May 12, 2015

Lessons from Bill C-51

Last week, the final vote on the Harper government’s so-called “Anti-Terror” Bill C-51 passed in the House of Commons with Liberal support. The bill has now been sent to the Senate for debate prior to receiving royal assent. During the three months between the bill’s introduction and this moment, there have been several twists and turns which reveal three important lessons for Canadian politics.

1. Do not trust initial polling numbers!

When the bill was first announced, as many as 82% of Canadians supported it and some were wondering why the NDP and Greens would be opposed. While action on security matters may have initial emotional appeal, reason takes longer to sink in. In the weeks following the bill’s introduction, opposition to Bill C-51 came from the following sources:

- Former Prime Ministers (Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, John Turner, and Joe Clark)
- Over 100 law professors across Canada (link to letter)
- Former Supreme Court justices
- 60 business leaders (link to letter)
- Environmental, aboriginal, and advocacy groups like OpenMedia and Leadnow
- Almost 100 000 Canadians who attended protests nationwide on March 14 and over 200 000 signatures on OpenMedia’s website

Given such credible and broad based opposition, Canadians started reading into the bill and concerns such as the expansion of CSIS powers, suppression of freedom of expression, sharing of private data, and spying on political opponents. As more Canadians became aware about C-51, the less likely they were supportive. A poll published by Forum Research on April 9 indicated 56% were opposed and 33% approved[1], which leads to the next lesson.

2. Party leaders must listen to their grassroots!

The same poll indicated 77% of Liberal supporters opposed the bill, yet not even they or former Liberal prime ministers could convince Justin Trudeau and his caucus to change their minds. To add to the hypocrisy, Liberal MP Adam Vaughan was caught at a Stop C-51 rally in Toronto. Given Trudeau’s ignoring of the grassroots, images of disgruntled Liberals cutting their member cards have gone viral and some even applied for NDP memberships.[2] When coupled with the NDP’s recent win in Alberta, it is possible the NDP will soon eclipse the Liberals for the first time since Trudeau became leader in 2013 and become the main alternative to the Conservatives during the October 19 federal election. To the NDP’s credit, I have one last lesson.

3. Never giving up pays off!

Thanks to public pressure, the Conservatives did end up amending the bill to exempt protests and dissent from the bill, remove the ability of CSIS to make arrests, and limit information sharing.[3] However, critics deemed these changes to be insufficient and insist that the bill be fully repealed, which the NDP committed to. There is also the possibility C-51 could be struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada, but that process could take years.
Fortunately for the NDP, they are already at work planning for this election in the hope of forming the next government. They carried out several National Days of Action since last year – including one on this bill on April 18 – to connect with voters, get petition signatures, and recruit volunteers. They held mass rallies across Canada, one of which gained praise from the Toronto Star for Mulcair’s urban agenda. They conducted online donation blitzes, though I personally feel they went overboard with the high frequency of e-mails. More recently, they launched several short video clips on YouTube to call out Justin Trudeau as representing more of the same such as the one below.

With five months to go until the election, the NDP needs to maintain their positive momentum and ramp up their campaign efforts in order to seal the deal with disgruntled Liberals. For those who remain sceptical, my experiences with elected officials in my riding – all of which are New Democrat – have been positive and others across the country with NDP representatives have told similar stories. If you haven’t met your NDP candidate, I suggest you do and learn what they have to offer. If mine is of any indication, you will not be disappointed.

On continue!
Rob Z (e-mail)



[1] Forum Research. “Support for Bill C-51 waning.” April 9, 2015.

[2] ThinkPol. “Supporters publicly abandoning Liberal Party over Trudeau’s support for Bill C-51.” May 9, 2015.
[3] Alex Boutilier and Tonda MacCharles. Toronto Star. “Conservatives to propose minor amendments to Bill C-51.”

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