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Canadian Senate Votes to 'Keep Fear Alive' with Passage of Spy Bill

Bill C-51, criticized over civil rights and privacy concerns, expands powers of law enforcement and intelligence agencies

Canadians protest Bill C-51 on March 14, 2015. (Photo: Jeremy Board/flickr/cc)

The Canadian Senate on Tuesday passed a sweeping surveillance bill that will expand the government's spying powers, despite massive outcry from Canadian citizens and privacy advocates who say the legislation threatens civil liberties and religious rights.

Bill C-51 passed 44-28 in the Conservative-majority chamber. The law will amend the Criminal Code to expand the mandate and power of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and allow police to detain and arrest people without charge if they are suspected as threats to national security.

It will also grant more than 100 law enforcement and intelligence agencies access to Canadians' personal information—including their financial status, medical history, and religious and political beliefs—and require airlines to help prevent alleged suspects from flying overseas, among other measures.

The bill, which passed the House of Commons last week, has been championed by conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper as an essential tool in the so-called "War on Terror," but critics warned that it would violate Canadians' civil rights.

"It's no secret that this is bad news," wrote Soledad Vega, a journalist and facilitator with OpenMedia, one of the advocacy organizations opposing C-51, in response to the passage of the bill. "When the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization says Bill C-51 violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you know this bill is a real threat."


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Opponents staged numerous demonstrations against C-51 for months—both to educate fellow Canadians on the dangers posed by the bill and to call on the government to abandon the legislation.

"This bill disproportionately targets indigenous communities, environmental activists, dissidents, and Muslims, many of whom are already subjected to questionable and overreaching powers by security officials, [and] will make it easier and ostensibly lawful for government to continue infringing upon the rights of peaceful people," organizers wrote in a statement ahead of a day of action in March.

But their efforts were not enough to sway what the Ottawa Citizen called "a distracted Senate," where Members of Parliament were more concerned with "the fallout from a scathing audit report into their expenses" than the spying bill.

As Mike Masnick notes at Techdirt, the passage of C-51 "follows on France passing similar laws and the UK pushing for something similar as well. It appears that governments around the globe are seizing on the 'Keep Fear Alive' mantra to get greater and greater power to spy on citizens."

"This vote means we need to keep fighting all the way through to the October election," Vega said, adding that opponents of the bill still have some recourse.

She continued:

[W]ith a federal election around the corner, Canadian MPs and candidates know there’ll be a real political price to pay for voting through this reckless, dangerous, and ineffective legislation.

...So far the [New Democratic Party] and the Green Party have pledged to repeal the unpopular legislation, and the Liberals went from supporting it wholeheartedly to being more cautious and promising amendments...It is time to put pressure on all the major political parties to commit to kill bill C-51, and demand accountability for those who haven’t committed to do so."

As of now, Bill C-51 awaits final approval, known as Royal Assent, from the governor general—which will officially pass the bill into law.

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