Bill C-51: A Construction of Fear by Conservatives

Bill C-51: A Construction of Fear by Conservatives
Written for “Risk Communication” course in 2015
(Conservative Party were in power at time)

Individuals navigate their lives through a world saturated by constant streams of news, often provided with narrow perspectives. Recently, Canadians have been surrounded with information of possible terrorist threats put forth by their government through official statements, political ads, and petitions sent to them online and through mail. As a result of the lack of information provided with these larger concepts, Canadians become fearful of the possible risk of an attack on their own nation. It is clear that the Conservative Party is constructing this state of fear within the nation in order to condition Canadians to align themselves with agreeing with the passing of Bill C-51. As such, this paper will discuss three strategies the Conservatives are employing to gain the trust of Canadians. The first aspect deals with the persuasive language used in speeches and advertisements, as well as the interchangeable use of the words “ISIS” and “Islam,” making the link that there is a risk regarding this religion. Next, it is difficult for civilians to find unbiased information regarding Bill C-51, and often any information provided by the government is incomplete leaving much to individual interpretation. Finally, Conservatives tie the use of language and lack of information with powerful imagery in their advertisements which is problematic for it creates certain connotations sparking specific intended outlooks. In order for this paper to provide a fair account of the legislation of Bill C-51, the viewpoints of the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP will be consulted to ensure the three main parties are represented. Nevertheless, it is ultimately clear that the Conservatives are utilizing persuasive language, incomplete information, and imagery to sway Canadians with the implementation of Bill C-51.

Foremost, it is important to acknowledge that this paper does not condone the actions of terrorist groups, but rather it is how the current Government of Canada is handling the situation. Mark Konty, Blythe Duell and Jeff Joireman explain how governments use times of war to pass legislation that serve more interests than public safety alone. In most cases, “the threat is overstated” so that civilians feel that there is an immediate and impending risk on their nation (Konty 95). Using this fear, governments are able to gain the trust of the civilians in passing certain legislation. This has been observed both before and after 9/11, as outlined by Noam Chomsky who writes that the creation of fear will pass the legislation but in turn only supports a business-dominated consensus, not public safety (Chomsky 7). It is clear that with Bill C-51, Conservatives are hoping to achieve more than the “public safety” it states it is addressing. Bill C-51 will introduce preventive detention which could indicate aggressive interrogation, “a new information-sharing regime” which changes how information is internally shared between governmental bodies, speech rights will also be affected – such as the use of “terrorism” in one’s personal conversation could place them under inspection – as well as the ability to censor the internet (Forcese 2015). In sum, Bill C-51 offers more power to law enforcement which could alter the landscape of protests in Canada.

The construction of fear is most notable through persuasive language employed by the Conservatives. Persuasive language scares individuals because it does not provide a complete picture when words such as “ISIS,” “Islam” and “niqab” are casually said in speeches. It is clear that the words are overused and are generally said interchangeably which is the main problem. This is first seen on the Conservatives website in a post written by Steven Blaney. The blogpost titled “Protecting Canadians from Terrorist Threats” is superimposed on an image of what appears to be terrorists holding AK47s into the air. Blaney’s article features many carefully chosen words creating the illusion that Canadians are under immediate suspected attack. For example, Blaney opens up his post with the phrase “the world is a dangerous place, and Canada is not immune to the global threat of terrorism” (Blaney 2015). This sets a certain tone for the remainder of the article, convincing the reader that Canada is under immediate danger and that everyone should be aware of this “potential risk.” It is what George Gerbner explains as the “mean world syndrome” (Dyson 2011). If talk of potential terrorist attacks are repeated endlessly, civilians will be convinced it is a great concern. Blaney continues to write: “Jihadist extremists are targeting Canada because of what we stand for. We are known around the world as a beacon of peace, democracy, and individual freedom. That stands in stark contrast to the totalitarian regime they seek to impose across the globe. We will never sacrifice those rights and freedoms that define us in our quest to improve public safety” (Blaney 2015). It is not accidental Blaney uses “targeting,” “beacon,” “stark contrast,” or “impose” in his write up. These words carry the connotation that terrorist groups are a risk to Canada because they do not agree with how Canada is run; it is something they wish to destroy. Blaney offers the solution of agreeing with the implementation of Bill C-51 and how this will only strengthen Canada’s chances against a terrorist attack.

