What Aaron Driver means for the debate on amending Bill C-51

The case of Aaron Driver, the ISIS sympathizer who was killed in Strathroy, Ont., on Wednesday, comes to the fore amid the outstanding question of federal anti-terror laws and the fate of Bill C-51, the former Conservative government's controversial legislation of last year.

Case of ISIS sympathizer comes amid outstanding question of anti-terror laws

The Liberal government promised to review Canada's anti-terrorism laws. Now that review will take place in the context of security authorities having thwarted an attack by an ISIS sympathizer who'd been released on a peace bond. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The case of Aaron Driver, the ISIS sympathizer who was killed in Strathroy, Ont., on Wednesday, comes to the fore amid the outstanding question of federal anti-terror laws and the fate of Bill C-51, the former Conservative government's controversial legislation of last year.

And on Thursday, the Conservatives spoke of both in nearly the same breath.

"I salute and thank the law enforcement and intelligence officers who put their own lives on the line to stop this potential attack on innocent Canadians," interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose said in a statement distributed on Thursday morning.

"Unfortunately, the Liberal government campaigned on a promise to strip these officers of some of the essential investigative and enforcement tools to do this work, which the previous Conservative government provided through Bill C-51, and which have already been wisely used to disrupt terrorist activities nearly two dozen times since last fall. I call on the Liberal government to ensure all of Canada's security and intelligence services keep the tools they need to do their jobs." 

On a very basic level, Driver's fate might well factor into the general debate: a case of suspected terrorism informing a debate about how the law should be used to respond to the threat of terrorism. "This disturbing event serves to remind us that Canada is not immune to the threat of terrorism," Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said on Thursday.

But on the particulars, it is unclear what precisely Driver's case might have to do with C-51.

Liberal commitment to rewrite C-51

In bestowing new powers on law enforcement and national security agencies, C-51 raised various concerns about civil liberties.

In opposition at the time, the Liberals support the bill's passage, but vowed they would amend the legislation if they were to form government.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale talked Thursday about new counter-radicalization efforts the federal government will focus on to try to prevent another case like Aaron Driver's. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Liberals subsequently promised in their campaign platform last year to "repeal the problematic elements of Bill C-51, and introduce new legislation that better balances our collective security with our rights and freedoms." 

Specifically, the Liberals said new legislation would "guarantee that all Canadian Security Intelligence Service warrants respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; ensure that Canadians are not limited from lawful protests and advocacy; narrow overly broad definitions, such as defining 'terrorist propaganda' more clearly;" and "limit Communications Security Establishment's powers by requiring a warrant to engage in the surveillance of Canadians."

When Parliament adjourned in June, the Liberal commitment remained outstanding, the government promising further consultation in the coming months.

Does the Driver case tell us anything about C-51?

Ambrose referred to the fact that CSIS Director Michel Coulombe had told a Senate committee that new powers to disrupt extremist plots had been used close to a dozen times since the bill became law last year.

But while Ambrose raises C-51 in her response to the Driver case, her statement does not directly link the bill's provisions with the particulars of Driver's case. Rob Nicholson, a former minister in the Conservative government, similarly sidestepped making any connection when asked by a reporter in Ottawa on Thursday afternoon about the relevance of C-51.

(Ambrose's office says the statement refers to the issue of terrorism in general, not any specific case.)

Craig Forcese, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who has written about C-51 extensively and raised several concerns in the process, suggests C-51 is not obviously relevant to Driver's case.

Driver was the subject of a peace bond, but such measures existed before C-51 and the RCMP applied for a peace bond before C-51 was in place.

In response to a legal challenge mounted by Driver, a Manitoba judge ruled against a provision of C-51 that made it possible to mandate religious counselling for individuals on a peace bond, so it might be debated whether that would have had any effect here.

Forcese speculates that Driver could have possibly been charged under C-51's prohibitions against advocating or promoting terrorism, but the professor also argues such provisions are overly broad.

Aaron Driver, seen here after a Feb. 2, 2016, court appearance in Winnipeg, had been suspected of planning terrorist activities and had restrictions placed on his freedom. He died in a confrontation with police on Wednesday. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Asked Thursday about the government's commitment to address C-51, Goodale seemed undaunted.

"The changes that we proposed during the election campaign … remain commitments that we intend to implement," Goodale said. "What we have said is beyond that … we will also consult Canadians about what else they want to see in their national security framework."

Goodale also stressed counter-radicalization as an important initiative in light of Wednesday's events.

Where the debate goes from here

Forcese says he hopes for a "more nuanced" conversation after the contentious debate about C-51. He laments that some assume new terrorism laws are simply good. 

A lot of people, he adds, treat C-51 "as a big black box, and everything must be bad in it or everything must be good in it." He argues the bill was an inefficient attempt to address real concerns.

If it's unclear what C-51 has to do with Driver, we should perhaps be hesitant about seeing his case as a reason to maintain the current anti-terror legislation. But it's also true that the threat Driver represents, and the threat C-51 was supposed to address, should not be casually dismissed.

Ideally, the provisions of C-51 and any proposed changes should be tested against known examples and foreseeable events. Whenever new legislation is tabled, it will surely be scrutinized for possible weaknesses.

No doubt the case of Driver case will somehow now loom over any such debate. But the details, not only the spectre, should be included at the forefront of that debate.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.