Harper takes bold action with new anti-terror legislation

OTTAWA—Prime Minister Harper announced today the Conservative Party’s highly anticipated new anti-terror legislation, Bills C-51 and C-52, aimed at combating a rise of extremist activity that the Conservatives say threaten peace and security both in Canada and around the world.

The approach is two-pronged, focusing on both foreign and domestic policy. It also eschews what early analysis suggested would be a focus solely on security measures. Today Harper said his party had looked beyond these sorts of “quick-and-easy solutions” to instead come up with more long-term solutions.

“Let me be clear, we are committed to ensuring the freedoms of Canadians, and will not sacrifice these in the name of security,” said Harper. “We are aware of proposals to increase the mandate of CSIS to include police-like powers, to essentially lay the groundwork for a secret police force. However, we feel that such measures would be going too far. They would simply be inappropriate to the situation. Canadians are looking for long-term solutions, not stop-gap measures.”

Other measures were announced today alongside the new legislation, including support for collaborative efforts between police forces and Muslim communities.

“A system based on fear and suspicion only leads to animosity,” explained Aisha Khalaf, spokeswoman for the PMO. “We believe that building trust and communication between police and local community leaders is the best early-warning system, not just for identifying extremist activity, but its underlying causes as well. It is important that we understand the concerns and needs of the Muslim community, and respond effectively and appropriately.”

Khalaf stressed that these measures are part of the government’s short-term strategy, and not tied to the Act, out of recognition that extremism is in no way a problem exclusive to the Muslim community.

Bill C-51: What’s in the legislation?

The anti-terrorism legislation, officially named the Promoting Peace and Security Act has been broken into two separate bills—Foreign Measures (C-51) and Domestic Measures (C-52)—to be debated separately in the House.

On the foreign policy front, the bill redirects future Canadian military action toward peacekeeping efforts. “Like many Canadians, we are now aware of the inefficacy of American-led foreign military interventions,” said Harper. “Let me be clear, this is not a retreat in the face of threats by Islamic State (ISIS) and other groups, but rather a recognition that recent military efforts in the region have simply exacerbated global insecurity. The result has been to stir up resentment, rather than establish lasting peace and security.”

“Clearly the solution does not lie in continuing the kinds of American-led military interventions of the past,” he said.

The new bill commits at least half of military budgets and resources to peacekeeping efforts, under the direction of the United Nations. “Peacekeeping is a proud Canadian tradition, and one of Canada’s greatest contributions to global security,” said the Prime Minister. “We have forgotten this tradition in recent years, and this legislation will correct that.”

The bill also requires governments to bring proposals for military activity to Parliament for debate and vote, and provides minimum lengths for such debate. Harper suggested that all post-military activity would also be debated in Parliament, and a watchdog created to monitor corporate activity during reconstruction in post-conflict regions.

C-51 will also pave the way for renewed diplomatic efforts, tying the bill to a House resolution to commit to seeking diplomatic solutions before engaging in military ones, along with a similar commitment to providing humanitarian aid over military aid.

Bill C-52: What’s in the legislation?

C-52, the domestic policy bill, overhauls an entirely different set of Conservative policies. Specifically, the bill provides resources toward the creation of a robust mental health system, as well as toward poverty reduction—including new resources for low-income neighbourhoods, supporting everything from education programs to social housing to harm-reduction projects like Vancouver’s Insite.

The government says it will also be considering comprehensive changes to social welfare programs, making them more robust and effective. The government will initiate studies into these areas, and has committed to follow through with all recommendations.

Harper says his government believes such measures are the best way to meet the needs of “disaffected youth”—those who, for a variety socio-economic reasons, are more likely to be drawn to extremist ideologies, such as those promoted by Islamic State. Providing these youth with equal access to society, says Harper, will vastly reduce the likelihood that they will eventually turn to extremists groups as an outlet for their frustrations.