Canadians begin to see the link of ISIS with Islam through the case of Zunera Ishaq and the controversy surrounding her decision to wear her niqab – a veil which covers the person’s face – during the swearing in portion of her Canadian citizenship. Although Steven Blaney discusses the importance of keeping individual freedom and rights, Prime Minster Stephen Harper claimed wearing the niqab is not how things are done in Canada. In fact, on the Conservative Party’s website they released a photo of PM Harper with a portion of his speech embedded with the photo. The portion of the speech they published states: “It is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family” (Way 2015).  Further, a petition to agree with the Conservatives is linked on the photo where it is written that the niqab is a symbol of oppression, that women are free in Canada therefore should feel liberation in taking the veil off. This displays the Conservatives eurocentrism and lack of understanding in other cultures. In a piece written by Zunera Ishaq she explains how Stephen Harper made assumptions of Ishaq’s living conditions, and did not actually sit down with her to discuss her choice in wearing a niqab. She argues:

I have taken my niqab off for security and identity reasons in every case where that’s been required of me, such as when I have taken a driver’s license photo or gone through airport security. I will take my niqab off again before the oath ceremony without protest so I can be properly identified. I will not take my niqab off at that same ceremony for the sole reason that someone else doesn’t like it, even if that person happens to be Stephen Harper. (Ishaq 2015)

For a government who claims they embrace religious diversity and will not sacrifice religious freedoms when implementing new terrorism legislation, it is interesting that the wearing of the niqab has become a main focus for the Conservatives. Zunera Ishaq appears willing to abide by certain regulations where they will need to identify her, such as a driver’s license or airport security, and is not acting out of her right. So why then does PM Stephen Harper find Ishaq’s choice in wearing a veil “offensive” to the nation? Arguably, this is a strategic disposition to create what Barry Glassner refers to as “misdirection.”

Barry Glassner discusses how “to make an object seem to vanish, a magician directs the audience’s attention away from where he hides it…the stories also [direct] journalists’ and editors’ attention away from issues that they found irksome, unpopular, or too ideologically fraught to cover” (Glassner 308). Accordingly, the case of Zunera Ishaq is a story to misdirect audiences away from the real risk at hand, Bill C-51. For writers and editors, it is easier to tell a human interest story that deals with the personal struggle of one citizen, rather than read and communicate what the effects of Bill C-51 will have on the nation. As a result, newspapers are caught up with what the Prime Minister is saying about this single incidence, and not what is being hidden from civilians regarding a new legislation that will have profound effects on security measures in Canada.

Nevertheless, the coverage of Zunera Ishaq does help Conservative gain support from Canadian citizens in agreeing with the signing of Bill C-51 because of its connection with Islam. Referencing back to how the petition states “women are full and equal members of society,” this generalizes the religion of Islam implying that all women who wear head coverings are oppressed (Way 2015). As a result of the phrase “Terrorism Legislation” and “Bill C-51” being thrown around in media and government, Canadians may assume that the passing of this bill will help liberate the oppressed women in the Middle East. In fact, given that Facebook is a major source where civilians obtain their information, the Conservative’s website has postings regarding the ISIS matter with links to a petition entitled “Taking the Threat of Terrorism Seriously” (refer to Figure 1). The petition states: “Canadians need strong action to protect against the threat of terrorism – add your name if you agree” (Threat 2015). The language used here to communicate a potential risk places the person in a tough binary. It is a common feeling for individuals to agree that their nation should be protected from terrorism, therefore they will most likely sign the petition. As a result of the phrasing, it appears that if the individual does not sign the petition they are implying they do not agree with safety. However, in signing the petition this cunningly helps Conservatives accumulate evidence to show Parliament that Canadians support the measures put forth by Bill C-51.

