Mr. Speaker, I stand in opposition to Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism act, 2015. Unfortunately, terrorism is a real threat. It cannot be denied. It is a reality of life, even here in Canada.
Public safety must be a top priority of government. There is no debate on that point. However, what the whole debate comes down to, in its simplest form, is summed up in a quote from the leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, the leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition, that I repeat often: “[W]e cannot protect our freedoms by sacrificing them”. We cannot protect sacred Canadian freedoms by sacrificing those sacred Canadian freedoms.
This bill would give more power to the government agencies responsible for protecting Canadians, but it would give that power without increased oversight. It would be unchecked power, and that is a threat to freedom.
I was a journalist in my previous life. I was a newspaper man. I liked to say that if you cut me, I would bleed ink. These days, I would probably bleed a radio clip. I savour the freedom I had as a journalist and as a columnist to go where the story took me, to write what needed to be written, and to say what needed to be said. I was not in the business for the money, that is for sure. That is not what drove me.
In the mid 2000s, I was the editor-in-chief of a weekly newspaper called The Independent. My last task every week, after the rest of the paper had been edited and put to bed, was to write my own column, an opinion piece called “Fighting Newfoundlander”. Before I wrote that column, I would ask myself one simple question, just one, and it was this: What am I afraid to say? Then I would say it. I would write it.
I miss that freedom as a member of Parliament. There is no freedom I hold in higher regard. However, I savour freedom in general. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, the people I represent in St. John's South—Mount Pearl, and all Canadians should not have to choose between their security and their rights, or their security and their freedom. That is the Prime Minister's false choice. The Prime Minister goes too far in putting politics ahead of principle and in putting fear ahead of freedom.
I want to return for a moment to October 22, 2014. It was my oldest son's 19th birthday. It was also the day of the shootings on Parliament Hill. I remember speaking to my son on a telephone from a safe room in the East Block after the gunfire in Centre Block. We had been evacuated from the caucus room. I remember telling my son that I was safe and that everyone around me was alive, and happy birthday.
I remember what I call my foxhole moment, lying on the floor of the caucus room, hiding behind an overturned table and locking eyes with Glenn Thibeault, the then-member of parliament for Sudbury. Like everyone else around us, we did not know what was happening. We knew that there was gunfire just outside the door. I imagine that Glenn Thibeault saw in my eyes what I saw in his eyes: terror, the fear of being shot, and the fear of being killed. That is what I mean by my foxhole moment. My foxhole moment was, of all places, in the Parliament of Canada.
The next day, Parliament resumed sitting, and I was proud. I could not be prouder of the way the country responded in the wake of such terror and tragedy. All leaders spoke in the House. All leaders embraced the nation. The nation embraced them. The Prime Minister made a statement that I have repeated often. He said:
In our system, in our country, we are opponents but we are never enemies.
In this House, we are united by the desire to better our country. As opponents, we disagree on how to get there, but we all strive for a better Canada and a better Newfoundland and Labrador. I like to think that anyway. We are opponents, but we are never enemies.
However, the Prime Minister said something immediately after the October 22 attack on Parliament Hill. He gave a statement that I thought foreshadowed where we are today and why I have such reservations about the bill. The Prime Minister called the shooter a terrorist, and he described the terrible event as a terrorist attack. In fact, in a statement, he said:
...this will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts and those of our national security agencies to take all necessary steps to identify and counter threats, and keep Canada safe here at home.
He said “all necessary steps”, but this bill is a step too far. It was almost as if the government was looking for an excuse to proceed with its agenda, and it had found an excuse in the October 22 shooting.
Bill C-51 would allow all federal departments and agencies to share information that may be relevant to national security, information not just on terrorist attacks, and to share that information with Canadian intelligence and law enforcement agencies. However, Bill C-51 would still compromise the basic principle of privacy rights in Canada. That basic principle is this: information should only be used for the purpose for which it was collected.
Although our spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the RCMP are governed by the Privacy Act in their collection, use, and disclosure of information, many of the departments and agencies that would now be allowed to share information with them are not covered by these laws. The Privacy Commissioner is concerned that the bill would allow information on many law-abiding Canadians, as most of us are, to be collected and shared with law enforcement without reasonable cause and would potentially allow the government to build personal profiles on each and every one of us.
An even bigger concern is who exactly would keep an eye on who is keeping an eye on us. Bill C-51 would give CSIS greater powers but would not correspondingly expand oversight of CSIS, and without proper oversight, the door would be wide open for abuse, the abuse of our basic Canadian freedoms.
On top of the lack of oversight, the Conservative government continues to cut the budgets of those agencies on the front line against terrorist threats, including the RCMP and CSIS. They have both had their budgets cut each year, starting in 2012. The RCMP saw its spending decrease by $420 million between 2009 and 2014. The budget at CSIS was cut by $44 million between 2012 and 2013. The government cut the tools it already had to fight terrorism, and now it is increasing the scope of CSIS but would provide no further oversight of the process.
Questions have also been raised about the bill with respect to the question of what constitutes a threat to the security of Canada, especially with the terms being so broad and oversight being so inadequate. There are concerns that under the legislation, environmental or first nations groups that set up a picket line or blockade could be interrupted by CSIS. Experts warn that legitimate dissent could be lumped in with terrorism, and that is not very Canadian. It is absolutely un-Canadian. It may be Conservative, but it is not Canadian.
Questions have been raised too about how journalists, satirists, artists, and others who report on or mock statements about terrorism may be impacted by the bill. Could there come a day when a columnist asks himself or herself, “What am I afraid to write”, and then makes sure that he or she does not write that? In the words of Benjamin Franklin: “People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both”.
We must not allow that to happen. Our Canadian freedoms are not for trade. The Conservative government has forgotten that, which is why it has to go.