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elizabeth renzetti

I like to think I'm sitting here with my hands on this keyboard rather than, say, a butter churn thanks to the efforts of a bunch of shouty women more than 100 years ago. The women of the suffrage movement were canny, fond of publicity stunts, sometimes given to violence but more often not, and unpopular with the powers that be. They were unladylike and profoundly necessary.

You could say the same for the social justice movements that followed, for civil rights, for gay rights, for labour rights. These are all changes that we now accept as beneficial to society, but once they involved unpopular, messy, strident actions that usually involved a hairy man with a megaphone bellowing, "Hey hey, ho ho, [insert tool of oppression here] has got to go."

Now, legitimate protest is under threat once again. Not just overseas, in some far-off dictatorship with cockroach-infested prisons, but here, where the divide is economic and political and increasingly bitter. It's environmentalists who are the new fifth columnists, and new mechanisms are being forged to squash them.

If that seems cuckoo, consider the leaked RCMP report Criminal Threats To The Canadian Petroleum Industry, with its apocalyptic vision of a country torn apart by "violent anti-petroleum extremists," who will "continue to engage in criminal activity to promote their anti-petroleum ideology."

I was almost too afraid to look out the window while I was reading, sure that there'd be some Mad Max-level chaos in the streets as the anti-petroleum fiends blew up pipelines with the bombs they'd devised in their anti-petroleum lairs. Sadly, there was no such excitement, although I did see someone throw an empty Tims cup onto the sidewalk. This country is going to hell.

Or you could look at the federal government's 2011 Oil Sands Advocacy Strategy, a document obtained by Greenpeace that divided the country into "adversaries" (environmental and aboriginal groups, the news media) and "allies" (the oil industry and the National Energy Board). Or consider that the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service were spying on Northern Gateway protesters, to the point where they monitored a sign-painting workshop in the basement of a Kelowna church.

Was that for the good of national security or to maintain private economic interests? As the CBC reported last year about the alleged spying, "surveillance details were apparently shared with Enbridge – the company that owns Northern Gateway – and the wider petroleum industry at a meeting facilitated by Natural Resources Canada."

I feel so much safer from terrorism now! Whew. I'll grant you that security agencies have long been keeping a beady eye on political dissent. When I was a teenager protesting cruise-missile testing in Canada, the RCMP was monitoring us, and that was long after the worst shenanigans of the Cold War era. What we have now is a different kind of war, with the environmental movement painted as an enemy that's sabotaging the country's economic prosperity.

On top of that, we have a proposed law, Bill C-51, with its alarmingly vague wording about criminalizing "activities that undermine the security of Canada" and the "economic or financial stability of Canada." What kind of "activities" would those be? Fracking protests in New Brunswick? First Nations blockades on disputed lands? My credit-card balance could be considered a threat to Canada's financial stability – perhaps I'm next.

Really, we have no idea who would be caught in this net. Or who might be too frightened to join a protest movement in the first place, knowing that their Instagram and Twitter feeds are being combed for incriminating evidence. This chilling effect was raised this week by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the Quebec student leader, who said that 2012's tuition fee demonstrations would never have happened if C-51 had been in place. "From the moment people are suspected of terrorism or incitement to terrorism, the impact on the morale of people who are mobilizing is undeniable," Mr. Nadeau-Dubois told The Canadian Press.

C-51 is currently being scrutinized by the public safety committee, and a stream of professionals added their concerns to what's already a Fraser River of criticism. Kent Roach, law professor at the University of Toronto, who has been painstakingly scrutinizing the proposed legislation alongside the University of Ottawa's Craig Forcese, talked about the dangers in information-sharing between the 17 bodies listed in the bill, and noted that the country could take pride in a tradition of tolerating dissent. "We should not be a country that shares secret information about peaceful protesters."

The government has said that "lawful" protest and advocacy will be exempt from any terrorism charges, but as various experts pointed out to the committee, that word could be used to snare a group that failed to have the right permits, was protesting on disputed land or had broken the law in some other trivial way. The word "lawful" was struck as a qualifier from 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act for that reason.

Conservative MPs on the committee brushed aside the expert testimony, helpfully disproving those lessons I'd learned in Grade 8 politics class about the passage of legislation. Support for the bill is dropping, however, as a Forum Research poll showed this week, with only 38 per cent of respondents now saying they approve. That's the power of protest – for now, at least.

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