Terrorism in Canada: Improving national security should not come at the cost of of our civil rights

A Canadian Soldier salutes the hearse carrying the body of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo.
A Canadian Soldier salutes the hearse carrying the body of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo.

The murders of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu evoked an enormous outpouring of national grief. Many Canadians remain affected by both tragedies.

As both perpetrators are dead, no one will ever really know how much of the motivation was criminal, mental illness, substance abuse, religion, or some of each. If the motivation was primarily terrorism, it has had the opposite effect. Canadian values, such as respect for all members of the national family, seem stronger than ever.

What, aside from tightening security on Parliament Hill, at the monument and similar locations across the country, should be done to minimize the possibility of recurrence? There is a major risk of overreaction, such as occurred in Oct. 1970, when the separatist Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped British Trade Commissioner James Cross and strangled Quebec Labour minister Pierre Laporte.

Since 1914, The War Measures Act has allowed federal cabinets to govern by decree at times of perceived "war, invasion or insurrection, real or apprehended." In World War I, it was misused to imprison loyal Canadians of German, Ukrainian and Slavic descent; in World War II, it was abused to force into isolated internment camps equally loyal Canadians of origin in Japan and to confiscate their property.

The Act’s only peacetime use was when a state of "apprehended insurrection" was declared to exist in Quebec in 1970. More than 450 people were detained; most were later released without the laying or hearing of any charges. The handling of the crisis undoubtedly assisted the separatist cause in the province. Some of us felt then that invoking the Act was unnecessary because the search and arrest provisions of the Criminal Code were fully adequate to deal with the situation.

British historian John Acton, famous for his insight “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, also noted that the “fate of every democracy … depends on the choices it makes between these opposite principles, absolute power on the one hand, and on the other the restraints of legality and the authority of tradition.”

Canadian Maureen Webb’s compelling book, Illusions of Security, about post-9/11 security and civil liberties clearly sides with Acton:

Globalized mass surveillance and the pre-emptive model of security that promotes it threaten our essential liberty. They create a world in which we can … be blacklisted; dragged out of a line, our office, or our homes; presumed guilty; detained; tortured; not told the charges against us; denied the right to face our accusers … to know the evidence against us and the criteria by which we are being judged … Today it is Muslims and immigrants among us who are most in danger, but tomorrow, new groups could easily be targeted.

Changes in security landscapes in recent years have altered relationships between individuals and their governments in many countries. The major catalyst has been the growing link between pre-emptive surveillance and the assessment of risk to security.

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It's time to pull our heads out of the sand and attack the terrorist threats

Sue Halpern in the current issue of the New York Review of Books notes that the number of Americans under government surveillance could easily expand. As she puts it, an internet network that can “remind you to stop at the market for dessert is one that knows who and where you are … what you’ve been doing and with whom you’ve been doing it ... this is information we give out freely, or unwittingly.”

This past week, proposed legislation to boost the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to monitor, track and arrest suspected terrorists was debated in the House of Commons. The ISIS threat domestically probably reduced objections to the new authority. Steven Blaney, the public safety minister, assured MPs that there were “robust” safeguards in place to ensure that that the proposed new powers would not infringe on civil rights.

The bill would give CSIS larger surveillance power, enshrine its ability to operate at home and abroad, make it easier to share intelligence with allies, and grant anonymity to CSIS witnesses in court.

The aim of pre-emptive surveillance today is to analyze data to identify and predict danger, and pre-empt future activity. This involves the collection, processing and exchange of personal information, including financial transaction records, airline reservations and cell phone communications. Related businesses are legally obliged to collect, store and transfer personal data to governments.

Pre-emptive surveillance thus poses grave challenges to fundamental rights. Is it, as Franz Kafka wrote decades ago in another context, a “cage … in search of a bird”? While democracy can certainly be a shield for those wishing to use our freedoms to destroy us, a vigilant population, vibrant democratic institutions and constitutionally enshrined human rights remain the bulwarks of our personal and collective security.

(Photo courtesy The Canadian Press)

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.