Canadians who travel to regions of the world that are hotbeds of Islamic terrorism could be prosecuted under legislation that would be enacted under a re-elected Conservative government, a restriction that critics say could unduly hamper mobility rights and threaten civil liberties.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper announced the policy at a campaign event in Ottawa on Sunday, saying he is taking steps to address a threat to Canada that comes from within.
The Conservative government has already made it a crime to leave Canada with the aim of taking part in terrorist activities. This new measure would go further, criminalizing the act of travel to specific countries.
"There is absolutely no right in this country to travel to an area under the governance of terrorists. That is not a human right," he told supporters on Sunday morning.
There are individuals "who for reasons you and I will never understand, turn their back on our country and, indeed, turn their backs on civilization itself, to travel overseas to join jihadist causes." Some of them, he said, may eventually return to Canada, bringing their terrorist training with them.
For that reason, "a re-elected Conservative government will designate travel to places that are ground zero for terrorist activity a criminal offence," Mr. Harper said.
It's not known whether the policy could extend to places such as Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Saudi Arabia or Somalia, where groups designated by Ottawa as terrorists have taken root. The Conservative Leader didn't specify which regions would be affected by the legislation, but Conservative officials said it would likely include Iraq and Syria, which would mirror an Australian law enacted last year that has received considerable criticism.
The Tory policy comes as political parties begin the second week of a long campaign leading up to the federal election in October. While polls suggest the economy remains the top issue for Canadian voters, Mr. Harper has been trying to keep national security at the centre of the debate.
The heads of the other political parties were skeptical of Mr. Harper's proposal.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who was campaigning in Ottawa, said he believed the measure was being announced to distract voters from economic issues. "That said, Canada is a country that protects people's rights and any time a government wants to limit those rights, it needs to answer a lot more questions than Mr. Harper actually answered this morning," Mr. Trudeau said.
After a campaign rally in Vancouver Sunday afternoon, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said "there is very little evidence" that such a policy "would have any concrete effect" on stopping Canadians from being radicalized, noting most travel through other countries to get to the hot spots. He said Mr. Harper should have tackled the issue of youth radicalization with the anti-terrorism bill passed by the government earlier this year.
In outlining the Conservative policy Sunday, Mr. Harper said there are situations in which aid workers, journalists and diplomats may have to visit the areas under the ban. "There will be exceptions in the law for those legitimate reasons. I don't think people who have legitimate reasons will have difficulty showing those," he said. "But we know what other people are doing there and this is something we've got to nip in the bud before trained terrorists return to this country."
The Conservative government is already being accused by civil libertarians of going too far with the introduction of new police powers that were part of the anti-terrorism legislation. And there was similar reaction to the proposed travel ban.
Sukanya Pillay, the executive director and general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said her organization wants to learn more details about what Mr. Harper has in mind.
But "a blanket travel ban on all Canadians does, on its face, raise serious civil-liberties concerns," Ms. Pillay said. "Not only are mobility rights affected, but liberty and equality rights may also be affected. Some groups or ethnicities will be disproportionately affected, as well as activists, academics, families, researchers, filmmakers or a host of others whose work may take them to conflict zones."
Wayne MacKay, an expert on constitutional law and human rights who teaches at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the proposal could run afoul of the constitutional guarantee of the right to mobility.
While strong measures to counter terrorism are needed, "you always have to balance it against the core rights and freedoms that we have as human beings and as Canadian citizens," Prof. MacKay said. "The mobility to travel is certainly considered by most to be part of that and if we give away too many basic rights and freedoms in response, then terrorists have won by the backdoor anyway."
And Kent Roach, a constitutional law expert at the University of Toronto, said it is already illegal to travel for terrorist purposes so he does not see what the point of this additional terrorist offence would be.
Syria and Iraq are incredibly complex places and the proposed law could lead to the criminalization of someone who wants to go there to fight for the Kurds, Prof. Roach said. "Just making something that is criminal in an overbroad fashion, which, in essence, is already criminal, just doesn't seem to me to be a particularly useful way to proceed."
With a report from Mike Hager in Vancouver