Canada 2017·So, Canada...

What happens after the 'good' politicians give away our rights? Cory Doctorow shares a cautionary tale.

'The Canadian values that we "stand on guard" for include the right to a private sphere... You cannot defend these values by taking them away.'
You cannot defend values by taking them away, argues Cory Doctorow. (Marcell Seidler/Library and Archives Canada/PA-143488)

So, Canada...: Canadian writers, musicians, educators, poets and leaders riff on big and little topics inspired by our anthem's lyrics. 

The Canadian values that we "stand on guard" for include the right to a private sphere, the right to a place where people can gather to discuss heterodox ideas, like votes for women, or marriage equality, or Indigenous land claims or even legal pot. You cannot defend these values by taking them away.

But every surveillance measure that's taken in the name of our "security" takes away that private sphere, and as usual, our American cousins have shown us just how bad it can get.

In 2015, Tory Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney introduced Bill C-51, the Anti-terrorism Act, which granted sweeping, suspicionless, warrantless, unsupervised surveillance powers to the Canadian security services, and allowed them to share the data they gleaned with U.S. intelligence agencies.

An idealistic party leader named Justin Trudeau saw to it that his party whips secured the Liberal votes necessary to carry the bill, because he was going into an election and he didn't want to be wrong-footed by accusations of being "soft on terrorism." But he promised that as soon as he was prime minister, he'd put C-51 on a solid, rule-of-law footing, reining in spying powers and making them accountable and proportionate.

Two years later, Trudeau is PM, and C-51 is law, and the Liberal government's proposals to rein in these powers leave all the worst elements of C-51 intact. The government seems to be betting that Canadians will trust Trudeau to wield these powers wisely.

The U.S. experience shows us where this ends up. In 2005, a retired AT&T engineer named Mark Klein walked into the San Francisco offices of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the nonprofit I worked for, and handed over a sheaf of papers documenting an illegal project his boss had ordered him to undertake: intercepting AT&T's main fibre-optic line so that the National Security Agency could tap into all Americans' communications, without a warrant.

EFF did what it does best: we sued the U.S. government and the phone companies, arguing that this was a gross violation of the U.S. Constitution.  As our lawsuit reached a crux in 2007, the U.S. Senate weighed a bill to retroactively protect the phone companies from prosecution. 

An idealistic, rising young Senator named Barack Obama endorsed the bill and shepherded it to passage, promising that, if he was successful in his upcoming bid for the presidency, he would see to it that warrantless mass surveillance was halted, the rule of law was observed, and privacy would be restored.

Well, he got elected, but that was as far as things went. When Obama left office eight years later, he left behind an NSA that conducted orders of magnitude more surveillance than it had under George W. Bush, and that surveillance apparatus is now in the hands of a president who says he'll deport 11 million undocumented people and put Muslims, opposition activists and anyone he doesn't like under surveillance so thorough it staggers the imagination.

The spy powers that "good" politicians create are inevitably inherited by much worse politicians. If the Liberal government wants to safeguard its legacy and the future of Canadians, it will do better than Obama, brave the spy agencies, and make good on that promise of 2015. It will restore the right of Canadians to have a private life in an age where network surveillance can be used to comprehensively invade our personal lives, relationships and thoughts.

Within living memory, our loved ones were persecuted, hounded to suicide, imprisoned for activities that we recognize today as normal and right: being gay, smoking pot, demanding that settler governments honour their treaties with First Nations. The legitimization of these activities only took place because we had a private sphere in which to agitate for them.

Today, there are people you love, people I love, who sorrow over their secrets about their lives and values and ambitions, who will go to their graves with that sorrow in their minds — unless we give them the private space to choose the time and manner of their disclosure, so as to maximize the chances that we will be their allies in their struggles. If we are to stand on guard for the future of Canada, let us stand on guard for these people, for they are us.

Next in So, Canada...: Diane Flacks's take on "God keep our land glorious and free:"


Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist and journalist — the co-editor of Boing Boing ( and the author of many books, most recently WALKAWAY, a novel for adults, IN REAL LIFE, a graphic novel; INFORMATION DOESN’T WANT TO BE FREE, a book about earning a living in the Internet age, and HOMELAND, a YA sequel to LITTLE BROTHER


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