Another man’s terrorist

In June 2011, Montreal police arrested a 61-year-old man and charged him under federal anti-terror laws.

In June 2011, Montreal police arrested a 61-year-old man and charged him under federal anti-terror laws. His crime had been to send a letter to the French-language newspaper La Presse, in which he made vague threats to “take necessary measures” to prevent hydraulic fracturing in Quebec.

The fact that the letter-writer tried to hide his identity by cutting and pasting words out of magazines did suggest a degree of criminal intent, but why terrorism? Why not a charge of uttering a threat?

When the state brings a charge of terrorism it engages a set of standards quite separate from those that constrain the criminal justice system. A terrorism suspect may be held longer without charge and without access to legal counsel. The burden of proof on the Crown is less stringent than the usual “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Even before charges are brought, terror suspects have fewer rights than those suspected of less political crimes, particularly in the way they can be spied on by police and security agents.

There’s an argument to be made that the right to due process is one of the building blocks of democracy, and can’t be tossed aside as soon as the state feels threatened. Since Sept. 11, 2001, it’s an argument that gets little traction in North America.

Governments have done such an effective job of exploiting fears over the World Trade Center attacks that they have been able to run roughshod over civil liberties with little resistance. It may be that the general public is comfortable with the trade-off if it keeps them feeling safe from genuinely terrifying attacks, but what happens when the definition of terrorism begins to slip?

According to Jeffrey Monaghan of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University, as reported by Stephen Leahy in last Thursday’s Guardian, “(Canadian) security and police agencies have been increasingly conflating terrorism and extremism with peaceful citizens exercising their democratic rights to organize petitions, protest and question government policies.” Specifically, the RCMP and CSIS regard critics of the oil and gas industry as “threats to national security,” even when they engage in nothing more than peaceful protests.

Canada’s anti-terror laws, forged in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, left anyone suspected of terrorism with almost no rights, but even in that heated atmosphere lawmakers had the sense to build in a sunset clause. In the last Parliament, while Stephen Harper still led a minority government, that sun set, and although the Conservatives did their best to keep it from happening, opposition parties voted to let the most draconian provisions die. In 2012, with majorities in both houses, the Conservatives introduced – through the Senate – Bill S-7, an act to amend the criminal code to reinstate the expired provisions of the anti-terror law.

When it becomes law, and there is little doubt that it will, S-7 will mean that a Canadian suspected of terrorism may be arrested without a warrant, held without charge for three days, and imprisoned for up to 12 months without being convicted in an open court. It will give the authorities the right to hold suspects without informing them of the case against them, and to spy on them in secret. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has studied the bill, and reports that “reintroduction of these sun-setted provisions adds no value to our law or to law investigation and enforcement … It cannot be emphasized enough that the effectiveness and necessity of these provisions have simply not been demonstrated … every major criminal terrorism-related incident in Canada since 2001 has been disrupted and prevented without the need for preventive detention or investigative hearings.”

If there is no law-enforcement imperative to reintroduce these punitive laws, why are they back? Is it simply that the Conservatives are into punishment? Or are they playing to their law-and-order base? Or could it be that, having set their sites on becoming “an energy superpower,” and having defined anyone who gets in the way of that goal as a radical environmentalist, an extremist, and a terrorist, they want these greater powers to harass their political opponents?

Consider: if you have signed an anti-fracking petition, joined a peaceful protest over oil-and-gas development in your community, or written a letter to the editor opposing explorations in a protected wilderness, you may already be under investigation as a threat to national security.

If you’re a member of an environmental organization – Monaghan’s report found that CSIS has a “fixation” on Greenpeace – your group may already have been infiltrated. If so, and if you’ve ever made a comment or joke in what you thought was private about the best way to dispose of, say, Syncrude, or Stephen Harper, you may already be a terrorist in someone’s eyes.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.