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Two Cheers for Canadian Democracy

Rob McCarty (3L)

Canada deserves two resounding cheers for its admirable response to the recent shootings in Ottawa on October 22, 2014.

The first cheer is for having the House of Commons sit on the day following the attack. The decision to continue with “business-as-usual” took courage, and is a strong political statement about the resolve of one of our key democratic institutions to withstand violent adversity.

The second cheer is for not passing any unanticipated security or intelligence legislation in the wake of the attack. Indeed, despite promises made shortly after the shooting to strengthen Canadian anti-terror legislation, only one security and intelligence related bill has moved forward in the House to joint committee review. This bill, the Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act, does not add any additional powers to CSIS that were not proposed prior to the shooting.

Certainly, the bill is not above reproach (an important debate for another article); but it is reassuring that additional powers for security agencies were not hastily added to appear “tough on terror” and enacted without the benefit from our normal democratic safeguards like debate.

So why not give three full cheers? Simply put, not enough time has passed to gauge the long-term impact of the shooting on the psyche of parliamentarians and Canadian citizens.

Canada is not so unique, as to be immune from enacting fundamentally illiberal legislation, however well-intentioned, by using the justification of peace through security. Many comparable modern democracies have unwittingly fallen down this path (e.g. Britain during the Troubles, aspects of the United States’ Patriot Act, and Australia’s current anti-terrorist legislation). The coming months will see how resilient our democratic institutions are against our own fear.

However, there is good reason to be confident in a positive outcome. When debating the Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act, the Opposition was keen to ensure that the objectives could not be achieved through existing legislation or new funding, rather than through additional legislation. They asked for assurances that the legislation would pass Charter scrutiny, which they received. The government made clear that it sought to find the appropriate balance between protecting civil liberties and ensuring security.

As citizens with legal training, we must do our part to hold the government to this. Look to the purpose and reasons behind new anti-terrorism bills. Ask whether those reasons go beyond simple fear-mongering. We must also be sure to scrutinize seemingly unrelated bills. As reported in the Globe & Mail, Bill C-13, an anti-cyber bullying initiative, will change the standards of suspicion necessary to obtain a warrant and can be applied to suspected terrorists.

I am proud of our country’s response to date; with continued vigilance, Canadians can ensure this admirably measured response continues over the long term. The third cheer, then, lies with us.