Credible Threats, Appropriate Responses, and C-51

Today as I was jogging, I listened to a fascinating documentary on CBC’s show Ideas called Conflicted Cities. I highly recommend it. It was originally posted last October, but I found that it spoke directly to Bill C-51, which passed this week.

It talked about the shift in conflict, away from nation-vs.-nation fighting on open battlefields and toward rebels and militias fighting in cities. It looked specifically at the Al-Shabaab attack on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya in September 2013, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks in Mumbai in 2008, and at how different nations have responded to such threats. Here are some notable points from the documentary, and then I’ll talk about how they relate to C-51.

Conflicted Cities

  1. The shift to cities as battlegrounds is at least partially in response to the ways we’ve changed warfare. For example, we now have radars that can see below foliage, which means that we can target militias hiding out in the forest with drone strikes. Cities are much safer places for them now because of this. Another technology brought up was social media: the Mumbai attackers coordinated their attacks with amazing precision using Twitter.

A point about the shift from national armies to rebel militias and terrorist cells that the documentary didn’t make, but seems clear to me, is that most of the warfare in the past few decades has been in nations that have either a very weak national government, or none at all. This is also largely thanks to us: Western intervention, while done with excellent intentions of saving lives and bringing democracy, has led to many changes in government and the further destabilizing of already unstable regions. In the absence of a central power and army, militias and other armed groups form. Afghanistan is a good example: after the US used Afghanistan to fight a proxy war against Russia in the 1980’s, they more or less left it devastated. The fighters who were trained and supplied by the US, including Osama bin Laden, maintained their militias and organizations, but the lack of centralized power allowed the Taliban to move in. When the US and Canada returned to fight Al Qaeda, we ended up spending a decade fighting the Taliban. The mission lasted so long because pulling out without first installing a government with the power to protect its people would have led to a violent power struggle between various armed groups for control of the region. At the same time, the US invasion of Iraq and subsequent arrest and execution of Saddam Hussein created a power vacuum that led to years of violence between different groups within Iraq, and now to the rise of the Islamic State, which has filled the power vacuum. And now we’ve joined the fight in Iraq. If we are able to defeat ISIS, will the people of Iraq be able to elect a stable government? In any case, it’s no wonder we fight militias and terrorists instead of national armies – the “nations” we’re fighting in aren’t much of nations at all anymore.

  1. There isn’t much that we can do to stop this kind of attack, but we need to feel like we’re doing something. The documentary producer talked about visiting a different shopping mall in Nairobi now, and how entering the mall required having his car and bag searched. He said how hollow it felt, being searched by an guard and knowing that this guard couldn’t actually stop an attack like the one on the Westgate mall in 2013. Those terrorists had planned their attack well, and in spite of the fact that the Westgate mall was already well guarded, four armed men were able to hold it for several hours and kill 62 people, injuring 120 others.

Increasing security in visible ways is usually the first response to incidents like this, whether or not those security increases are useful. Airport security is a prime example: it changes regularly, tightening up suddenly whenever there’s an international incident, and then decreasing slowly over time as people get irritated by the number of restrictions and airports get less and less efficient at moving passengers through. We haven’t been able to bring outside liquids or gels onto a plane except in tiny quantities ever since a bombing plot was discovered in 2006 which would have involved several terrorists smuggling liquid components of a bomb onto a plane separately in order to be combined during the flight. The plot was discovered and no such bomb was ever made, but now the entire world has to squeeze out half a tube of toothpaste before boarding a plane, and for the most part we feel good about it because it looks like we’re taking security very seriously. Unfortunately, many responses to these threats (which are real) do more harm than half a tube of toothpaste.

  1. Over-policing and over-surveillance are not just ineffective, but they can be harmful. The documentary pointed out that the UK, which has the world’s largest closed-circuit security camera system, has found that it doesn’t actually deter or stop crime. It does help them to solve crimes after the fact, but it doesn’t actually keep people safer. At the same time, there’s plenty of evidence that shows that over-surveillance and over-policing results in a general distrust and disrespect for police and government, which may actually increase crime.

