The fatal shooting of Corporal Nathan Cirillo on 22 October at the Canadian National War Memorial in Ottawa has unified Canadians and brought a deep outpouring of sympathy from across the world. However, the shootings have also raised troubling questions about Canada’s national security, and the failure of government and law enforcement agencies to effectively prevent such incidents.
Responding to these attacks, Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party are attempting to strengthen national security through increasing governmental powers in the areas of “surveillance, detention and arrest”. One possible piece of legislation would make it illegal to claim online that terrorist acts are justified.
Though these laws are well-intentioned, they are ultimately unconstitutional.
Free speech, under Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is protected as a “fundamental freedom”. The Internet, which is the greatest tool of self-expression in the modern age, is naturally a part of that.
Though tragedies like the one which occurred on 22 October are certainly unjustifiable, it is nevertheless a matter of principle that people should be allowed to hold and express whatever views they. Tolerance of dissent is a cornerstone of democracy; in fact, it is one of the critical principles which distinguishes Canada from extremist ideologies.
Those who are more pragmatically inclined argue that an exception must be made here when lives are on the line. They contend that criminalizing online defenses of terrorism effectively identifies potential terrorists and prevents their message from being spread. After all, it seems reasonable to sacrifice a certain amount of freedom of speech in order to protect Canadians’ right to life and security.
This, however, is not the case; freedom of speech and right to life are fundamentally separate and therefore not interchangeable. Furthermore, this proposition would seek to censor anyone who expressed sympathy with the terrorists’ aims – a troubling notion that bears little resemblance to our justice system, which assumes innocence until guilt is proven.
In fact, a similar law to the one being proposed now was introduced in the United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act 2006, which criminalized condoning or glorifying terrorism. Since then, in most cases where this law has been invoked, charges were dismissed, or there were other offenses committed which were not part of the 2006 act. In the one case where someone was convicted by the act, the judge said to the accused that “You fancied yourself as a fighter for the cause, but the truth is you were a very low-grade one,” and that he did not pose a serious threat at all. It seems that, despite the hype and controversy, criminalizing justifications of terrorism has not been effective at curbing serious terrorist threats.
The definition of what constitutes terrorism is itself problematic. While those responsible for Wednesday’s attacks are certainly reprehensible, other groups and other actions are part of a vaguer gray area. For instance, under Canadian laws, Nelson Mandela would have been considered a terrorist for his organization’s acts of violence and sabotage; indeed, Conservative MP Rob Anders expressed this view as recently as 2013.
In 2012, the Harper government also listed extreme environmental groups as terrorist threats. The National Energy Board, CSIS, and RCMP have spied extensively on a wide range of anti-oil sands organizations, including Idle No More, Sierra Club, Dogwood Initiative, and the Council of Canadians. Under the proposed laws, they could also be censored as part of anti-terrorist measures.
Overall, this new proposition sounds tough but doesn’t offer much in terms of real results. It attempts to deal with one of the vehicles of radicalization, but not the key cause – that cause being a feeling of alienation among Muslim groups, which internet censorship would only exacerbate.
A real counter-terrorism strategy must address the root cause. Whenever terrorist incidents involving radical Muslims occur, people are quick to blame it on Islam and the Muslim identity – but research shows that having a strong Muslim identity is not in fact the problem. Instead, the reason Muslim individuals become radicalized is because they perceive that their culture or way of life is under threat. The reason some individuals have this perception is because of society blaming the radical acts of some Muslims on Islamic culture as a whole – thus, extremism, violence, and the resulting prejudices and backlash form a vicious cycle.
To break this cycle, instead of criminalizing certain opinions, which would only serve to make at-risk communities feel further marginalized and discriminated against, the government should encourage cultural openness and diversity. Canada, of all nations, should be embracing multiculturalism – we claim that it is one of our best characteristics. It is important that all communities are aware that they are respected members of society, and that they have the freedom to express themselves and the right to represent themselves in the political process.
Ultimately, if issues of discrimination and cultural alienation are not addressed, any attempt at censoring the Internet is merely a superficial policy that violates our fundamental rights.
Op-eds are opinion articles that reflect the views of the author, but not necessarily those of the Editorial Board or of The Reckoner as a whole. Please note this important distinction when reading this article.