New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair questioned the timing – and he was right to. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau called it a distraction – which it is. Observers called it an attempt to bait the opposition and paint them as soft on terrorism. Yes, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's announcement that, if re-elected, he will criminalize travel to areas under the control of terrorist groups such as Islamic State is to some extent all of the above. Mr. Harper's announcement was political, squared and cubed. Then again, we're in an election, and politics is what politicians do.
Let's step back, strip out the politics, and consider the idea on its merits. The Conservative proposal would make it a crime to travel to "declared areas" controlled a terrorist group like IS. The government of the day would get to decide which parts of the world are so defined, just as it currently gets to decide which groups are classified as terrorist organizations. (The list is long.)
The plan appears to be modelled on an Australian law; Australia has declared the IS-controlled province of Raqqa in Syria and Iraq's Mosul region off-limits. Evidence of travel there is proof of a crime – unless someone is doing legitimate humanitarian work, or working for the Australian government, or acting as a journalist, or making a "genuine" family visit.
Australia's law puts a "reverse onus" on a defendant, and so would Canada's: A Canadian travelling to Raqqa would be guilty, unless they could prove one of the above legitimate reasons. Reverse-onus provisions in criminal law tend to make civil libertarians nervous, and they should. However, if a Canadian travels to an area under IS control, disappears off the grid and then returns to this country, the police and intelligence agencies will treat him as a security threat – and they should. Asking people to justify travel to an area under the control of a group Canada is at war with is not, in principle, unreasonable.
But the Tory idea raises two big questions: How and Why?
How would the law be applied? Would a future government ban travel to, say, Gaza? Or Somalia? This legislation would only be acceptable if rarely invoked.
And why are we even talking about this now? It is only a matter of weeks ago that the Conservative government passed Bill C-51, the omnibus national security legislation. Why wasn't this new measure in that bill? Why wasn't it studied and debated then, instead of being saved for the election?