The documentary pointed out that some governments are militarizing their police forces, or even calling in the army or national guard to act as police forces, when dealing with militias or organized crime that they can’t control. In the US there’s actually a program in which the US military sells its old equipment to police forces. The ongoing situation in Ferguson, Missouri is a good example of what happens when a police force is militarized, and it’s not something anyone should try to emulate. Militarized situations can get out of hand quickly, and some governments (Jamaica was mentioned briefly) end up using artillery within their own cities, putting civilians at risk. It’s no wonder that, in this age of warfare, military deaths are extremely low and civilian deaths are extremely high.

  1. We’re pouring billions of dollars into security to deal with terrorist threats in our cities, but climate change is a much bigger threat. The documentary pointed out that most major cities in the world are port cities at risk from the tropical storms and hurricanes that happen more frequently and violently in a warming climate. The devastation of New Orleans in hurricane Katrina, and the damage to New York from Sandy, were minor compared to the effect they would have had in other places with less infrastructure and support and higher populations. If Sandy had hit Malaysia, 20 million people would have been under water. New York is one of the first cities to plan for climate change, with a multi-billion dollar fund; if more governments were to put the money into addressing climate change that we’re currently putting into anti-terrorism security and wars, we could do much to address climate change and protect people around the world from a much larger threat than terrorism could ever be.


  1. Going back to the first point about the changing nature of war, C-51 comes as a response to the Parliament Hill shooting, which itself was done explicitly in response to the presence of Canadian troops in Muslim countries. Canadian, US, and British troops have been on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Pakistan, more or less continually since 2001, and the civilian death toll has been high, particularly in relation to drone strikes and air strikes. C-51 is a response to a threat of our own making, and an attempt to catch up to this new style of warfare that we’ve helped create (against enemies we’ve helped create).

  2. There isn’t much in C-51 that can actually do much to make us safer. Elizabeth May brought this up over and over again. This clip is really worth watching, but I’ll summarize a few points. First, the bill includes a lot about sharing information between government agencies, which is a great idea; but this bill doesn’t actually require that they do so, and the way it’s set up is clumsy. Second, the bill intends to deal with radicalization, but it does so by isolating perceived radicals, which would not enable a community to address radicalization itself (and as Elizabeth May points out, radicalization often happens in prison – C-51 would put more radicals in prison, but has no provision to prevent radicalization that occurs within prisons). Third, this bill claims to require judicial oversight before allowing government agents to violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms(!), but it actually doesn’t.

All of that to say that this bill is all sizzle and no steak. Terrorism is a real and credible threat, so we need to be smart about the ways we try to address it. This bill was rushed through (as usual for this government) in an attempt to look like the government is doing something to protect Canadians.

3.&4 Over-surveillance and over-policing is already having negative effects on Canadians. Remember the G-20 protests, which led to over 1,000 people being arrested and held for a few days without charge, with almost all of them never being charged? Remember the protests at Burnaby Mountain in relation to the Kinder Morgan pipeline planned to run through it, and the police harassment that followed? There are many other examples of ways the government has quashed dissent that were either illegal or nearly so; C-51 would legitimize those actions and others like them, without judicial oversight. A government agent would only need a good hunch that someone was a terrorist – and “terrorist” isn’t very well defined. The definition in the bill includes anyone who participates in civil disobedience in relation to “critical infrastructure”, which includes pipelines or proposed pipeline routes. There are also harsh penalties and expanded powers in relation to “propaganda.” So environmentalists and First Nations bands are effectively being labelled as terrorists because we’re willing to stand up and say that climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism and a bigger priority than corporate profits. In fact, leaked RCMP documents show that environmentalists are already considered terrorists. This undermines the credibility of the government with a significant portion of its citizens, and poses a threat to those citizens who are now able to be spied on, harassed, and stripped of their Charter rights by a government whose ideology they oppose.


