History is repeating

Date: 
Friday, October 16, 2015

Trade union members, First Nations, environmentalists, lawyers, human rights defenders, former prime ministers, the United Nations, businesses, and the NDP have called Canada’s new spy law–Bill C-51–a massive, unwarranted attack on the fundamental rights of Canadians.

By David Hogben

In a recent interview, NDP critic Randall Garrison said that labelling anything that threatens the economic or financial security of Canada as terrorism opens the door to use the new law against trade unions.

Going out on strike against an employer could result in workers being labelled terrorists under the new law. “Potentially any strike could be defined as threatening economic or financial stability,” said the MP for EsquimaltJuan de Fuca.

C-51 opens the door for government security forces to covertly disrupt many union activities.

That fits with the analysis of labour historian Mark Leier.

“The idea now is anything the government doesn’t like can now be called terrorism. They can now use whatever means they have at their disposal to crack down on it. That should be terrifying,” said the SFU historian.

Leier said C-51–which became law in June–is the latest example that uses national security to justify laws to beat down trade unions.

It happened after the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, he pointed out, when fears of communism were used to justify a new federal law used to deport thousands of foreign-born “radicals,” many who happened to be trade union leaders.

It happened again in the 1950s when the national government once again used the “Red Scare,” the fear of communism, to encourage more collaborative Canadian trade union leaders to purge their more radical, leftist colleagues. 

Collaborative trade union leaders accepted the challenge and “used this to crack down on the wave of militants who came to the fore in the 1930s and 1940s,” Leier said. “The government didn’t have to do all of its own dirty work.”

Following this period, the labour movement went into decline for years, Leier added.

Broad definitions of what can now be considered terrorism and the lack of an effective watchdog to prevent abuses has even brought criticism from the United Nations.

The UN Human Rights Committee said the definition of terrorism is too broad, there is no effective oversight to protect Canadians from abuses, and CSIS will now have massive surveillance powers and the ability to violate basic rights. 

Although the government says the law will fight terrorism, it could strip a union of its right to strike for better wages and working conditions.

“It’s the power that workers have to withdraw their services and to create that insecurity and instability in order to get a fair agreement,” said Garrison.

The new law also throws a chill into the Canadian unions helping unions in other countries in their fight for bargaining rights. That’s because doing “damage” to Canada’s international relations can also be considered a security threat under C-51.

Canadian unions could also be accused of supporting terrorism if they advocate for bargaining rights in countries where unions have been declared enemies of the state. 

“The danger is, for instance in Colombia, if you are working with a group that opposes the government, are you going to be defined as promoting terrorism?”

C-51 is a major issue in the upcoming Oct. 19 federal election. The Conservatives defend the law.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair says his party will repeal the law.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau set off a firestorm of rage in his own party when he spoke against many aspects of the law, but supported it in Parliament. Analysts believe he acted out of fear that support for the newly introduced and, at the time, popular bill would hurt his chances of being elected prime minister. Outraged Liberal party members announced their resignations in a Twitter campaign that featured photos of cut up Liberal membership cards.

Taking a cue from the Winnipeg General Strike, when the opposition to the massive deportation of thousands of trade union activists was so powerful that the government was forced to repeal the law, unions and a diverse group of allies now are fighting fiercely against C-51.

Like other significant moments in Canadian labour history, organized labour is in the forefront of the action, Leier said.
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