The Sunday Magazine

What would F.R. Scott say? - Michael's Essay

Prime Minister Harper's new Anti-Terrorism Act would have shocked Canada's great civil libertarian, Frank R. Scott.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks about his new anti-terrorism legislation that would give Canada's spy agency power to thwart travel plans, disrupt bank transactions and covertly interfere with radical websites. Jan. 30, 2015 (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

The timing couldn’t have been more apposite -- or more ironic.  On January 30th, Prime Minister Stephen Harper revealed his new "tough on terror" security bill, which raises all sorts of questions about civil liberties.

F.R. Scott (Lois Lord)
The following day, January 31st, in the obituary columns of The Globe and Mail, the following In Memoriam announcement appeared: “Frank R. Scott, poet, civil libertarian, law professor, political activist. Born August 1, 1899, died January 31, 1985. His name lives on.”

Then on the Monday, February 2nd, municipal politicians in Montreal moved to crush the plans of an imam to open a Islamic community centre in the city's east end. They were concerned and perturbed by some of Hamza Chaoui’s critical and infuriating comments about homosexuality and popular music.

Montreal-based imam Hamza Chaoui denies being "an agent of radicalization." (YouTube)
Until that point, nobody had ever heard of Hamza Chaoui. And, absent the grandstanding politicians and inflamed media, chances are nobody ever would have. The mayor of Montreal said he was opposed to radicalism in all its forms.

In terms of terror and security and civil liberties, it was quite a weekend. F.R. Scott must be positively twirling in his grave.

F.R. Scott must be positively twirling in his grave.- Michael Enright

Frank Scott was probably the greatest constitutional expert and teacher of his time. He fought and won a landmark civil rights case, Quebec's infamous "Padlock Law", before the Supreme Court of Canada. He spent his life in defence of the interests of the individual against the intimidating power of the state.

Pierre Trudeau was a disciple and a case could  be made that without the influence of Frank Scott, we would not have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The current government has introduced a number of broad, new powers to be given to Canada's intelligence agencies.

RCMP Assistant Commissioner Wayne Rideout shows the pressure cookers investigators said were intended to be used as explosive devices in an Al-Qaeda-inspired plot to explode a bomb at the B.C. Legislature. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
One of the more serious elements, is the ability of CSIS, Canada's spy agency, to secure something called a "disruption warrant" from a judge. These warrants would allow CSIS to take any number of actions to reduce a real or perceived threat to security.

What these perceived threats might be, nobody seems to know. But they could include the free speech and ideas like those of the Montreal imam.

As The Globe and Mail put it: "In Canada, it appears a growing list of objectionable ideas and beliefs are to be hunted down and subjected to the full weight of the state."

In yet another coincidence of a sort, last year was the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Set up in 1964, the CCLA came into being to fight an outrageous police powers bill being rammed through the Ontario Legislature.

Over the years, largely through the energies of its former executive director, the defiant and determined Alan Borovoy, it has fought discrimination in all its forms, defended the free speech of neo-Nazis, jumped to the defence of art galleries against obscenity laws, and has generally made life miserable for governments and institutions which don’t care much for civil liberties.

I must disclose at this point that I have supported the CCLA over the years.

Even with the goodly efforts of the CCLA, Canada still has a problem when it comes to security versus civil liberties. The War Measures Act arrests in 1970 saw hundreds of innocent people thrown into jail. The same thing happened in 2010 at the G20 meetings in Toronto when the cops panicked and arrested everybody in sight in the largest police roundup in Canadian history.

To celebrate its anniversary, the CCLA has published a book called Acting for Freedom, by Marian Botsford Fraser. The book details some of the battles taken on and won by the CCLA.

And given the tenor of the times in this election year in Canada, there are many more battles to come.


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