When Growth Trumps Freedom: the Chill in Canada Comes from our Government, not the Weather

by James Magnus-Johnston

[it] smells like the biggest bait and switch this country has ever seen”

Wes Regan, Vancouver Observer

Johnston_photoWith the introduction of Canada’s so-called “secret police” bill, there is increasing concern the rights of the oil patch will trump the rights of ordinary citizens in a new and chilling way–through the kinds of fear tactics you’d sooner expect in Soviet Russia than a western liberal democracy.

Sound like exaggeration? Please prove me wrong.

Bill C-51 would give Canadian national security and intelligence forces the right to monitor ordinary citizens, and even detain them for up to seven days at a time if they are perceived to “interfere with the economic or financial stability of Canada or with the country’s critical infrastructure.” This includes what the government has branded the “anti-petroleum” movement, whose participants have been labelled ‘extremists’ by the Prime Minister and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The legislation would subject environmental activists to increased surveillance and intimidation under the guise of preventing terrorism. I wonder how, exactly, a government with strong ties to the oil patch will define ‘economic or financial stability.’

The truly chilling development as a result of Bill C-51 is that a citizen doesn’t have to actually organize a demonstration to trigger the use of new powers. Under this legislation, the agency simply has to suspect that you might do something that interferes with ‘critical infrastructure’ in order to monitor you or pay you a visit.

By stifling free speech and democratic engagement, this effort demonstrates just how far some will go in order to cling to an aging growth-at-all-costs narrative–absurdly pitting human beings against one another and against the planet itself. At worst, this is carbon-fuelled neoliberal fanaticism disguised as pragmatic politics, given that the oil sands contribute about 2% to Canada’s GDP.

I’m not bothered by the notion of confronting terrorism, if that were indeed the explicit purpose of Bill C-51. To confront a problem as complex as terrorism, new techniques need to be adopted to monitor communication activities. But strong monitoring requires strong and transparent oversight, particularly if environmental activists can so casually be described as ‘deliberate threats,’ if not terrorists. And while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms should prevail in the courts, it’s the lack of oversight that has former legislators and judiciary officials concerned that the courts won’t be able to intervene quickly enough if the security officials go too far.


This screenshot comes from the Facebook page of Andrew Weaver, MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head, and was originally captured from the Government of Canada’s new online training course entitled ‘Security Awareness,’ which is being offered by the Canada School of Public Service.

In a show of virtually unprecedented solidarity, a handful of former prime ministers, solicitors general, and Supreme Court justices published a joint statement in a national newspaper last week. They believe this bill represents a decline into underhanded abuse and excessive state intrusion. Already, Canada’s tax agency has been used to spy on Canadian environmental organizations and citizens in what is apparently a coordinated effort between oil companies, the National Energy Board, the RCMP, and Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS). One editorial describes the changes in tax laws as a “dishonourable attack meant to intimidate environmental groups.” These incremental changes have prompted Edward Snowden and Ralph Nader to chime in and issue their own warnings.

Do our elected officials believe it’s acceptable to stifle dissent in a democracy through the use of fear? Are they actually as afraid of extremists who behead others as they are of environmentalists who challenge old conceptions of economic justice? Or is Prime Minister Harper, trained by the University of Calgary as a neoclassical economist, so beholden to the narrative of carbon-intensive growth, that he believes it should undermine the bedrock of a just society–our freedoms and right to self-expression? A functioning democracy requires dissent so citizens can hold their leaders accountable when they go too far.

I hope this is all simply a sick intimidation exercise, because if Bill C-51 actually represents the erosion of our fundamental freedoms in the name of carbon-intensive growth, this could very well signal the beginning of a dark time. Peaceful resistance to burning fossil fuels cannot be futile.

I should clarify that I’m not just embodying the voice of the left wing fringe in Canada. In fact, I happen to believe the principles of a steady state economy–an economy that is truly economically stable–is fully coherent with traditional ‘conservative’ values. Former conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark is one of the leading voices cautioning against allowing national security services to administer justice without proper oversight. As he mentioned, the problem is that secret police services perform “in the shadows,” and can destroy lives by allowing suspicion to run rampant before the appropriate checks and balances can be applied in the courts. C-51, he argues, could be more damaging than no bill at all.

