Terror arrest shows Harper’s C-51 is overkill

Stephen Harper’s new Bill C-51 dangerously expands the powers and role of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), but at what cost?


The House of Commons

The arrest Tuesday of Awso Peshdary, 25, on charges of participating in and facilitating the activities of a terrorist group is bad news for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Say what?

Yep. The arrest shows that current laws and police investigative tools seem to be well-suited to engaging in the type of “preventative” anti-terror activity that Harper pretends is at the heart of Bill C-51, which would dangerously expand the powers and role of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), our domestic spy agency.

The courts will eventually decide whether Peshdary, 25, is guilty of conspiracy to facilitate a terrorist act, knowingly participating in the activities of a terror group and counselling a person to knowingly participate in a terrorist activity. Which is as it should be in a democratic society governed by rule of law. But in the Bill C-51 world, CSIS would be able to seek house arrest and electronic monitoring of people who aren’t even charged with terrorism crimes but who the state believes “may” commit them.

We’re only one step removed here from Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, the 2002 Tom Cruise sci-fi dystopia where prognosticators help police arrest murderers even before they can do anything. Even in that fictionalized world, however, the technology used to make these predictions is flawed and leads to some perverse consequences. One can only imagine what will happen in Harper’s script, where “a great evil has been descending over our world.”

Asked specifically last week if he thought the new legislation would have prevented the isolated attacks on soldiers in St. Jean sur Richelieu and on Parliament Hill last October, the PM had to admit he didn’t know. A better question would have been to ask what measures could have prevented those attacks, because isn’t that the answer we should all be seeking? And if C-51 isn’t the answer, why is it even on the table?


Optics. When you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s critical that you appear to be doing something, regardless of the consequences. That’s the Harper game plan and, unfortunately, Canadian opposition parties seem to be playing along out of fear that they will be branded as “soft on terrorism” if they don’t. So instead of attacking C-51 as legally unnecessary and an unjustified erosion of the privacy rights of Canadians, NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar is mumbling about the need for “commensurate oversight” of the new CSIS on steroids while the Liberals and even the Bloc Québécois are ducking their heads up their arses in the face of a bill that would create what many are calling a secret police force.

 The same people who just a few weeks ago were branding the Charlie Hebdo killings as an attack on the unassailable right to free speech are standing silent as the Conservatives move to criminalize speech when it is deemed to support anything the government thinks is pro-terror. They’re not even objecting to the vaguely broad terms in the bill — which technically isn’t even aimed at Islamic extremism but at anyone who might want to interfere with the ability of the Canadian government to maintain economic or fiscal stability.

If you don’t think the Tories will be ready and willing to turn those super-spy powers onto groups that are fighting the expansion of the Alberta tarsands (and its various pipeline, processing plant and transportation hub spin-offs), you haven’t been paying attention to how they’re using the Canadian Revenue Agency to crack down on charities whose political agendas differ from the Harper agenda.


Although police haven’t offered a shred of evidence that Martin Couture-Rouleau — the “radicalized” white-bread Quebecer who ran down and killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in a St. Jean parking lot last October — had any connection to known terrorists, here or abroad, they knew a hell of a lot about him and had sat down with Couture-Rouleau, his father and even the local imam to talk about his beliefs.

Even with Bill C-51, however, police would have been powerless to prevent the assault because they didn’t have evidence that Couture-Rouleau “may” commit a crime, only that he was exhibiting behaviour that his father and at least one local health official thought were signs of a mental breakdown. And that’s something that an overburdened Canadian health system is often powerless to treat or prevent.

The other Canadian attacker, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau — who police have also failed to show had any connection to an organized terror group — had a history of mental illness and minor crime as well. Again, there is nothing in C-51 that could rationally be argued would have prevented Zehaf-Bibeau from carrying out his lone-wolf attack on Parliament. However, there is a mountain of evidence that jurisdictional squabbles and jealousies between the various agencies assigned to protect the House of Commons and Senate were largely responsible for the ease with which an armed assassin gained access to a hallway just metres from caucus meetings of the majority and official opposition parties.

Yet C-51 sets up a similar dynamic and danger by essentially turning CSIS and the RCMP into parallel agencies, with the inherent rivalries and secrecies that spy-vs-spy intrigue entails. The battle for budgets and credit and the need to produce quantifiable results could easily push either agency to premature action or, worse, to withhold information in order to score a later coup.

The Canadian government already has all the investigative and legal tools it needs to monitor legitimate, verifiable threats to public security. Whether these tools are being used effectively is a question that’s certainly open to debate, but C-51 isn’t the answer.

So instead of arguing what new tools we need to put into the box, let’s focus our energies on learning to better use the ones that are already there.

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter