Limits on liberties should contain sunset provision

In 1985, Air India ‘Flight 182’ bound for India out of Vancouver International exploded over the North Atlantic close to Cork, Ireland. All aboard, 329 passengers and crew, perished through an act of terrorism committed by individuals in Canada who were known to police authorities but whose activities had not been stopped. (The terrorists’ mission had been to focus international attention on the demands by Sikh extremists that the Indian state of Punjab should be a Sikh homeland with its own national identity.)

More recently, in late October, two young men, acting independently but both certainly influenced by the terrorist methods of the radical Al-Qaeda organization and its counterpart ISIS (whose goal it is to create an Islamic state across borders in the Middle East) murdered two military servicemen during the same week: the first in Quebec, the second in Ottawa where the young man stood guard duty at the National War Memorial. This second incident had the added drama of the gunman successfully storming and entering the nearby parliament buildings, doubtless planning more mayhem, before he was brought down and fatally shot by security personnel, notably Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers.

These two misguided individuals were also known to police and security services but neither was deemed a terrorist. One of them, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the Ottawa gunman, had attempted to travel to Syria and his application for a Canadian passport had been delayed because he had a long criminal record and national security investigators were conducting a background check.

The perpetrators of the Air India bombing, Canada’s largest terrorist act, 30 years ago slipped between the cracks even as they planned the deed and a lack of communication, even mistrust, among Canada’s various security services has long been held accountable for this oversight whose consequences were devastating to so many families.

In the most recent cases, the two killers were not deemed to be radicalized to the extent that they presented a threat to public safety. Michael Zehaf-Bilbeau was thought to be mentally ill.

The Harper government’s proposed new bill, announced last week to beef up the Anti-Terrorism Act, will likely change all that. The fact that the Ottawa murderer had been applying for a passport to travel to Syria, coupled with his unstable mental health history, is an example of a situation where the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) could now pick him up and question him, without an arrest having to be made, and on no particular grounds other than the circumstances just described.

In the bill under consideration, CSIS agents would be able to intervene when they believe a Canadian could be moving toward radical ideologies. Agents could meet with the individual in question to advise him/her they know what his/her plans are and to advise him/her of the consequences of taking further action.

The bill will also lower the threshold for obtaining warrants to gather evidence and for police agencies to obtain recognizance orders or terrorism peace bonds for people they hold in suspicion.

It may well be that, had such measures been in place 30 years ago, the terrorist agents who eventually brought down Flight 182 could have been interrogated and would, at the very least, have then known that they were under surveillance.

Similarly, Michael Zehaf-Bilbeau’s double-threat of seeking leave to visit Syria and his unstable mental health history, when taken together, could be grounds for a warning from CSIS together with a process of interrogation.

At any rate, it is certainly events like these, particularly the murder of the soldiers last fall, that have encouraged the government to tell Canadians of its intention to come down hard on any threat of terror, even ones made in jest, according to Prime Minister Harper who, when questioned about the proposed legislation, noted that his government doesn’t plan on making exceptions.

Apart from everything else, this is certainly an issue tailor-made for this election year where the governing Conservatives can present themselves as the guardians against the jihadist threat to Canadians and dare any opposition party to disagree with them, at the risk of being branded soft on terrorism.

It’s an adroit political move and it does draw attention away from the fact that the national budget may not be able to be balanced this year, as promised, because of the decline in revenue at every level from petroleum products whose value is being diminished by internecine Middle Eastern tensions over which Canada has no control.

But domestic political issues aside, when we add the proposed measures that would enable CSIS and other security services to act more swiftly and with less due process, some would-be domestic jihadists may be encouraged to take a second look at what they are thinking, let alone planning.

In our editorial commentary in this space the week following the tragic murders last fall, the paper suggested that this was not the time to panic, that we need not be afraid of militant Muslims around every corner.

We still believe this is very much the case: the two unbalanced individuals who did those terrible deeds in late October were each of them sole actors. They were influenced by actions on the world stage, certainly, but other than that they were not part of any organized jihadist cell in Canada.

Parts of the revamping of the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Bill will likely be useful but not if they are used in a “reds under the bed” way (to reference a Cold War cliché when precisely this sort of paranoia was encouraged in both the USSR and in the West).

In October of 1970, following the Fédération de Libération de Québec (FLQ) terrorists’ kidnapping of Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s Minister of Labour and of British diplomat James Cross, the Trudeau Liberal majority government in Ottawa quickly passed the War Measures Act, supported by the opposition Progressive Conservatives but vigorously opposed by the third-party NDP.

To some extent, some of the proposed measures of Mr. Harper’s reinforced Anti-Terrorism Act echo the impositions of the War Measures Act 45 years ago. Mr. Trudeau wanted to ramp up fear and loathing of the Quebec terrorists (who, a week after the War Measures Act came in to force, did indeed murder one of their captives, Pierre Laporte) across the country and this was a useful way of accomplishing this end.

Mr. Trudeau, like Mr. Harper today, wanted Canadians to understand that the government he headed would take any and all measures against terrorism. In fact, Mr. Trudeau’s famous “just watch me!” quote in response to a reporter’s question about the extent to which his government would go in eliminating the terrorist threat lives on as one of his defining moments.

Perhaps Mr. Harper seeks a similar legacy.

But not then, as not now, do we as Canadians need to be encouraged to always fear our neighbours.

Certain aspects of the Anti-Terrorist Bill’s upgrades will be useful to CSIS and the Mounties in dealing with real threats before the fact. As noted, there may not have been an Air India Flight 182 tragedy had the authorities acted on what they suspected all those years ago.

But major security changes, that have the potential of impacting people who are not guilty of anything at all, must be subject to independent review at regular intervals.

Certainly, Canadians’ civil liberties must take a back seat to issues of true national security from time to time. In the case of the War Measures Act, that suspended historic rights such as the presumption of innocence and also legalized long-term arrest without charges having to be laid, its most rigorous terms were only used by authorities for the few weeks following the FLQ crisis. It was, however, disturbingly not recalled by parliament until many years after the crisis had passed, arrests had been made and the primary perpetrators removed to Cuba following their trials.

Will there be an international jihadist threat for some time to come?

Unfortunately, the assumption must be made that there will be.

But this treat will not last forever and so neither should the proposed new provisions of the Anti-Terrorist Act that draw away from the liberties Canadians take for granted.

The new provisions, and the Act as well, must be subject to periodic review and this must be written into the revised Act.