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Bill C-51: Soon to be law, and as murky as ever

People protest against Bill C-51, the government's anti-terror legislation, in Ottawa last week.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

'Bill C-51 about to be passed in Canada. See you in the slammer, kids," Margaret Atwood tweeted on Tuesday. With all due respect to the author of The Handmaid's Tale, we don't think she will end up in a prison cell after the Harper government's anti-terrorism act goes into law.

On the other hand, we don't exactly know what to expect. The bill remains overbroad and underexplained. The government has rushed it through the House of Commons and kept debate and committee hearings to a minimum. So we join with Ms. Atwood and numerous other critics on the occasion of C-51's expected passage in the Commons in reminding Ottawa that the bill's drastic measures are an unjustified infringement of Canadians' rights.

The bill's most troubling provisions give unprecedented powers to government departments, to police and to CSIS, the country's spy agency. Departments will be able to share private information about any person or group deemed a threat to national security. There are protections for "lawful" advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression, but the very fact that the bill makes an exception for things that should so obviously be allowed to exist without government interference is concerning.

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The law also makes it a crime to communicate support for terrorism "in general" – a provision that could be applied to anyone sharing an online comment that is unrelated to the commission of terrorism offences.

As for CSIS, it will be allowed to "reduce" terrorism threats, but the government has never defined "reduce." We still don't know if CSIS agents can detain and interrogate people without proceeding through the Criminal Code and other legal avenues. We do know CSIS will be allowed to violate a suspect's Charter rights if it can obtain a warrant to do so in a secret hearing with a judge.

As we've said before, the government has never justified its need to weaken Canadians' constitutional protections. It has simply stated that it wants more powers to fight terrorism and then churlishly impugned the motives of anyone who has spoken out against Bill C-51. Ms. Atwood's invocation of imminent imprisonment may be over the top. But, then again, when a government passes a law that questions basic freedoms and refuses to clarify its scope, people are entitled to expect the worst.

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