Stephen Harper is proposing the most sweeping increase in power for Canadian security agencies since the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, including jail time for encouraging terrorism on the Internet, while playing down concerns over the impact on civil liberties.
The new charge for advocating "the commission of terrorist offences in general" would carry penalties of up to five years in prison and is part of a package of anti-terror measures introduced Friday, which come as a response to the deadly attacks on soldiers last October that included a gunman storming Parliament.
This Anti-Terrorism Act is igniting a national debate about the proper balance between freedom and security in Canada in the 21st century, including whether there is sufficient outside scrutiny of the law-enforcement agencies that are gaining new powers.
The legislation would also grant Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the power to intervene and disrupt threats to national security, a major change from merely collecting intelligence and handing off the matter to the RCMP.
Mr. Harper made it clear Friday he will try to own the security file in this election year, casting his political opponents as reluctant to follow in his footsteps, both in fighting terrorism at home and Islamic State in Iraq. Both the Liberals and NDP declined to reject the legislation outright Friday, saying they need time to study it.
"Over the last few years a great evil has been descending over our world," said the Prime Minister, who announced the legislation in a campaign-style event in the Greater Toronto Area. "Jihadi terrorism is one of the most dangerous enemies our world has ever faced."
Mr. Harper rejected a reporter's question about whether this might conflict with civil liberties, saying it's his rivals who worry about that.
"This is really what we get from our opposition, that every time we talk about security, they suggest that somehow our freedoms are threatened," the Prime Minister said. "Our police and security agencies are working to protect our rights and our liberties, and it's the jihadists that are against us."
Mr. Harper said these changes are necessary given what he called the war declared by jihadis after a "distortion of Islam." He added that Canadians could trust their police and security agencies, given most of the proposed new powers require judicial authorization and in his opinion existing civilian oversight bodies for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Communications Security Establishment and the RCMP offer substantial scrutiny.
Asked whether Ottawa would distinguish between real jihadis and a teenager making idle talk in his basement when it comes to statements that encourage terrorism, Mr. Harper signalled the government doesn't intend to make exceptions for people. He compared criminalizing the incitement to commit terrorist to bans on joking about bombs at the airport, stating "we cannot tolerate this."
Some critics said the legislation goes too far, with Micheal Vonn of the BC Civil Liberties Association arguing the government is reacting "in highly emotive terms" to the evolving threat of terrorism. Ms. Vonn added Canadians would be shocked to learn the extent of the new measures, including the ease with which the government can add people to the no-fly list.
"We lacked oversight to begin with, now we're expanding the powers, so we will have even less," Ms. Vonn said.
The NDP raised concerns about the level of funding provided to law-enforcement agencies and the government's commitment to preserving Charter rights.
None of the new measures in this bill will expire after a set period of time, unlike anti-terror legislation passed in 2001 where some powers were designed to lapse unless renewed by a future Parliament, as a safeguard on civil liberties.
Other proposed measures:
- Giving courts the power to order the removal of “terrorist propaganda” from websites using Canadian Internet service providers.
- Making it easier for authorities to restrict the movements of suspected jihadis, meaning they can apply to a court if they only believe terrorist activity “may be carried out.” The previous threshold called on law-enforcement authorities to state they believed an act “will be carried out.”
- Extending the length of time authorities can detain suspected terrorists for up to seven days from three.
- Relaxing the threshold needed to prevent suspected jihadis from boarding a plane, allowing Ottawa to bar those whom the government believes are heading abroad to take part in terrorist activities.
- Granting government departments explicit authority to share private information, including passport applications, or confidential commercial data, with law-enforcement agencies.