In an article written by Haroon Siddiqui, he noticed how the country focuses on the panic and risk of Canadian Muslims being lured to the Isalmic State, and how the total estimate of the disappeared is at 145, of which 40 are reported to be with the Islamic State. Siddiqui raises the observation that this is roughly the same amount of Canadians who disappeared to Israel in the attack on Gaza last year (Siddiqui 2015). This demonstrates how because ISIS has roots in Islam, this is seen as a fundamental risk to the Western world as they are regarded as a complete opposite to Western world living. Canadians who joined Israel are not as big of a concern for the government because their roots are in Judaism which is seen in closer relation to Christianity than that of Islam. Therefore, the media focuses on the disappearances of Muslims and not that of Jewish people, since there is a lack of trust towards the Muslim community; they are the risk.

The second aspect where the Conservatives are communicating the risk of a potential terrorist attack in Canada is by presenting partial information, leaving much to interpretation. In an article written by Gabe Mythen and Sandra Walklate, they discuss how a culture of fear is constructed through framing today’s events in political discourse as “new terrorism.” In order for the public to make rational decisions, they suggest that “the very quality of democracy depends upon public access to a free and undistorted range of information. Without unbiased information it is difficult for people to make informed choices about cultural, political, and economic issues” (Mythen 138). Unfortunately, it is apparent that the Conservatives have not been framing ISIS or Bill C-51 in unbiased terms, and have strictly discussed the matter in simple, incomplete phrasings. By surveying the government website there is not a page that details exactly what the implementation of Bill C-51 will have on Canada. The individual has to actively search out for information regarding the bill, and can ultimately find little facts by searching “Anti-Terrorism Legislation.” It is clear the Conservatives are not objective in their write-up of the new terrorism legislation as it predominately written by Conservatives, and not from other political party representatives. For instance, Steven Blaney is a Conservative and is also the Minister of Public Safety, thus his perspective will align with the interests of the current government.

Maintaining with the example of the petition for “Take the Threat of Terrorism Seriously,” although the government mentions the expansion and extension of Canada’s military mission in the short blurb provided, it does not state what this will entail. The only available information states that they will “fight Islamic jihadism and provide humanitarian support to help alleviate the suffering ISIL is inflicting on peaceful ethnic minorities” (Threat 2015). There are no links on the petition that explains how the government plans to go about extending or expanding Canada’s military action. Instead of typing “Bill C-51,” the individual must type “Anti-Terrorism Legislation” to find the page on the Government of Canada’s website. Even then, the information is sparse and incomplete. The legislation appears simple and is laid out in three sectors: “(1) Stopping the promotion of terrorism, (2) preventing terrorists from recruiting others, [and] (3) disrupting terrorist plots and preventing planned attacks” (Anti-Terrorism 2015). Under the sector “stopping the promotion of terrorism” they explain that this will be achieved by providing law enforcement with an “additional tool…to counter radicalization” (Anti-Terrorism 2015). What is concerning is that they leave out what this additional tool that will be given to law enforcement exactly is.

With the lack of information this may have a negative impact on Canadians creating anger or general lack of interest. As Baruch Fischhoff explains: “Communications may even have negative value if their contents are so poorly selected and presented that recipients resent being denied better information or do not realize how much they are missing (Fischhoff 522). This can be seen in humorous blog postings, such as Susan Wright’s “How to Stay Under the Radar When Bill C-51 Becomes Law,” which makes fun of the situation rather than drive readers to take action. The blog depicts four ways Canadians can remain safe by getting off the grid, avoiding rallies, demonstrations, protests, or sit-ins, cutting ties off with activist groups, and watching for threat disruptions (Wright 2015). Wright assumes that the bill will be passed because Conservatives operate in a majority, but does not offer reasons as to why the public should fight back, she forgets Canadians live in a democratic society.

