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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, declaring Islamicism to be Canada's major threat, has decided the country needs to renew two pieces of extraordinary police powers that lapsed from the Anti-terrorism Act four years ago. Mr. Harper should first convince Canadians the intrusion on basic rights is necessary.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/09/2011 (4161 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, declaring Islamicism to be Canada’s major threat, has decided the country needs to renew two pieces of extraordinary police powers that lapsed from the Anti-terrorism Act four years ago. Mr. Harper should first convince Canadians the intrusion on basic rights is necessary.

Within months of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Canada and its western counterparts quickly passed muscular laws to prevent similar tragedies in their nations. The laws have had mixed success: The public knows the spectacular failures in detection — bombings in Spain and Britain being memorable examples in the decade since the global war on terrorism began. Less obvious are the many instances plots have been discovered and defused. Canada saw about a dozen of 18 men arrested in Ontario convicted for planning to bomb Parliament and public buildings and behead the prime minister.

The Liberal government in 2001 defended the harsh new investigative and prosecution tools as necessities, but recognized that the suspension of due process in law that protects fundamental rights of Canadians was controversial. Few were more contentious than the power given to police to make preventive arrests, and for authorities to hold investigative hearings. The first allows the arrest and three-day detention without charge of those suspected of plotting terrorist acts; the latter allows witnesses, who are believed to associate with terrorism suspects, to be compelled to testify under threat of jail. The Chrétien government passed such provisions subject to a sunset clause that saw both expire in 2007.

Dale Cummings / Winnipeg Free Press

A Conservative minority failed in its attempt that year to renew preventive arrest and investigative hearings. A Commons committee’s sweeping review of the Anti-terrorism Act in 2007 made numerous recommendations on various elements of anti-terrorism laws, but was silent on those two.

For all the terrorism-related arrests and prosecutions since 2001, not once in the five years they existed were preventive arrests and investigative hearings held. This shows Canadians that authorities can wield such powers prudently. But it also legitimately raises the question of necessity.

Mr. Harper should present for parliamentary debate a comprehensive report on the need for such extraordinary powers — international and domestic evidence. Canada in 2001 reacted practically to the reality of a new global threat. Ten years of experience can inform a more deliberate debate now.

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