By ILINA GHOSH
A year ago this month, Canada’s new anti-terrorism legislation, the controversial Bill C-51, was unveiled at a campaign-style rally in a Toronto suburb. The divisive legislation initially encountered little opposition on Parliament Hill, leaving it to the media to highlight concerns.
And Canadian news outlets were “equal to the challenge,” according to new research conducted by Ryerson University School of Journalism instructor Kevin MacLean.
“For the first two and half to three weeks there was no opposition,” MacLean said.
“The NDP was quiet, refusing to take a position. The Liberals said they [were going to support it, but fix it…]. There was no one to oppose it politically, other than Elizabeth May, who got very little ink about what she had to say. There was nobody speaking out about it, other than the media.”
The bill, which became law in June, came under fire for the expanded powers it gives police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, its vague wording, its broad inter-agency information sharing provisions, its lack of security agency oversight and its potential to violate privacy and constitutional rights.
Unwilling to seem soft on terror the opposition parties initially sought the most “politically palatable” stance on the issue, says MacLean, and that resulted in a vacuum that news media stepped in to fill.
While Thomas Mulcair and the NDP would eventually come to oppose the bill, MacLean says it was not until weeks later, when the party had decided it was strategically safe.
“The NDP, after about three weeks in, finally said that they were going to oppose it at all costs. Mulcair’s arms were twisted behind his back by elder statesmen of the NDP who were calling him out on it. It was as if the NDP was waiting to see what would be the most politically palatable route to go in,” Maclean said.
“When the government and opposition parties… abdicated their leadership roles and opted for political expediency…, the Canadian media became the de facto official Opposition, asking the tough questions, demanding answers, and outlining potential problems with the government’s response and its anti-terror legislation,” MacLean wrote in his analysis.
MacLean’s research, conducted for his master’s of professional communications at Royal Roads University, examined 140 news stories, columns, and editorials about Bill C-51 published in the National Post, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in the four weeks after the bill’s unveiling on Jan. 30, 2015.
“It was not our political leadership’s finest hour, however, Canada’s media… showed their readiness to act as the conscience and voice of the nation when elected officials were unable and unwilling to do so,” he wrote.
Within days of Bill C-51’s unveiling, a Globe and Mail editorial referred to it as “Harper’s secret policeman bill” and outlined the legislation’s potential negative effects on Canadian democracy and security.
“Under the cloud of fear produced by [Harper’s] repeated hyperbole about the scope and nature of the threat, he now wants to turn our domestic spy agency into something that looks disturbingly like a secret police force,” the editorial began.
Concerns emerged related to the way the bill was unveiled and subsequently passed with limited debate.
“The Star and to some degree the Globe were extremely vocal in their opposition to C-51, [not only against the content of the bill], but the way it was done,” MacLean said in an interview with the RJRC.
“From the day it was introduced in a community centre in Richmond Hill, instead of Parliament, it was at a partisan political rally, which set the tone – it was like a pre-election campaign stop.”
Articles such as the National Post’s editorial, We need parliamentary debate on Bill C-51, for instance, called on the government to continue the debate on the issue and heed the warnings of those with reasonable concerns.
“Credible people of all stripes have raised reasoned objections to sections of this bill, which deserve to be debated… It is in the public interest, then, that any potential problems with this bill are addressed before it becomes the law of the land. This cannot happen unless parliamentarians on all sides are allowed to debate the issue fully, with due consideration for proposed amendments,” the Post wrote.
Eventually, the debate period was extended and some amendments were made to the bill before it received royal assent on June 18. MacLean attributes the changes to the attention brought to the issue by the media.
“Initially, the government was allowing four days of debate on this and it was one of the things that prompted a fair bit of anger and criticism… [The press] called out the government for trying to ram it through,” said MacLean, who spent 25 years as a journalist with the Toronto Star.
“Eventually, we ended up with the equivalent of nine days of debate. It didn’t make any difference of course, because of the majority, but it is something that happened because of the large amount of noise made about it.”
In addition to publishing editorials that critiqued the bill, news organizations also reported on and published “noise” about the bill generated by other critics.
“It wasn’t only columnists or staff opinion writers, there were numerous op-eds written by academics and [security and legal experts] that were looking at exactly what this meant,” MacLean told the RJRC.
Within a month of the bill’s introduction, almost two dozen prominent Canadians, including four former prime-ministers and several former Supreme Court members, published a statement in the Globe calling for stronger security oversight in the bill.
“Protecting human rights and protecting public safety are complementary objectives, but experience has shown that serious human rights abuses can occur in the name of maintaining national security,” the statement said.
Later on in February, an open letter to Parliament, titled Amend C-51 or Kill it, was also the subject of news coverage. Signed by more than 100 Canadian professors of law and related disciplines, the letter condemned the proposed legislation, calling it potentially dangerous to Canadian rule of law and democracy, and possibly even counter-productive in deterring terrorism.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression filed charter challenges, the human rights watchdog Amnesty International called for withdrawal of the bill and there were mass protests across the country.
Following the bill’s signing into law, a letter penned by Canadian artists criticized the new law for its possible effects on free expression, saying it “directly attacks the creative arts and free expression in this country.” It was signed by more than 200 artists, including author Margaret Atwood, filmmaker Paul Haggis and musician Dan Mangan.
While much of the coverage of the bill focused on criticism of its provisions, other themes surfaced as well.
“The Post and a little bit in the Globe had a theme that I call, ‘Everyone relax.’ There were only a few pieces about that, but it was something that was mainly presented by the Post and speaks to why I thought the Post had relatively the most balanced coverage of the issue,” MacLean told the RJRC.
The Conservative Party’s success in passing Bill C-51 and bolstering its base in the process emboldened the party to use similar strategies in the election campaign that followed, MacLean says.
“The way Bill C-51 was handled, with scare-mongering and the terror bogeyman being prominent, was just replayed during the election campaign. The targets changed, that’s all.”
Referring to issues such as the niqab controversy, the barbaric cultural practices hotline and the handling of the Syrian refugee crisis, MacLean says “the Conservatives would not have done it if they hadn’t felt comfortable in the success of what they did with C-51.”
However, while Bill C-51 emboldened the Conservative Party, MacLean notes it had a similar effect on the opposition parties and the press. During the campaign that followed, “they were feeling a lot stronger and pushed back a lot more against the government.”
For example, “if you look at how the media organizations covered and presented the arguments about the niqab during the election campaign, you had strong and detailed analysis [cutting through partisan rhetoric]” he said.
When his party voted for the bill, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said it was in the best interests of Canadians, but that, if elected, his government would repeal parts of it and add more oversight and scrutiny for security agencies. After the Liberal victory in last fall’s federal election, the new government called for an overhaul of the anti-terror law, spelling out the need for replacement legislation in mandate letters to the Justice and Public Safety Ministers.
A key element of the new Liberal legislation is expected to be the creation of a multi-party, joint House of Commons-Senate committee tasked with strategic oversight of every government agency and department with national security responsibilities. The proposed committee will have a full-time staff, access to the necessary secret information, be sworn to secrecy and report to the prime minister and Parliament.
You can find MacLean’s research analysis, Fahrenheit C-51 and The October Crisis of 2014: Media Framing of the Government Response to Domestic Terror Threats here.