transparency.

Perhaps the most damaging release was a paid speech Clinton gave to the National Multi-Housing Council where she admitted to having a “private” and “public” positions on issues like trade. For instance, Clinton told an audience of Italian bankers that she was fully in favour of “open trade and open borders,” despite her publicly stated opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership she helped negotiate as secretary of state, putting the sincerity of her other token progressive positions – $15 minimum wage, opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and increasing taxes on the wealthy, to name a few – into question.

To blame Wikileaks, or the Russians for allegedly hacking the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) server and passing the information on to Assange is to shoot the messenger.

These leaks, whatever their source, fueled Clinton’s image as a manipulative member of the ruling class concerned with nothing but her own advancement.

And the e-mails she sent from a private account as secretary of state – those “damn e-mails” as Bernie Sanders foolishly dismissed them in a Democratic primary debate – came back to haunt her in the campaign’s latter days, as FBI Director James Comey, a Republican Obama appointee, announced they were being re-investigated and then a week later said nothing noteworthy was found.

Still, the damage was done. The Clintons were correctly viewed as part of a crooked aristocracy to whom the rules need not apply.

Interestingly, the FBI, who formally accused Wikileaks of hacking the DNC and interfering in the election, was also involved in leveling the playing field for Trump.

Would Bernie have fared better?

Hypotheticals are always difficult, but it’s quite clear that Sanders tapped into the same populist rage as Trump. This is why he was able to give Clinton a far tougher primary challenge than anticipated.

Whereas Trump channeled this mass angst towards immigrants and minorities, Sanders’s focus was primarily economic, with a little bit of racial justice thrown into the mix under pressure from Black Lives Matter activists.

As we know thanks to Wikileaks, the DNC conspired against Sanders from day one. He was regarded, particularly by former chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, as a mere obstacle on Clinton’s inevitable path to the presidency and not a serious challenge. Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign her position as a result of the revelation, being replaced by yet another Clinton surrogate, Donna Brazile.

Had Sanders been the nominee, I suspect Trump would have gone into full red-baiting mode. It’s doubtful that the white rural voters who voted overwhelmingly for the KKK’s candidate of choice would vote for a Jewish socialist senator from Vermont.

It seems, unfortunately, that it was Trump’s time.

What will a Trump presidency actually look like? 

Anyone’s guess is as good as mine, but Trump released a list of policy proposals for his first 100 days in office that is mostly frightening.

It does not bode well that that the Republicans now have control of the White House, both Houses of Congress and soon the judiciary. They’re already intent upon working with Trump to roll back Obama’s modest environmental, health care and taxation regulations.

His reported cabinet choices reads like a rogue’s gallery of right-wing ideologues: former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, George W. Bush’s UN ambassador John Bolton, Mr. 9/11 Rudy Guiliani and Sarah Palin, whose stupidity needs no introduction, are just a few.

I suspect and hope that some of Trump’s more outrageous proposals – banning Muslims, deporting 11 million illegal immigrants, prosecuting Clinton and bringing back “a hell of a lot worse than water boarding” – were just to get the rural masses riled up and set him apart from the other candidates.

If true, Trump will govern like any other modern Republican president, which is bad but could conceivably be worse.

He’s already toned down his rhetoric considerably, giving an uncharacteristically gracious acceptance speech and mysteriously removing his proposed Muslim ban from his website before restoring it.

One of his signature proposals, building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, seems particularly unlikely, given his repeated insistence that Mexico will pay for it. That appears to be a trap door – if the wall doesn’t get built he can blame it on the Mexicans and move on.

And as a businessman, he must be aware of the economic havoc his plan to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, many of whom work low-wage jobs U.S. citizens won’t do, would wreak.

Still, his environmental policies – scrapping the Paris climate agreement, building pipelines and categorically rejecting any form of carbon pricing – are cause for immense concern, because they’re entirely plausible from an economistic standpoint.

An erratic foreign policy

In terms of foreign relations, the big question is whether he will make good on his promise to thaw out relations with Russia, one issue where he ran as an unambiguous dove.

Intimately connected is the fate of NATO, whose other members Trump has insisted must pay up to continue as part of the alliance that was founded to counter Russian foreign policy. NATO requests that its members spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Canada, for instance, spends half that.

The former, mending ties with Russia, seems much more doable than the latter and could assist in solving the Syria’s bloody civil war, where Russia and Iran support the government and the U.S. and its allies back rebel forces.

Of course, Trump’s vow to renege on Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, a promise likely made under the pressure of the powerful right-wing pro-Israel lobby, would have the opposite effect on Syria.

Combined with his dismissal of man-made climate change, it’s especially scary that the incoming U.S. commander-in-chief, with control over a vast nuclear arsenal, has such a contradictory array of global policies.

The Democrats: What’s next?

This election, as horrible a result it was for Democrats, was a vindication of the party’s progressive wing.

Notably, there’s currently a push to make Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.), the first Muslim congressman and a key Sanders supporter, the new DNC chair.

But for much of the party establishment and its apologists, blame falls on everything and everyone but themselves for the electoral upset: racism, sexism, the media, Wikileaks, the Russians, the FBI and Green leader Jill Stein for having the temerity to run to the left of the anointed one.

To New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman, a Clinton devotee who did all he could to sandbag Sanders during the primaries, it’s inconceivable that Clinton lost because she was a weak candidate who ran a poor campaign.

“The Democratic Party has mastered lying to itself and its core constituencies,” wrote New York Daily News columnist Shaun King. He added:

It claims a progressive identity, but is as moderate and lukewarm as it has ever been on so many issues that matter to everyday people. It claims to be tough on Wall Street, financial corruption and white collar crime, but is awash in donations from lobbyists and executives in the industry. Democrats claim to be the party of working people, but so often seem to be deeply out of touch with their problems and needs.

This is precisely the form of elite corruption and hypocrisy that Sanders and Trump railed against.

Sanders will likely be too old to run again in 2020, but someone will undoubtedly take up the mantle of democratic socialism in the Democratic Party. It’s just a matter of whether the current DNC establishment and its allies will allow them to win.

The Democrats elected some young progressive women of colour to the Senate: Kamala Harris (Calif.), Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii). Any of them, and others like popular Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, could become the first female president.

If the Democrats can take back the Senate in 2018, there’s the potential for even more young progressives to get elected and stand up to Trump.

But the mass movement that propelled Sanders in the primary needs to continue causing trouble for the establishment and exerting pressure on progressive members of Congress to ensure they stay on the right track.

Yes, Trump’s presidency does have the possibility to be a catastrophe of historical proportions, but it also serves as an opportunity for progressives to unite and offer meaningful, fundamental change of the sort Clinton didn’t offer.