Harper's Bizarre: anti-terror legislation targets Indigenous women

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper says his anti-terror legislation will protect Canadians from terrorism, but it will also put the country’s Indigenous women at greater risk than ever before.

Elizabeth Grant
3 April 2015

While continuing to deny that the murder of over 1000 Indigenous Canadian women since 1980 suggests any wider “sociological phenomenon,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper is using the deaths of four Canadians in domestic terror attacks to bring a controversial new “anti-terror legislation” into law. As evidence of the threat that terrorism now poses to the country, Harper and his ruling Conservatives have cited two domestic terror attacks in Canada last year as well as December 2014’s hostage-taking in Sydney, Australia.

Critics say that the legislation, Bill C-51, would bring Canada dangerously close to becoming a totalitarian state.  Indigenous rights advocate Holly Jarrett describes the bill as “propaganda.”

“That’s what it is,” Jarrett tells me over the phone, “And this, in my opinion, is another one of his ploys to pull away attention and let the tail wag the dog.”

C-51 is a vaguely worded, 62-page long bill that will dramatically increase the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS) while requiring minimal oversight. The bill will institute a culture of secrecy around multiple police and government activities deemed to have bearing on national security, and in the words of security law expert Craig Forcese, press Canada’s judges into the service of this culture, turning them into “enablers of illegality.”

Many people believe that the bill will also have a chilling effect on the work of Indigenous rights advocates, environmental protesters, and anyone advocating views contrary to the ruling government’s agenda.


Bill C-51 Day of Action in Bridgewater. Photo: John McCarthy via Flickr.

Francois Lavigne began his career with the RCMP, eventually joining CSIS following their inception in 1984. In an interview with right-leaning newspaper the National Post, even Lavigne said the bill is unnecessary.

“I find it a little convenient that in the past few years that these radicalized people are the biggest threat to ever hit us,” Lavigne stated. “There are more people dying because of drunk drivers or because of gang violence.”

Or due to institutionalized racism.

Jarrett agrees that the bill could further marginalize Canada’s Indigenous people:

“Our activists are our voices, right? …If we stifle the progress they could make then he’s just taking away from our voices again,” she says, referring to Prime Minister Harper.

In the autumn of 2014, Holly Jarrett uploaded a video of herself wherein she tells Canadians that while Aboriginal women make up 3.4% of the country’s population, they have accounted for a staggering 24% of murder victims in Canada over the last 30 years. In the video Jarrett also honours her own murdered cousin, Loretta Saunders. Like Jarrett, Saunders was an Inuk woman from Labrador. At the time she was murdered, Saunders was completing her honours thesis at Dalhousie University in Halifax; the topic of her thesis was missing and murdered Indigenous women.


Campus protest 2011. Photo: Toban B via Flickr.

In a question that became the title of a viral social media campaign, Jarrett invites viewers to contemplate the question that plagues Canada’s Indigenous women: “Am I next?” The video also directs viewers to Jarrett’s change.org petition, asking the Canadian government to hold an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. With much of the discourse around the bill focusing on its potential effects on environmental activism, I asked Jarrett if the bill would further imperil the safety of Indigenous women in Canada. 

“Well, yes, when we talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women, there’s no one topic. Just like what the government does, they encompass everything… You can’t touch one of these without touching a million more of them.”

In a year-end interview between Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge in 2014, Mansbridge asked the prime minister to comment on some suggestion that his government was finally considering holding the inquiry so many have asked for. Harper replied that the problem “…isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.”


So what is high on Harper’s radar? With an election scheduled for October of this year, Harper and his fellow Conservative ministers are intent on passing Bill C-51, employing a hard-sell approach that speaks directly to Canadians’ geopolitical anxieties, and simmering concerns over threats from “home-grown terror.” The PR offensive has been supplemented with an aggressive internal campaign to move the bill through parliament with minimal public consultation and formal review, employing what former CSIS officer Lavigne has called “fascist techniques.”

CSIS would also acquire the permission to “disrupt” suspected terror activity both within and outside of Canada. Background documents cited by the CBC included the examples of obstructing travel plans or financial transactions, or interfering with the websites and social media accounts of suspected radicals. The legislation itself does not include a definition of what “disruption” might include, meaning the exact nature of any disruptive activity will remain open to interpretation if the bill is adopted.

Much of the threat that is posed by C-51 is tied to the vagaries of its language. Presently, law enforcement agencies are permitted to arrest someone if they believe a terrorist attack “will be carried out.” Bill C-51 would change this to permit arrest if officials believe a terrorist attack “may be carried out.”

While it is against the law to encourage someone to commit a specific terrorism offence, another change would make it punishable by up to five years in prison to promote terrorism or intentionally advocate it. At the same time, government officials are insisting that they are not making it illegal to glorify terrorism.

