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Canada and the Politics of Fear: Anti-Terrorism, Surveillance and Citizenship in a Changing World

The Harper government  like so many governments that have come before it and will come after it — is more than ready to make good use of a crisis. 
 
Acting on the oft-quoted maxim, "never let a good crisis go to waste," nations, politicians and tacticians have all taken advantage of negative circumstances to advance political agendas and Canada is no exception. But when tragic events are leveraged to silence debate and expedite new laws that could negatively affect ordinary citizens, Canadians should take note. No one wants to be ruled by the politics of fear, after all.
 
Take the recently introduced anti-terrorism Bill C-44.
 
Also known as the "Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act," the bill was drawn up many months ago and tabled in Parliament just five days after a gunman shot an Ottawa soldier and breached the main hall of Parliament’s Centre Block before being killed by security guards. 
 

If passed, the Bill will give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) authority to ramp up general "surveillance" efforts, which include sharing information on Canadian citizens with members of the "Five Eyes" surveillance alliance (involving the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada), giving "greater protection" to confidential CSIS sources without having to identify them to judges in court proceedings, and revoking citizenship when Canadians are convicted of serious offences against the crown — all of which involve unparalleled changes to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, as well as drastic amendments to the Access to Information Act.
 
This bill is being strong-armed through Parliament, despite calls for a more robust debate, after Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared the Ottawa shooting an act of terror that should strengthen Canada's anti-terrorism efforts:
 

"…Canada is not immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere around the world.

We are also reminded that attacks on our security personnel and on our institutions of governance are by their very nature attacks on our country, on our values, on our society, on us Canadians as a free and democratic people who embrace human dignity for all.

But let there be no misunderstanding: we will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated. In fact, this will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts, and those of our national security agencies, to take all necessary steps to identify and counter threats and keep Canada safe here at home. Just as it will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts to work with our allies around the world and fight against the terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores."

Harper drew a strong connection between the events in Ottawa and the need for increased anti-terrorism security measures. Interestingly, even though many experts attributed the shooting event to mental illness rather than Islamic radicalism, the majority of Canadians still support increased security measures desipte the threat they might pose to civil liberties.
 
Is this the politics of fear winning out?
 
Similarly, despite a Supreme Court ruling at odds with the proposed legislation, the Harper government has also pushed through the infamous Bill C-13. Referred to as the "anti-cyberbullying bill," the legislation allows for broad new police powers, including several new warrants for surveillance as well as legalizing the accessing of Internet metadata — private data files that can reveal a person’s GPS locations, financial history and details of who they've been talking to and how often.
 
Bills C-44 and C-13 are most likely just the first dominoes to fall. Conservative ministers are currently looking to decrease how much evidence is needed to place a terror suspect under a peace bond — which allows officials to closely monitor "suspects" even if they don’t have enough evidence to lay a charge. The changes may also make it illegal to write online statements that are seen to support a group identified with terror (and remember in recent years indigenous activists, environmental advocacy groups and even groups that question capitalism have been identified as potential domestic terror threats in Canada).
 
In addition, these new powers might also increase the likelihood of "preventative arrests," or arrests without charge.
 
(Read Surveillance in Canada 101 for more information on government surveillance and data collection on Canadian citizens.)
 
These shifts in the legal landscape affect more than the government’s eternal "war on terror" and can be connected to larger shifts in our cultural self-perception and sense of history in Canada.
 
For example, despite the fact that crime rates have been steadily declining for over two decades — recently culminating in a 40-year low — the Harper government continues to insist there is “an epidemic of crime” in this country, and as such, Canadians should be open to further legislation to protect their families from the ‘increasing threats’ to their safety.
 
Others have noted a “pattern of politically charged heritage policy” in the federal government's rebranding of Canadian money and the refiguring of the Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History), which was recently transformed to focus on Canada's history of past military achievements.
 
The Harper government put $20 million into Heritage Canada ads to celebrate Canada's bravery in the War of 1812, a move members of the opposition charged as a glorification of military exploits in place of an examination of social history. The Harper government (note: no longer the Government of Canada) also rebranded the Canadian Forces the Canadian Armed Forces to "more accurately [reflect] the capabilities of our military."
 
The Harper government's efforts highlight a nationalistic narrative of perpetual violence and conflict that stretches from the initial clashes with First Nations peoples right up to the current war being waged on what Harper vaguely refers to as “Islamicism.”
 
Canadians are increasingly reminded that Canada was forged out of military might and will need to continue such acts of agression to maintain national security.
 
From our personal digital privacies to our larger cultural histories, Canadians are being encouraged to support "what is necessary" to combat the ubiquitous threats that are perpetually kept on the political horizon or amplified as "terrorism" as was the case in the Ottawa shooting. And this practice could very well ramp up as we move closer to next year's federal election.
 

Canada and the politics of fear

 
Remember this thing? It's never gone below 'Elevated.' Image Credit: Bill Alldredge/Flickr
 
While in the past, democratic political systems associated fear with clearly formulated threats and identifiable events that were limited to specific timeframes such as wars, famines, and diseases, as cultural theorist Paul Virilio points out in his book The Administration of Fear, politics have become saturated with fear, and we are constantly told that we are living in a stressful claustrophobia wrought with natural disasters, perpetual stock and resource crises, faceless terrorism and mysterious pandemics.
 
As sociologist Frank Furedi highlights in his work on the "culture of fear," such free-floating fear is sustained by a conservative political climate that is anxious about change and uncertainty, and which continually anticipates the worst possible outcomes in order to legitimize an agenda that stifles progressive politics that protects the freedom of individuals, especially the freedom to push for social and political transformation.
 
Thus rather than a thing we have become fearful in response to, fear has become an environment, an untethered tool of control that the Harper government summons every time it needs a ready justification for the further expansion of state surveillance powers.
 
All one has to do is reflect upon the fact that Bill C-44, which had been put on hold for months, was introduced in a mere five days after the Ottawa shooting to see the ways in which, as Naomi Klein points out in her book Shock Doctrine, “Leaders exploit crises to push through controversial exploitative policies while citizens are too emotionally and physically distracted by disasters or upheavals to mount an effective resistance.”
 
For another example, just look at some of the ways that indigenous environmental rights activists and their allies are increasingly being targeted as “extremist threats,” due to their opposition of the government’s resource-extraction on and destruction of their traditional territorial homelands.
 
Or simply scan the headlines of the mainstream media.
 
On any given day we are met with constant anxiety, a universality of vulnerability, and an omnipresence of fear in ways that are gradually shifting all forms of democratic activism and free expression into a realm of illegal terrorism and extremist violence that frames all actions against the status quo as dangerous. 
 
And as a result, fear is fast becoming a caricature of itself. No longer simply an emotion or a response to the perception of a threat, fear has become a cultural cliché, a political tool that our current government, and many others, are using to both justify and secure increasing powers.
 
In emotionally distressing times such as these, instead of treating fear as something self-evident, a taken-for-granted concept, we need to step back as a society and further interrogate and reflect upon the meaning of our anxieties. We need to defend democratic discourse, rather than shut it down in favour of expedited political practices that may have long-lasting consequences. 
 
Image Credit: Prime Minister Stephen Harper Photo Gallery

Adam is a PhD student in political science at York University in Toronto, where his research explores the nexus of…

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