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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces Canada's sweeping new anti-terror legislation in Richmond Hill, Ont., last week. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces Canada's sweeping new anti-terror legislation in Richmond Hill, Ont., last week. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Globe editorial

Anti-terrorism bill will unleash CSIS on a lot more than terrorists Add to ...

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has announced his party will support the government’s new anti-terrorism bill and sort out any vexing details later on. That’s a bit like buying a bull because you hope its excrement can be sold as perfume. The NDP – the Official Opposition – actually intends to do its job and oppose the legislation. Here are some questions to help it along:

Why does the bill do so much more than fight terrorism? One part of Bill C-51 creates a new definition of an “activity that undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada” that includes “terrorism,” “interference with critical infrastructure” and “interference with the capability of the Government in relation to ... the economic or financial stability of Canada.”

But wait. If a terrorist blew up critical infrastructure – a pipeline, for instance – wouldn’t that be terrorism?

So what is this other class of security-underminer the bill refers to? A political party that advocates Quebec independence (there goes our “territorial integrity”)? Indian activists who disrupt a train line? Environmental activists denounced as radicals by a cabinet minister?

These things are on a par with terrorism now?

If that is what the government is saying, will CSIS – which can already investigate very broadly defined “threats to the security of Canada” – be allowed to spy on and interfere with Canadians suspected of being involved in such activities? Against whom will CSIS be given the power to seek warrants to install wiretaps?

On close inspection, Bill C-51 is not an anti-terrorism bill. Fighting terrorism is its pretext; its language reveals a broader goal of allowing government departments, as well as CSIS, to act whenever they believe limply defined security threats “may” – not “will” – occur.

So why does this bill exist? What is it fighting? And why is it giving intelligence officers powers that are currently reserved for the RCMP and other police forces?

CSIS is an intelligence agency. It is secretive, and it is supposed to be. Why does it suddenly need police powers to do its job? Until now, police powers were reserved for the police – an organization that is public, and which in a democracy must be.

Have you ever met a CSIS agent? Was he out in uniform, walking the beat? No. CSIS works in secret. It is furthermore immune from Parliamentary oversight.

And now, if Bill C-51 passes, CSIS will be able to disrupt anything its political masters believe might be a threat. As the bill is currently written, that includes a lot more than terrorism.

Editor's note: This editorial has been modified because of an error in the original version, which incorrectly stated that Bill C-51 redefines the security threats that CSIS will investigate. In fact, that definition remains unchanged.

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