Bill C-51: Environmental Activists, Aboriginals Fear Legislation Will Tread On Rights

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OTTAWA - The federal government's assurances that its anti-terrorism bill will not be a licence to spy on activists have done little to calm the fears of aboriginal leaders, environmentalists and human rights advocates.

Several critics said Thursday they have reason to believe the legislation would be used to step up surveillance of protesters opposed to petroleum projects and other resource developments.

"We don't want to be labelled as terrorists in our own territories, our own homelands, for standing up to protect the land and waters," Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde told the House of Commons public safety committee.

Bellegarde indicated the bill would be challenged in the courts, saying the federal government did not fulfil its duty to consult Aboriginal Peoples.

The committee plans to hear more than 50 witnesses on the bill, introduced in response to extremist-inspired attacks that killed two Canadian soldiers last October.

The legislation would give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service the ability to actively disrupt terror plots, make it easier for police to limit the movements of a suspect, expand no-fly list powers and take aim at terrorist propaganda.

In addition, the bill would relax the sharing of federally held information about activity that "undermines the security of Canada."

Neither the new disruptive powers nor the information-sharing provisions apply to "lawful" advocacy, protest or dissent, but some fear the bill could be used against activists who demonstrate without an official permit or despite a court order.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney told the committee earlier this week such concerns were ridiculous, saying the legislation is not intended to capture minor violations committed during legitimate protests.

Roxanne James, Blaney's parliamentary secretary, used much of her allotted time during the Thursday committee meeting not to ask questions of the witnesses, but to reiterate Blaney's assurances.

There is strong reason to suspect the new powers could — and would — be used against those advocating for clean water, ecosystem protection and an end to climate change, said Joanna Kerr, executive director of Greenpeace Canada.

"We are very concerned that the draft legislation appears to target environmental and First Nation climate activists as a threat to security," she told the MPs.

Kerr pointed to the recent leak of an RCMP intelligence assessment, "Criminal Threats to the Canadian Petroleum Industry," that said those within the movement are willing to go beyond peaceful actions and use "direct action tactics, such as civil disobedience, unlawful protests, break and entry, vandalism and sabotage."

If an aim of the bill is to avoid targeting legitimate dissent, then parliamentarians "have an obligation to write the legislation so it cannot be used in that way," she added.

Recent examples show the government already takes a very wide view as to what constitutes a threat to Canada's security, said Carmen Cheung of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

"We need only to look at CSIS and RCMP monitoring of non-violent protests undertaken by First Nations and environmental groups," she told the MPs.

The bill's information-sharing provisions are "fundamentally flawed" and should not be enacted, Cheung said.

She echoed concerns raised by privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien that the scope of the warrantless sharing would be excessive and put the personal information of Canadians at risk.

In his written brief to the committee, Therrien said the bill could make available all federally held information about someone of interest to as many as 17 government departments and agencies with responsibilities for national security.

The legislation sets the threshold for sharing Canadians' personal data far too low, he said.

The information-sharing measures will effectively turn government employees into spies with no training in security work, said Paul Champ, lawyer for the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group.

"What does a tax auditor know about disrupting terrorism?"

Public inquires found that four Canadians, including Ottawa telecommunications engineer Maher Arar, were detained and subjected to torture in part because of improper information sharing by Canada with foreign countries, Champ noted.

"It can have devastating consequences."

The "major flaw" in the bill is the disruptive powers provision, which would allow the Federal Court to grant a warrant to CSIS permitting it to engage in actions that violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, said Ron Atkey, who served as the first chairman of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the body that keeps an eye on the spy service.

"This provision, in my view, is clearly unconstitutional and it will be struck down by the courts," Atkey said.

The powers and budget of CSIS have grown exponentially while the watchdog has been effectively "frozen in time," he added.

"The public has a right to be concerned whether SIRC can do the job going forward."

Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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