The only thing that would be more disturbing than the idea that our government believes these actions are just, is the prospect that Canadians might be too afraid and passive to challenge this bill. Perhaps we adore our oppressors more than we ought to. And by oppressors, I’m not just referring to the authors and supporters of C-51. I’m talking about our own propensity to consume and accumulate ad nausem, amusing ourselves to death as our civil liberties are eroded in plain sight.

So let’s hope all this talk of secret police is indeed exaggerated. While some environmentalists may feel afraid and needlessly manipulated, others will speak out and shame Canada on the international stage. If this whole charade becomes too absurd, some of us may even consider moving to Denmark, or Germany, where more sophisticated governments have chosen to confront a challenging future with foresight rather than intimidation.

Or more optimistically, maybe we can see this as a promising step on the road to real change. Arthur Schopenhauer said that “all truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Perhaps we have arrived at stage two, with the government playing the role of the violent opposition. If so, I look forward to stage three–acceptance–being right around the corner.

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8 replies
  1. Brian Sanderson
    Brian Sanderson says:

    Speaking about “interference with the economic stability of Canada”, I’d say that all 4 political parties are guilty of that!

    None of them understands the concept of “natural limits”. They all have a polcy of “growing” our economy to death… I look forward to the day when we can use their own laws to lock them all up.

  2. Penelope Bell
    Penelope Bell says:

    I believe CASSE must be vigilant in avoiding politicising its goals and aims, for the very reason that it must generate an appeal to all sides of politics. It must be careful not to push its supporters to a left or right side of the political divide.

    Prime Minister Stephen Harper has identified the threat as ” … violent extremists motivated by radical Islamic views, the legislation would also expand the ability of government agencies to infiltrate environmental groups on the suspicion that they are promoting civil disobedience or other criminal acts to oppose resource projects.”

    As has been publicly stated, namely that: “The legislation identifies … anything that interferes with the economic or financial stability of Canada or with the country’s critical infrastructure, though it excludes lawful protest or dissent.” We should not overlook the importance of “lawful” in that statement … and again in this: Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said the Bill targets “any activity that undermines the security of Canada (which) does not include lawful advocacy, protests, dissent and artistic expression.”

    The fact that the anti-petroleum movement is foreign-funded is cause for great concern. We must ask ourselves which off-shore interests have a vested interest in ensuring that America and Canada do not become wholly energy independent with no reliance on Arab oil? I think the answer is obvious – Arab interests. Therefore, it is not a long bow to draw in questioning why Islamic militants are joining the anti-petroleum movement in Western nations, given that Arab nations are staring at economical decline as a result of the decreasing reliance on Arab oil.

    Islam openly proclaims its intention to Islamise the globe and to globalise Islam and it is already doing so by destabilising the economies of the West through billions of revenue being necessarily applied to anti-terrorist and national security funding. Although, fossil fuels and perpetual growth are certainly a threat to the survival of our planet, so too is radical Islam a threat to the survival of our Western culture. Allowing Islamic militants to dictate our economic policy is hardly a prudent course and it is my contention that that is what this Bill is trying to avert.