Terrorism is a real threat that has changed the world, and we should have legislation in place that allows our law enforcement agencies to work together effectively to deal with it. C-51 is not that legislation. It’s a rushed bill made to look like we’re doing something; it poses a greater threat to Canadians that terrorism itself does; it does little or nothing to make us safer; and it funnels resources and attention away from greater threats. Consider that when you’re voting this Fall: all Conservative and Liberal MPs voted for this bill, in spite of massive public opposition to it. Vote for someone who will inform you about the bill’s strengths and weaknesses and ask you what you think about it.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

Jeff Wheeldon

The Politics of Courage

Yesterday I attended the anti-C51 protest at Winnipeg’s City Hall, and was incredibly encouraged by what I saw there. Hundreds of people crowded in front of City Hall, many carrying signs, some carrying flags representing Canada, a few different First Nations, the Pirate Party, and at least four unions. There were speakers from the Green Party, the NDP, and even the Communist Party; Aboriginal nations, Amnesty International, UWinnipeg Student Union, CUPE, and the Raging Grannies, among others. There were English and French, Jews and Christians and Muslims, and people of every race and age, all united around our rejection of Bill C-51, dubbed “the Anti-Terrorism Bill” by the Conservatives, but called “the Secret Police Bill” by Elizabeth May (and “an act to monitor and suppress the Raging Grannies” by Bruce Hyer). This was just one of dozens of rallies across the country. All of the pictures below were taken by me at the Winnipeg rally – I am not a professional photographer by any means, but I hope they capture the energy of the event.

Winnipeg Rally
At Winnipeg City Hall

What is this bill, and why is it so problematic? There are technical problems with the bill, but let’s talk about the foundational problem: it is a reactionary bill, responding to fear with control instead of courage. (This is a big bill, a bigger issue, and I’ve been working on this all day through many distractions and illness, so please forgive any disjointedness in what follows.)

NDP MP Pat Martin
NDP MP Pat Martin

Fear of Terror

In the past October there were two attacks within days of each other. In one attack in Quebec, a man drove his car into two members of the Canadian Forces, killing one of them. Two days later, a lone gunman shot and killed a member of the Canadian Forces in Ottawa, before making his way into the Parliament buildings. Both of the attackers were killed in shootouts, so we lack the ability to question them or get a better understanding of their motivations and connections. A short video from the Ottawa shooter explains that what he was about to do was in response to Canada’s military activities in Afghanistan and the impending re-invasion of Iraq. Here’s the full transcript of what he said:

To those who are involved and listen to this movie, this is in retaliation for Afghanistan and because Harper wants to send his troops to Iraq.

So we are retaliating, the Mujahedin of this world. Canada’s officially become one of our enemies by fighting and bombing us and creating a lot of terror in our countries and killing us and killing our innocents. So, just aiming to hit some soldiers just to show that you’re not even safe in your own land, and you gotta be careful.

So, may Allah accept from us. It’s a disgrace you guys have forgotten God and have you let every indecency and things running your land. We don’t, we don’t go for this. We are good people, righteous people, believers of God and believing his law and his Prophets, peace be upon them all. That’s my message to all of you in this, Inshallah, we’ll not cease until you guys decide to be a peaceful country and stay to your own and I-, and stop going to other countries and stop occupying and killing the righteous of us who are trying to bring back religious law in our countries.

Thank you.

Both of these men were recent converts to Islam, and we were all quick to make connections to the largest violent Islamist movement in the world right now, ISIS. While these men may have been inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), the organization’s name tells us a lot: ISIS understands itself as a state, not an international terrorist organization. They also understand themselves as ushering in the apocalypse, which they understand at least partially as their armies defeating Western armies. You can read more about them here. The two attackers in Canada were not members of ISIS, even if they were inspired by them. The Ottawa shooter was indeed a self-described “Mujahedin”, or one engaged in struggle (jihad), but he was previously known to police as someone who also struggled with mental illness and drug addiction. So even if his attack was inspired or even ordered by ISIS, it was not an organized terrorist attack – it was a lone gunman with issues with our government’s foreign policy.

Amnesty International speaker and friends
Amnesty International speaker and friends. These Muslim women stood up for the rights and liberties of their fellow Canadians.

