Last week’s attacks in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa were shocking and horrific acts of violence. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of the two soldiers killed – Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent who was run over by car on October 20 and Corporal Nathan Cirillo, shot while on honour guard duty at the National War Memorial on October 22 – and others injured in both attacks as well as with the bystanders, parliamentarians, police, soldiers and staff who may experience lasting trauma.
It is tempting in the aftermath of such events to give law enforcement and national security agencies whatever expanded powers they ask for, in the hope that it will keep us safer. We saw this with the invocation of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis in 1970, which ultimately saw over 400 Canadians subject to preventative arrest and detention. We saw this in the immediate aftermath of the horrific events of 9/11, when the Anti-Terrorism Act was quickly pushed through Parliament and sweeping authority was granted to arrest, detain and convict individuals connected to terrorism. And in response to last week’s attacks, there have been calls to give government even more expansive surveillance and detention powers. However, the BCCLA believes that such rushed and reactionary lawmaking is unwise.
Canada already has expansive legal authority to conduct surveillance over any individual it suspects of engaging in or preparing to engage in terrorism. There are also provisions in the Criminal Code that allow for preventative arrests and detention of suspected terrorists. While the BCCLA believes that it is preferable to charge terrorism suspects under the criminal law so that they afforded appropriate due process protections, the fact remains that the government already has extraordinary powers at its disposal. The question that Canadians should be asking is not what additional powers government needs to protect public safety, but how well existing powers are being used and whether the existing criminal law is being properly enforced. This could include, in relation to the assailant entering the Parliament buildings, looking at improved protection of our key government institutions while maintaining the openness that is critical for democracy to function properly.
Greater restrictions on civil liberties and basic freedoms do not necessarily translate into greater safety. And as many of Canada’s leading experts and scholars on national security have noted this past week, there is no such thing as perfect security. Regrettably, there will always be public acts of violence which no amount of surveillance and restriction of rights can prevent. This is a difficult truth we must accept, and one that must guide whatever response undertaken by Parliament and government in the coming days and weeks.
In his opposition to the invocation of the War Measures Act following the 1970 kidnapping of two government officials by domestic terrorists, Tommy Douglas told his fellow members of Parliament that “we cannot protect democratic freedom by restricting, limiting and destroying democratic freedom”. We believe that these words ring just as true today.