Alongside the use of persuasive language and lack of information, imagery is attached to these words to move Canadians into believing certain concepts. Continuing with the example of Zunera Ishaq, the petition that was connected to the banning of the niqab during ceremonies used a subtle picture that speaks volumes (refer to Figure 2). The picture appears to be a woman of minority descent who is holding up her right hand (to symbolize the taking of the oath) while wearing Western looking clothes. The most critical part of this photo, either intentional or not, is that her skin is showing to the audience. Analyzing this small detail, it speaks volumes because it is telling the viewer that she has “accepted” Western ideals, and is no longer oppressed in covering her skin. Unless the viewer understands Islam, they will not understand that it is a woman’s decision in how modest she desires to be. This picture is in contrast to Zunera Ishaq because she chooses to wear a full niqab, and not what the person in this photo is clearly wearing. The image then communicates to the viewer that there is a risk with the niqab as the public will be unsure of exactly who is under the veil, keeping in mind that the government is attempting to make connections to ISIS and Islam. The thought of a terrorist hiding under a niqab comes to mind, pushing civilians to support the government in passing Bill C-51 and perhaps eventually the banishment of niqabs in public for the good of the people.

Next, for those who do seek out more information regarding Bill C-51, they will face a series of three photos that sum up the three aspects (refer to Figure 3). By “noticing the use of colours, symbols, supers…actions, and clothing [it can] conv[ey] certain themes and messages and identi[fy] the audience to whom this ad is directed” (Burns 2002).  All three images are designed to express a certain emotion and interpretation. The first image shows a police car in front of Parliament which will resonate with Canadians by recalling the “terrorist attack” on Parliament Hill. The second image shows a silhouette in front of a computer which communicates the risk of terrorists using computers to convince Canadians in joining ISIS, therefore it is only right for the government to censor the internet. Finally, the third image shows people within an airport, conveying the risk of terrorists in Canada’s airport systems, thus they should agree with the no-fly lists. Therefore, the risk of a potential terrorist attack is carefully communicated through the three images creating a sense of urgency to pass Bill C-51. Since the attack on Parliament Hill, this can be used as a driving force that something needs to be done to improve terrorist legislation, and as most Canadians have a presence online they will wish for this space to be safe as well.

Additionally, the risk of Liberals being elected has also been communicated surrounding the Anti-Terrorism Legislation, and how Justin Trudeau will not be a good fit in handling a terrorist attack in Canada. Alex Marland and Tom Flanagan have discussed this Conservative strategy as “de-branding” the Liberal image. Due to the advertising laws within Canada pertaining to political parties, it is acceptable for parties to employ attack ads, therefore as Marland and Flanagan express “ the Conservative party [is] free to pursue a truth-based de-branding strategy while co-opting national symbols into their corporate visual identity” (Marland 966).  This is noticeable through the overload of attack ads that infiltrate social media, through ads on internet pages, as well as through television, radios, and mail. The imagery painted by the Conservatives is that by electing Justin Trudeau, the nation will risk further attacks by terrorist groups because Trudeau does not “understand” how to fully handle the situation as he is too immature for the job. This can be seen in a Facebook post by the Conservative government (refer to Figure 4). The question is posed to the viewer of “Who is taking the ISIL threat seriously” with a quote from PM Stephen Harper favourably on one side, while Justin Trudeau’s comment is given a small portion on the other side of the frame. Stephen Harper is quoted “ISIL has made it clear that it targets, by name, Canada and Canadians…ISIL must be resisted and resisted by force” whereas Justin Trudeau is quoted “Involvement in direct combat in this war does not serve Canada’s interests” (Conservative 2015). The reader of this ad will then see PM Stephen Harper as the better choice since his quote supports action in the matter, while Trudeau – certainly out of context – appears to be a weaker choice in that he thinks getting involved with ISIL is out of Canada’s interests.

