It wasn’t exactly a charge to the barricades, but The United Church of Canada did the right thing this past spring when it lent its name to an open letter urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper to withdraw Bill C-51, the federal government’s anti-terrorism bill.
The church issued a press release announcing that a civil liberties monitoring group to which it belongs had endorsed an open letter critical of Bill C-51 written by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. The release invited United Church members to register their concerns about the legislation with their MPs and ask that it be withdrawn.
Call this advocacy twice removed. Even so, the church distinguished itself as the only major Canadian denomination to weigh in on the issue. Siding with the anti-C-51 camp placed the church in the company of four former prime ministers, five former Supreme Court judges, seven former solicitors general and ministers of justice, three past members of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, two former federal privacy commissioners, the Canadian Bar Association, over 100 prominent Canadian academics and more than 200,000 ordinary Canadians who signed online petitions.
There was no mistaking an old-guard Liberal tinge at the upper echelons of the anti-C-51 camp. (The current federal Liberals supported the bill.) But I suspect this tinge had more to do with loyalty to Canadian values than partisanship. The legislation — which gives law enforcement increased powers of detention, potentially limits free speech and movement, intrudes on personal privacy and expands the role of Canada’s spy agency without bolstering judicial oversight — reflects a Canada that’s more hard-edged than the one I thought I knew. The opposition to C-51 seemed as much a struggle for the soul of the country as it was a movement against the bill’s particulars.
The United Church of Canada has always been rooted in mainstream Canadian values — values that the church had a part in shaping. So it should have come as no surprise that it spoke up, however cautiously, against Bill C-51.
No one questions the need for laws to protect our national security. The issue here is good laws versus bad — laws that enshrine our better instincts versus laws that offend them. Despite the unprecedented opposition, C-51 received Senate approval in June. Canadians who still find the law offensive are being told to relax — if you’re not a terrorist, you have nothing to fear.
Last winter, Louise Arbour — a former Supreme Court justice, former United Nations high commissioner for human rights and passionate opponent of C-51 — addressed the nothing-to-fear argument in a CBC radio interview. She recited a famous quotation from Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran pastor who briefly flirted with the Nazis but later turned against them and spent seven years in a concentration camp. It bears repeating: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
The message: complacency equals complicity.
• In August, we take our annual break from our regular publishing schedule. We’ll be back in the fall with a lineup that includes a full report (October) on The United Church of Canada’s upcoming General Council in Corner Brook, N.L. Until then, best wishes for a safe and restful summer.