It isn’t often that Margaret Atwood, the celebrated, left-leaning Canadian author of The Handmaid’s Tale, joins forces with 60 of her country’s most prominent conservatives, including the heads of Canada’s National Firearms Association and its Libertarian Party.
What aligns these unlikely bedfellows is their outrage over bill C-51, a perilously overbroad counterterrorism draft law that the Canadian Senate is poised to vote on any day. Both Atwood and these breakaway conservatives have good cause for concern.
Bill C-51 would let Canada’s spy agency carry out operations that violate the country’s venerated Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a fundamental part of its constitution, provided they are secretly green-lighted by a court. It would grant 17 government agencies unprecedented powers to gather and share Canadians’ personal information – digging into, for example, bank accounts, tax returns, and health records. It would let the government place Canadians on no-fly lists without divulging all the evidence against them, and allow police to hold suspects for up to a week on the mere suspicion they “may” commit a terrorist act at some undetermined point in the future.
The law also would create a new criminal offense of recklessly “advocating or promoting the commission of terrorism offenses in general” – without defining either “terrorism offenses” or “in general.”
"See you in the slammer, kids, where I'll doubtless be put on suspicion of being reckless. Me + many," Atwood tweeted in reference to the proposed law, whose Twitter hashtags include #KillBillC51.
Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper proposed bill C-51 after separate attacks in October 2014 in Quebec and Ottawa killed two Canadian soldiers; in the Ottawa attack a gunman stormed Parliament.
Rammed through the House of Commons with almost no debate, the bill was thought to stand almost no chance of defeat in the conservative-dominated Senate.
But mounting opposition from civil, indigenous, and labor rights groups, literary figures such as Atwood, and more than 150 business leaders prompted the Senate last week to postpone the vote until Tuesday. The 60 conservatives who joined opponents now fear opposition to the bill could fracture Harper’s coalition and lose him the vote.
For Atwood, bill C-51’s big brother provisions may have felt unnervingly close to her classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, about the totalitarian state of Gilead. After staging an Islamist terrorist attack, the coup-masters suspend the country’s constitution under the pretext of restoring order.
Fortunately, Canada is still a long way from Atwood’s imaginary Gilead. Voting “No” to bill C-51 is an important step toward keeping it that way. Canada can protect its people from harm with the ample powers it already has to confront terrorism, not by dispensing with the rights its people hold dear.