Considering this analysis of Bill C-51, it is essential to address the perspectives of the Liberal Party, as well as New Democratic Party, to gain an understanding of what others think of the proposed legislation. While the Conservatives have been stressing the negativity of Liberals in the seriousness of ISIS and ISIL, it is just the opposite. In a statement released by Justin Trudeau in February, the politician made it clear that Liberals were behind the Conservatives in support of the bill, rather they are more concerned with improving Bill C-51 so that the rights of Canadians are not affected. Justin Trudeau expressed how: “Matters of national security should be beyond partisanship. We will take a constructive approach to improving this bill. Liberals welcome the measures that build on powers of preventative arrest, make better use of no-fly lists, and allow for more coordinated information sharing by government departments and agencies” (Trudeau 2015). This has not been communicated by Conservatives in their advertisements, therefore Canadians are not offered a complete picture.

Alternatively, Tom Mulcair of NDP is fully against the implementation of Bill C-51 and will oppose the bill each step of the way. Mulcair explained that “[NDPs] are always a little bit surprised to hear Liberals across the country say they’re opposed to the bill, but plan to vote for it…[NDPs] have strong convictions…and you have to have the courage of those convictions” (O’Malley 2015). Mulcair sees the hypocrisy within the Liberal party for disagreeing with the bill, and yet continuing to support the passing as long as improvements are made to the piece of legislation. Perhaps this is because Liberals feel the Conservatives have persuaded Canadians into thinking Liberals are not taking the topic of terrorism seriously. So by agreeing to the passing of the bill as long as some changes are made, they feel they will win both sides of the argument; that as Liberals they understand there are concerns with the bill that need to be addressed, but also know that terrorism is a serious matter.

Although his article was written in 2009, the same conclusions Justin Massie suggests continue to be relevant in today’s political atmosphere. Massie explains that the “Canadian government should clearly identify the threats the country is facing, rationally develop and build the appropriate military capabilities to address them, and use the armed forces instrumentally when such threats become immediate” (Massie 631). There is nothing rational with Bill C-51, and does not offer a complete picture of the foreseen situation. With the information that is in current circulation around the risk of a potential terrorist attack in Canada, there are no concrete figures available to act as backup to the Conservatives points. The reasons behind Bill C-51 are a mere speculation, and this speculation serves as a foundation to the proposed legislation. If the Anti-Terrorism Act passes in Parliament, it will drastically alter Canadians’ rights which has not been effectively communicated by the Canadian Government.

In conclusion, it is clear that with the use of persuasive language, partial information, and powerful imagery, the Conservatives are conditioning society to believe there is a threat at hand so that Canadians agree with the implementation of Bill C-51. Since Canadians trusts their government more so than their neighbouring countries, when a potential risk is communicated it is assumed that there is an impending crisis that should be looked at. However, by surveying the language used in these messages it is clear that there are alter motives for Bill C-51 to be passed, such as a change in censorship and rights. Furthermore, because there is a lack of information being provided by the government, there is more room for interpretation on Canadians, which usually leads to the belief in worst case scenarios. Finally, certain types of images are being shown on television, online, and in print to convince Canadians there is a great risk of a terrorist attack. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Conservatives are also using misdirection in their strategy, as shown through the case of Zunera Ishaq and her niqab, which has become associated with the Anti-Terrorism Legislation. On the surface it appears as if both cases do relate because of the lack of information and language being used surrounding the two. Since Stephen Harper has brought up the idea of Ishaq “hiding her identity” while “joining the Canadian family” it assumes that she is linked with a terrorist organization, as why else would she want to hide her identity from fellow Canadians? To reiterate, it is not an issue that the Canadian Government is updating anti-terrorism legislation to protect Canadians. The issue is how Conservatives have handled the legislation, and are serving more interests than public good alone. It is time for Canadians to become aware of the real risk at hand, and confront their government about it.


Works Cited

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O’Malley, Kady. “Bill C-51: Ex-judges Join Tom Mulcair in Fight Against ‘Dangerous’ Draft Law.” CBCNews Politics. CBC/Radio-Canada. 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.

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Wright, Susan. “How to Stay Under the Radar When Bill C-51 Becomes Law.” Blogs. The Authors. 22 Mar. 2015. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.

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