By: Laura Keil
Can we legislate a good community? To what lengths should we go in the name of “safety?”
In a sweeping new bylaw, the town of Taber, Aberta has given police the power to break up groups of three or more people who gather in a public space, fine people for swearing and escort youth to their home if they ignore a nightly curfew.
A storm of criticism has walloped the town; people across Canada have ridiculed the Community Standards Bylaw, which legal experts have called unconstitutional.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right of all Canadians to “peaceful public assembly” as well as freedom of expression and association.
But in Taber, the bylaw allows police to break up peaceful groups of people if the officer “has reasonable grounds to believe the assembly will disturb the peace of the neighborhood.”
Simply “looking suspicious” could lead to your group being broken up. If that doesn’t lead to profiling I’m not sure what does.
And should you protest, even whispering a swear word could land you a $150 fine.
The Taber bylaw is not the only law making inroads on our Charter-entrenched freedoms.
It echoes a larger debate happening in Parliament over Bill C-51, the so-called Anti-Terrorism bill, which is also framed in terms of serving and protecting Canadians. If passed, Canada’s new law would give policing powers to Canada’s secret intelligence service at home and abroad (think CIA), expand the ability for the RCMP to detain people they think ‘may’ commit a crime, and arrest people they deem as “threats to the security of Canada,” based on as little as online comments.
Bill C51 gives government the power to order the removal of “terrorist propaganda” from the Internet. (It also allows a judge to order an ISP to “provide the information that is necessary to identify and locate the person who posted the material.”) The government may also imprison anyone who “by communicating statements, knowingly advocates or promotes the commission of terrorism offences . . . while knowing that any of those offences will be committed or being reckless as to whether any of those offences may be committed, as a result of such communication.”
In other words, stances critical of government foreign policy could land you in the cross-hairs of CSIS and imprisoned for up to a week by them without charge. Or charged under the bill with being “reckless” with your communications, a view that sounds paranoid but sadly isn’t, says Marni Soupcoff, executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation a non-partisan charity whose mandate is to defend the constitutional rights and freedoms of Canadians.
Soupcoff notes that Bill C-51 doesn’t just deal with statements that advocate terrorism; it also covers statements that “promote” terrorism. The person who made those statements doesn’t need to have known his words or images would lead to an act of terrorism – just that he or she was simply “reckless” with his or her words, words that could be “used” by someone out there to commit a terrorist act.
Wow. In addition to hate speech and speech explicitly inciting terrorism (which are both already illegal), the government has introduced a new bill which may as well be deemed the self-censorship bill. How can we discuss issues if we think a deranged person will use our words to do something bad? Words are not like guns. We can’t lock them up and keep the ammo in the safe. How can we keep words out of enemy hands? This will certainly prove difficult. Perhaps sign language could help – oh wait, that too is covered by the bill.
While our government claims home-grown terrorism is a “growing threat” I have yet to experience this threat first-hand – or second-hand or third-hand. Moreover, we already have laws to prosecute terrorism. Experts say it’s unlikely the bill would have helped prevent the terrorist attack on Parliament or on the military base last year.
It’s frustrating to deal with polls. We ask Canadians whether they think terrorism is a growing threat and the outcome is positive. The only problem is we forgot to compare their concern to the threat (growing or not) of the billion other ways we could die or be fearful.
A survey conducted for CBC News shows that while 2/3rds of Canadians think it is likely an attack will occur in Canada in the next five years, including 42 per cent who expect it will result in mass death and destruction, only nine per cent think terrorism and national security should be the top priority for federal politicians, behind unemployment (20 per cent), the economy (19 per cent) and health care (15 per cent).
If the Conservatives put out a survey asking Canadians if they are afraid of the growing threat of vehicle-moose collisions, I’m guessing (at least in this area) we’d say yes (moose kill more people than terrorists in Canada each year). And compared to the number of people who are fearful of unemployment and poor health care, the moose collisions are a drop in the bucket.
Moose and unemployment may sneak up on you, but they don’t wear balaclavas or release beheading videos (Moose have, sadly, beheaded many people). Moose just don’t have the propaganda to support their reign of terror. Besides, they’re so goofy-looking and, ostensibly, they’re just trying to cross the road.
The law pivots on the idea that someone else can make you feel fear. That we aren’t in control of our own feelings. Other people “inflict” fear on us and only the government can help us. Not a very empowered perspective and one that isn’t supported by rational thought. As Maclean’s columnist Scott Gilmore writes, the truth is terrorists are simply not very good at killing people. “There is a reason terrorists spend so much time making threats,” he writes. “Hiding in the Somali desert or Syrian ruins, they are separated from the West by armies, oceans and a trillion-dollar security industry. The only thing that can reliably reach us from there is menacing email. This is why terrorists mostly trade in fear.”
He notes there were an estimated 18,000 people killed by terrorists globally in 2013. Car accidents killed 70 times more. Only two people have died in terrorism attacks in Canada in the last 10 years.
Gilmore says it’s part of a “Fear economy,” one that politicians and the media both benefit from. There’s a simple way to debase the fear currency however. He gives an example: When they learned of an ISIS plan to overtake Rome, Italians responded in the best way possible: they laughed. They even provided traffic advice for ISIS to come into the city. They were calling their bluff, since it appears there is far more bluster than real threat.
It’s not just pesky columnists smug at their computers weighing in. I’ll quote Susan Rice, national security adviser to Barack Obama in a recent speech:
“Too often, what’s missing here in Washington is a sense of perspective. Yes, there is a lot going on. Still, while the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or during the Cold War … We cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism in a nearly instantaneous news cycle.”
Given the minute possibility of a terrorist attack, I can happily choose not to feel fear and as a result nothing in my life will change. Nothing. Unless of course I’m arrested for writing a satire mocking Canadian security.
It would be nice if our politicians stopped clawing back our civil liberties and instead got on to something that has actual positive impact. But given Bill C-51’s popularity in election-year polls among fearful Canadians, I have a feeling that’s unlikely.
I think I’ll do as the Italians, and laugh.