Since then, our government has kept “violent jihadism” (to quote Stephen Harper) in the front of our minds, and drafted C-51 as a direct response to what they describe as a global terror threat. The last time our public safety policy got this big of a makeover was in the wake of 9/11, when Al Qaeda’s successful attack on the US, killing thousands, made us all more aware of the power of a global terrorist network with cells in many countries planning organized attacks around the world. Then, as now, new legislation gave powers to law enforcement agencies that in effect sacrificed the freedom of Canadian citizens for the sake of security. We’ve had almost fifteen years to reflect on whether or not that was necessary; we’ve never used many of the provisions put in place at that time, lowered our airport security after the initial increase, and while we’ve simply gotten used to some restrictions there are many Canadians (even most) who believe that freedom is not worth sacrificing for the sake of security. That sentiment hasn’t changed with these new attacks, despite the government’s fearful rhetoric. The big difference between then and now is that Al Qaeda really was planning organized attacks around the world, while ISIS is summoning all “true” Muslims to help establish and grow the Caliphate or state. ISIS actually considers people like the two attackers in Canada to be lesser, as they did not respond to the call to serve and live in the Caliphate. Lone wolf gunmen responding violently to Canada’s foreign policy are not likely to be picked up by spy agencies tracking the movements of terrorist organizations, so this “response” is both unwarranted and misdirected.


When I say that the response is misdirected, it’s not only because the attacks that inspired C51 weren’t by a terrorist organization. It’s also because it’s inherently difficult to define a terrorist organization. We use the word all the time, but rarely with any particular definition in mind other than a vague sense of attacking people and causing fear in the general population (which I’m sure has always been a result of attacks). The Criminal Code of Canada describes terrorism as

  • (b) an act or omission, in or outside Canada,

    • (i) that is committed

      • (A) in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause, and

      • (B) in whole or in part with the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public, with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act, whether the public or the person, government or organization is inside or outside Canada, and

    • (ii) that intentionally

      • (A) causes death or serious bodily harm to a person by the use of violence,

      • (B) endangers a person’s life,

      • (C) causes a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or any segment of the public,

      • (D) causes substantial property damage, whether to public or private property, if causing such damage is likely to result in the conduct or harm referred to in any of clauses (A) to (C), or

      • (E) causes serious interference with or serious disruption of an essential service, facility or system, whether public or private, other than as a result of advocacy, protest, dissent or stoppage of work that is not intended to result in the conduct or harm referred to in any of clauses (A) to (C)

I’ve bolded some of the text to show how fine the line can be between the definition of terrorism and the definition of political protest. If it weren’t for the caveat at the end of section E, a sit-in or roadblock at a pipeline would be considered an act of terrorism, especially if it were carefully organized. I’m very pleased that this caveat exists; civil disobedience and protest are part of the history of political action going back thousands of years, and if legitimate political engagement is limited to what happens inside Parliament, our society is in trouble.

A Tree Hugger, NOT a Terrorist. A Raging Granny.
A Tree Hugger, NOT a Terrorist. A Raging Granny.

C-51 muddies the waters a little bit. This is from the first section of the bill:

“activity that undermines the security of Canada” means any activity, including any of the following activities, if it undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada or the lives or the security of the people of Canada:

(a) interference with the capability of the Government of Canada in relation to intelligence, defence, border operations, public safety, the administration of justice, diplomatic or consular relations, or the economic or financial stability of Canada;
(b) changing or unduly influencing a government in Canada by force or unlawful means;
(c) espionage, sabotage or covert foreign-influenced activities;
(d) terrorism;
(e) proliferation of nuclear, chemical, radiological or biological weapons;
(f) interference with critical infrastructure;
(g) interference with the global information infrastructure, as defined in section 273.61 of the National Defence Act;
(h) an activity that causes serious harm to a person or their property because of that person’s association with Canada; and
(i) an activity that takes place in Canada and undermines the security of another state.
For greater certainty, it does not include lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression.

Here we see terrorism listed alongside other offences, all of which are lumped together by C-51. Most of these other offences would satisfy most of the definition of terrorism already provided by the criminal code – so are they terrorism, or separate offences to be treated the same as terrorism? Again, I’ve bolded the sections that cause me concern. While I appreciate the inclusion of the caveat regarding lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression, who decides what is dissent and what is terrorism?

