Public consultation on Bill C-51 looks like an elaborate PR stunt

By Kyle Curlew

November 20, 2016

National security surveillance in Canada is an absolute mess. Bill C-51 is just the most recent manifestation of its problematic elements. Without measures to hold the RCMP, CSE and CSIS accountable to the public, they end up conducting surveillance in dangerous, and sometimes illegal, ways that target vulnerable groups and threaten our Charter rights.

The Liberal party is holding strong to a rhetoric of amendments and have implemented a public consultation process that is fronted by a guiding document titled the Green Papers. This document has been criticized for being a public relations stunt to sell unfettered surveillance powers for our national security agencies.

Micheal Vonn, Policy Director at the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) has been critical of the Liberal government's national security consultation process. In a recent email conversation, Vonn informed me that the government's five city tour to hold Town Hall meetings were poorly advertised and not sufficiently attended.

And it's uncertain how exactly they will go about reading the data and integrating the results with expert advice from legal scholars and policy analysts. Vonn notes, "The overall sense is that there is so much to try to address that the exercise ends up being about everything and nothing".

Though this process is inherently a good thing, it allows for democratic participation in some of the most cryptic and opaque arms of the state, it may just be a public relations stunt. After all, the Liberal party has been known for their fluffy and photo savvy PR events. There is a real risk that such practices will accomplish little, while making folks feel like a lot has been done. Besides, the Liberal government are not held accountable to the fruits of the public consultation. We can't even be certain if any of this data will actually be used to inform real policy decisions.

There is also the potential global influence from other governments in the Five Eyes surveillance alliance. The British government has just passed through a series of terrifying surveillance laws called the Investigatory Powers Act. And recent U.S. election is about to give the surveillance military complex of the U.S. to a man who has been routinely criticized as a white supremacist. Considering the tone of the Green Papers, our government is in danger of escalating the surveillance state and may be encouraged by international pressure and the "War on Terror" to ignore public calls for meaningful amendments.

In a talk Edward Snowden gave at Queen's University last November he spoke to the Bill C-51 and the dangerous powers it would bring the government. Snowden told the packed room, "terrorism is often the public justification, but it's not the actual motivation" for the bill. He continued to say that if you strip the bill of the word "terrorism", you can see the extent to which the bill makes fundamental changes that affect civil rights. "The true danger of mass surveillance is not just being powerless -- it's the fact that it means perfect protection of the law. "

"Any political effort can be smothered." Surveillance bills only serve to dismantle our ability to challenge the state. Snowden continued, "Once the precedent is set it's very difficult to take away." The longer we draw out the process of addressing the Anti-terrorism Act, the more it becomes entrenched in both the culture of national security policing and the public imagination. The longer we wait, the more unlikely it is that we will be able to change it.

The recent leaks of Project Sitka, a collaborative intelligence project that explicitly targeted Indigenous activists and groups, is a key example of why we need to act. The consultation process is likely to lead a mess of data that won't amount to any reasonable action. And the liberal amendments are unlikely to critically engage with the "problematic elements" of the Anti-terrorism Act (2015).

By all means, we need to fill out the online public consultation -- but we can't stop there.

Our national security apparatus needs to be scrapped and rebuilt. It is no good to bandage an already broken piece of legislation. The system was unaccountable and corrupt before Bill C-51 was introduced, and it will be the same after the amendments are complete. We need to repeal the Anti-terrorism Act.

However, this is not on the Liberal party bucket list. What is needed is a collaboration between critical legal scholars and activists to participate in direct action, rallies, and political lobbying. We must act now before we provide our police force with enough unfettered power to dodge our privacy and human rights permanently.

[The above is part 3 of 3.

Part 2 can be found at

Part 1 can be found at ]

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