Responses in Canada, Europe and Around the Globe

By Peter Boisseau | Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

From the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Nexus

Image for After the Paris AttacksAs their government prepares to take the next step in the “war on terror,” Canadians are being loud and clear about what they want, but might get more than they wished for—unintended consequences that make their society neither safer nor better.

That warning was repeatedly heard at a March 9th conference hosted by the U of T’s Faculty of Law and Munk School of Global Affairs. The event brought academics, journalists and political observers together in a far-ranging search for solutions in the aftermath of the Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo and shoppers in a Jewish supermarket.

“I think it’s clear there is a need for a multi-disciplinary approach,” said the Faculty of Law’s Dean Edward Iacobucci. “Simple answers with the law or developments in security aren’t going to be the solutions.”

But nuance and complexity doesn’t usually play well to an audience demanding immediate and “decisive” action. Evidence of that was largely framed in the discussions about Bill C-51, the federal government’s new anti-terrorism legislation introduced just a few weeks after the attacks, and which became law in June. Polling taken less than a month after Paris showed Canadians overwhelmingly supported Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish the images of the Prophet Muhammad that provoked the attacks, Shachi Kurl, senior vice-president of the Angus Reid Institute, told the conference.

The vast majority also said defending freedom of speech was more important than worrying about giving offense to religious feelings, Kurl noted.

Yet opinion was split whether Canadian news outlets should have reprinted the images from Charlie Hebdo here at home. Kurl said the reaction by Canadians to Bill C-51—which enjoyed more than 80 per cent support overall in the Angus Reid poll—sheds some light on this apparent contradiction.

Support for some of the bill’s specific new powers to detain suspects longer without charges, share more private information and conduct much broader surveillance was even higher than support for the bill as a whole, she said.

Even more striking was the fact that more than 60 per cent of Canadians said they trusted the government not to abuse its security powers. That number was triple what it was during the height of the Edward Snowden scandal in 2013.

“It shows we can’t put too high a premium at this time in place on our sense of security, our sense of safety,” said Kurl.

Panelists said they understood the climate of fear driving the public agenda. Law scholar Prof. Ayelet Shachar recalled her constant anxiety about potential terrorist attacks when she lived in Israel.

The challenge is trying to maintain some semblance of balance in a sound-bite driven world with news events coming 24/7, or as Prof. Ron Levi, director of the master of global affairs program, put it, “the complex ecology around trust in our institutions.” Despite their support for the new anti-terrorism legislation, Canadians don’t intend to give the government a blank cheque, said Kurl. Almost 70 per cent want greater oversight for how C-51’s powers are used.

The conference saw limited oversight as a worrisome red flag because Canada’s safeguards against abuse of security powers are arguably the weakest of all the western allies. “Some measure of legislative oversight is a good thing, our allies all do it,” said Hugh Segal, who served as chief of staff to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. “Why would the government think that Canada has to be an outlier on this issue?”

While polls are snapshots that shift dramatically over time, they can influence changes that are not as easy to undo, others reminded the gathering.

“We should reflect about the impact of our gut reactions on the legal framework on which we rely on in the longer term," said law’s Prof. Jutta Brunnée. “We need to remain vigilant.”

Like Canadians, panelists widely supported some provisions of Bill C-51. The general consensus was new powers to tackle websites promoting terrorism are good and some argued the bill actually improves Canada’s no-fly list restricting travel by terror suspects.

But reminders of past abuses of power, such as the War Measures Act, echoed throughout the conference debates. They worried the focus on immediate action could eventually makes things worse if history and the longer term view is forgotten.

The politically driven trend to react to each new terror threat with ever increasing restrictions on rights and freedoms will be hard to reverse, said Prof. Kent Roach, describing himself as one of C-51s most ardent critics. “We have to recognize the times that we live in,” said Roach, conceding the new security laws are feeding a huge appetite Canadians have to feel safer.

“But there is the broadest definition of Canada’s security interests that I have ever seen in this act,” he added. “If everything is security, nothing is security.”

The law is so broadly written there were predictions everyone from sovereigntists to Aboriginal protesters could be at risk, but few disagreed the focus is on Islamic radicals, a sentiment increasingly shared publicly by government members.

The extraordinary focus on Muslim communities is dangerous because it is going to alienate certain groups instead of “bringing them into the tent,” said the Faculty of Law’s Prof. Mohammad Fadel.

“The problem is how to create a critical middle where you can act as a citizen, practice your religion to the level that you wish to and express political views without becoming the target of security services.”

Others were more optimistic Canada might build trust by exchanging information with groups that see themselves as potential targets of terror legislation.

Experts and academics also should not assume Canadians support the bill because they are unaware—as opposed to simply not concerned—some measures in the new legislation may violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“The public is very capable of holding two thoughts at once,” quipped Levi. “They may hold the thought this law is a good idea, but it also may not be Charter proof.”

Some argued Canadians have to move beyond mere tolerance of differences and toward a real dialogue about economic, social and cultural inclusion for minority groups.

That fact is painfully obvious in an endless cycle of media coverage about religious controversies and terror politics that rarely provides context or analysis, a panel of journalists conceded.

The instinct of deadline-driven reporters to grab the easiest source of commentary usually results in interviews with religious leaders who only represent a small part of the Muslim viewpoint, said CBC reporter Natasha Fatah.

“Most Muslims are not busy being Muslims; we’re busy trying to pay our mortgages and put our kids through school,” said Fatah. “So that secular or moderate voice that is actually more like mainstream Canadians is actually left out.”

The lack of real diversity in the public debate and the desire by politicians to win over voters with quick and ready-made military and security responses comes at the expense of any real progress toward addressing the root causes of terror, many added.

Liberties are being stripped away even as they are held out as part of the promise of Canada to immigrants, potentially sowing seeds of alienation and resentment.

Meanwhile, Canadians may be unaware the “digital exhaust” they create with cell phones and other technology makes them easy—and maybe likely—to be tracked and monitored at the whim of shadowy agencies like the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), said political science’s Prof. Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab.

“It seems to me that if you put all that complexity together, one of the elements we have to try to address is not so much the direct effects of the attack, but the effects of our responses to the attacks,” concluded Munk School Director Stephen Toope. “We also better ask some hard questions about the means, not just about the ends.”

After the Paris Attacks coverThe book After the Paris Attacks is available for purchase on the publisher's website.

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