The Raging Grannies led us in a rousing chorus of "Harper is a dic...tator"
The Raging Grannies led us in a rousing chorus of “Harper is a dic…tator”

The government likes to pull out the argument that law-abiding Canadians don’t need to be concerned if the law is heavy-handed. Former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews famously said, of a bill that would allow the government to spy on Canadians ostensibly to control child pornography, that “you’re either with us or with the child pornographers.” If the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, the good guys should be able to be as tough on the bad guys as necessary, and only bad guys would object, right? But who are the “bad guys”?

This government has a history of describing environmental activists as terrorists. Apparently, so does the RCMP. Government ministers have made statements referring to people who oppose pipelines as being the pawns of “jet-setting celebrities” (referring to American environmental activists like Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio, who’ve commented on and visited the oil sands in northern Alberta); does that count as “foreign influenced activities”? Republicans in the US have made the argument that the Keystone XL pipeline is necessary for North American energy independence and security, and our government agrees; does that mean that Canadians who oppose it are responsible for undermining “the security of another state”? Our government certainly believes that Canada’s economy depends on the oil sands, so are we who oppose their expansion to be considered a threat to “the economic or financial stability of Canada”? And as the link above clearly shows in leaked RCMP documents, oil pipelines are certainly considered to be “critical infrastructure” and protests and civil disobedience around their construction is absolutely considered to be “interference.” All of this means that when an indigenous Nation blocks a road on their traditional territory to stop construction crews from building a pipeline through it, it will be considered, if not a terrorist act, at least akin to it and to be treated like one.

Winnipeg Rally 7

Last week a Simon Fraser University professor and climate scientist who had protested the Kinder Morgan pipeline project through Burnaby Mountain took a photo near the project site. A few days later RCMP phoned his daughter looking for him, noted that they were aware that he had been at the protests, and asked if he had been taking photos near there. All the RCMP will say about it is that they must follow up on all complaints, which shows that Kinder Morgan noted that he took a photo and filed a complaint, and the RCMP considered it important enough to follow up on. If taking photos near a future pipeline site is considered interference with critical infrastructure, then journalists and scientists may be severely limited in their ability to do their jobs.

So while C-51 is ostensibly aimed at terrorist groups, it is worded in such a way as to more easily label activists, and even scientists and journalists, as terrorists. And pipeline companies are using these blurred lines to co-opt the RCMP (and potentially CSIS) as their own security force, intimidating their opponents. This co-opting is unfortunately a predictable by-product of the Conservative government’s emphasis on control: once you start trying to control people, you must always increase the extent of that control in order to simply maintain it.

A concise sign, and... the back of Manitoba Green Party Leader James Beddome's head?
A concise sign, and… the back of Green Party Manitoba Leader James Beddome’s head?

The Politics of Control

Perhaps the biggest distinction between the Conservatives and the other parties is that the other parties all look for the causes of society’s problems, and place emphasis on different issues, causes, and approaches to dealing with those underlying issues. It appears that the Conservatives are not interested in what causes society’s problems at all, and are only interested in controlling outcomes, and people. So for example, when it was suggested that we try to understand what motivates terrorists (after an alleged plot to blow up a VIA train was stopped), Stephen Harper said “this is no time to commit sociology.” The Harper Conservatives instead responded with more rhetoric about fighting the war on terror, in spite of the fact that many terrorists claim to be acting in response to Canadian military action in the Middle East (see above). Similarly, Harper has consistently refused to allow an investigation into the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada, suggesting that all incidents should be investigated individually and treated as a criminal issue rather than acknowledging the broader trend that links them all. This government has worked systematically to remove the ability for our judicial system to use understanding and judgment when dealing with criminal justice, imposing mandatory minimum sentences and reducing the ability for parole boards to release convicts who have actually been rehabilitated. And we don’t have time to even get into the ways they’ve undercut science in this country, seemingly largely because it interferes with their fossil-fuel agenda. No, understanding issues is far less important than controlling them.

Marching down Main Street before turning onto Portage. A big thank-you to the Winnipeg Police for stopping traffic for us! They were courteous and professional.
Marching down Main Street before turning onto Portage. A big thank-you to the Winnipeg Police for stopping traffic for us! They were courteous and professional.

