Oct. 22 vs. Oct. 23: The terror debate officially begins

Is the House of Commons up to the task?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper hugs the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons on Thursday October 23, 2014 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper hugs the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau, in the House of Commons on Oct. 23, 2014, in Ottawa (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Within his first hundred words to the House of Commons, on the occasion of starting debate on the government’s anti-terrorism act this week, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney had invoked the events of Oct. 22.

“Let us not forget the Oct. 20 attack in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and the attack that happened right here in our national capital,” he said on Wednesday afternoon. “Those incidents are etched in our hearts and in our memory and show us how serious these issues are for us as a country.”

Another 125 words and he was back to Oct. 22. “Like many people here in the House, I vividly remember the events at the end of October,” Blaney said. “I remember I was sitting in the caucus room when we heard gunfire and the terrorist being killed just steps away. Frantic moments followed, but we regrouped and have since reacted moderately.”

So far, yes, we and this Parliament seem to have refrained from completely losing our minds or ourselves. But the real test of our reasonableness, and our seriousness, has only just arrived in the form of Blaney’s C-51, the so-dubbed “Anti-terrorism Act, 2015” (the date necessary to differentiate between this effort and the last time Parliament found itself trying to comprehensively parry the threat of terrorism).

That Oct. 22 is invoked now should prompt the first question: If Bill C-51 had been the law of the land last fall, is it plausible that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s assault on Parliament would have been prevented? It is actually the government’s official position that, “It would not be appropriate to speculate on whether the provisions in this Act could have stopped this attack.” (Note: There has been some suggestion that the attack in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu might have been pre-empted.)

So then what is the relevance of Oct. 22 to the debate about C-51? What are we to remember here about Oct. 22? The fear and the anger we felt? The vulnerability it exposed? The hypothetical it seemed to make real?

If C-51 will not guard against another Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, we might also face the possibility that Oct. 22, or something like it, will happen again. And we might think about what we’ll do then. Are we setting ourselves up to simply increase the powers of our national security agencies each time a new threat appears? And, if so, to what end?

Blaney listed off the bills his government has already passed: the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, the Combating Terrorism Act, the Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act. “Unfortunately, when it comes time to vote on these measures,” he lamented, “Conservative members often stand alone while others play politics.”

The New Democrats across the aisle laughed. Probably everyone should laugh whenever a politician accuses someone else of playing politics.

Blaney described his new bill as “robust,” but built of “common-sense measures.” It would give our government “21st-century tools” and eliminate both “unacceptable silos that put Canadians at risk” and “needless roadblocks” that “have the potential to cost human lives,” but with “robust safeguards” and “rigorous external review.”

These are all very good notions—with some possibly worthy ideas within—but the details matter. And it is on the details—not the general notion of evil in the world, nor the basic desire to do something to counter that evil—that this bill should pass or change.

On those details and in detail, Craig Forcese and Kent Roach, two law professors with some experience in this field, have already produced nearly a hundred pages of analysis across three papers. Would it be expecting too much to think the government should be able to respond in roughly commensurate detail to the concerns expressed by these two professors? In the current era of political communication and discourse, yes, it probably is. Should it be too much to imagine that a government would meet these concerns directly? Certainly not.

There is still time for the details to be tested. In the meantime, we might dismiss obvious failures of rhetoric and logic.

“I fundamentally reject the argument that protecting our security threatens our freedom,” Blaney said. “Indeed, there is no liberty without security.”

Such stuff has the benefit of seeming to say something profound without saying much of anything at all. Protecting our security how? What kind of liberty? You will similarly hear just about any politician, of any political stripe, these days, say we must accept that we can have both a healthy environment and a strong economy. It is lazy sloganeering, meaningless without explanation.

“Canadians I have spoken with about this legislation understand that their freedom and security go hand in hand,” he continued. “The fact of the matter is that our police and national security agencies are working to protect our rights and freedoms, and it is jihadi terrorists who endanger our security and would take away our freedoms.”

If we must pick sides between Team CSIS and Team ISIS, I suppose we have to go with the former. But it’s not much of a choice.

“I would reiterate the important point that often seems to be forgotten around this place,” he added later, “that it is the jihadis who represent a threat, not our own police officers and those protecting us.”

For the purposes of defending oneself in a political arena, it is no doubt useful to demand such comparisons. But we’d be unthinking to accept such a set-up. Those charged with protecting us are our allies up until they unreasonably trespass on our civil liberties—something Conservatives might better appreciate if the issue were gun ownership.

If we are to trust the state to exercise its powers responsibly, we should be able to trust that its exercises are subject to a preponderance of scrutiny. It is on this point that the opposition parties have pushed the government most directly, and on which the government has illogically resisted.

It was on Monday, in the process of forcing its motion on the security of Parliament Hill through the House, that the government invoked the United Kingdom and Australia to argue that we, too, needed an integrated security to protect our national legislature. And it was in his own speech on Wednesday that Steven Blaney referenced the examples of “the security intelligence agencies of our closest allies” to argue that the mandate of CSIS must be expanded to include the disruption of threats. And yet, moments later, Blaney argued that we should stick with “our Canadian model” of reviewing the actions of our national security apparatus—dismissing the possibility of giving Parliament a direct role in holding CSIS to account.

