NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden addressed students at a Toronto private school via video link on Monday to warn about the perils of being complacent as the government makes sweeping changes to Canada’s anti-terrorism laws.
“I would say we should always be extraordinarily cautious when we see governments trying to set up a new secret police within their own countries,” Snowden said in a livestream feed from Russia. He made reference to Bill C-51, legislation tabled by the Conservative government days earlier.
More than 900 students attended the talk titled, “Privacy vs. Security: A Discussion of Personal Privacy in the Digital Age” hosted at Upper Canada College. Nearly 1,400 watched the live broadcast online.
Snowden urged the audience to be adept at lining up facts versus rhetoric with emergency legislations born from times of “fear and panic.” He added though Canada is not unique in its anti-terrorism laws and surveillance programs, it’s important to be critical toward political arguments championing their necessity.
“Once we let these power get rolling it’s very difficult to stop that pull through,” Snowden said. “So I would say that we need to use extraordinary scrutiny in every society, in every country, in every state to make sure that the laws we live under are the ones we truly want and truly need.”
Journalist Glenn Greenwald was also on hand for the keynote via conference call.
Using ‘fearmongering’ as vehicle for legislation
Despite the sharp uptick in terrorism rhetoric after two Canadian soldiers were killed within days of each other last year by “radicalized” attackers, the former Guardian journalist says a Canadian’s real-world chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is “infinitesimal.”
“If you are a Canadian citizen, you have a greater chance of dying by being struck by lightning; or by going to a restaurant and eating a meal that will give you an intestinal disease; or by slipping in your bathtub, hitting your head on the ceramic tile than you do dying in a terrorist attack,” said Greenwald.
He criticized what he sees as the Conservative government’s tactic of using fear to untether the weight of public scrutiny to push the anti-terrorism measures into law. “Your government continuously hypes the threat and tells you that unless you give it more and more power it will be incapable of saving you from this threat,” he said.
“And this fearmongering is a very dangerous, yet very effective form of persuading people to submit to things you otherwise wouldn’t submit to."
New anti-terrorism measures ‘more about politics’
On Friday, the Harper government tabled its much-anticipated anti-terrorism legislation designed to give Canadian security and intelligence services more powers and more flex from the RCMP.
If passed into law, changes would see the standard of evidence needed to obtain warrants lowered. Police would also be given authority to extend the amount of time they can detain someone without charge if that person is suspected to be involved in terrorist activity.
“Jihadist terrorism is not a future possibility, it is a present reality,” Harper said at the announcement. “It seeks to harm us here in Canada, in our cities and in our neighbourhoods through horrific acts.”
The measures are intended to curb nine interpretations of “activities that undermine the security of Canada” — including a broadly-worded clause criminalizing any “interference with the capability of the government of Canada in relation to intelligence, defence, border operations, public safety, the administration of justice, diplomatic or consular relations, or the economic or financial stability of Canada.”
But the omnibus legislation isn’t bringing peace of mind to one prominent Ottawa-based human rights and civil liberties lawyer.
Paul Champ told The Hill Times the election-year timing of the bill utilizes it as a “political wedge issue of sorts” that has already tempered NDP and Liberals reaction to be “in kind” than “taking a principled stand on civil liberties.”
“I think it’s clear both from the manner of the prime minister’s announcement, and unfortunately the response of the opposition parties, that this bill is far more about politics than public safety,” Champ said.
Reporters were supplied information about the anti-terror bill in a controlled media briefing a day before the legislation was announced by the prime minister at a Toronto-area community centre.
Harper was joined by Justice Minister Peter MaKay, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, and associate National Defence Minister Julian Fantino at the Jan. 30 event.
“They’ve been creeping over that line from surveillance to operational for some time,” Champ said. “Now we see it confirmed in legislation.”
With files from The Canadian Press
Read a copy of Bill C-51 here: