Ottawa shooting used to expedite problematic legislation

Be wary of letting the tragedy reduce your rights.

Scott McLelland / The Runner

Scott McLelland / The Runner

On the morning of Oct. 22 in the nation’s capitol, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau allegedly shot Corporal Nathan Cirillo, an unarmed honour guard at the Ottawa National War Memorial. Zehaf-Bibeau then walked into the parliament buildings where he certainly would have taken more lives had it not have been for the quick response of parliament security staff. It was a harrowing and frightening series of events that captured the attention of the nation. One day after the shooting Prime Minister Harper made a statement pledging to speed up the process of increasing police powers in the interest of national security.

“In recent weeks, I have been saying that our laws and police powers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention and arrest,” he said in the address. “They need to be much strengthened. I assure members that work which is already underway will be expedited.”

It’s very important for lawmakers to be careful when considering changes to the law dealing with the expansion of powers. This is something justice minister Peter Mackay acknowledged when he said, “It’s going to be a very calculated and well-measured decision when it comes to any changes in our legislation, I assure you.” Even in the wake of a tragedy, there are still legitimate reasons to be wary of legislation that makes it easier for citizens to be detained. In general, whenever a politician starts talking about increasing powers regarding surveillance and detention, Canadians need to take that as a cue to pay attention.

The legislative changes described by Harper may be a disproportionate response to the events in Ottawa. As tragic and frightening as the recent events in Ottawa were, one needs to remember that they were the work of a single person. They were not a coordinated attack by a terrorist cell, as some were quick to assume once reports of the shooting came in. The increased surveillance powers and “preventive arrests” described by Harper would have done little to nothing in preventing this incident. All the same, the federal government has used the fear generated by this event as a catalyst to speed up the process of putting these extreme measures into effect.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair expressed similar concerns about the reaction to the events in Ottawa. Mulcair went so far as to state that Zehaf-Bibeau’s actions, while certainly criminal, did not qualify as terrorism. “I think there’s a distinction to be used and when you look at the background of the individual and what was actually going on, that the use of that word was not the appropriate one,” he said in a statement.

Another worrying factor of these proposed changes is the potential for them to be used for purposes other than their stated intent. The Patriot Act was signed in the United States in 2001 as a result of the events on 9/11 for similar purposes to the ones stated for this legislation. Since then, the powers granted by that act have been used more often for the investigation of American citizens for drug crimes than for actually combating terrorism. If the wording of these changes to Canadian laws isn’t exactly correct, they could be used in potentially unconstitutional ways.

If the tragedy in Ottawa is to prompt changes to Canadian policy, then there are other, better ways for it to do so. One could argue that an increased focus on mental health services in this country would do far more to prevent the type of lone-gunperson incident that we saw last month on Parliament Hill.

What it comes down to in the end is that we cannot let the fear of violence be used to compromise our individual rights. It is very easy to see security from incidents such as the one in question as the most important consideration that our lawmakers can make, but it is also incredibly important to keep our rights to privacy and freedom under consideration as well. It could well be that changes in the way we prevent terrorism at home are needed, but such changes should never be made in haste. The thing about individual civil liberties is that once they are gone, we won’t be getting them back.

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