Ottawa shooting was a “wake-up call”

This, says Harper, was a lesson learned from Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. The government reportedly began drafting their new legislation mere hours after Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack on Parliament on October 22, 2014. However, initial drafts were abandoned when more information about Zehaf-Bibeau came out. Zehaf-Bibeau, who was homeless at the time of the shooting, had reportedly made attempts to enter prison as an attempt to kick a drug addiction—including using a stick to hold up a McDonald’s in Vancouver in 2011.

“A system was not in place to respond adequately to the calls for help that he clearly made,” said Harper. “We intend to build up that system.”

“Would Zehaf-Bibeau have been susceptible to extremist ideologies if his underlying issues of poverty, drug addiction, and mental health had been addressed? We do not think so,” the Prime Minister added.

Allaying suspicions that the Conservatives would be giving CSIS more powers to monitor Canadians and to “disrupt” terrorist activity, Harper pointedly said this would not be the case. “We will be providing CSIS with increased resources, but not increased powers,” he said. The government will also be restoring oversight of CSIS by reinstating the inspector general, the watchdog position the government eliminated in 2012. They will also be introducing regular security updates by the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which monitors CSIS, to all elected Members of Parliament.

“Our government, along with the opposition parties, are committed to addressing the underlying causes of extremist sentiment and activity, in all of its forms, and to find real and lasting solutions to peace and security,” Harper said. “The road to global security is paved through promoting peace, not hated, and not fear.”

January review

January 30, 2015

The Conservatives table their omnibus Anti-terrorism Act, Bill C-51. The legislation increases the mandate and powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to “disrupt” potential terror threats. It also makes it a criminal act to “advocate or promote” terrorism, lowers the standard for inclusion on the no-fly list, removes privacy protections to allow for increased information sharing between Canada’s national security agencies, and expands preventative detention from three to seven days, and to allow detention if law enforcement agencies suspect that a terrorist act “may be carried out,” rather than the more definitive “will be carried out.” It also defines an “activity that undermines the security of Canada” as, among other things, any activity that interferes with “the economic or financial stability of Canada,” opening the door for the arrest of anti-pipeline protesters under anti-terrorism provisions. Critics argue that the powers given to CSIS are too broad, the definitions too vague, and oversight utterly lacking.

The Conservatives also schedule the briefing for their new anti-terror legislation at the same time as question period, forcing opposition MPs to choose between getting briefed on the legislation or participating in debate in Parliament.

January 29, 2015

A private member’s bill, by Liberal MP Ted Hsu, to reinstate the mandatory long-form census is debated in Parliament (the bill is subsequently defeated on February 4). The Conservatives created a voluntary survey after scrapping the mandatory long-form census in 2010. Planners and researchers looking at the 2011 census data are confirming what critics at the time feared—that the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census has resulted in insufficient data, damaging research and making adequate public-policy and urban planning decisions all but impossible.

Insufficient or inaccurate data—on such things as labour trends, and poverty and income-inequality trends, housing needs, and public health unit needs—has made it difficult for urban planners to respond to changing demographics and to provide services in key areas, such as those for low-income families. Some researchers are abandoning the national survey data, although cities like Toronto have argued that it now is more expensive and requires more staff to obtain data that is of lower quality. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Canadian Economics Association and others in the business community have called on the federal government to restore the mandatory long-form census.

January 28, 2015

The Conservatives announce amendments they quietly made two weeks ago to lift the ban on exporting prohibited firearms to Israel and Kuwait, adding them to a list of countries to which Canada can legally ship weapons that are prohibited under Canada’s Criminal Code. The Automatic Firearms Country Control List has tripled in size since it was created in 1991, from 13 countries to 39. It was initially designed to restrict the foreign market for Canadian-sourced automatic firearms, but is now promoted as a way to “open new market opportunities”—as the Conservatives described it when they added Colombia in 2012, to much criticism. At the time, Amnesty argued that the criteria to determine which states get on the list should “be expanded to include an assessment of the country’s compliance with relevant international standards and obligations,” which has yet to happen.