So rather than doing important study on the theology and politics of ISIS, we simply label them a terrorist organization and assume that they’re similar to, or in cahoots with, Al Qaeda (they’re not), and then write terror legislation that seeks to fight a terror organization like Al Qaeda through the same means that the US has been using for the past decade. C-51 amps up CSIS (our spy agency) by giving them more power and less oversight, similar to what the US did with their spy agencies in their so-called Patriot Act. Since then it has been revealed that the NSA has been collecting digital data on every American, not just those considered security threats, and the vague wording of C-51 would allow CSIS to do the same to Canadians. The US was also caught using torture, and their own investigations into this found that the information gained from torture was unreliable and of no strategic value, yet C-51 would allow Canadian law enforcement agencies to get a warrant to search or arrest someone based on information gained from torture. It does not sanction Canadians using torture, but we’ve already been in trouble for turning Afghan detainees over to other forces we knew would torture them; C-51 would give us license to do so, and then use the information gleaned from that torture for our own purposes.

In the middle of the intersection of Portage and Main, Winnipeg.
In the middle of the intersection of Portage and Main, Winnipeg.

I can’t stomach the idea of Canadians being accessory to torture, but perhaps even more troubling is that in most cases Canadian law enforcement under C-51 wouldn’t even need to get a warrant to arrest someone – they only need to have a reasonable suspicion that detaining someone would prevent an act of terrorism. Once again, if terrorism is defined as above it would justify preemptively arresting protesters. This would justify actions like the mass arrests made during the G20 protests in Toronto, an event for which the Conservative government shelled out $1,000,000,000 for security and which led to charges being filed against police and allegations of human rights abuses when protesters and bystanders were detained for days without charge.

The strategy behind C-51 is to know what everyone is doing, identify every possible threat, and eliminate threats through incarceration. Not only is this not possible to pull off, but steps taken in the attempt would seriously infringe on the rights and liberties of Canadians.

Turning onto Portage, one flag stood out.
Turning onto Portage, one flag stood out.

The Politics of Courage

The politics of control issue from the politics of fear. The Harper government can only institute Bill C-51 in good conscience if they have the support of the people they represent. Their rhetoric has been fearful, and fear is infectious: the more Stephen Harper talks about the imminent threat of Islamist jihad, the more concerned Canadians get. Fear also weakens our willpower and dulls our confidence, so that even those who would argue strongly for civil liberties can be convinced to give those liberties up for the sake of security when they perceive an imminent threat. Never mind that you’re statistically far more likely to die from being struck by lightning than to die from a terrorist attack, or that the attacks we’ve actually experienced may not have been connected at all to any particular terrorist group; if there’s a sense that we’re under attack, it seems almost treasonous to argue against increased security. At least, that’s what fear tells us.

What’s ironic is that our government may be more responsible for the fear Canadians are experiencing than any terrorist is. In order to combat terror, our government instills fear. In order to oppose those who disagree with how we use our freedoms in our liberal society, our government imposes restrictions on us. It doesn’t have to be this way though.

Fear is the enemy.
Fear is the enemy.

There is another response to terrorism. Instead of a politics of fear, we can and should embrace a politics of courage. That’s one of the reasons I’m so encouraged by the thousands of Canadians who turned out to anti-C51 rallies across the country: they’re showing our government, the terrorists, and the world, that we’re not afraid.

When the French magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked by terrorists because they had satirized Mohammed the first thing they did in their next issue was satirize Mohammed again. Dozens of satirists around the world stood in solidarity with them, satirizing terrorism. Personally, I think that it was unnecessarily disrespectful for them to satirize Mohammed and antagonize about a billion people in the first place, but the point here is that in spite of many of their staff being killed for exercising their free speech, they immediately responded by exercising their free speech again. They responded to terror with courage, not with fear, and they inspired people around the world to do likewise.

Canada used to inspire hope in people around the world, being a leader in peacekeeping and aid and international cooperation. Now our government is more concerned with inspiring fear in its own people, so that it can then turn around to comfort us by way of tighter security and regulation on our private lives. But when I look at the thousands of people across Canada who stood up and raised their voices yesterday, I realize that Canada can still inspire hope, with our without the support of our government. May we soon have a government that is inspired to hope by its people.