Even if the government had a more consistent attitude toward looking abroad for guidance, its argument here would be flawed on two counts. First, because while the government points to the Security Intelligence Review Committee as a sufficient instrument of oversight, SIRC itself is careful to note that it does not actually provide oversight, but rather the altogether different function of review—something Liberal MP Wayne Easter was quick to note after Blaney had finished his prepared remarks. Second, insofar as SIRC does act as a check on the government’s national security activities, it is said to lack the necessary resources and purview to do that job sufficiently.

(As it pertains to Justice Minister Peter MacKay there is at least a third flaw in the government’s stance: MacKay was the member of a committee of parliamentarians in 2004 that recommended establishing a special committee to oversee the operations of our national security agencies. When Easter presented the justice minister this afternoon with the contradiction between MacKay’s position then and the government’s position now, MacKay pointed out that Easter’s Liberal government had failed to implement that recommendation of 2004. “So hypocrisy knows no bounds with the member opposite,” MacKay declared, proving at least that no act of terror will ever destroy irony.)

“I was proud to work on that bill,” Blaney concluded on Wednesday afternoon. “Unfortunately, as we might expect, we have heard the opposition members engaging in a kind of rhetoric this afternoon, but I am certainly open and hope that we will have an open and fair debate and sound questions on this important bill for the safety of Canadians.”

Within two hours of that expression of hope, one Conservative MP would lob the phrase “hug-a-thug” at the NDP and another would passively assign the words “soft on terror” to the Liberals.

After Blaney had taken questions and comments from the House, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair took his turn. Speaking deliberately, he seemed to want to fill this moment—rising “as leader of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition to indicate that the New Democratic Party of Canada will oppose Bill C-51.” The Opposition leader’s address was an imperfect demonstration of the opponent he aims to present. It was an appeal to heaviness and seriousness and skepticism and quibbles, tangentially meandering into food safety, railway regulation and drunk-driving laws.

The New Democrats have figured out how to use the government’s tendencies against it. If the Prime Minister had been serious about this, the NDP leader suggested, he would have announced this bill in Parliament, not at a “campaign-style announcement hundreds of kilometres away from Parliament.” The official Opposition had asked for specific answers, Mulcair noted, but received insufficiently straightforward answers. And setting up a complaint for the inevitable use of time allocation, Mulcair urged the government not to “railroad” this bill through Parliament.

(When that motion of time allocation was moved Thursday morning, the New Democrats proceeded to slowly vote their way along the roll call, suggesting C-51 might soon be subject to the sort of procedural war that was waged against the so-called Fair Elections Act.)

Mulcair did not quite mount a comprehensive prosecution of the bill, but he pointed to several major issues for the debate ahead: Is the new mandate for CSIS too broad? What of reasonable dissent? What of oversight? What about efforts to prevent radicalization?

Following the NDP leader’s speech, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s statement was more simple, but more or less fine. While the Conservatives are comfortably in favour and the New Democrats are comfortably opposed, the Liberals are attempting to split the difference, so Trudeau offered some praise for C-51 before pointing to three specific points of concern: the need to “narrow and clarify” the new powers for CSIS, the need for proper oversight via a committee of parliamentarians, and the necessity of including sunset clauses and mandatory review.

(It should also be noted that Green Party Leader Elizabeth May’s unanswered question of Tuesday still hangs over the proceedings.)

Both Mulcair and Trudeau had moments of useful eloquence. But, contra Blaney’s barb, Mulcair would accuse the government of playing “political games” and Trudeau would beg the government to put “partisanship” aside, and while those are timeless appeals that might seem easily supportable, such stuff is only really useful if it amounts to seriousness.

It is on that score that Parliament is tested: Is Parliament up to the task of this bill?

“There are few things that we have ever looked at in this House that are more important than what we are looking at right now,” Mulcair ventured. “It deserves serious analysis.”

Explained Trudeau, “Fundamentally, our discussion of Bill C-51 is about what we are trying to protect. In that discussion, we should at all times be doing our best to protect the fundamental tenets of our democratic system: responsible government, and Parliament as the trustee of the people.”

These are good words  the leaders should be held to.

It was the NDP leader who invoked not Oct. 22, but Oct. 23. “Canadians came together in grief and defiance the day after the Parliament Hill shooting,” he said, “pledging that violence would not, even for a day, halt the work of our democracy.”

There were hugs that day, but if there was unanimity, it surely did not extend far past very basic principles: that it was good to be alive and that Parliament was better a scene of debate than of potential death. The work that went on that day—the work that was celebrated—is imbued with partisanship and politics. Those are means to the ends of debate, accountability and good government—serious things amid unseriousness.

That much involves not merely limiting the possibility of something like Oct. 22, but making great effort to limit the possibility of harms committed in the name of security.

That is not a false choice, but a real test. If, five months or five years or 15 years after C-51 becomes law, some law-abiding citizen has his rights violated without sufficient cause, will this Parliament be able to say it did everything possible to minimize the chances of him suffering that wrong? If, as a result of C-51, we lose some valuable part of the society we were on Oct. 23, will the men and women who stood and cheered that day be able to say that they passed this bill with clear eyes and a full understanding of the consequences? Will they believe they left a truly impressive system of checks and balances in place to carry on the need for scrutiny?

Or will any losses or harms simply be written off as the price of some vague sense that we are safer?

The legislature that was attacked is the legislature that must answer those questions. If there was a feeling of victory in the House of Commons on Oct. 23, it was in defiance, but perhaps also out of a sense that the chamber and its people and its work and its meaning mattered. We should hope now that the legislature can demonstrate a seriousness we can be thankful for.

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