January 28, 2015

The Conservatives have so far spent over $1.4 million in legal fees fighting the reinstatement of refugee health care, cuts to which were deemed “cruel and unusual” by the courts. The exact amount is not known, with the government refusing to reveal the full amount. The Conservatives have also spent nearly $700,000 fighting war veterans in court.

January 27, 2015

Refugee advocates file a motion at the Federal Court, arguing that the federal Conservatives failed to comply with a July 2014 court ruling on refugee health care. The court ruled that the government’s cuts to refugee health care were unconstitutional and “cruel and unusual,” and ordered the cuts restored. Although the government agreed to comply, it only reversed some of the cuts, a risky move that could have had them found in contempt of court.

January 22, 2015

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah dies. The dictator, who oversaw a repressive regime, was praised around the world as a “cautious reformer” and by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a “strong proponent of peace.” Saudi Arabia, well-known for its dismal record of human rights violations and as one of the 10 worst countries to be a woman, is also one of Canada’s major trading partners. In 2013, the Harper government approved a 10-year, $14.8 billion contract to supply military equipment to Saudi Arabia—the largest military exports deal in Canada’s history.

January 19, 2015

The BC Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada file a lawsuit against the federal government’s use of solitary confinement in prisons. They claim that the current practice of isolating prisoners for up to 23 hours a day amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Last December, Corrections Canada rejected the key recommendations of the inquiry into the 2007 death of Ashley Smith (a young offender whose suicide in a federal corrections centre was ruled a homicide) to overhaul the treatment of prisoners with mental health issues in Canadian correctional centres, most notably to eliminate solitary confinement.

January 19, 2015

Oxfam releases a report saying that the world’s richest 1% are set to own more than half of global wealth by 2016. The poorest 80% currently own just 5.5% of the wealth. Oxfam’s report last year said that the world’s 85 richest people had as much wealth as the poorest 50%, or more than 3.5 billion people. Canada is following the trend, with the richest 10% owning nearly half of the nation’s wealth in 2012, and the poorest 50% owning less than 6% (and the poorest 30%, less than 1%).

January 19, 2015

NDP MP Charlie Angus, the access to information and ethics critic, asks information commissioner Suzanne Legault (the federal information watchdog) to investigate the Canada Revenue Agency’s systematic deletion of employee text messages last August, and to investigate if other government agencies have similar policies.

January 14, 2015

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) publishes a report into missing and murdered Indigenous women in BC, a result of more than two years of study. The IACHR has concluded that the problem is nation-wide, and says it “strongly supports the creation of a national-level action plan or a nationwide inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls,” in consultation with Indigenous peoples. The report’s conclusions run counter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s suggestion last August that the issue should not be viewed as a “sociological phenomenon” but rather, simply, as crime.

January 13, 2015

Federal parties have nominated just over half of the candidates in the upcoming October 2015 election, with women making up only a third. The Conservatives have so far nominated 34 women and 141 men (175 total), and the Liberals 65 women and 117 men (182 total). The NDP are bucking the trend, nominating 54 women and 52 men (106 total). (News sources failed to mention the Green Party.) Women currently make up only 25 percent of elected MPs—18% of the Conservative caucus, 24% of the NDP caucus, and 23% of the Liberal caucus.

January 1, 2015

Immigrant “Express Entry” system comes into force, giving “skilled” immigrants with a job offer from a Canadian employee prioritized (and expedited) selection for permanent residency. It is just the latest step by the federal Conservatives to redefine immigration largely in economic terms.

Year in Review

Christmas comes early on Parliament Hill. Members of Parliament are off this week on their holidays—and whenever the government is on break it’s something of a reprieve for the rest of us, too. It’s also a good opportunity to look back at all that’s been done, which unfortunately for us means looking back at all the damage that’s been done.

I’ve been keeping track of all the policy changes and other antics that catch my attention, over the course of this second session of the 41st Parliament, and have compiled them on a separate page of this blog (which I’ve called “A government play-by-play,” for lack of a better title). I’ll be doing the same thing throughout 2015.

