Looking at anti-terrorism Bill C-59 through the lens of racism | National Union of Public and General Employees

Looking at anti-terrorism Bill C-59 through the lens of racism

In a time when anti-immigration and racist sentiments have been parading as nationalism, we need to recognize how expanded powers in the name of national security can have detrimental effects on our society as a whole.

Ottawa (21 March 2018) — The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out certain rights and freedoms that are protected under the law. Specifically, Section 15. (1) of the Charter states that "every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability." 

The Charter is one part of our Constitution. As such, it is key to our ability to live in a free and democratic society. On this day, the International Day for the Elimination of Racism, we reflect on if these rights are being protected as they ought to be and what that means for the future. 

From Bill C-51 to Bill C-59, the problems with Canada's anti-terrorism bill remain

One example on how human rights are being undermined is the Liberals' support of the Conservative government's Bill C-51, Anti-terrorism Act, 2015. When the bill was first introduced by the Conservative government, it met with incredible uproar. The legislation provided increased powers to security agencies, allowed the abuse of human rights, and offered clear violations of our right to privacy. The bill lacked provisions for increased oversight or clear restrictions. 

When the Liberals took over from the Conservatives, they introduced Bill C-59, An Act Respecting National Security Matters. The government claims that Bill C-59 is intended to fix the problems from Bill C-51 — yet, many beg to differ. In fact, this new bill raises even more concerns. 

Heightened concerns with Bill C-59

Civil and human rights organizations are concerned with the provisions in the legislation that

  • allow national security agencies to conduct mass surveillance
  • don't address the ability to effectively challenge names on the no-fly list 
  • authorize Canada's intelligence agecy to conduct cyberattacks
  • allow for CSIS to keep the added disruption powers it gained in Bill C-51
  • allow for problematic information sharing and disclosure by government bodies
  • allow for secret trials and decisions without due process. 

Fear-mongering front and centre in national security powers

In a time when anti-immigration and racist sentiments have been parading as nationalism, we need to recognize how expanded powers in the name of security can have detrimental effects on our society as a whole. 

When a government proposes to enhance or expand national security measures, including strategies to “prevent terrorism,” it says it's focusing on keeping Canadians "safe."  Automatically, minds turn to the question of “safe from whom?” So when security agencies, on behalf of governments, talk about counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization, and the majority of their targets are from Muslim communities, people think they have their answer. 

As Azeezah Kanji, the Director of Programming at Noor Cultural Centre, said when she addressed the general assembly of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group in 2017, “This shows how deeply the lies of national security are embedded, because if non-racialized populations were subject to the kind of pre-emptive criminalization that racialized populations were subjected to, if this approach was applied to the general population, I don’t think they [pre-emptive measures] would be considered in the general interest of people.”

The framing of Muslims as the “other” or the “enemy” is widely spread, in the news, in entertainment and even by our governments. Violence is represented as Muslims causing violence, rather than violence being inflicted on the Muslim community.This persistent Islamaphobia is sewn into the narrative we hear from the media and our governments: 

"Race is central to the way national security operates."

This framing of racialized communities has never been an inevitable conclusion. People have been primed to believe such things, and led down a very specific path. But, where is the conversation about the inherent racism that is being promoted by the government and the media through its national security policies and programs?

As Kanji said to the general assembly, ”Race is central to the way national security operates.”

We see it more clearly when there is discussion about "domestic terrorism." Media and politicians rarely actually use the word terrorism, instead violent acts are described as bombings, killings, sprees – but certainly not terrorism. You see government officials and the media splicing the difference between terrorism and other forms of violence, most often when the person is white.

Unfortunately, in Canada, as Kanji points out, “we don’t have data about who is being referred to these [counter-radicalism] programs, what their criteria are, what the outcomes are.” The media doesn’t ask these questions, and it becomes much more difficult to keep our governments, and agencies, accountable.

Our history, and surely our recent history, has shown why providing the government and its agencies with such wide-ranging powers, without strict accountability measures, is so dangerous. We only have to look at the fact that proposed recommendations following the torture of Maher Arar were never implemented to realize our government has not learned from its mistakes.

In fact, Bill C-59 shows that the narrative hasn't changed. 

So, today, the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), commits to continuing our work, with our allies in the labour movement and civil society, to eliminate all forms of racism. And in doing so, we must continue to oppose Bills C-51, and now, C-59. 


The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE