Prime Minister Stephen Harper never tires of telling Canadians that we are at war with the Islamic State. Under the cloud of fear produced by his repeated hyperbole about the scope and nature of the threat, he now wants to turn our domestic spy agency into something that looks disturbingly like a secret police force.
Canadians should not be willing to accept such an obvious threat to their basic liberties. Our existing laws and our society are strong enough to stand up to the threat of terrorism without compromising our values.
This week, Mr. Harper released a video in which he recklessly conflates the two recent lone-wolf incidents in Canada with the Islamic State's call for attacks on "non-believing countries."
The two attacks – one in Ottawa and the other in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. – were horrendous. They shocked Canadians and scared them. But there is no evidence that either attacker was connected to ISIS. The more likely theory is that they were troubled young men who self-radicalized.
And yet, as the Prime Minister reminds viewers in the video that ISIS has urged its followers to "attack, quote, disbelieving Canadians in any manner, vowing that we should not feel secure even in our own homes," the words are spoken over footage of the aftermath of the shooting at the National War Memorial, as if the Ottawa attack were a direct outcome of ISIS's urgings.
If the Prime Minister has evidence that either attack was directly linked to ISIS, he should provide it, instead of deceptively implying it in a video saturated with images of fighter jets, warships and rappelling soldiers. (It is reasonable to ask why so political a video appeared on the Prime Minister's website, but then Mr. Harper has long forgone the niceties of distinguishing partisan activities from his duties as head of government.)
The video was posted on Wednesday. On Friday, Mr. Harper – intoning that "a great evil has been descending over our world" – tabled his new anti-terrorism act.
The bill gives CSIS, the domestic spy agency, the ability to act like a police force. Mr. Harper and the Conservatives will deny this, since CSIS will not be allowed to make arrests or detain suspects. But its operatives will no longer be limited to gathering intelligence and then passing it on to the RCMP for investigation.
Nor will CSIS be limited to cutting out the RCMP middleman in cases of terrorism. This is not an "anti-terrorism act." The bill is about "threats to the security of Canada," which include but are not limited to: interfering with the ability of the Canadian government to maintain economic or fiscal stability; espionage; interference with critical infrastructure; terrorism; and doing anything in Canada that undermines the security of another state.
("Lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression" are exempted from being threats to the security of Canada. But how well do governments define those things in times of "great evil"?)
Under the proposed law, CSIS agents will be allowed to take measures to reduce any perceived "threat to the security of Canada." Agents will only need a warrant for activities that might contravene Charter rights or the law. If there is any doubt that the agents will be on the front lines of Mr. Harper's war, you only have to read the part of the bill that says that, in taking measures to reduce a threat, CSIS can't kill or harm anyone, or "violate the sexual integrity of an individual."
Among the things CSIS agents will be legally allowed to do is to seek a warrant to break into someone's home, seize and copy documents, "install, maintain or remove any thing" (presumably a monitoring device), or do anything else a judge agrees is reasonable in these heightened times.
There are other troubling measures in the bill, including one that criminalizes the act of knowingly advocating or promoting the commission of terrorism offences "in general" by any group anywhere. Will it be illegal to show support for Hamas, a group the Harper government has designated as a terrorist organization? How much support will cross the line? That's a good question.
Most importantly, Parliament must not allow Mr. Harper to turn CSIS, an intelligence agency, into a secret police force. Intelligence-gathering was deliberately separated from police work 30 years ago, after the RCMP's repeated breaches of the law and civil rights. A wise decision was made to keep police out of the spy business, and spies out of policing. CSIS was the outcome, but successive governments, including Mr. Harper's, have not demonstrated enough seriousness about overseeing the agency's activities and protecting Canadians' privacy.
And now CSIS agents are being offered police-like powers. This unwelcome idea is being pushed by the fearmongering of a campaigning Prime Minister. Yes, Islamic State is a menace. But the danger terrorism poses is not only one of violence; its mere threat can distort the way we live and think. On that score, terrorism will have been all too effective in Canada if this bill is adopted as is.