A government play-by-play: Fall 2014

This session was perhaps not as horrific as some others—there was no widespread gutting of environmental legislation or refugee policy, no tossing of science libraries into garbage bins—but surveying the past few months can be a depressing activity regardless. It doesn’t help that our environment minister has returned just in time for the holidays from the latest UN Climate Change Conference, having helped secure yet another useless agreement.

The last few months were dominated less by new legislation than by Supreme Court challenges to previously introduced legislation (including those involving prostitution, refugee health care, Indigenous rights and jurisdiction, and voting rules)—and of course by the Conservative government’s appeals of each of these. We’ve also entered the last push until election time, which means money being splashed around in a variety of ineffectual ways (or, as with income-splitting, which actually increase wealth inequality). More on this, I’m sure, in the months to come.

Let’s change the conversation

I have written a fair amount about refugees, for reasons that are easy to explain. These are ordinary people who, by virtue of plain bad luck or in some cases from sticking to their convictions, have been forced into unimaginably vulnerable positions, often into extreme danger—their needs so immediate as to even negate attempts at pity. They are also a warning system of sorts to a complacent world: you know something truly awful is going on when people start fleeing their homes and everything they know. And so when we turn our backs on them it strikes me as a particularly deplorable affront to our common humanity.

Well, we have been turning our back on them a lot lately—or at least our government has, and so, too, the rest of us by association. This month we did it again.* I have tried writing about this particular item a couple of times, but I can’t seem to find the right words. Not that this time it’s any more or less deplorable than anything else we’ve done, it’s just that it’s all beginning to feel absurd. How do we talk rationally in the face of such irrational behaviour? How do we talk sensibly about the nonsensical? How do we talk about compassion in the face of such contempt? It becomes an exhausting and utterly depressing game of catch-up.

For a long time I have avoided the elephant in the room. And the elephant is this: that our government hates refugees, plain and simple. I’m a fairly reasonable person—it is important for you to understand this. I choose my words carefully, and I am not prone to hyperbole. But this is the conclusion I have come to. Our government hates refugees, and they are doing a heck of a job convincing us to hate them, too.

We have let them convince us about a lot of things. We have learned that refugees are not using the correct, legal channels to enter our country. That they aren’t playing by the rules. That they are jumping the queue (indeed, that there is a queue). That some deserve assistance and some do not. That alarming numbers are fraudsters, even criminals. That they are taking advantage of our generous system. That they are a drain on our economy. That they receive better health care than Canadians. That cuts to their benefits are not only justified but will save us money. That our old system was threatening to make us the doormat of the world. That Canada is taking in its fair share of refugees.

Flat out lies. All of it. Each one is a big fat lie.

But the problem with exposing lies is that it doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. It is getting us nowhere because the government is controlling the conversation. They have taken control of it, in fact, systematically and deftly. And here we are, running around, trying to defend a system as it falls apart around us.

We need to control the conversation and turn things around. We need to set the agenda. This is not a discussion about who deserves what. And there is no economic argument. These things aren’t even relevant. It’s like trying to explain the religious significance of a Fudgsicle. It is irrelevant and it is absurd to do so.

Our response to refugees must instead come out of, and be a part of, a discussion about who we want to be—as national and global citizens, as members of community, as moral and ethical beings. Who do we want to be? Who do we really want to be? What kind of a society do we want to live in? What values are important to us? Do we, on a fundamental level, want to be governed by greed, or by compassion? The essential equality of all human beings and our responsibility to each other—these need to be the touchstones against which all policy is tested. Not economic benefit, not merit, not fear. Those are just Fudgsicles.

When we go to court to prevent pregnant women and young children from receiving medical treatment, we cannot, must not, ask ourselves if it is worth spending our money on them. It is imperative that we ask ourselves, instead, if we really want to push people into even more vulnerable and marginalized lives. If it is worth putting their lives at risk. If it is worth dismissing their basic humanity.

