Canadians have united to reject fear and stop Bill C-51. Will the government listen?

It's rare in Canadian politics to see intense public interest in government legislative proposals -- let alone to see Canadians take to the streets in the tens of thousands to protest a piece of legislation by name.

Yet that's exactly what has happened in the case of Bill C-51, which critics, including The Globe and Mail's editorial team, say will undermine basic democratic values and lead to the creation of a "secret police force" in Canada.

In the space of a few short months since Bill C-51 was announced, hundreds of thousands of people have taken action to stop it: signing petitions, writing letters to local newspapers, phoning and writing to their member of Parliament, and hitting the streets in nationwide demonstrations in over 70 communities across Canada.

It's not hard to see why so many people are concerned. Canada's top privacy and security experts warn that this legislation will undermine democratic rights Canadians have enjoyed for generations. For example, according to professors Craig Forcese and Kent Roach, who have conducted a detailed legal analysis of the legislation, Bill C-51 will:

  • Undermine Canadians' privacy by allowing widespread information disclosures among government agencies, and by giving the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) access to personal information held by up to 17 government departments. Even Stephen Harper has admitted that these kinds of dragnet surveillance measures are ineffective.
  • Chill free speech online by criminalizing what is loosely defined as the promotion of "terrorism offences in general" and even showing "reckless disregard" for whether a particular post may encourage a violent act. As Forcese and Roach point out in their testimony to the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence, "The new speech crime in our view violates freedom of expression because it reaches well beyond the sort of speech that threatens actual violence."
  • Dramatically expand the powers of CSIS, without any commensurate increase in oversight or review measures. The legislation even allows CSIS to obtain a warrant permitting them to break the law and contravene the Charter rights of Canadians. Under C-51, such warrants would be granted in a secret hearing, with no representation from the target of such measures, and with no right of appeal.

So it's no surprise that Canadians are worried. What is unprecedented however, is the sheer number of Canadians taking part in the campaign to stop the bill. My organization, OpenMedia, has been campaigning on privacy issues for years -- but in all our time, we've never seen a public outpouring quite like this.

Our joint efforts are clearly having an impact: public opinion has swung dramatically against Bill C-51 since it was announced. Support has plummeted, with a recent Forum Research poll finding that 56 per cent of Canadians now oppose Bill C-51, with just 33 per cent in favour. The business community, civic society groups, and principled conservatives have all spoken out.

Sadly, there's no sign that the government is listening. At the time of writing, the government seems determined to use its majority to ram the legislation through the Commons in the coming weeks.

What's even more worrying is that this reckless, dangerous, and ineffective legislation will further undermine Canadians' privacy rights -- rights that have already been seriously damaged by the government's Bill C-13, passed late last year, and by the government's failure to address the mass surveillance activities of its Canadian Security Establishment (CSE) intelligence agency.

This government has left Canadians with a stark privacy deficit, and we'll all need to work together to address it. We need a co-ordinated plan to roll back mass surveillance, and restore our traditional privacy and democratic rights. You can learn more about how we plan to do so by joining the Protect our Privacy coalition at OurPrivacy.ca

David Christopher is communications manager with OpenMedia, a community-based organization that works to safeguard the possibilities of the open Internet.

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