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Knee-deep in surveillance: Bill C-51’s unhappy birthday

As Canada marks one year since the introduction of Bill C-51, our Laura Tribe examines where we're at, and the prospects for repealing this controversial bill.

This piece by our Laura Tribe was originally published by The Huffington Post, to mark the 1-year anniversary of Bill C-51.

It’s been one year. Exactly 365 days since the former Conservative government introduced Bill C-51, with its controversial spy powers that experts warn is shredding our basic constitutional rights.

So where do things stand now? After intense debate, C-51 was pushed through Parliament and is now law, but its many opponents are making progress.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen positive signs from the new federal government, as it has finally promised to meet calls for public consultation from Canadians, civil society, and experts.

Ralph Goodale, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, has said that consultations will be extended to the Canadian public – although when or what that will look like remains unclear. How robust will they be? Will repeal still be an option? Only time will tell.

When the Liberals were first elected, civil society and experts, including my organization OpenMedia, outlined three key priorities for addressing C-51. Consultation is one – but a genuine consultation must begin with an explanation of the government’s own position, and after three months in office we’re still not sure where the government stands.

Alongside the proposal for public consultation, talk of new Parliamentary oversight mechanisms have dominated headlines in recent weeks, again responding to a glaring gap in C-51. The Prime Minister announced that Liberal MP David McGuinty will be leading the future Parliamentary oversight committee. Earlier this month, Minister Goodale travelled to the U.K. alongside McGuinty to learn more about British oversight models and mechanisms for parliamentary review.

So, there are some good signs. But there’s one giant problem: While all of this is happening, C-51 is still law. And lack of spy agency oversight is just one of many worrying aspects of this legislation.

When are we going to see comprehensive action to undo the broader damage to Canadians’ rights?

Goodale has said that reforms on C-51 won’t likely be introduced until the fall at the earliest. Sadly, in the meantime, Canadians' rights are being violated every day C-51 remains in place.

Oversight can’t retroactively undo the damage that current legislation is doing. Each day, we’re being subjected to excess surveillance. Our data is being shared without any checks and balances in place. There is no recourse for innocent Canadians.

C-51’s overreaching powers are being normalized.

Many of the effects of this legislation won’t be felt for years to come – but in the meantime, we go on with our lives. Canadians remain on no fly lists. Our private data is being collected. Information is being shared and compiled between government agencies. Rights are being violated. And all of this is happening without the oversight to ensure it’s being done legally, effectively, and safely.

Canadians have made clear their desire to repeal this irresponsible legislation and start from scratch. Over 300,000 have called for full repeal at, with many more taking part in protests across the country. It will take some time for public consultations, expert input, and analysis to determine the best policies and legislative solutions for Canada’s security mechanisms. But we do know that right now, C-51 is quite simply incompatible with our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

So why do we have to spend the best part of yet another year subject to laws that even the Liberals, the party ruling with an overwhelming majority, thinks are problematic?

I’m growing impatient. And my trust that government spy agencies will not utilize their new powers while the consultations are taking place is low. Every indication suggests that they are desperate to collect as much information as possible, about all Canadians, with complete disregard for their privacy and innocence:

  • The RCMP continues to call for warrantless access to our telecom subscriber information, despite strong warnings from the Privacy Commissioner of Canada that this would violate the privacy of innocent Canadians.

  • The Vancouver Police Department, Ontario Provincial Police, and RCMP all refuse to answer if they are using incredibly invasive Stingray surveillance technologies, to trick cell phones into revealing sensitive private information.

  • Privacy breaches of personal mental health records in B.C., and foreign governments hacking our government websites, only further demonstrate why C-51’s information sharing between so many government departments makes our sensitive data even more vulnerable to increased violations.

  • Police have been requesting massive amounts of our private cell phone data. Although these ‘tower dumps’ have recently been declared a gross violation of privacy by an Ontario court, C-51 has empowered spy agencies like CSIS and CSE with all kinds of different tools to access more of our data, with less cause. What (or who) is going to stop them from using it?

We cannot assume a default respect for Canadians’ privacy, or that government agencies will work within a limited scope of the powers provided to them.

I know that we need to get this right. But in 365 more days, will I be writing this same piece?

It’s time for the government to tell us how they will undo the damage caused by each day that C-51 remains on the books.

It’s time for action. Canadians can speak up by signing the petition at, and by using our new tool to send a message to their MP.


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