This has be our approach to anyone who is marginalized, whether a refugee, or Indigenous, or suffering from a mental illness, or driven into poverty or crime or addiction, or of a gender that confuses us or an ethnicity that frightens us.

We cannot think in terms of “us versus them.” It is a cancer. Refugees are not merely refugees—they are human, and they are just like us. It is a very simple concept that we can’t seem to get through our frighteningly thick skulls. If we cannot help them, then we are incapable of helping ourselves, because the two are fundamentally interchangeable.

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{side notes}

Earlier this November, the federal Conservatives made an astoundingly reckless gamble, risking—and narrowly avoiding—being found in contempt of court. Why? Because they’ve refused to comply with a Federal Court order to reinstate health care for refugees. Earlier in the year the court deemed the Conservatives’ gutting of the refugee health care program “cruel and unusual,” and unconstitutional, and ordered the policy reversed. The Conservatives responded by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money to appeal the decision. They eventually agreed to comply (temporarily, pending the appeal), and to be fair they did restore some of the cuts. For the most part, however, they were just lying through their teeth. The only restored some benefits to some categories of refugees, quite selectively.

The government’s breakdown of what they restored and what they didn’t is a bit wonky, so I made up my own. For starters, mine actually indicates the three main categories of refugees. The government, insisting on preferential treatment to the bitter end, begins their breakdown with the two categories of resettled refugees, then tucks their least favourite category (the main one, ordinary refugees) further down the list, calling them “Non-designated country of origin refugee claimants.”

An attack on our democracy and our values

Last week Canada suffered an attack in our nation’s capital, at our very centre of government. It was an attack on both our democracy and our values as Canadians.

No, I am not talking about the shooting that left one soldier dead. That attack was horrendous and violent, and much has been and should be said about it. Our leaders have expressed resolve not to let that attack change our nation, but the truth is, Canada has already changed.

The day after the shooting, the government resumed sitting, and the Conservatives tabled their latest budget bill. It was yet another omnibus budget. This may hardly seem newsworthy, but it needs to be said again and again: the Conservative’s omnibus budget bills are nothing short of an affront to our democratic system. The Conservatives have made a habit of stuffing their budgets with a vast array of non-budgetary items, ensuring that none get the scrutiny they deserve and require. Debate in the House is limited, and the only examination a budget gets is from a finance committee, which for obvious reasons is inherently ill-equipped to scrutinize unrelated matters.

Prior to the Conservatives taking power, budget bills hovered in the range of 50 to 120 pages. The controversial 2012 omnibus budgets weighed in at 425 and 443 pages—the latter, it was noted, being roughly the length of Crime and Punishment (my partner suggests War and Peace as more apt, given that no one can get through it). This most recent omnibus budget surpasses those two, at 458 pages.

Pity the poor refugee

Buried somewhere in those 458 pages is a change to how Canada treats its refugees—to once again make things more difficult for them. There is currently a safeguard in place to allow refugee claimants to access social assistance, in that provinces (who administer social assistance) are not allowed to impose a minimum residency requirement for eligibility. The omnibus budget bill will remove this safeguard, opening the door for provinces to deny refugee claimants much-needed financial assistance during the months or years that it takes to have a claim accepted.

For refugees who come here with few, if any, resources, social assistance is one way of ensuring that they integrate into society and do not remain marginalized. It is a humanitarian and compassionate measure that we as a nation put in place deliberately. Why did we do this? Because we believed in not just equality of opportunity but the value and dignity of every person and the right to a decent, prosperous life. We believed that it was important to help our neighbours, no matter their place of origin, and to build inclusive, supportive communities.

These are Canadian values, or at least they should be.

After Wednesday’s shooting, Prime Minister Harper addressed the nation, saying that attacks “on our institutions of governance are by their very nature attacks on our country, on our values, on our society, on us Canadians as a free and democratic people who embrace human dignity for all.”

