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On eve of Bill C-51 protests, B.C. premier sounds note of caution over lost freedoms

B.C. Premier Christy Clark speaks during the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa on March 6, 2015.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

B.C. Premier Christy Clark has entered the debate over the federal anti-terrorism bill, calling attention to the potential dangers of government overreach but stopping short of criticizing the legislation directly.

Asked about Bill C-51 this week, the Premier said there is a need to balance the protection of personal freedoms with matters of national security.

"I think it is really important that all Canadians recognize that both of those aspects of the debate are properly recognized," Ms. Clark said in Victoria.

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"I know that when personal individual freedoms are taken away by government, it's really hard to get them back. And we are so lucky to live in a free and democratic society, so I hope the parliamentarians in this debate can find some balance."

The Premier said she could not provide in-depth comment on the bill, details of which she has learned through the media, and that her remarks were not meant as opposition.

Bill C-51 – which would give Canada's spy agency sweeping powers, criminalize the promotion of terrorism and grant RCMP the power of preventative arrests – has come under fire since it was tabled five weeks ago. On Saturday, a nationwide "day of action" is planned in protest of the legislation, with events in every province.

Elizabeth Denham, B.C.'s privacy commissioner, has spoken out against the bill, penning a joint letter with 10 other provincial and territorial privacy commissioners "to express our deep concern about the far-reaching implications of Bill C-51 for the fundamental rights of Canadians."

Addressed to Daryl Kramp, chair of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, and members of the committee, the letter hones in on the bill's Security of Canada Information Sharing Act (SCISA), as equating dissent with violence, which "would significantly expand the power of the state to surveil and profile ordinary, law-abiding Canadians."

It cited, for example, the concept of what "undermines the security of Canada" to be excessively broad, and the potential to interpret SCISA as equating dissent with violence.

In an interview on Thursday, Ms. Denham said Bill C-51 represented "the most serious government intrusion of citizens' privacy rights" she seen in a dozen years of being a privacy regulator.

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"The proposed powers set out in Bill C-51 go well beyond targeting potential terrorist activity. Bill C-51 provides for information sharing between federal agencies, between governments in Canada and beyond," she said. "It would usher in a surveillance regime that is unprecedented, without limit and without appropriate privacy safeguards."

The legislation would allow the private information of ordinary British Columbians – such as tax, travel and employment records – to be potentially combined, data matched and analyzed, Ms. Denham said.

On Saturday, more than 45 events are expected to take place across all 10 provinces in protest of the contentious legislation.

Open Media, a digital rights group that is helping organize Saturday's events, warns on its website that Bill C-51 will "turn [the Canadian Security Intelligence Service] into a 'secret police' force with little accountability or oversight," open the door "for violations of our Charter Rights" and "lead to dragnet surveillance and information sharing on innocent Canadians."

David Christopher, a spokesman for Open Media, said he has noticed a shift in public opinion in the weeks since the bill was tabled.

"It really has seemed that the more people find out about what's in this legislation, the less they like it," he said.

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In Metro Vancouver, one noontime rally will take place on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Another will take place outside Industry Minister James Moore's office in Coquitlam.

Four former prime ministers – John Chrétien, Joe Clark, Paul Martin and John Turner – have spoken out against the legislation, writing an open letter criticizing the lack of oversight of Canada's national security agencies.

U.S. National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden has also shared his thoughts on the Canadian legislation, telling the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression organization in Toronto last week that Canadian intelligence already has "one of the weakest oversight frameworks out of any Western intelligence agency."

Canadian citizens – in conjunction with public representatives and other elected officials – need to be given sufficient information to help inform the discussion, Mr. Snowden said.

"That's the people in this room, that's the people in universities across the country, and that's average people going about their daily lives who don't want to have to deal with getting down into the minutiae of political movements …," he said.

"They just want to be able to look at what they want to do in their lives and pursue that in a free and fair way, and that can only happen in liberal societies if we have liberal access to the facts."

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