Could Canada become a Police State?

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Are the dire predictions of George Orwell’s terrifying novel “1984” finally catching up with us? It could soon be so, if two controversial new bills become law.

Before the heat of summer sets in, our federal government plans to rush through Parliament Bill C-11 (which deals with immigrants) and Bill C-16 (dealing with charitable organizations). If either, or both, are passed into law, we could see Canada inch its way that much closer to becoming a police state.

What do these two legislations have in common?  First, both involve a complex, hybrid three-way system of law enforcement agencies, politicians, and the justice system. Both allow secretly-obtained evidence to be used against the accused, thus denying them a fair trail. Both deny the accused any right of appeal.  In short, both make a mockery of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. No wonder civil libertarians are raising legitimate concerns about them!

Bill C-11 compromises the civil rights of Canada’s permanent residents by giving unrestricted, secret police-style deportation powers to federal immigration officials. Many immigrants to this country, whether they come from Eastern Europe or the developing world, fled here from oppressive military regimes, or corrupt totalitarian governments in their countries of origin. Now Bill C-11 imposes the permanent threat of unaccountable deportation on them, and offers virtually no chance of appeal. It is dangerously reminiscent of a police-state mentality.

Over the decades, immigrants — so many of whom became full citizens at their earliest opportunity — have helped to build this country. And Canada will need millions of new residents over the coming century if we are to maintain our economic prosperity in light of an aging population and low birth rate. Canada simply cannot afford now to tarnish its global image as a country of welcome to immigrants, where all can fully utilize and trust our justice system, and where all are protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Both the Canadian Bar Association and Amnesty International, have said that Bill C-11 is ominously “draconian” in its proposed form. Bill C-16 is no less threatening. If passed into law, its legislation will allow agents of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to notify the federal Solicitor General and the Revenue Minister if they conclude that a charity registered under the federal Income Tax Act is raising money for terrorists.

If the federal ministers support this finding, the process of stripping the group of its charitable status would begin without delay. What is truly alarming about all this is that CSIS can provide its information to a court of law in secret — in the interests of “national security.” Canada is trying to pass such a law after signing a United Nations agreement last year on suppressing the international financial backing of terrorism. Government officials say the number of charities suspected of being fronts for terrorists is small. But the fact remains that any accused charity among the 80,000 or so registered in Canada, would be denied a fair trail under the pretext of ill-defined and emotionally charged terms, such as “international terrorism” and”national security. “Neither term (or others like it) should ever be invoked to arbitrarily deprive Canadians and their organizations of basic civil and human rights. We must be vigilant as well to ensure that no individual or group is subjected to guilt-by-association prejudices that would compromise their freedom to support genuine, legitimate humanitarian causes, no matter how unpopular.

A growing number of people worry that for political reasons alone, the new legislation may be used to target Arab and Muslim immigrants and their charities more than other ethnic and cultural groups. Their fear is driven by the fact that CSIS relies heavily on intelligence services offered by foreign agencies, who themselves may be biased against the organizations and individuals about whom they are reporting.

More than 40% of the world’s refugees, as well as its poorest and neediest people, live in Arab or Muslim nations. In many of these countries, local governments are involved in violent acts against what they consider to be violent political enemies. While it is not the business of Canadian immigrants and charities to help foreign governments or opposition movements to advance their political agendas, these conflicts have resulted in some compelling situations of need; and regardless of how they are caused or perpetrated, no Canadian should be prevented from helping the victims out of purely humanitarian motives.

The technique of investigative “profiling” that would be used by intelligence agencies in targeting suspected immigrants and charities, is most troubling. Because there is a pervasive cultural stereotyping in North America that often equates Arabs and Muslims with terrorism, Canadian Arab and Muslim immigrants and their charitable organizations are almost certain to be prejudicially scrutinized by those acting under the power of Bills C-11 and C-16.

Canadian Arab or Muslim residents, immigrants and charities will definitely pay the highest price for this newly proposed closed process. It is already happening in the U.S. In a recent editorial, the Washington Post conceded, “Sometimes it’s hard not to sympathize with complaints by Arab Americans that they bear the brunt of anti-terrorism enforcement in this country.” The spectre of C-11 and C-16both becoming law makes such words sadly prophetic.

Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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