He was not talking about what I wish he was talking about.

What’s wrong with being radicalized?

At times of violence and fear, we search for words to describe what has happened and why it has happened, and what kind of person could be responsible; words to describe victims and perpetrators and motives. The more this discussion becomes politicized, however, the more meaningless and empty these words become; the more open to manipulation and the more useful for justifying actions and overreactions. The word “terrorism” comes to mind, a word that journalist Glenn Greenwald has pointed out is “utterly devoid of objective or consistent meaning.”

Much has been said lately about “homegrown terrorists,” as well as “radicalized” youth, and it is the latter word to which I am taking issue. Both government and media have taken to talking about “radicalization” in discussions about violent extremism. This, however, is a misappropriation of the word, something I find troubling as both someone who works with language and who is political active.

If asked, I’d be comfortable identifying as a radical myself, and would be happy to talk about my own process of radicalization. Many of my friends have also been radicalized. I’m not talking about religious extremism, however. Being a radical is, in fact, a proud political tradition, and a proud democratic tradition. I admire past and current activists, trade unionists, feminists, abolitionists, and the like, who were and are, themselves, radicals.

The word “radical” suggests deep convictions toward political change. It suggests political dissent, and a critical resistance to and suspicion of political traditions and conventions. Radicals believe in the necessity of a fundamental shift in how we view our societies and each other, so that we may live in healthier, more egalitarian communities.

Misappropriating the word “radical” is a means of doing the exact opposite: of not just promoting and prioritizing the status quo, but actively suppressing political dissent. By corrupting and demeaning the word “radical,” we are corrupting and demeaning a proud tradition of progressive—and yes, radical—political change.

Romania now safe for Roma, apparently

The Conservatives have added five new countries to its arbitrary list of countries from which it doesn’t want to receive refugees—known as Designated Countries of Origin (DCOs). Now included is Romania, a nation known for its systemic discrimination of the Roma. In Canada, refugee claimants from DCOs are given less time to prepare a refugee claim and face faster deportation. They are also denied the right to an appeal and denied basic and emergency health care, available to other groups of refugees.

Former Citizen and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney introduced the DCO list in 2012, in a bill that also scrapped plans to include human rights experts in a refugee board consultation committee, opting instead for arbitrary powers for the immigration minister. The DCO list was ostensibly created to speed up the refugee claim process, which has become backlogged due to understaffing at the refugee board. A major motivation for the list was the proportionally large number of Roma refugees coming to Canada—refugees the Conservatives have consistently labelled “bogus” and accused of taking advantage of our “generous” refugee system.

The list is curious. It is supposed to include “countries that do not normally produce refugees, but do respect human rights and offer state protection,” according to Immigration Canada’s website. However, included on the list are such countries as Hungary, from which the majority of Roma claims are made, and the Czech Republic, another major source country. Both countries are well-known for their systemic discrimination of the Roma.

According to a 2012 report from Human Rights Watch: “In Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, the situation is even more alarming, with violent attacks and anti-Roma rhetoric and little progress towards ending housing and school segregation.”

Canada has slapped visas on the two other EU countries singled out in that report—Bulgaria and Romania—a measure known to efficiently and effectively deter refugees. As well, a month after Hungary was added to the DCO list, in January 2013, the Conservatives ran a publicly funded billboard campaign in the Hungarian city of Miskolc to discourage Roma from making refugee claims in Canada.

The Roma face persistent discrimination and marginalization—including physical violence and forced evictions—in the very countries we claim are free from this sort of behaviour. We are not just turning a blind eye to the widespread suffering of the Roma, we are actively participating in it, and allowing their home states to act with impunity.

Canada has made it known, yet again, that it doesn’t welcome Eastern Europe’s most vulnerable. But it’s not like we don’t want any Eastern Europeans: the same day that Romania was added to the DCO list, the Conservatives also launched a Business Express Program for Romania and Bulgaria, making “legitimate travel” quicker and easier for the more well-off. Lucky them.