Bill C-51: Time for radical union action

By Nora Loreto

In 2002, Canadian citizen Maher Arar was deported to Syria. He was held until October 2003 and was tortured. An inquiry later found that information shared by the RCMP was used to enable his deportation and detention.

When Université Laval student Ahmed Abassi was celebrating his marriage in Tunisia in 2013, his student visa was cancelled abruptly and without explanation. He was then entrapped by an undercover FBI agent, arrested on suspicion of terrorism and detained in the U.S. for nearly a year.

Abassi charges that this could have only happened if Canadian officials shared information with American officials. Abassi can’t return to Canada to finish his studies even though all terror-related charges have been dropped.

Thanks to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, we know Canadians are under mass surveillance by state officials. Enter Bill-51, the Conservatives’ so-called anti-terror legislation. Many changes proposed by the anti-terror Bill C-51 seem to legalize what is very probably already happening.

For Indigenous people and communities, Bill C-51 represents nothing new. As the most criminalized and policed people in Canada, the anti-terrorism legislation simply looks like another attack following the traditions of forced starvation, the pass system on reserves, residential schools, forced placement of children into child assistance services and the prison system.

Communities or activists who question the very legitimacy of Canada or actively disrespect the tenuous sovereignty on which Canada is built are the enemies of this legislation. The very existence of people who do not accept the legitimacy of Canadian sovereignty is a threat to Canadian sovereignty.

How this legislation will be enforced is still an open question but it’s false to say that the only problem with the legislation is oversight, as many have argued. Instead, the path Bill C-51 sets forth is dangerous and, if the Conservatives are re-elected, will allow for more extreme forms of repression.

The legislation also adds extremely broad allowances for people to be detained or otherwise harassed: “12.1 (1) If there are reasonable grounds to believe that a particular activity constitutes a threat to the security of Canada, the service may take measures, within or outside Canada, to reduce the threat.” So, if a government official thinks you’re participating in an activity that poses a threat to Canada, they can “reduce” the threat. Use your imagination.

This legislation needs to be resisted, and it will be resisted, and people will be detained, their rights violated and their lives ruined. How can someone fight for Indigenous sovereignty and not undermine the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Canada? How can a sovereignist in Québec call for borders to be redrawn without undermining Canadian sovereignty?

If actions are carried out that threaten critical infrastructure (rail, pipelines, power stations etc.), or that damage property but that don’t hurt anyone, a person will feel the full force of this new anti-terror legislation, improved oversight or not.

The labour movement needs to start acting like the official opposition in Canada and confront Stephen Harper. Opposing Bill C-51 would be a good start; the Canadian Labour Congress hasn’t yet commented publicly. But labour leaders need to go beyond statements and actively resist the government to make it impossible for them to enact the bill.

Unions are in a privileged position on the Canadian left. Their resources and labour can grind the economy to a halt, a feat impossible for any other civil society organization. And while showing solidarity with those who will be most targeted under this legislation is important, opposing Bill C-51 would also demonstrate their opposition to the legislation for the threats it poses against labour too.

An illegal strike plus interference with critical infrastructure (which could be as simple as workers ceasing operations on Canadian railways) could result in the detention of union leaders and members alike under C-51.

Unions often remind people that they stand between democracy and totalitarianism. That, when they defend the right to free association and collective bargaining, they help to balance the totalitarian desires of extremist governments.

And it’s true but these kinds of reminders have to be followed by action.

Nora Loreto
Nora Loreto