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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 2004

Chipping Away at Our Civil Liberties

Loretta Czernis
I was in Winnipeg recently for a western regional meeting of local faculty associations. I woke up in the Winnipeg Sheraton Oct. 15 and found the National Post at my door. I could not help but notice the front page's insistence that terrorist threats in Canada are prevalent in an article headlined "Dangers for Canada Are Real."

A very different alarm was sounded later that morning by University of Winnipeg President Lloyd Axworthy who spoke to delegates about new surveillance threats to Canadians — the very real threats to civil liberties that result from attempting to create a state free of any and all supposed security risks. The following morning, Maureen Webb, a lawyer at CAUT, augmented the perspective introduced by Axworthy. She spoke about the "new legal landscape." This is wild, uncharted territory, in which neither criminal law nor the rules of war apply. This is a very real no-man's-land in which a person's rights have been changed, almost beyond recognition. Those who have accidentally found themselves trapped in this new terrain have become disoriented, frustrated, and for some — like Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen born in Syria — in serious jeopardy.

Take for example our colleague at the University of Alberta, James Lewis. He could not board a plane in Edmonton until his passport was vetted by an airline supervisor. He was supposed to change planes in Toronto en route to Chicago. After needing clearance yet again from a supervisor at Toronto's Pearson airport, Lewis was interrogated by a U.S. customs officer. When he asked for the reasons for his interrogation, he was told "we can't tell you." He subsequently discovered his name was on a "no-fly" list. Once an individual is put on the no-fly list it is extremely difficult to get taken off.

Lewis, we could say, fell down the rabbit hole into a Security Wonderland and encountered an unlikely collection of characters who were talking in circles. And his story is not unique. Across the nation, scores of academics have fallen into the same hole and have been detained at border crossings, interrogated, fingerprinted, threatened, inconvenienced and more.

The burgeoning global surveillance system for travel is already functioning in Canada. And as we see from Lewis' predicament, innocent people are swept up as potential suspects. Bill C-7 allows the system to operate on all Canadian flights, and in the long run, all forms of transportation. There is already a Canadian team that is developing a passenger rating system and is integrating the system used by the United States. The U.S. is forcing the matter by threatening to withdraw landing rights from the airlines of countries that do not comply. The U.S. has also asked the International Civil Aviation Organization, which set up international standards for air transport, to come up with a system that would be imposed globally.

Canada and the U.S. have signed a "Smart Border Action Plan" that calls for developing common standards for biometric identity cards, visa policy coordination, sharing of passenger information, joint passenger analysis units, compatible immigration databases, exchanges of information on immigration-related issues, integrated border enforcement teams, establishment of integrated national security enforcement teams and joint cooperation in deporting individuals to source countries.

Even more astonishing is the fact that steps have already been taken to begin to assemble many different types of information on the world's citizens, including travel records, banking records, health records, voting registries, e-mail and other electronic correspondence, and library and employment records. Canada is conceiving of this project in terms of a "super justice" database.

In the U.S., the Patriot Act allows secret intelligence warrants for business records at libraries, bookstores and other institutions. Not only can police and security officials conduct searches of library records, it is illegal for librarians to notify individuals whose records are targeted.

In the name of national security, the RCMP raided the home and office of an Ottawa Citizen journalist in January. Reporter Juliet O'Neill had her computer and all her records seized during the searches by Mounties seeking the source of an information leak behind an earlier story she wrote about the Arar affair. There are a number of journalists facing similar actions, including prison terms. Their plight is being highlighted by the International Federation of Journalists. The federation's general secretary, Aidan White, is affirming their right to freedom of expression and commending them for standing firm.

The same sort of situation can arise for academics, since many of us work on topics that involve confidentiality. If I refused to hand over information from confidential sources to a judge, could I face jail time? The answer is "yes."

Since 9/11, attempts to reduce the risk of terrorist activity have also begun to seriously impede scholarly exchange. An article published Jan. 15 in Nature showed that many foreign students and researchers, especially from Asia and the Middle East, have been denied visas. Last month, visa applications were denied to an entire delegation of Cuban scholars who had planned to attend an international conference of the Latin American Studies Association in the U.S.
Earlier this year it was reported that five Irish citizens were denied visas to participate in a scholarly conference at the University of Ottawa. The group, all of whom are former IRA activists who have served jail time, is now engaged in a peace process that includes prisoner reintegration into society. They had been invited to speak about their ex-prisoner-based organization at a conference cosponsored by the Correctional Service of Canada. Nevertheless, even this type of project can be easily overridden in the murky land of new national security concerns.

What has begun is a process that is chipping away at our civil liberties. Civil liberties are the foundation for academic freedom, without which we cannot perform our academic work. We need to listen carefully to the experiences of those who have tumbled into the rabbit hole, and then act to protect academic freedom, civil liberties and other human rights in our post-secondary institutions, throughout our nation and abroad.