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Politics Harper's anti-terror bill to criminalize the ‘promotion of terrorism’

Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a speech to supporters at a high school in Ottawa, Sunday, January 25, 2015. Mr. Harper says his government will introduce promised new national-security legislation on Friday, including a provision that draws a line between free expression and endorsing terrorism.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says his government will introduce promised new national-security legislation on Friday, including a provision that draws a line between free expression and endorsing terrorism.

Highlighting the new bill in a speech on Sunday, Mr. Harper said he will protect Canadians from homegrown extremists by giving authorities new powers – including the ability to prosecute people for "the promotion of terrorism."

"Jihadist terrorism is not a future possibility, it is a present reality," Mr. Harper said.

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"These measures are designed to help authorities stop planned attacks, get threats off our streets, criminalize the promotion of terrorism and prevent terrorists from travelling and recruiting others."

It's the first time that the government has so clearly spelled out what will be included in the new bill. The Conservatives hope the moves will position them as tough on security issues; the measures come ahead of this year's federal election campaign.

Legislation that criminalizes the promotion of terrorism is a concern for legal experts who worry that Ottawa would curtail fundamental freedoms in the name of national security.

Two top Canadian law professors, in a paper this month, urged the government to proceed cautiously when it comes to any attempt to fetter free speech.

"On several occasions since 2007, government politicians have expressed interest in a terrorism 'glorification' offence … we conclude that a glorification offence would be ill-suited to Canada's social and legal environment," write professors Craig Forcese and Kent Roach in the recent paper.

The text of the coming bill has not been released, so it isn't clear whether the Prime Minister's language about criminalizing the "promotion of terrorism" is a direct parallel to past discussions of the "glorification" offence.

Overseas, "glorification of terrorism " prosecutions have included offences ranging from inciting crimes, to selling extremist propaganda, to publishing documents or drawings that are seen as applauding terrorist attacks. Such laws exists in Europe and Britain, but could be difficult to reconcile with the freedom-of-expression provisions in Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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Mr. Harper's speech to Conservative supporters on Sunday was delivered on the eve of Parliament's resumption Monday. The Prime Minister spoke at a school in a Conservative-held Ottawa riding, where the Liberals are running star candidate Andrew Leslie, a retired lieutenant-general.

Some of the details of the proposed legislation have already come to light. The Globe and Mail reported last week that the new law would seek to lower the legal thresholds used for some preventive police powers, while expanding the criteria that would allow officials to blacklist people on the Canadian government's "no-fly" list.

In October, Parliament voted to have Canadian jet fighters assist in bombing raids against Islamic State fighters in Iraq.

Later that month, two Canadian Forces members were killed just days apart by two suspected Islamic State sympathizers – one mowed down Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent with a car, while the other shot Corporal Nathan Cirillo with a vintage hunting rifle.

"Violent jihadism is not simply a danger somewhere else," Mr. Harper said during his speech. "It seeks to harm us here, through horrific acts like deliberately driving a car at a defenceless man, or shooting a soldier from behind as he stands guard at a war memorial."

After the October attacks, Justice Minister Peter MacKay mused about giving police legal tools that could allow for the removal of Internet posts that are "poisoning young minds."

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Judges have broadly endorsed a growing body of Canadian law that aims to nip terrorism in the bud. For example, last year a Toronto man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for trying to board an outbound Toronto plane to Africa, while counselling an undercover officer to do the same. Police alleged Mohamed Hersi would have joined a terrorist group in Somalia had he been allowed to go overseas.

In their new paper, Prof. Forcese and Prof. Roach urge the government to consider checks and balances if it is considering any laws that would affect free speech. For example, they say judicial orders could allow police to compel Internet providers to scrub dangerous jihadi messages from public view and pass identifying information to appropriate authorities.

In addition to his promises to combat terrorism, Mr. Harper outlined priorities for the months to come.

Canadians can expect new and harsher punishments for violent, repeat offenders, he said, including a law that would stiffen life sentences.

He also reiterated his promise that the Conservative government would balance the budget despite falling oil prices.

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With a report from Gloria Galloway in Ottawa

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