Given his well-known animosity toward those who get in his way, Stephen Harper seems like the last person to trust with a secret police force.
But a secret police force is exactly what the prime minister will soon have, as a result of Bill C-51, the government’s “anti-terror” legislation currently making its way quickly through Parliament.
Even the pro-establishment Globe and Mail has come out strongly against Bill C-51 in a series of sharply worded editorials, accusing Harper of using the threat of terrorism to “turn our domestic spy agency into something that looks disturbingly like a secret police force.”
Canada already has extensive laws permitting police to disrupt the activities of terrorists. But this new bill goes beyond terrorism. Although it officially permits lawful dissent, it allows our national security force, CSIS, to carry out undefined “measures” against perceived threats, including anything that interferes with Canada’s “economic or financial stability” or the country’s “critical infrastructure.”
The problem is that a wide range of legitimate groups involved in advocacy on environmental, First Nations, labour and social justice issues might well be regarded by the Harper government as a threat to the country’s “economic stability” or “critical infrastructure.”
Harper has already shown a willingness to use the power of the state to harass groups challenging his agenda, particularly his desire to develop Canada’s fossil fuel reserves. In 2012, he established a special $8 million program that imposed intrusive tax audits on charities in connection with their political activities. The program appeared to be directed exclusively at groups critical of Harper’s agenda, including the David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Foundation, Amnesty International, PEN Canada, the United Church and Canada Without Poverty.
Bill C-51 would give the government far more police power to wreak havoc on these legitimate groups, and to do so behind a veil of secrecy, with little oversight.
Indeed, even without Bill C-51, Canada’s security forces have shown a willingness in the past to spy on and disrupt the activities of peaceful groups. Bill C-51 will be a flashing green light for them to be more intrusive and disruptive in the future.
The past behaviour I’m referring to goes beyond the already well-known examples of RCMP wrongdoing (illegal wiretapping, barn-burning, etc) that were investigated by the McDonald inquiry in the late 1970s.
Rather, I’m referring to other more serious RCMP behaviour that surfaced briefly at the McDonald inquiry but was then largely ignored by the commission and the media.
It’s worth taking a minute to highlight that behaviour, because it involves tactics that have long been used by police forces around the world to disrupt legitimate dissenters and ensnare them in problems with the law, thereby discrediting them and their causes in the eyes of the public.
Consider, for instance, the case of Warren Hart, a black FBI agent who was recruited by the RCMP in the 1970s. Working undercover, Hart spent four and a half years infiltrating and spying on black and First Nations groups in Canada.
Hart’s undercover work went well beyond spying. He also acted as an agent provocateur.
The groups he infiltrated were focused on peaceful political consciousness-raising, but Hart repeatedly urged them to resort to violence – to heavily arm themselves (with guns he offered to provide), to blow up police stations, police cars and an embassy, and to prepare themselves for racial violence, according to those who came into contact with him at the time.
Jean Greatbatch, now a Vancouver mediator, was at the time the women’s commissioner of the University of Toronto student council, which was working with the campus Black Students Union to bring American activist Angela Davis to Toronto to speak at Convocation Hall as part of the “women of distinction” series.
Hart attended the planning meetings for the Davis visit, posing as a black activist. But unlike all the students at the meeting, he was always talking about the need for guns, according to Greatbatch.
She remembers Hart suggesting that a man with a high-powered rifle be positioned behind the curtains at Convocation Hall in case someone tried to shoot Davis while she was speaking. Others, including First Nations activist Vern Harper, related detailed accounts of Hart infiltrating their groups and urging them to be more militant, to carry weapons and perform acts of violence.
Ironically, Hart’s role as an RCMP spy only came to light because he publicly complained when the RCMP ended his contract in 1975. But the McDonald inquiry showed little interest in investigating his role as an agent provocateur, even after the National Indian Brotherhood presented the inquiry with an affidavit detailing Hart’s offer to supply AK-47 rifles to native groups in BC.
More recently, in 2010 the RCMP dispatched poseurs and agents provocateurs to infiltrate the ranks of anti-war groups in the lead-up to the G20 in Toronto.
It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Stephen Harper overseeing a security force that sends agents provocateurs into protest groups, particularly those winning public support for opposing his agenda. It appears that the RCMP is already in lock-step with the government in regarding environmental activists as a national threat.
In an internal report leaked last month, the RCMP warned of “a growing, highly organized and well-financed anti-Canada petroleum movement that consists of peaceful activists, militants and violent extremists who are opposed to society’s reliance on fossil fuels.”
And who knows how wide the net might be cast? What if CSIS suspected a group like Canadians for Tax Fairness might promote civil disobedience as part of its campaign for higher taxes on the rich, thereby encouraging them to move their money offshore and damage Canada’s “economic stability.”
If that sounds far-fetched, let’s not forget how paranoid and vindictive the Harper government has shown itself capable of being toward those it considers adversaries. One of the charitable organizations threatened with a special tax audit over its political activities was a little birdwatching group, the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists, that had publicly criticized government policy on honeybees.
Linda McQuaig is an author and journalist. She ran for the NDP in the Toronto Centre by-election in 2013, and plans to seek the nomination again for the upcoming federal election.
5-0 on C-51: the experts weigh in
1) Amnesty International executive director Alex Neve says C-51 “contains deeply worrying challenges to human rights protection, including the unprecedented proposition of empowering Federal Court judges to authorize violations of the Charter Of Rights.”
2) Ziyaad Mia of the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association says the bill “leaves open the prospect of years of time-consuming and expensive court challenges after the fact.”
3) Nicole Filion, coordonnatrice de la Ligue des Droits et Libertés, says C-51 “is complex and very technical legislation that proposes two entirely new statutes and extensive amendments to three others. Each of those should receive thorough consideration.”
4) Sukanya Pillay, general counsel and executive director, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, notes that C-51 “has come forward without any accompanying review of existing laws, policies and resources. To allow so little time for scrutiny of its provisions runs counter to the expectation Canadians have that their elected representatives will consider legislation carefully before it is adopted.”
5) Ihsaan Gardee, executive director, National Council of Canadian Muslims says that “Given the disproportionate impact of anti-terrorism legislation in recent years on Canadian Muslims… such limited time for study by the committee offers scant opportunity for those views to be meaningfully shared with parliamentarians.”
firstname.lastname@example.org | @nowtoronto