Wednesday, August 14, 2019

In a commentary in the Toronto Star, Prof. Anver Emon and alumnus Nader Hasan bring attention to the issue of Muslim students receiving intimidating in-person approaches by CSIS officers, and explain their new initiative, the U of T National Security Student Support Hotline, to provide pro bono legal advice to students affected ("What to do if CSIS comes knocking," August 12, 2019).

Read the full commentary on the Toronto Star website, or below.

What to do if CSIS comes knocking

By Nader Hasan and Anver Emon

August 12, 2019

Imagine you are 18 years old and away from home for the first time, having been admitted to University of Toronto. When you left for class that morning, you thought your biggest worry was how you were going to manage your course load. But as you leave campus that afternoon, two serious-looking adults approach you. They identify themselves as CSIS. They know your name and where you live. They say they’re interested in speaking with you.

Sound far-fetched? For a growing number of young Muslims, this scenario is common. Recently, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has intensified its activities at Canadian universities. Although students belonging to other racialized groups are singled out as well, we have seen a significant uptick in the number of Muslim students targeted by CSIS.

For many Canadians, CSIS is shrouded in mystery. In 1984, after a series of scandals involving the RCMP Security Service, the McDonald Commission recommended that intelligence services be institutionally separate from policing. Parliament listened. Going forward, the RCMP would continue to serve as the national police force, while CSIS became Canada’s national spy agency.

Over time, the line between intelligence service and police agency eroded. Bill C-59 gave CSIS sweeping new powers — powers that were traditionally reserved for police forces. Today, CSIS can obtain a warrant to invade your privacy and engage in “threat reduction” measures against you. CSIS can also put you on “no-fly” lists and share information about you with foreign states.

Of course, most Canadians do not need to worry. They are not national security threats.

We have spoken with dozens of young Muslims over the past several years who do not see themselves as national security threats either. And on any objective measure, they are not. But their names happen to be Mohammed instead of Michael or Fatima instead of Fiona.

They might be part of their school’s Muslim Student Association. Or maybe they had travelled to Lebanon or Pakistan or Nigeria to visit family. Or maybe they chose to major in aerospace engineering. Those seemingly innocuous facts can lead to an in-person drop-in from CSIS.

These young people are understandably terrified when CSIS comes knocking. Some of them have parents who come from countries where it’s game over when the secret service shows up at your doorstep. And while nobody is suggesting that CSIS would make a student disappear, it is disconcerting that our national spy agency, which is supposed to protect us from terrorism and existential threats, is devoting its resources to making 18 year olds feel uncomfortable.

We will not stand idle. Along with a number of partner organizations, we recently launched a pro bono project to help U of T students of all backgrounds deal with CSIS. We set up a hotline they can call if CSIS comes knocking. The students can then speak with a lawyer who will provide pro bono legal advice. No young person should have to deal with a national spy agency alone.

We hope to equip young people with the tools they need to make informed decisions about how to exercise their rights. Students need to know that nobody — not CSIS, not the police — can force you to speak to them. Students will decide for themselves whether to waive their right to silence, but we want them to make that decision with their eyes wide open.

We understand that CSIS has important work to do. We want CSIS to succeed because we want Canada to be secure and free. But we believe that Canada is at its most secure and most free when young people know how to exercise their rights.