  3. Bruce Ritchie
    Bruce Ritchie says:

    CASSE by its very nature is dedicated to a view that remains balanced yet more focused on long-term sustainable living than on any short term goals. I am unfamiliar with Canadian politics, but in the USA there are two major parties that BOTH seem relatively near-sighted. What may seem to promote short term economic “stability” most often just postpones the long term balance needed to achieve sustainable living. With the momentum favoring unsustainable “growth” economics, it seems that a short term disruption will soon be necessary to move western cultures closer to sustainability. Buddhist economics and Jimmy Carter are almost unknown to many, and any moves away from centralized economies and conspicuous consumption will meet resistance. Just to proclaim simple living and doing ‘more with less’ will be perceived as a political message by most, and IT IS. Better to speak the truth and create some discomfort on ALL SIDES than to water down the message and compromise the truth.
    The “anti-petroleum movement” is just a branch of the “anti fossil fuel-movement” and need have NOTHING AT ALL to do with religion. CASSE has always said that we need to consume WAY LESS, and move toward renewable energies. These messages also have NOTHING to do with religion, except that as stewards the earth, it is our responsibility to keep her healthy. If our Western economy is being destabilized, then it is because we have made our prosperity through consumption and damage of our own home. We were already unstable LONG BEFORE we incurred the anger of the middle-east through our military interventions and coercions. If we wish to confront “terrorism” then first let’s confront the terrorism of our economics, and gain some control of our own house. We have tried to lead the world thru coercion for centuries, now lets try leading by example, for once.

  4. Silvia Leahu-Aluas
    Silvia Leahu-Aluas says:

    O Canada…..

    Is this a joke about legislating against an anti-petroleum movement? According to my constitution I can be anti-petroleum, so I am.

    Have you noticed, C-51 sponsors, how infrastructure decisions are made through the legislative process? No need to create a thought police for people who care about how we all live well on a sustainable planet. Keystone XL bill was just vetoed and it will not be built in the States, and that’s the way I and many others want it.

    There are plenty of good alternatives, don’t get stuck in bitumen, Canada.

  5. Penelope Bell
    Penelope Bell says:

    In response to Mr. Ritchie – I do not disagree with your comments regarding self-imposed economic instability, nor do I disagree with your comments that the anti-fossil/anti-petroleum movements need have a thing to do with religion. Agreed! The problem is that they, in allowing extremist Islamic membership will ultimately religious zeal to infiltrate their ranks and thereby bring upon themselves a loss of credibility, along with undesirable lobbying and lawlessness.

    That is a key point for them to consider and for us to be aware. Extreme Islam is intent upon capitalising on the weaknesses in Western economy structures which you accurately describe and is pursuing a course to destroy Western economies, with no desire to reshape them in the way that CASSE’s very lucid, practical and imperative structure espouses.

    Although the Canadian Government’s belief in growth is misguided, its removing a possible ‘back door’ avenue for Islamic interference to gain a foothold in the decision-making processes is not misguided, the reason for the necessity of the C-51 Bill to be passed. As it does not threaten lawful, peaceful and ruly protests, lobbying etc., unless one intends to break the law, I see nothing to fear from it and more to fear without it.

  6. James Magnus-Johnston
    James Magnus-Johnston says:

    As the piece mentions, critics on both the left and the right are speaking out against C-51 including the infamous Conrad Black (http://news.nationalpost.com/2015/02/28/conrad-black-alarm-bells-must-ring-in-response-to-the-governments-new-anti-terror-bill/).

    The suggestion that the anti-petroleum movement is foreign funded is something of a red herring. The funding of the environmental or so-called “anti-petroleum” movement is a tiny fraction of investment in the oilpatch, including domestic subsidies. In the case of the so-called ‘anti-petroleum’ movement, ‘foreign’ is referring primarily to US funding of environmental groups, not to Arab funding.

    It’s an interesting argument to suggest that Arab states have an interest in preventing Canadian or American ‘energy independence,’ and this is clearly playing out in the global marketplace. But I would invite you to substantiate the conjecture that an ‘anti-petroleum movement’ is necessarily somehow in any way affiliated with Arab interests. That spurious claim furthermore suggests that those who are opposed to scaling up the use of fossil fuels may somehow instead open to coercion by terrorists, which is false and dangerously presumptive. Energy independence should refer to domestically scaling up the use of renewable energy as part of a more complete energy mix, not to substituting one form of oil to another.

    Finally, as this graphic suggests, we’re more likely to be killed by a moose in Canada than a terror plot: https://scontent-sea.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-xpf1/v/t1.0-9/11044551_1057375764278611_1038919473027876496_n.jpg?oh=a31278ebbc05fea58f7b5bd93aafe8b1&oe=55489B7E


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