Exactly what behaviour defines a terrorist in Canada is by no means clear. In February when reporters asked Justice Minister Peter Mackay how terrorism would be defined in regards to the legislation, his reply was petulant: “Look it up.”

Further research into the Conservatives’ rhetoric only complicates matters. After a plot for a mass shooting in a Nova Scotia mall was discovered and foiled, Mackay was quick to clarify that this was not an act of terrorism because, he asserted, the planned attack did not appear to have been “culturally motivated.” Dare we ask how Mackay defines a cultural motivation?

Last year’s tragic attacks were both conducted by a lone perpetrator, and both perpetrators had been identified by authorities as persons of interest who had been radicalized. However it has also been alleged that the Parliament Hill shooter, who is known to have had a history of crack addiction, was mentally unwell too. This suggests that the attacker’s radicalisation was one among a host of factors likely to have influenced the man’s behaviour.

Regardless of the perpetrators’ motivations, statistically speaking Canadians are fortunate to live in a country where the threat of such terrorist attacks remains at a very low level. Perhaps more important than this, though, is the fact that there are some Canadians for whom Canada itself is the threat. According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s own report, Aboriginal women represent 16% of Canada’s murdered women, and 11.3% of its missing females cases.


Bill C-51 has sparked protests across the country, and it has also been denounced in a letter signed by four former Canadian prime ministers as well as five former Supreme Court justices.

The official opposition New Democratic Party has stated it will not support the bill, while the center-left Liberal Party will vote in favour of the legislation. Considered strong contenders in the upcoming election, the Liberals have qualified their support, proposing changes to the bill, and stating that if elected they would introduce “robust oversight and appropriate review.”

In an open letter to the Prime Minister, signed by over 100 Canadian law professors, the bill was described as a “dangerous piece of legislation.”


Missing Women Inquiry protest, Vancouver 2011. Photo: Wayne G via Flickr.

Dr. Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and professor, and a member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. Palmater holds the chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, and is a high-profile advocate for Indigenous rights.

On March 24, Palmater appeared as a witness before Parliament in the House of Commons’ Public Safety Committee hearings to obtain feedback on Bill C-51. In her testimony Palmater argued forcefully for the bill to be thrown out, stating that under C-51 Indigenous people’s ability to advocate for their rights and protest against laws could constitute insurgency. Underscoring her point, Palmater reminded the committee that there was a time when it was legal in Canada “…to take Mi’kmaq scalps” and to confine Indigenous people to reserves.

“We had to break the law in order to preserve our lives, our physical security and our identities, and are faced with that same problem again in C-51.”

Palmater is an advocate for Indigenous nationhood and she has said that she could easily fall afoul of C-51.

“My declaration of sovereignty – that kind of material on my computer – could be considered terrorism, a threat to national security because it’s a threat to Canada’s national security,” she testified. 

Palmater’s testimony is based on more than speculation. In an interview with the CTV News program Question Period two days before testifying against the bill, Palmater was asked to comment on the repeated insistence of Canada’s Public Safety Minister Stephen Blaney that the bill would not pave the way for CSIS or the RCMP to spy on high-profile advocates like her.

Smiling, Palmater replied “…They are already spying on me. They are already spying on people like Cindy Blackstock, a social worker for Pete’s sake. I mean, I wrote an access to information request to CSIS, to National Defence, to the RCMP and (government office) Indian Affairs to confirm whether or not they’re following, monitoring, surveilling me in any way, and three out of the group all confirmed that they were. So right now without this anti-terrorism bill, my rights are already being violated.”

In a blog about the bill posted to activism website rabble.ca, Palmater is blunt in her explanation of the legislation’s potential threat to all Canadians:

“Canadians will, for the first time, be treated like First Nations people – without the protection of their basic rights, freedoms and liberties. Even someone who retweets or reposts a comment made by someone else on Facebook could potentially be captured under this sweeping legislation.”

Thinking of this, I asked Holly Jarrett how the Am I Next campaign might look if it were begun under Bill C-51.

“It’s hard for me to speculate and to be honest with you…I try not to speculate too much because I try to deal in the ‘now’ when I’m campaigning. But had this bill been in effect I possibly could have been charged for speaking out against our government. I possibly could have been charged with speaking about any kind of an act that would…lead to an uprising kind of event. 

“So, then we’ve got women who are taking their picture for that whole campaign, and what would we have done? Would we have said ‘you can’t do this because that’s a terrorist act?’…I know that it’s a serious thing and I don’t want this to sound ignorant, but some of the things that Harper does, they’re just laughable.

“All those women who would have been in my campaign would have been able to be possibly investigated with special police services on their tail. Like we don’t have enough already, you know?”

If Harper has his way, all Canadians might find themselves with an unsettling new reason to be looking over their shoulder. 

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