A bill that would give Canadian authorities sweeping powers over charitable organizations may soon be on its way to passage. The Canadian Parliamentary Finance Committee wrapped up its hearings into the proposed Charities Registration (Security Information) Act (Bill C-16) earlier this month.
Under the bill, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada's spy agency, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), would have the ability to strip charitable status from groups suspected of supporting terrorism overseas, directly or indirectly, based on evidence presented to the Solicitor General and/or Minister of National Revenue. The targeted charity would not be allowed to see the evidence against it nor appeal any such decision.
Dhaliwal... wisely saw the potential for abuse, (and) told reporters that he had not seen any evidence of charities raising funds for terrorists overseas.
The substance of the legislation is not new. A few years ago, the government abandoned an attempt to introduce similar legislation when a number of cabinet ministers opposed the move as too draconian. At the time, there was a showdown in Parliament with a group of parliamentarians led by then Revenue Minister Herb Dhaliwal who openly disagreed with then Solicitor General Andy Scott when he first proposed the new process. Dhaliwal, a Sikh, who wisely saw the potential for abuse, told reporters that he had not seen any evidence of charities raising funds for terrorists overseas. The idea was then shelved.
The legislation was revived after the December 1999 arrest of Ahmed Ressam at Port Angeles, Washington as he tried to cross from Canada to the U.S. with a carload of explosives. Since then, Washington has increased pressure on Canada to tighten its laws.But the U. S. campaign to ferret out "terrorists" has moved with a vengeance into Canada. In early 1999, a U.S. judiciary subcommittee held hearings on the alleged increase in drugs and terror crossing the U.S.-Canadian border. It was reported that the lax visa and asylum laws has made Canada a haven for terrorists. Another congressional hearing in February 2000 also pointed fingers at Canada for being too lax with so-called terrorists and their sympathizers, and American authorities reportedly have gone so far as to threaten to revoke the "most-favored nation" trade status extended to Canada when bidding for American defense contracts worth an estimated $5 billion dollars a year.
In addition to US pressure, some have suggested that there is a need on the part of CSIS to justify its existence in the face of massive budget cuts and layoffs. The agency and its director have made a number of statements claiming that Canada is being overrun by terrorists and that its biggest threat comes from "Islamic extremists". According to its own statements it is presently investigating about 50 organizations and 350 individuals with possible ties to terrorism.
Also behind Bill-C16 are individuals and organizations who have a vested interest in portraying all Muslims and Arabs as threats. It is interesting to note that shortly before the introduction of the anti-terrorism legislation, Canada hosted Yehudit Barsky, senior Mideast research analyst for B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League, an extremely well-funded U.S.-based Jewish group that has been convicted of spying illegally on Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and anti-apartheid and peace activists. She claimed that groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad not only operate in Canada but do so freely as social welfare and charity groups, mosques and clubs. "There are quite a few of these fronts," she told a group of Jewish leaders at B'nai B'rith Canada headquarters in Toronto a few months before Andy Scott introduced the precursor to Bill-C16. "They can go about their business quietly."
Those who think that this is simply a coincidence might want to think again. A week before the consultation with interest groups on Bill- C16, the Canadian Jewish Congress had already presented its six-point plan to fight terrorism in a private session with the Liberal Cabinet. The plan called on the government to properly support its security services and to expeditiously pass anti-terrorism legislation.
Muslims and Arabs don't have a problem with cutting off funding for terrorists and their activities. The concern is the potential for abuse of such rules and the unfair targeting, which usually result from such measures.
According to Riad Saloojee of the Canada chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, a number of the Committee members have expressed concerns with the legislation.But this legislation should concern all Canadians. Once the government is comfortable with suspending due process for some groups or individuals, it will certainly set a precedent. The campaign to win over elected representatives to call for amendments to this bill must now be intensified.
"More than 40 per cent of the world's refugees, its needy and its desperately poor, are in Muslim countries," noted Mumtaz Akhter, chairman of Human Concern International, an Ottawa-based international relief and development organization. Given the fear and hesitation in the minds of donors and the potential unfair targeting of Muslims and Arabs many fear that if this law passes as is, the biggest losers will be those that can least afford to lose.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and writer. He is also a columnist for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
www.washington-report.org and Meantime Newsmagazine (India). For more information on this legislation, please visit www.cicnow.com and www.cair-net.org.