Bill C-51

Published on: 30 Jun 2016

The CHA President, Joan Sangster, urges the government to amend Bill C-51

Ottawa, 30 June 2016 

The Honourable Ralph Goodale
Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6

Dear Minister Goodale,

The Canadian Historical Association / Société historique du Canada (CHA/SHC) is writing to request that your government honour commitments made by the Liberal Party during the 2015 election campaign to introduced amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Act, Bill C-51. Like many others who have commented upon the flawed elements of this legislation, the CHA/SHC has concerns in regard to the broad and vague powers given to the Canada Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), and how this may impact free and open historical debate in our research, in our classrooms, and in the broader community. Here, we will touch upon three main areas of concern: the historical evolution of security services in Canada and Bill C-51’s move away from appropriate and necessary public scrutiny; the potential impact of Bill C-51 upon intellectual and academic freedom; and concerns about a deepening climate of secrecy in the name of ‘national security’ which not only affects our profession today, but will also limit our future ability to document and analyze Canadian society’s historical responses to perceived national security threats.

It is important to recollect the historical context in which CSIS was created. In the aftermath of the exposure of RCMP Security Service wrongdoing in the 1960s and especially in the aftermath of the October crisis of 1970, the McDonald Royal Commission provided significant impetus for the Pierre Trudeau Government to create a new civilian security service. CSIS received an explicit legislative mandate, which the RCMP SS had lacked. Unfortunately, many of the oversight mechanisms and limitations on CSIS powers put in place to protect against the previous historical abuses of state security powers have now been obliterated in the aftermath of 9/11 by the Harper Government with Bill C-51 being an example of this worrisome trend.

Bill C-51 amends the Criminal Code to include the offence of “advocating or promoting commission of terrorism offences.” As legal experts have noted, there is a distinction between “terrorism offences,” and acts of terrorism: a terrorism offences charge potentially casts a much broader net to include incitement or promotion of terrorism. Such categories are vague, and open to abuses. There are implications for intellectual and academic freedom, which are not protected under Bill C-51. As the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has observed:

Bill C-51 contains no public interest or educational defenses. That is, academics could not claim that expressions captured by the new offence had a legitimate educational purpose. A professor leading a classroom debate about whether terrorism can be justified in some circumstances, such as during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, may not be certain he/she is protected from the reach of the new legislation.[i]

Members of our profession whose research or teaching addresses politically unpopular ideas may find themselves under enhanced (and secret) surveillance, or facing prosecution. Therefore, the CHA is concerned about a chilling effect on scholarship and academic and intellectual freedom as a result of Bill C-51.

The enhanced secrecy of national security measures under Bill C-51, together with other elements of recent federal policy, will affect historians’ ability to know and write about this era of Canada’s history. As the CHA has noted in recent letters to the federal government, we have considerable concerns about the efficacy of current Access to Information law and its implementation. One of the major exceptions in the right to access to information as it currently operates is the government’s ability to deny information requests it argues may impact national security. According to the Office of the Information Commissioner, the assertion of such ‘exceptions’ to access is becoming more and more common. Under Bill C-51, which further contracts openness and scrutiny, we might expect that access to government information on anti-terrorism measures will further erode. We believe that the boundary between legitimate denial of public access to knowledge in the interests of national security, and the foreclosure of meaningful public debate about security mechanisms under the auspices of national security deserves more serious debate and public input.

In March 2015 the federal Liberal Party, while in Opposition, put forward several Bill C-51 amendments to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security. While we are confident that the now governing Liberal Party is well aware of its proposed amendments, we list them here:

We urge the government to now act to entertain these and other amendments that would address our concerns.

Historians have often shone a light on the historical specificity and social embeddedness of national security anxieties and the violations of human and civil rights that have resulted – consider, for example, the case of Japanese internment, Cold War persecution of the political Left, or discriminatory anti-queer security measures. Historical awareness leads us to conclude that Bill C-51 requires changes that, at a minimum, ensure mechanisms for greater oversight and public accountability.

Sincerely yours,

Dr. Joan Sangster
President, Canadian Historical Association

[i] Accessed May 12, 2016.

[ii] Accessed May 13, 2016.

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