What Happened?

I hardly recognize Canada today. In the past few years we’ve become more paranoid as a nation, a country in which the national narrative emphasizes control – often in the name of security. This has happened despite the facts on the ground: that crime rates are lower today than they have been in decades and that they have been trending lower for years. Yet somehow we have become more fearful, and this unquestioned need for security is being used to reduce government transparency, curtail our civil liberties, increase surveillance, and infringe our once-unquestioned rights as citizens.

Our paranoia starts at the very top. After being elected on a platform of accountability the Harper government has made it harder than ever to access ministerial documents or probe the inner workings of government. Fewer documents are being released when requested under the Access to Information Act, and if they are released it’s only after unconscionable delays and heavy-handed redactions. In some cases (the Afghan detainee scandal) the government even refused to release documents to your elected representatives – those you elected to defend your rights and check the government – on the pretext of national security. And it gets worse: civil service staff and ministerial aides have been ordered not to appear before parliamentary committees – again, committees staffed by MPs you elected to act on your behalf. All these are steps to a single end: reducing oversight over those in power, making it easier to keep us all ignorant and less likely to question the actions they take.

This paranoia and need for control means that your rights are expendable. This is evident in the upcoming copyright overhaul, a reworking of copyright laws along the lines of the US’ Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that heavily restricts your fair-use rights over products you own. It is evident in the Toronto Police Service’s push to blanket, by degrees, the downtown core with surveillance cameras – a move done in stealth with minimum publicity or public consultation. And it is evident in the McGuinty government’s secret decision to allow police to question without cause anyone who approached within five metres of the G20 fence (*).

The tenuous nature of our civil liberties and how quickly they can be quashed was on stark display during the G20 summit. The Toronto Police Service used the summit as a pretext to unilaterally quadruple the size of the downtown surveillance network. Supposedly a temporary measure, the Service has not informed the public when – if ever – these cameras will be removed. During the summit weekend the police questioned hundreds of people, often aggressively and without reasonable cause. And the day after the Black Bloc riots, security forces used mass arrests to silence peaceful protesters and aggressive tactics to break up peaceful protests. Apparently the integrated security unit does not believe in either the “the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure” or the right to “freedom of peaceful assembly”.

What saddens and angers me the most is how unconcerned most Canadians are about these events. To many, these assaults on our civil liberties were justified. After all, what did it matter that protesters were arbitrarily questioned and detained, that peaceful protests were broken up, or that the Ontario government passed a secret and misapplied rule allowing police to overstep their boundaries and question citizens without cause? Protests are an inconvenience, security is paramount, and, after all, there was no permanent harm, right? This attitude misses the point: every time we allow our civil liberties to become a little less absolute we cheapen them. We make it easier and more palatable for those in power to reduce them again when the next issue of the day rolls around. And we make it easier for the powerful to intimidate and squash dissenters. When we stay silent politicians believe that these attacks on our civil liberties are justified. You don’t have to look far to see this: Premier McGuinty invoked the “silent majority” in defending his actions, the Toronto city council actually commended police behaviour, and mayoral candidate Rob Ford stated that police didn’t go far enough (what did he want – anyone and everyone in the downtown core to be arrested?)

We Canadians have believed too long in a benevolent government that almost always acts in our best interests and rarely – if ever – oversteps its boundaries. Maybe that was once true, but it certainly isn’t today. In today’s paranoid and environment your rights are up for grabs. And every time they are grabbed and we stay silent we allow the powerful (governments, institutions, police) to abuse the power and legitimacy we have granted them. We make it harder to question and easier to intimidate. And by degrees we become less free. This is not the country I want. This is not the Canada I want to live in.

(*) After the summit the McGuinty government claimed that the rule applied only to those inside the fence, not outside. Instead of clarifying this when news of the rule leaked, they allowed police to enforce the law in its misunderstood and expanded form. Although the McGuinty government claims otherwise, their silence allowed police to infringe our civil liberties, making them responsible for this attack on our rights.

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